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Last updated: Fri. Aug. 29, 2014 - 01:44 am EDT

Five things to watch: Notre Dame vs. Rice

Fighting Irish kick off season with plenty of questions

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Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium sees the fifth season under Coach Brian Kelly officially kick off against Rice.

Arguably no year in the Kelly regime has begun with more questions on the field than this one, from returning quarterbacks to new coordinators to a wealth of youth at key positions.

There are a plethora of storylines in week 1, but here are five things in particular to keep an eye on.


1. Everett Golson's rapport with his receivers

With no Davaris Daniels this week, Golson has just two players he has thrown balls to in a game situation, wide receiver Chris Brown and tight end Ben Koyack. Between the two, they had five receptions in 2012.

While Golson has worked for months with the new crop of receivers, there is no replicating the chaos of a game atmosphere against a hostile opponent. All the work in the off-season to build relationships now faces its big first test.

There will no doubt be a few communications breakdowns on routes and anticipatory moves from quarterback or wide receiver with the lack of cohesion in a real game, but if those can be kept to a minimum, it bodes well going forward as Golson works back into form on Saturdays.


2. Do-everything LB Jaylon Smith

A year ago, the Bishop Luers product was using his elite-level athletic talent to make plays for the Notre Dame defense while his brain caught up schematically.

Now, a year older and wiser with a new position in a new defense, prepare to see Smith's skills on display on a more consistent basis.

Smith moves from the outside to the Will linebacker spot this year, right smack in the middle of the action of the Fighting Irish defense.

Defensive coaches plan to take full advantage of Smith's unique skill set. He will blitz, he will drop in coverage, he will take on blockers up front and out of the backfield, and do them all effectively.

Kelly has said during training camp he does not expect Smith on the field every play in a game defensively, but it may be tough to pull him out of the lineup.


3. Defensive line rotation

With so many new faces along the defensive line, Saturday's game will be the first real indication of who can do what at that key position. It is junior Sheldon Day and a lot of questions marks at a spot that is even lighter without senior Ishaq Williams.

While the probably starting four of Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones, Day and Romeo Okwara has potential, the lack of proven commodities behind that foursome may just be the biggest question mark entering 2014.

Kelly has said there will plenty of substituting throughout the defense from down to down this season, but who comes in when remains to be seen. How much will the freshmen play? Will Andrew Trumbetti play as much as indicated at defensive end as a true freshman? Will there be a significant drop-off in level of play with reserves in the game?

Those questions will begin to be answered on Saturday.


4. Running back heirarchy

Coach Kelly loves to torture the media when it comes to his running backs. Never really a “depth chart” kind of guy, just when you think you having the pecking order in the backfield figured out, the perceived third-stringer gets 18 carries in a game.

Do not expect much different in 2014. While sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant appear to be one-two in terms of who sees the most action at running back to begin the year, offensive captain Cam McDaniel will have some games in which he leads the team in carries.

Kelly plays this position by feel and performance. Who is in the groove? Who is protecting the football? Who is picking up blockers and not spacing on off-the-ball responsibilities?

All those factors will affect who sees the most action for Notre Dame week to week.


5. The debut of Cody Riggs

The suspension (or whatever you want to call it) of KeiVarae Russell elevates Riggs, a fifth-year senior transfer from Florida, into the starting lineup for Rice.

Riggs was recruited out of high school by the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame pipeline St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, but chose to remain in-state with the Gators. But after expressing a desire to play corner after holding down the safety position in 2013 for Florida, Riggs jumped to South Bend with immediate eligibility.

While the loss of Russell hurts, consider that Riggs has 40 games played under his belt in the defensive backfield while playing in the SEC, so there is no significant reduction in experience.

Riggs and his cross-training at both corner and safety is an oft-overlooked addition to the defense this season.

jkenny@news-sentinel.com


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