NOTRE DAME FOOTBALL: Still much to learn about Irish, Texas ahead of opener

CHAD WEAVER | THE GOSHEN NEWSNotre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder question the officials during the fourth quarter of last season game with Massachusetts at Notre Dame. Notre Dame won 62-27.

SOUTH BEND — Every season-opener comes pre-packaged with a dose of uncertainty. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly likes to equate the first quarter to a sparring match as the foes feel one another out.

Given the added mystery on both sidelines, it might take a few extra rounds to establish that familiarity in Sunday night's historical heavyweight bout between Texas and No. 10 Notre Dame.

Neither program plans to reveal its starting quarterback until their respective units take the field in Austin, Texas, for the 7:30 p.m. kickoff. But the intrigue hardly ends there.

The Fighting Irish also will be debuting a new receiving corps and rebuilt offensive line. Notre Dame's defense will try to bounce back from a mediocre year in 2015 by shutting down Texas' new hurry-up offense.

How will three new Irish starters in the secondary, and a new middle linebacker, hold up against the fast-break attack? How exactly will the quarterback rotation work? How poised will the first-year players be in front of more than 100,000 rabid fans?

For the Longhorns, how motivated are they by last year's 38-3 whooping in South Bend? Or by head coach Charlie Strong's potential job insecurity?

“I think a lot of attention, a lot of eyes … will be wanting to focus on that, but sometimes when you focus on the quarterbacks, you forget about there's a lot of other things going on out there,” Kelly said. “And there's a lot of talented players on both sides that will have to step up and make plays.”

How the Irish react to new Texas offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's breakneck scheme will be one of the decisive subplots of Sunday's showdown. Gilbert was hired by Strong in the offseason from Tulsa, where last year he ran the third-most offensive plays per game (83.3) and helped the Golden Hurricane finish 15th nationally in total offense.

Kelly has had to seek alternate sources from Gilbert's previous jobs for his scouting since the Longhorns don't have any game tape running his offense. The vanilla spring-game tape was barely helpful, and any footage only goes so far without knowing who will be under center for Texas.

“This is going to be North Carolina fast,” Kelly said. “This is fast, fast tempo. We've worked hard on that to prepare our defense for the kind of tempo they're going to see.”

While Strong and his staff have the benefit of scheming for two quarterbacks with similar styles, Texas' two options — senior Tyrone Swoopes and true freshman Shane Buechele — are on two opposite ends of the spectrum.

“Swoopes obviously (has a) big arm, obviously can get the ball down the field,” Kelly said. We know about his size and physicality; he's got a lot of athletic ability. … Shane is, he's more of a guy that will hit open receivers. He's much more of a guy that can be reading across the board relative to progressions, and a precision passer if you will.

“So you've got two different quarterbacks. Both of them can make plays down the field and both of them have been effective, so I can see how coaches probably want to play both of them, because they do have different styles.”

The Irish defense smothered Swoopes last year, limiting him to seven completions on 22 passes while the Longhorns gained just 163 total yards.

Notre Dame's offense, then directed solely by Zaire, racked up 527 yards in the rout. Whether it's Zaire or DeShone Kizer lined up quarterback Sunday, Strong is bracing for another potent attack.

“It's going to be a very, very tough matchup for us, similar to last year,” he said in a conference call with reporters. “They lost some key players but they also return some key players. I don't see them missing a beat very much on offense at all.”

As Kelly said, each team's unique quarterback situation are popular story lines. But the resolution of the unknowns will go a long way toward deciding this primetime contest, too.

Here's what Kelly does know: He feels comfortable about his defense's ability to adjust, and he is committed to running the football.

“Those two things are absolute certainties,” he said.

Follow Stephen on Twitter @StephenM_Brooks

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