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Notre Dame made it through a brutal 2015. Now it's time to contend for a Playoff spot.

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The Irish can't possibly be as injured as they were last year (right?), and now they have a friendlier schedule with perhaps the country's best QB situation. This is Bill C's daily preview series, working its way through every 2016 team. Stay tuned!

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.

1. Brian Kelly's best coaching job

Kelly's Fighting Irish suffered a little bit of bad turnover luck, lost their starting running back in the first week of the season, lost their quarterback in the second week and dealt with a secondary that was banged up all year. They were adapting on the fly, from fall camp through November.

But in the regular season, they lost only in the final minute, on the road, to the teams that finished second and third in the final AP poll.

That Clemson's Dabo Swinney won the AP's coach of the year award made sense -- he did, after all, lead the Tigers to the national title game. That Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Houston's Tom Herman, and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops got more votes than Kelly was fine. They did great jobs.

Kelly deserved more votes than the one of 60 he received. His squad took on more adversity than almost any other and handled it with aplomb.

With a redshirt freshman at quarterback and a wide receiver at running back, Notre Dame ranked seventh in Off. S&P+. And while the defense ranked only 35th in Def. S&P+ -- even with injuries in the secondary, a unit with this recruiting should produce better results -- it still held nine opponents under 30 points, typically good enough when you've got a top-10 offense. And even with iffy defense, Notre Dame had one of the most consistent teams in the country, which is remarkable considering the youth at quarterback.

This was Kelly's best coaching job; this might have been Kelly's best team, even better than the one that made the 2012 BCS Championship. (S&P+ says 2012 was slightly better, but only slightly.)

So how does he follow up? Notre Dame returns just enough talent to talk yourself into the Fighting Irish but has just enough "ifs" to give you pause.

With two returning starters for one spot, they must figure out their quarterback situation. They must replace uniquely explosive weapons in receiver Will Fuller and running back C.J. Prosise. Though there's a world of potential on both lines, they must replace two particularly disruptive defenders and three OL starters who had combined for 106 career starts. And they must replace a guy who was, according to the Butkus Award voters, the best linebacker in the country.

Still, Notre Dame features more exciting sophomores and juniors than almost any team in the country: quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, running back Josh Adams, tight end Alizé Jones, safety Drue Tranquill, etc. [Update: Jones has been suspended for the season due to academic reasons.] If Kelly can keep his troops rallied, Notre Dame will have a serious shot at a Playoff bid, especially considering the schedule might ease up. And if the defense plays to its recruiting rankings, this team's ceiling is as high as anyone's outside of Tuscaloosa.

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 12-1 | Final F/+ Rk: 7 | Final S&P+ Rk: 8
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
5-Sep Texas 68 38-3 W 99% 100% +24.3 +25.0
12-Sep at Virginia 78 34-27 W 72% 81% -3.4 -6.0
19-Sep Georgia Tech 64 30-22 W 93% 99% +6.1 +11.0
26-Sep Massachusetts 100 62-27 W 87% 97% -3.3 +6.0
3-Oct at Clemson 2 22-24 L 77% 46% +11.3 -2.0
10-Oct Navy 21 41-24 W 93% 94% +10.0 +2.5
17-Oct USC 17 41-31 W 75% 68% +8.1 +3.0
31-Oct at Temple 45 24-20 W 89% 91% +0.8 -6.5
7-Nov at Pittsburgh 46 42-30 W 83% 87% +2.4 +3.5
14-Nov Wake Forest 92 28-7 W 85% 98% -8.1 -6.0
21-Nov vs. Boston College 70 19-16 W 83% 84% -10.8 -13.5
28-Nov at Stanford 6 36-38 L 77% 53% -1.9 +1.5
1-Jan vs. Ohio State 3 28-44 L 45% 2% -11.6 -9.0

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 42.4 7 23.7 35
Points Per Game 34.2 34 24.1 39

2. The epitome of consistency (till the bowl)

Even in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, Notre Dame broke even, averaging and allowing 5.8 yards per play. That game turned on efficiency, turnovers, and field position, and the Irish were clearly the inferior team, but even in their worst moment they were still competitive. And before that, Notre Dame was one of the most consistent teams in the country.

  • First 4 games
    Average percentile performance: 88% | Yards per play: ND 7.6, Opp 5.1 (average S&P+ rank of opponent: 78)
  • Next 4 games
    Average percentile performance: 84% | Yards per play: ND 6.9, Opp 5.9 (average S&P+ rank of opponent: 21)
  • Next 4 games
    Average percentile performance: 82% | Yards per play: ND 6.8, Opp 5.6 (average S&P+ rank of opponent: 54)

The caliber of opponent changed, but Notre Dame's proficiency did not.

There were some unexpectedly close games. The Irish needed late heroics to beat Virginia because of iffy red zone execution (they created eight scoring chances to UVA's five but settled for three field goal attempts and turned the ball over on downs). They fell asleep against Georgia Tech (allowing two touchdowns in the final minute after going up 30-7) and Boston College (again allowing two fourth-quarter scores after going up 19-3).

Still, despite youth and a tumultuous two-deep, Notre Dame was solid. That's a good sign.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.40 10 IsoPPP+ 132.2 5
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 45.7% 23 Succ. Rt. + 126.4 4
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 26.6 9 Def. FP+ 25.0 6
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.8 35 Redzone S&P+ 123.2 7
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 18.6 ACTUAL 20 +1.4
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 27 5 4 5
RUSHING 27 1 2 2
PASSING 35 10 9 12
Standard Downs 11 6 15
Passing Downs 3 4 2
Q1 Rk 13 1st Down Rk 1
Q2 Rk 21 2nd Down Rk 18
Q3 Rk 1 3rd Down Rk 1
Q4 Rk 2

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
DeShone Kizer 6'4, 230 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9073 210 334 2880 21 10 62.9% 21 5.9% 7.7
Malik Zaire 6'0, 225 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9268 26 40 428 4 0 65.0% 2 4.8% 9.8
Brandon Wimbush 6'1, 216 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9784 3 5 17 0 0 60.0% 1 16.7% 0.8

3. Now what?

Kizer was fearless in 2015. Zaire looked the part of a Heisman contender against Texas, then broke his ankle against Virginia. Kizer entered, and Notre Dame immediately punted twice. But after UVA scored to take a surprising 27-26 lead, Kizer completed five of seven passes for 75 yards, lobbed a gorgeous touchdown pass to Will Fuller with 12 seconds left, then completed a two-point conversion to Torii Hunter Jr. for good measure.

The next week against Georgia Tech, he completed 70 percent of his passes. And against Notre Dame's toughest stretch -- Clemson, Navy, USC, Temple, Pitt -- hits passer rating only once dipped below 148. That was in the Temple game, and even then, in crunch time, he completed four straight passes for 69 yards, including the game-winning score. He faded, completing only 52 percent with three picks against BC and Stanford.

But Kizer enters 2016 as one of the most proven returning quarterbacks in the country, an explosive passer and timely runner.

And he might not even be the best quarterback on his own team. He was more efficient than Zaire in the spring game, but the two split reps almost equally in March and April and will likely do so again in fall camp.

Knowing what we now know about Kizer, if Zaire wins the job back, he'll have proven himself improved. And unless chemistry issues form (there are no signs of that yet), Notre Dame is going to be set at quarterback no matter who wins the job.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Tarean Folston
(2014)
RB 5'9, 214 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9497 175 889 6 5.1 3.5 42.9% 1 0
C.J. Prosise RB 160 1048 11 6.6 6.9 48.1% 5 2
Josh Adams RB 6'2, 219 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8973 116 838 6 7.2 7.8 46.6% 2 1
DeShone Kizer QB 6'4, 230 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9073 113 654 10 5.8 5.5 43.4% 5 2
Dexter Williams RB 5'11, 210 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9551 21 81 1 3.9 2.0 38.1% 0 0
Malik Zaire QB 6'0, 225 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9268 17 118 0 6.9 8.2 47.1% 0 0
Brandon Wimbush QB 6'1, 216 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9784 6 108 1 18.0 19.8 66.7% 1 1
Amir Carlisle WR 6 38 0 6.3 7.6 33.3% 0 0
Torii Hunter Jr. WR 6'0, 195 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9156 5 16 0 3.2 2.4 20.0% 1 1
Justin Brent RB 6'2, 220 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9537
Tony Jones Jr. RB 5'10, 219 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8926







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
Will Fuller WR 95 62 1258 65.3% 25.9% 13.2 53.7% 54.7% 2.35
Chris Brown WR 78 48 597 61.5% 21.3% 7.7 73.1% 52.6% 1.29
Amir Carlisle WR 44 31 351 70.5% 12.0% 8.0 70.5% 54.5% 1.33
Torii Hunter Jr. WR 6'0, 195 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9156 42 28 363 66.7% 11.4% 8.6 66.7% 61.9% 1.21
C.J. Prosise RB 36 27 325 75.0% 9.8% 9.0 58.3% 36.1% 2.19
Corey Robinson WR 6'4, 215 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8822 29 16 200 55.2% 7.9% 6.9 55.2% 48.3% 1.34
Alizé Jones TE 6'4, 240 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9685 18 13 190 72.2% 4.9% 10.6 77.8% 61.1% 1.59
Nic Weishar TE 6'4, 245 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9037 8 3 19 37.5% 2.2% 2.4 50.0% 25.0% 0.86
Josh Adams RB 6'2, 219 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8973 7 7 42 100.0% 1.9% 6.0 71.4% 57.1% 0.94
Durham Smythe TE 6'5, 245 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9057 5 3 18 60.0% 1.4% 3.6 40.0% 40.0% 1.00
Jacob Matuska TE 6'5, 275 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8801
Corey Holmes WR 6'1, 190 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9233
Equanimeous St. Brown WR 6'4, 205 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9287
C.J. Sanders WR 5'8, 185 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8997
Miles Boykin WR 6'4, 225 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9177
Javon McKinley WR 6'3, 205 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9465
Chase Claypool WR 6'4, 215 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9258
Kevin Stepherson WR 6'0, 181 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8615

4. A couple of young WRs will need to thrive

Notre Dame's offense was the best in the country after halftime. Despite youth, Kizer's passer rating rose to 175.4 in the fourth quarter, and as coordinator Mike Sanford got a read on defenses, he tended to make devastating adjustments.

Granted, he made those adjustments knowing he had Fuller, Prosise, Chris Brown, and Amir Carlisle. This foursome combined for 12.3 carries per game for 80.6 yards and 12.9 catches per game for 194.7 yards. Prosise converted from WR to RB and immediately boosted the run game from solid to fantastic. The combination of Kizer's legs and Fuller's ability to get open deep made Notre Dame one of the best passing-downs offenses in the country.

The QB will certainly still have weapons. Tarean Folston returns after essentially missing 2015 with an ACL injury, and sophomore Josh Adams is back after showing monstrous potential. He picked up a heavier load down the stretch and thrived, averaging 16.4 carries per game and 7 yards per carry over the final five games. He had 18 carries for 168 yards in the loss to Stanford.

At receiver, losing four of your top five targets is alarming, but at least there are four-stars galore. Hunter is back after averaging 8.6 yards per target, and Alizé Jones could be ready to star. Student body president Corey Robinson is possibly back, too (he's been dealing with concussion issues).

Still, for Notre Dame to become a title contender, a couple of highly touted youngsters will have to break out. Wonderfully named sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown is likely to join Hunter in the starting lineup, and former star recruits vie for time, be they redshirt freshman Miles Boykin, incoming freshmen Javon McKinley, Chase Claypool, or Kevin Stepherson (who reported early and held his own in spring ball), or slot receivers Corey Homes or C.J. Sanders.

There are lots of options, but someone has to step up. Running back isn't much of a concern, but receiver could be.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 124.1 3.07 4.07 45.4% 66.7% 20.5% 105.4 6.2% 7.4%
Rank 2 36 3 4 58 87 52 88 64
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Ronnie Stanley LT 13 39 2015 All-American
Nick Martin C 13 37
Steve Elmer RG
13 30
Mike McGlinchey LT 6'8, 310 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9280 13 13
Quenton Nelson LG 6'5, 325 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9678 11 11
Alex Bars RT 6'6, 320 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9471 2 2
Hunter Bivin RT 6'6, 308 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9531 0 0
Colin McGovern RG 6'5, 315 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9188 0 0
Sam Mustipher C 6'2, 305 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9123 0 0
Mark Harrell RG 6'4, 306 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8762 0 0
Jimmy Byrne LT 6'4, 300 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8927 0 0
Tristen Hoge C 6'4, 300 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9563

Trevor Ruhland LG 6'3, 300 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8697

Tommy Kraemer OL 6'5, 310 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9819

Liam Eichenberg OL 6'6, 280 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9603

Parker Boudreaux OL 6'3, 300 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8803

5. An awesome line reloads

While Prosise and Adams played a significant role in Notre Dame's rushing improvement -- from 27th in Rushing S&P+ to first, from 32nd in Adj. Line yards to second -- the line did, too. Tackle Ronnie Stanley turned into an All-American and top-10 pick, and sophomores Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson joined three experienced pieces to form a wonderful unit.

Now it's McGlinchey and Nelson who need help. Some combination of juniors Hunter Bivin and Colin McGovern, sophomores Alex Bars, Sam Mustipher, and Jimmy Byrne, and redshirt freshmen Tristen Hoge and Trevor Ruhland will need to quickly live up to recruiting rankings. Bars was solid as a spot starter for Nelson last year, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand's presence makes it hard for me to worry too much. Still, the line has to prove itself.

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.27 76 IsoPPP+ 102.7 57
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 40.0% 56 Succ. Rt. + 110.0 33
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 28.7 97 Off. FP+ 29.7 74
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.3 54 Redzone S&P+ 115.5 19
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 17.1 ACTUAL 14.0 -3.1
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 45 46 33 57
RUSHING 72 56 39 67
PASSING 26 39 44 39
Standard Downs 53 42 54
Passing Downs 34 24 48
Q1 Rk 57 1st Down Rk 55
Q2 Rk 53 2nd Down Rk 69
Q3 Rk 39 3rd Down Rk 48
Q4 Rk 57

6. Opponents knew to run

Georgia Tech and Navy on the schedule assured Notre Dame's defensive run-pass rates would skew a bit toward the ground. Still, opponents ran 6 percentage points more than the national average on standard downs and 3 more on passing downs. That's not all on the option offenses. Despite the shuffling secondary, the Irish ranked 39th in Passing S&P+ but only 56th in Rushing S&P+.

The Fighting Irish were good in the redzone and made plays on passing downs, but run defense was a definite issue, and that was with end Romeo Okwara, tackle Sheldon Day, and linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt involved. They're gone, as are safeties Elijah Shumate and Matthias Farley and ace corner KeiVarae Russell.

There are plenty of reasons to talk yourself into this defense improving. For one thing, it did take a little bit of a step forward, from 43rd in Def. S&P+ to 35th, in coordinator Brian VanGorder's second year. For another, the return from injury of players like tackle Jarron Jones and safety Drue Tranquill will alleviate some lost depth.

Still, the defense was a weak link, and now it might need to improve just to offset offensive regression. If you feel like doubting Notre Dame, that gives you reason.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 113 2.84 2.63 36.7% 70.5% 22.1% 93.4 5.6% 7.4%
Rank 21 60 14 48 96 38 77 46 64
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Isaac Rochell DE 6'4, 290 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9459 13 47.0 6.7% 7.5 1.0 0 2 0 0
Romeo Okwara DE 13 40.5 5.8% 13.5 9.0 0 0 1 0
Sheldon Day DT 13 39.0 5.5% 15.5 4.0 0 4 2 0
Jarron Jones (2014) NG 6'6, 315 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9364 11 31.5 4.4% 7.5 1.5 0 0 1 0
Andrew Trumbetti DE 6'4, 260 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9347 12 13.5 1.9% 2.5 1.0 1 0 0 0
Daniel Cage NG 6'1, 315 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8924 11 13.0 1.8% 4.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jerry Tillery DT 6'7, 310 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9293 12 10.5 1.5% 2.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Doug Randolph DE
13 4.5 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jonathan Bonner DE 6'3, 286 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8600 10 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
John Montelus DT 6'4, 310 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9330
Grant Blankenship DE 6'5, 278 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8982
Jay Hayes DE 6'3, 285 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9060
Elijah Taylor DT 6'3, 285 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8945
Micah Dew-Treadway DT 6'4, 300 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8656
Brandon Tiassum NG 6'4, 302 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8665
Daelin Hayes DE 6'4, 257 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9372
Khalid Kareem DE 6'4, 270 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9208
Julian Okwara DE 6'4, 216 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8976

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jaylon Smith ILB 13 91.5 13.0% 9.0 1.0 0 5 1 1
Joe Schmidt OLB 13 60.0 8.5% 4.0 1.0 1 3 0 0
James Onwualu OLB 6'1, 232 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8950 11 29.5 4.2% 6.0 3.0 0 2 1 0
Greer Martini OLB 6'3, 245 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8833 13 27.0 3.8% 2.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Jarrett Grace LB 13 20.5 2.9% 1.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Nyles Morgan ILB 6'1, 245 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9727 13 13.0 1.8% 0.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Te'von Coney OLB 6'1, 235 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.8960 12 9.5 1.4% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Josh Barajas ILB 6'2, 240 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9381
Asmar Bilal OLB 6'2, 230 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9200








7. A lot back, a lot gone

Look in two directions when weighing the merits of a unit.

Losing Okwara, Day, and Smith means losing all three players who had at least nine tackles for loss in 2015, and that gives reason for concern.

But almost all of the rest of the two-deep returns in the front seven. So does Jones.

The senior missed 2015 with a knee injury (who didn't?), but the combination of Jones, junior Daniel Cage, sophomore Jerry Tillery, and former offensive lineman John Montelus should give Notre Dame some push in the middle. End Isaac Rochell is a keeper as well, and five-star freshman Daelin Hayes will be expected to contribute from day one. There is a load of redshirt freshman tackles trying to crack the rotation as well.

At linebacker, depth could be an issue with a poorly placed injury or two. But James Onwualu is a play-maker, and if either Nyles Morgan or Te'Von Coney sticks at inside linebacker, the starting three should be solid, at least.

With what returns, I don't see Notre Dame's run defense getting any worse, but with what the Irish lost, it's hard to imagine too much improvement.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Elijah Shumate SS 13 61.0 8.7% 6.5 0 1 2 0 0
KeiVarae Russell CB 11 54.0 7.7% 3.5 1 2 4 2 0
Max Redfield FS 6'1, 205 Sr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9852 11 51.5 7.3% 2 1 1 2 0 0
Cole Luke CB 5'11, 193 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9325 13 35.0 5.0% 1 0 2 5 0 0
Matthias Farley FS 13 34.0 4.8% 0 0 1 1 1 0
Devin Butler CB 6'1, 200 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8902 12 8.5 1.2% 0 0 0 2 0 0
Drue Tranquill SS 6'2, 225 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8961 3 7.5 1.1% 2.5 0 0 2 0 0
Nick Watkins CB 6'0, 200 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9237 12 6.5 0.9% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Nicky Baratti S
13 6.0 0.9% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nick Coleman CB 6'0, 190 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8585 13 3.5 0.5% 0 0 0 2 0 0
Avery Sebastian SS 5'10, 200 Sr. NR 0.9060
Shaun Crawford NB 5'9, 180 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9456
Ashton White CB 5'11, 190 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8625
Troy Pride Jr. CB 5'11, 175 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9089
Donte Vaughn DB 6'3, 190 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8949
Julian Love DB 5'11, 175 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8711
Jalen Elliott DB 6'0, 189 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8721
D.J. Morgan DB 6'2, 190 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8711
Devin Studstill FS 6'0, 190 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8710
Spencer Perry SS 6'2, 204 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8671

8. This could be a young secondary

The Notre Dame secondary will feature a battle of old heads and newbies. Three seasoned seniors -- senior Max Redfield and corners Cole Luke and Devin Butler -- return, as does junior Nick Watkins. But the younger players might be hard to ignore.

Sophomore Tranquill, who suffered easily the most unnecessary injury of Notre Dame's 2015, appeared to solidify his spot in the starting lineup this spring, and out of nowhere, three-star freshman Devin Studstill was also earning reps with the first team in spring, ahead of Redfield. Plus, redshirt freshman Shaun Crawford could play a role at nickel back.

Kelly's 2016 recruiting class was DB-heavy, mostly because of the turonver when Redfield and company leave. But this year's freshmen could infiltrate the two-deep, giving this unit both higher upside and lower downside.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Tyler Newsome 6'3, 210 So. 55 44.5 8 7 19 47.3%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Tyler Newsome 6'3, 210 So. 84 61.6 21 5 25.0%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Justin Yoon 5'10, 190 So. 50-52 12-13 92.3% 3-4 75.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
C.J. Sanders KR 5'8, 185 So. 28 22.9 1
Amir Carlisle KR 8 19.5 0
C.J. Sanders PR 5'8, 185 So. 25 7.3 1
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 46
Field Goal Efficiency 8
Punt Return Success Rate 83
Kick Return Success Rate 103
Punt Success Rate 95
Kickoff Success Rate 72

9. Close-game recipe:

My colleague Bud Elliott has a theory that while close-game results are random to some degree, the combination of quarterback play and good place-kicking is kind of like having a really good bullpen in baseball: They won't save you from all randomness, but they can tilt a few tight games in your favor.

Notre Dame went 4-2 in one-possession games in 2015, so maybe there's reason to believe that*. Kizer was awesome, and Justin Yoon was mostly great. A good college kicker will hit 80 percent of his under-40 kicks and probably 50 percent or so of his over-40 kicks. Yoon was at 92 and 75 percent, respectively.

The rest of the special teams unit was sketchy -- the coverage units suffered breakdowns, and while Sanders scored two return touchdowns, he was also woefully inconsistent. Still, Yoon's presence made this unit a net positive for the Irish.

* Granted, two of the close wins were due to opponent comebacks that turned easy wins into tight ones.

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
4-Sep at Texas 34 4.0 59%
10-Sep Nevada 91 24.5 92%
17-Sep Michigan State 22 6.7 65%
24-Sep Duke 51 15.7 82%
1-Oct vs. Syracuse 44 11.0 74%
8-Oct at N.C. State 40 5.9 63%
15-Oct Stanford 16 4.9 61%
29-Oct Miami 30 10.2 72%
5-Nov vs. Navy 66 14.3 80%
12-Nov vs. Army 124 32.2 97%
19-Nov Virginia Tech 32 10.9 74%
26-Nov at USC 8 -4.0 41%
Projected wins: 8.6
Five-Year F/+ Rk 34.9% (11)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 10 / 8
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -6 / -1.5
2015 TO Luck/Game -1.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 53% (60%, 46%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 10.0 (0.0)

10. If they're successful in close games again...

...then Kelly's Irish will be a national title contender in 2016.

With only one projected top-15 opponent on the schedule, thanks to projected regression for Stanford and Michigan State, the Irish could follow last year's "only lose to top-10 teams" recipe into the Playoff.

Still, the home-road splits and a conservative No. 11 projection suggest this will be another season of heartburn and close games. Five Notre Dame contests are projected to finish with a one-possession margin.

There isn't a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there's only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the "ifs" are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I'm not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote -- and thank goodness I don't -- I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.