Irish open season vs Rice under academic cloud
South Bend, Ind. • Notre Dame opens the season short-handed for the second straight season because of academic troubles.
A year after starting quarterback Everett Golson missed the season because of academic impropriety, five players are being held out indefinitely while the university investigates whether they received improper help on homework and papers. That includes three starters, two on defense.
That may hamper the Irish again, especially the young and inexperienced defense.
The Irish will be without starting cornerback KeiVarae Russell, starting defensive end Ishaq Williams, two defensive reserves as well as leading receiver DaVaris Daniels. Coach Brian Kelly said it’s important for the Irish to get off to a strong start against Rice, particularly on defense.
"There’s going to be some times during the season where we’re going to have to slow down and have some conversations with some guys and make sure that we don’t lose them," Kelly said. "Because the only way you can continue to move this group ahead is if they don’t lose their confidence."
Rice is coming off a 10-4 season where the Owls won their first outright conference title in 57 years and are expected to challenge in Conference USA again. Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson said the team is more confident heading into Notre Dame Stadium than they were heading into last year’s opener at Texas A&M.
"I feel like a lot of the guys are not looking at it as this huge team we’re going against. I think we understand that we can compete with just about anybody in the nation. We’re looking forward to going out there and making a statement," he said.
Things to watch Saturday when Rice faces Notre Dame:
GOLSON RETURNS: Golson said he has a greater appreciation for football after spending a season watching the Irish games on television.
"I’ve had time to evaluate. I’ve had time to see different things being away from the game, so it means a lot more now," Golson said. "I’m just so grateful just for the opportunity to be back here because it could have been another way."
Rice defensive tackle Christian Covington said the Owls are taking a similar approach to preparing for Golson as they did last season for Johnny Manziel, "because he’s that caliber of a player."
"He’s a great quarterback. You have to consider to be a threat in every position that he can be in when he plays the ball. He’s a very fast runner. He’s a read-option threat. He also can throw the ball pretty well," he said.
MORE PRESSURE: The Owls are looking to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks after managing just 20 sacks last season, ranking 104th out of 123 teams last season.
"We made an emphasis that we want to be able to get to the quarterback and apply more pressure," Covington said.
WATCHING FILM: Rice coach David Bailiff said his staff has had to watch more film than usual to get ready for Notre Dame because the Irish are expected to look a lot different on offense with the return of a mobile quarterback and a new style under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
"You look at Golson’s year and then you look at last year for some personnel groupings. So you had to watch a lot more video than normally you would just to get a little bearing of what they’re going to do the first game," Bailiff said. "Same thing with the defensive coordinator. You can’t look at last year’s video, so you just try to look at some of his stops and what he likes to do."
FIELDTURF: The game will mark the debut of Notre Dame’s new FieldTurf, a change from grass that upset some alumni. Kelly said the team practiced in Notre Dame Stadium on Thursday and the artificial surface made it feel 10 to 15 degrees warmer, noting "the rubber and sand definitely make a difference in there." The forecast calls for temperatures in the low 80s with possible thunderstorms.
SELLOUT STREAK: Notre Dame lists Saturday’s game vs. Rice as the 238th straight sellout at Notre Dame, saying it has sold out every game since a Thanksgiving Day game against Air Force in 1973. However, tickets were still available on the university website Friday. Senior associate athletic director John Heisler said the school is confident the game will sell out.