There’s perhaps no fan base more dejected after a 2-0 start to the 2015 college football season than Notre Dame.
Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish lost its most experienced running back, Tarean Folston, to a torn ACL in the first quarter of the team’s season-opening 38-3 drubbing of Texas. A week later, quarterback and early Heisman Trophy possibility Malik Zaire went down for the rest of the season with a fractured right ankle. Tuesday, the team announced that starting tight end Durham Smythe would be out the rest of the way, too, after underdoing knee and shoulder surgery. One must assume that Kelly, now in his sixth year with the team, has cautioned those around him to be observant of any and all banana peels on South Bend sidewalks.
“It’s unfortunate that we’ve had some injuries to our brothers on the football team,” Kelly, now in his sixth year coaching the team, told his players in the locker room after Saturday’s game. “You don’t know when your time is going to come. You’ve got to be ready.”
However, the loss of a few is hardly the loss of all — and this isn’t the first time Kelly has dealt with an injury-riddled season. A little more than a month before the Irish landed themselves in the 2013 Bowl Championship Series title game, the team’s defensive unit was said to resemble “a MASH unit more so than a deep defense.” The sport of football is inextricably linked with roster turnover, more so than perhaps any other team sport; there’s a reason why, currently, according to DonBest.com, more than 100 Division-I players are out for the rest of the season with disclosed injuries, including 10 players alone with ACL injuries.
The maladies don’t change now that Notre Dame finds itself as the No. 8 team in the Associated Press’ top 25 poll this week. The maladies did, however, open the door for redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer last Saturday, who led the team to a miraculous win on the road with a touchdown pass in the waning seconds.
Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock need Kizer to rapidly acclimatize himself to the collegiate level. Pundits and fans with first-year-starting-quarterback qualms should look no further than Grantland’s Matt Hinton, who noted that first-year starting quarterbacks have won five of the past seven national championships.
Moreover, Kizer will be able to learn and progress behind one of the nation’s top tackles, Ronnie Stanley, whom many project to be a top 10 pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
“Ronnie could be the best tackle in all of college football,” Kelly added, prior to the season. C.J. Prosise may be a star in the making at tailback, amassing 253 yards on the ground in his first two games since converting from slot receiver. And wide receiver Will Fuller, who hauled in Saturday’s game-winning touchdown, is fourth in the country in receiving yards (266), second in touchdown receptions (four), and second in yards per reception among receivers that have at least 10 receptions (22.2).
Furthermore, the offense is humming: Notre Dame is averaging 6.7 yards per carry, 8.7 yards per pass, and 7.6 yards per play—all of which are higher averages than anything the team has registered in the past decade. Kizer contributed to those figures—completing eight of 12 passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns. The averages are unlikely to drastically change without Zaire; the system doesn’t just implode when volatility is introduced.
More importantly, turnovers, which crippled the Irish last season (and is likely why Everett Golson brusquely jumped aboard the Florida State roster prior to this season), have been a non-factor in 2015. Notre Dame is one of six teams without a turnover. Following a season in which they ranked in the bottom 30 in turnovers per game, the progressions this season are palpable and illustrative.
Defensively, the Irish—despite allowing 416 yards of total offense to Virginia—are allowing nearly 10 fewer yards per 10 drives compared to last season (47.3 compared to 56.5) and the second fewest yards per rush (4.3) in the past decade. Linebacker Jaylon Smith, like Stanley, is among the elite at his position, and is projected to be a top-10 pick in the NFL Draft.
In total, the team is scoring more (38.1 percent of the team’s offensive possessions resulted in touchdowns, the highest team average of the past decade) and holding opponents to less (opponents are scoring touchdowns 18.2 percent of the time, the lowest average since 2012).
Sure, they have an arduous schedule this season, including three ranked opponents — Georgia Tech, Clemson, USC — ahead. Sure, three of their upcoming opponents rank in the top 10 in scoring defense. Losing your starting running back, quarterback and tight end in consecutive weeks is never optimal, but the Fighting Irish, like many, control their own destiny the rest of the way. They have the talent to be there when the season ends and don’t be surprised if Kizer helps them end the year in the College Football Playoff.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.