Foundation set, but plenty of questions left to answer for Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Known commodities have been obvious.

Everett Golson was electric. The running backs were dynamic. The offensive line was dominant.

But it’s the unknown that must be resolved for the Notre Dame football season to continue its positive trajectory.

In their 48-17 season-opening win over Rice Saturday, the Irish came up with some answers. The punt return game flourished. Freshmen along the defensive front held up. The defensive secondary, minus two starters, was effective. And a team that was hit repeatedly with adversity was focused.

Five players benched by an academic fraud investigation. Starting safety and captain Austin Collinsworth sidelined with a right knee injury from Thursday’s practice.

Yet, the Irish didn’t miss a step.

“(The players) care about their teammates, that's clear,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “But they also know that they are here at Notre Dame to get a degree and to play for Notre Dame and represent Notre Dame on the football field.

“They have been really focused on their job. They have been really purposeful every single day. They have not been a distracted group and that says a lot about them. I've got good leaders, and I've got young guys that have really followed the lead here.”

The “wow” factor was reserved for the way Notre Dame returned punts. That says something about a team when hidden yards can be that significant.

Cody Riggs and Greg Bryant are both special in the returner role. After accounting for 106 yards (on 15 punt returns) all of last season, the Irish rolled up 80 on five returns Saturday.

Riggs had 42 yards on two tries and Bryant had 31 on three.

“We have got guys back there that are fearless, that will catch the football and stick their foot in the ground and get north and south, and that is absolutely crucial,” Kelly said. “We have guys that are committed to covering people up. So we have the ‘want to’ and the resolve. We have to continue to do it.”

What they can’t do is make a dangerous play. On one return, Bryant was surrounded by Owls, but disregarded the fair catch and stubbornly tried to make something happen.

“Greg Bryant is fearless and does not know what a fair catch is,” Kelly deadpanned, shaking his head. The room erupted in laughter. “All those people wondering why he was catching the ball, he came up with the, ‘I can't hear you, my earplug is in.’”

Riggs has a simple formula for his success.

“Make the first guy miss,” the graduate student who was at the University of Florida his first four years said. “I try to peek at the last second to see how close (the oncoming defenders) are. On both returns, I had a lot of room. On the second one, there was a guy closing in on me, but I was able to get out of his way pretty quickly.”

In the first three quarters, before “garbage” time, Notre Dame started two drives (47-yard line, 49) on the Rice side of the field and two (47, 44) on its own side after punts.

“You saw the starting (field) position, vis a vis special teams and starting position, over the last couple years was absolutely miserable,” Kelly said. “I mean, we were dealing with average starting field position somewhere in the 20s.

“Now, when you're at the 40 , 45 yard line, it makes it a whole lot easier to control the flow of the football game. Special teams is going to be key in that and that will help us in yardage wise, help us win football games. We'll continue to work on that. We think we have some good young players on those teams and we think we have a balance with veterans, as well.”

Offensively, Rice will never be confused with Michigan. But the Notre Dame defense was effective shutting down the Owls. Rice managed 367 yards of total offense, 141 on the ground.

With seven true freshman seeing action on defense – especially key roles along the line (Andrew Trumbetti, Daniel Cage and Grant Blankenship) – there were plenty of opportunities for mistakes.

They probably took their first test on the football field before their first test in the classroom this fall.

“I learned that (the freshmen) responded well,” Riggs said. “Of course, they’re going to go in and make some mistakes, but they responded well. They played hard. Their effort made up for any mistakes they might have made.”

“We played Cage (at nose guard) quite a bit,” Kelly said. “We were pretty solid inside, so my guess is we I didn't hear a lot when I was in talking with the defensive coaches, in particular, (defensive line) coach (Mike) Elston. Felt like the rotation inside was pretty good.”

Kelly said there were communication concerns in the secondary that must be worked out.

“First-game jitters; getting the calls out; a little confused; just communicating all the way through the defense,” Riggs said.

No problem. Those are fixable.

Don’t breathe a sigh of relief and think the questions have been answered.

Playing well in the afternoon against Rice is one thing. Making those same plays in prime time against Michigan next week is quite another.

Saturday was a step in the right direction.

A foundation on which to build.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com | (574) 235-6318

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Cornerback Cody Riggs made an instant impact on punt returns in his Notre Dame debut. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)
Notre Dame’s Greg Bryant celebrates after making a touchdown during the Notre Dame vs. Rice football game on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN