The 2016 college football season is underway en masse this weekend and the countdown is on for Notre Dame’s season-opener Sunday night at Texas.
Outside of the recent legal trouble for five Irish football players, quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire have garnered the bulk of the offseason attention. Both quarterbacks will play against the Longhorns and the duo could appear in tandem all season long.
The two-quarterback system Irish head coach Brian Kelly plans to employ will keep the microscope on both Zaire and Kizer all season, but there are plenty of other spots to keep a close eye on in Notre Dame’s opener.
Wide receiver is the most inexperienced offensive position group the Fighting Irish have entering the season. Torii Hunter, Jr. — the son of the longtime Major League outfielder — is the leader of the receiving corps, but he has just 35 career receptions for 428 yards and three touchdowns over the past two seasons.
“He’s got to prove himself,” Kelly said of Hunter this week.
Kelly noted Hunter’s need to have “complementary” receivers around him to help him out this fall.
Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders will be the other top options early on, but those two combined for two catches for eight yards in 2015.
Safety could have been a defensive strength for the defense, but it turned into a big question mark when Max Redfield was dismissed from the team two weeks ago after he and three others were arrested on charges of weapon and marijuana possession.
True freshman Devin Studstill had an impressive fall camp and looked like he was going to replace Redfield at free safety, but Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will go with Avery Sebastian in the starting spot instead.
Sebastian is in his sixth year of eligibility after playing at Cal from 2011-2014. He then broke a bone in his foot against Texas last year in his debut as a Notre Dame grad transfer. The veteran will start, but Studstill should still see plenty of action.
Drue Tranquill will also start at strong safety after missing most of last year with a knee injury. Tranquill suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2014 as well. His health will be vital to the defense’s success this fall.
Pass rush is still the biggest tangible question Notre Dame has defensively entering 2016. The Fighting Irish managed just 25 sacks (1.92 per game) in 13 games last season.
Outside linebacker James Onwualu’s 3.0 sacks are the most for a returning player in 2016. He and end Isaac Rochell (1.0 sack) represent half of the defense’s four returning starters. Jarron Jones, who missed all of 2015 with a knee injury, is also back at nose guard and should be a formidable inside presence if he plays to his potential.
Greer Martini has big shoes to fill at WILL linebacker after the departure of Jaylon Smith to the NFL. Smith led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Martini is a junior with plenty of upside, but he has just 61 total tackles in his first two years. No pressure.