The Massachusetts Minutemen will have their hands full on September 26 with one of the stronger Notre Dame squads in recent years. Led by head coach Brian Kelly in his sixth season in South Bend, the Irish have large expectations for this season. Coming off a mid-season collapse, Notre Dame football is hungry for more success, after losing five of their last seven games in 2014. This will be the Irish's first meeting with UMass in its history.
As mentioned before, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is heading into his sixth season at the helm of the historic program. He has managed to turn the team around in his time, churning out winning seasons in each of his six seasons there. Kelly has even brought his team to a national championship, in 2012, where Alabama foiled the "team of destiny." However, Kelly continued to keep the program afloat, winning a total of 17 games over the following two seasons. South Bend is expecting its first double-digit win season since '12, and it is not a far-fetched goal this season. With 17 returning starters, Notre Dame will be a very tough match up for the Minutemen toward the end of September.
On the offensive side of the ball last season, the Fighting Irish gathered a total of 445 yards per game, while scoring an average of 32.8 points per game. These numbers are impressive, and balanced nicely between the passing and running games. A strong rushing attack could be relied on to produce efficient yardage, behind an incredibly talented offensive line group.
The passing game was more of a wild card. While Everett Golson put up great numbers (3445 yards, 29 TD's, 14 INT's), his mistakes often caused to be fatal to the fate of the game for the Irish. Toward the end of the season, Golson's play dropped significantly, opening the door for young Malik Zaire to show the Irish faithful what he can do. He played well in clean up duty against USC, and he really impressed in the Music City Bowl against LSU, where he threw for 96 yards and a touchdown and ran for 96 yards and a touchdown, all while splitting time with Golson. In a crazy off-season, the new free agency of college football led to Golson becoming a Florida State Seminole for his final year of eligibility, to possibly replace number one overall draft pick Jameis Winston. With Golson roughly 920 miles away in Tallahassee, Malik Zaire will have complete control over the Irish offense in his first full season as the starting quarterback.
Junior running back Tarean Folston is the feature back in the Notre Dame backfield. Rushing for nearly 900 yards last season in a three-headed platoon with Greg Bryant and Cam McDaniel, Folston should receive the majority of carries, with McDaniel graduated and Bryant headed to a junior college in Florida. With the help of receiver-turned-running back C.J. Prosise and incoming freshmen Dexter Williams and Josh Adams, the Irish backs should come through with a productive season behind a strong offensive line.
The receiving core remains mostly in tact, with leading receivers Will Fuller, Chris Brown, and Corey Robinson all returning this season. The trio combined for over 2,000 receiving yards last season and 21 TD's. Malik Zaire will have strong pass-catchers to rely on this season.
The offensive line will be returning senior center Nick Martin, guard Steve Elmer, and potential first-round left tackle Ronnie Stanley. The two newbies most likely to fill the left guard and right tackle spots are Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, respectively. The unit should be consistent, and improve upon last year's sack totals.
Last season's defensive performance was one to forget. The unit gave up nearly 30 points per game, and over 400 yards per contest. The reason for this poor showing was the absence of many former starters, such as linebacker Joe Schmidt, among others. However, this season, 10 starters are returning, as well as an additional few that are returning from academic suspensions (KeiVarae Russel and Ishaq Williams). This year's defensive unit should be much improved, if healthy.
The defensive line returns all its starters, including senior defensive end Romeo Okwara, senior defensive tackle and potential first-round draft pick Sheldon Day, junior nose tackle Jarron Jones, and junior defensive end Isaac Rochell. These freaks of nature could turn out to be one of the best D-lines in the entire nation.
With the return of team leader and former walk-on Joe Schmidt, the linebacking core looks to be one of the strongest on the team. Junior Jaylon Smith is one of the most explosive and talented athletes in college football, and he's already caught the eye of a number of NFL teams, should he declare after this season. He has started since his freshman season, and his 112 tackles last year led the team.
After last season's disappointing defensive backfield, the Irish seem to have improved mightily in this area of the defense. With the return of KeiVarae Russell, the defense will be much improved overall. Safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate are both NFL prospects and are looking to impress with their ball-hawking abilities.
In what is expected to be a blowout, this game is on September 26, in South Bend.