ACC Atlantic Division 2014 Football Preview

Aug. 14, 2014 @ 08:12 PM

N.C. STATE 2014: Wolfpack aims to regroup from winless ACC season

BY AARON BEARD, AP Sports Writer

RALEIGH — Inconsistency, injuries and inexperience made a mess of Dave Doeren’s first year at North Carolina State. He’ll soon find out how much the Wolfpack learned from the program’s worst season in a half-century.

N.C. State (3-9, 0-8 Atlantic Coast Conference) lost its last eight games and finished winless in the league for the first time since 1959. Seven starters return to the offense and defense to provide potential for growth, assuming Doeren can get a young team past last year’s struggles.

“I think you use whatever you can to motivate them,” Doeren said. “I’m not a guy that walks around talking about the past all day long either. I don’t believe in that. When it’s relevant and it can help you, then we’ll talk about it.”

At least he has his quarterback this time: Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett.

Brissett sat out last year while the Wolfpack bounced between Brandon Mitchell and Pete Thomas due to injury and poor play. Brissett’s mobility fits Doeren’s no-huddle scheme, though Doeren has cautioned that his quarterback can’t carry the burden to make every play.

Help could come from big-play receiver Bryan Underwood, who is back from a broken collarbone, and leading rusher Shadrach Thornton.

“There’s been players stepping up left and right every day in camp, making plays and just pretty much making my job easier — a lot easier,” Brissett said. “And it’s just giving me the (comfort) of knowing that I have outlets that will do everything I want them to do, what we want them to do. It just makes us better.”

Defensively, N.C. State returns some experience up front with Art Norman and T.Y. McGill, and in the secondary with Juston Burris, Hakim Jones and Jack Tocho. But linebacker is a concern, particularly after possible starter M.J. Salahuddin suffered a knee injury that will keep him out indefinitely.

“It’s in the past but it’s always going to be in the back of our heads,” redshirt freshman linebacker Jerod Fernandez said of 2013. “Nobody wants to go 3-9, and we’re ... sure not going to go 3-9 again this year. We’re going to play hard, and we’re going to use that as motivation.”


Here are five things to watch for the Wolfpack this season:

WR CONSISTENCY: Sophomores Bra’Lon Cherry, Jumichael Ramos and Marquez Valdes-Scantling must grow into reliable targets. Doeren said Cherry has been the most improved among last year’s young receivers, while January enrollee Bo Hines could contribute as a freshman.

MORE DBS: N.C. State will use a 4-2-5 defensive formation as its base scheme this year. Doeren said adding that fifth defensive back will get more speed on the field. “I know we love getting more DBs on the field,” Tocho said. “We’re looking forward to the switch. We’ve adapted well in practice.”

RUN DEFENSE: Will the Wolfpack be able to stop the run? N.C. State was next-to-last in the ACC in rushing defense (180.2 yards per game) but gave up a league-worst 5 yards per carry — a total inflated by Boston College’s Andre Williams running for 339 yards in a 38-21 win. N.C. State allowed a 100-yard rusher in each of its last three games.

FINISHING GAMES: The Wolfpack certainly had chances to avoid that winless ACC record. N.C. State was tied with Syracuse midway through the fourth quarter before yielding two touchdowns. It trailed rival North Carolina 21-19 entering the fourth but couldn’t rally. It led at Duke 20-17 with 6½ minutes left before giving up three touchdowns in 26 seconds. “Our main focus is finishing,” McGill said, “because that’s what we didn’t do last year and that’s what gave us the record we had.”

EARLY CONFIDENCE: N.C. State needs a good start. Doeren’s team opens at home against Georgia Southern and Old Dominion, then travels to South Florida (2-10 last year) followed by a home game against Presbyterian. Things get tougher from there, starting with a visit from reigning national champion Florida State and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston on Sept. 27. There’s also trips to Atlantic Division opponents Clemson, ACC newcomer Louisville and Syracuse in that five-game stretch.


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SYRACUSE 2014: Syracuse’s Scott Shafer in better place

BY JOHN KEKIS, AP Sports Writer

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — No scrambling this year for Syracuse coach Scott Shafer.

“I feel more comfortable because I already did it once,” said Shafer, who led Syracuse to a 7-6 record in 2013 and a bowl victory in its inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. “There’s still not a lot of experience, but year two is a little easier than year one.”

A year ago, Shafer had to hit the ground running after Doug Marrone’s abrupt departure to take over the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. The graduation of record-setting quarterback Ryan Nassib only heightened the anxiety for the first-year coach as he searched for a replacement.

In the end, he found one in Terrel Hunt, and he demonstrated a flair for the dramatic as the season wound down.

“I’m real excited to see how Terrel steps into his role of being the returning quarterback,” Shafer said. “He had a great Texas Bowl and all those things, but that’s in the past. He understands that. I just want to see him systematically get better from day to day, and I am excited to see his progress. There is a sense of calm knowing I trust the offense is in Terrel’s hands.”

Hunt did not play as a freshman and got in only one game on special teams in his redshirt year. He took over from Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen in the third game last fall and struggled until the season was on the line. He then led the Orange to a stunning 34-31 win over Boston College, hitting tight end Josh Parris with an 8-yard touchdown pass on the last play of the regular season after throwing a late interception that sent many fans scurrying for the Carrier Dome exits.

The victory gave Syracuse the required sixth victory to play in the postseason, and Hunt followed that by scrambling 12 yards for the decisive touchdown with 74 seconds remaining to lift Syracuse to a 21-17 victory over Minnesota.

The 6-foot-3 Hunt has bulked up to 233 pounds and displayed tremendous zip in his throws during the annual spring scrimmage in April.

“It’s a feeling like no other knowing I’m the starter,” Hunt said. “I went from every day going home wondering if I was going to even play to now where I can just think of running the team and the competition.

“Now that I know what to expect, being more comfortable in the ACC, and coming into the season with your head held high rather than looking around whether you’re going to play, that’s a big difference.”

Added senior offensive tackle Sean Hickey: “I think there’s always a sense of calm when you know that signal-caller and know how he is in the huddle or how he is on the sideline, how he is adjusting to things. I think there’s a lot of comfort with the players who’ve played with him. It’s definitely a positive.”

Five other things to know about Syracuse:

BIG CHANGES: Syracuse lost 19 players from the bowl team, including captains Jay Bromley, Macky MacPherson, Jerome Smith and Marquis Spruill. And Shafer’s staff includes two new faces — offensive line coach Joe Adam, former head coach at Elmhurst College, and tight ends coach Bobby Acosta, former head coach at Widener.

HOW FAST CAN YOU GO?: Syracuse ran an up-tempo offense last year, and offensive coordinator George McDonald wants to speed things up even more. “It’s going to be real exciting,” Hunt said. “If I see something I need to change, it gives me enough time that I can do it.”

EIGHT IS ENOUGH: Shafer is targeting eight victories as a goal, and the players are buying into it despite one of the most difficult schedules in the nation. The Orange face defending national champion Florida State, Maryland, Louisville and Duke at home, Notre Dame at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, and Clemson, Pitt and Boston College on the road. “I say eight is a good level to reach for because you never want to go back,” Hickey said.

RUN AGAIN: Syracuse’s reputation was built on the ground with the likes of Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Floyd Little, Larry Csonka, and Jim Nance. Last year’s top back Jerome Smith left school a year early, but the returning stable is capable and includes Prince-Tyson Gulley (83 carries for 456 yards and 4 TDs), Adonis Ameen-Moore, George Morris II, and Devante McFarlane. “Everybody knows what they have to do,” Gulley said. “We’re not new to the system anymore. We’re all veterans of the system, so it’s just a case of picking up where we left off.”

WHO’S BUYING?: The Orange open the season against Villanova on the last Friday night in August. In an effort to boost attendance, for every ticket purchased for the game against the Wildcats, Shafer will buy an additional ticket for that fan.

LOUISVILLE 2014: Louisville, Petrino begin second chapter together

BY GARY B. GRAVES, AP Sports Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Other than grayer hair and a few wrinkles, Louisville coach Bobby Petrino doesn’t look much different from his first go-round with the Cardinals.

The 53-year-old quickly notes that he has changed in other ways. Humbled by an off-field incident resulting in his firing at Arkansas in April 2012, he understands that second chances don’t come easy or often — particularly at the school where Petrino began his head coaching career.

“I’m very fortunate and very appreciative of (athletic director) Tom Jurich and Dr. (James) Ramsey in giving me this opportunity,” Petrino said during last month’s Atlantic Coast Conference media days. “I’ve certainly grown and changed throughout the years in things that I’ve experienced and things that I’ve caused myself. And I’m just fortunate to be able to continue in the sport that I love so much and to coach football.”

One constant is Petrino’s offensive expertise, which is why he’s eager to begin his sequel with Louisville as it enters the Atlantic Coast Conference. Hired in January to replace Charlie Strong, Petrino wants to continue the Cardinals’ success with the same high-powered philosophy that put them on the map.

“Our number one goal is to win a national championship,” Petrino said Thursday at Louisville’s kickoff luncheon. “That’s something we’re working on every day to try to achieve.”

Petrino is 83-30 in nine seasons as a college coach, including 41-9 in his first stint with the Cardinals from 2003-06. Most encouraging for the Cardinals entering their new league is his 22-15 mark as a first-year coach.

He went 9-4 as a rookie coach with Louisville and 8-4 last fall at Western Kentucky. Petrino’s only losing first season was 5-7 at Arkansas in 2008.

Most impressive about Petrino’s lone season with the Hilltoppers was helping them achieve school records for FBS wins and offensive yards with 5,502. WKU’s yardage total was just 489 fewer than Louisville, which returns with an offense featuring depth at wide receiver and running back and a presumptive starting QB in redshirt sophomore Will Gardner. Those factors have former Cardinals coach Howard Schnellenberger confident that Petrino can get off to a fast start the second time around.

“Based on past experience, to use an old saying, he’s sitting in the catbird seat with the talent level he has there,” Schnellenberger said. “He’s older and wiser and I would think, more productive.”


Here are five things to look for as Louisville begins a new chapter in the ACC and a second with Petrino:

WHERE THERE’S A WILL: Gardner is certainly aware of the expectations in following Bridgewater, but they’re nothing compared to what Petrino expects of his quarterbacks — especially in workouts. “He does put a lot of pressure on you in practice, which is good because it’ll make the game easier,” said the 6-foot-5 Gardner, whom Petrino has praised for his quick grasp of the spread offense.

SEMINOLE SHOWDOWN: Louisville’s Oct. 30 meeting with defending national champion Florida State is already being viewed as this season’s marquee game in the ACC and certainly by the Cardinals. Other than their January 2013 Sugar Bowl upset of Florida, they’ve played few games this meaningful in recent years and definitely want to prove they belong in their new league.

CENTRAL RECEIVING: The return of top wideout DeVante Parker (885 yards, 12 TDs) for his senior season is big in terms of giving Louisville a speedy, deep threat. And once again Louisville is loaded with targets such as dependable senior Eli Rogers, speedsters Kai De La Cruz and James Quick and TE Gerald Christian.

NEW-LOOK DEFENSE: Not only is Louisville switching from a 4-3 base alignment to a 3-4, but the Cardinals must replace seven defensive starters. Some of the returnees will play new positions: Terell Floyd moves from cornerback to safety, while sacks leader Lorenzo Mauldin becomes a hybrid end/linebacker.

CARDS IN BLACK: The plan is for the Cardinals to wear all-black uniforms just for the Sept. 1 season opener against Miami to promote Louisville’s ACC debut. But players are giddy about finally getting to wear them after being denied by former coach Charlie Strong, so don’t be shocked to see them again.

CLEMSON 2014: Clemson offense on the clock this fall


CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris is not about to let the Tigers’ attack take a step backward, despite missing two record-setting playmakers from a year ago in receiver Sammy Watkins and quarterback Tajh Boyd.

Morris has been bothered much of the offseason by what he sees as a lack of respect for an offense that averaged more than 40 points and 500 yards a game the past two seasons.

“Nobody knows who they are,” Morris said. “Nobody cares to know who they are right now, except for their parents and grandparents and all their relatives.”

And that’s just fine with Morris and coach Dabo Swinney, who’ve shared their frustrations with the team to fuel summer workouts.

Morris believes quarterback Cole Stoudt, the son of NFL passer Cliff who was backup the past three seasons, has worked to earn his shot and can run the offense as effectively as Boyd, who set the Atlantic Coast Conference mark with 107 touchdown passes.

Those receivers capable of stepping in for Watkins, the fourth pick overall in last May’s NFL draft, include Mike Williams, Charone Peake and Adam Humphries.

Morris understands there’s only one way for his group to gain attention and that’s by showing their skills on the field.

“You’ve got to play with a hard edge about yourself. You’ve got to have that ticked-off approach,” Morris said. “We’re ready to fight anybody and everybody. That’s got to be these guys’ approach.”

That starts Aug. 30th at Georgia.


Here are five thing to watch for in Clemson football:

BACKUP QB: Deshaun Watson is Clemson’s most talked-about freshman since Watkins arrived in 2011. The dual-threat quarterback set Georgia state high school records with 17,134 yards and 218 touchdowns passing and rushing. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has said Watson will play in the opener and you can bet fans will be looking for any reason to call for Watson over Stoudt. “I understand that’s part of it,” Stoudt says. “I have to go out there and do my job for the team.”

REPLACING WATKINS: The Tigers’ offense was fortunate to have sure-handed pass catchers like tight end Dwayne Allen and receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Watkins the past three seasons for Boyd. Clemson enters this year with more questions than answers about its pass catchers: Charone Peake’s health after missing most of last year with a knee injury; sophomore Mike Williams’ ability to stretch the field like Watkins; sophomore tight end Jordan Leggett becoming an effective safety valve like Allen was.

DEFENSIVE STRETNGTH: Clemson’s front seven appears to be the team’s strength heading into the fall, led by defensive end Vic Beasley who topped the ACC with 13 sacks last season. Beasley chose to return for his senior season instead of leaving for the NFL draft. Along with veterans like end Corey Crawford, tackles Grady Jarrett and Josh Watson, the line could bring the defense the attention Clemson’s offense has enjoyed the past few seasons. Behind them are experienced linebackers in Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward.

TOUGH TESTS EARLY: Clemson’s chance for championships will be known early. The Tigers open at Georgia and play at defending national champion Florida State three weeks later. The Tigers-Seminoles winner has gone to the Atlantic Coast Conference title game as Atlantic Division champions each of the past five seasons and this one figures to be no different. Clemson’s Swinney says people ask him what he’ll do if the Tigers are 1-2 after that stretch. He usually responds, “What if we’re 3-0 and ranked No. 1?”

TYPICAL DABO: Clemson’s seventh-year coach has had an interesting offseason. He received a rasie and an eight-year contract extension through 2021, came under fire from the Freedom From Religion Foundation for tying his program to Christianity and took regular shots from South Carolina rival coach Steve Spurrier, whose Gamecocks have won five straight in the series. Spurrier’s best line came after Swinney said the Gamecocks coach was from Pluto in describing their differences. “Dabo still thinks there are nine planets out there,” Spurrier responded.

FLORIDA STATE 2014: Florida St attempts to maintain historic offense

BY KAREEM COPELAND, Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Jimbo Fisher isn’t looking for the record-setting numbers his Florida State offense put up en route to winning the final BCS national championship.

The coach doesn’t believe the Seminoles need that.

“I don’t talk yards or anything like that or points,” Fisher said. “It’s about the efficiency of our offense and how it fits our defense. I think we can be very efficient. We just have to continue to execute whether we throw it, we run it or we keep the versatility of what passes and things we throw.

“We’ll feature the talents of the players we have.”

The Seminoles offense lost two receivers, two running backs and a center to the NFL, including first-round receiver Kelvin Benjamin, fourth round running back Devonta Freeman and fourth round center Bryan Stork.

Expectations remain high, however, for a group that returns Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, one of the most prolific receivers in FSU history (Rashad Greene) and an offensive line with four senior starters. Also returning is running back Karlos Williams, who averaged eight yards per carry in 2013.

The Seminoles set an FBS record with 723 points scored in 2013 and their 7,267 offensive yards were an Atlantic Coast Conference record. And Fisher doesn’t run a hurry-up-every-play offense that has trended throughout college football.

“The next step is just keep that thing going, keep putting points up, keep executing day in and day out,” Williams said.

Florida State may lean on the run game more early in the season with a veteran offensive line and Williams running the ball while the receiver position gets sorted out. But there’s still the reigning Heisman winner under center and All-ACC tight end Nick O’Leary will have a larger role.

“We may feature different plays, different players in different ways,” Fisher said. “Or may ask them to do the same things if they do them as well as we did last year. We just have to figure out what they do well and feature those and keep a great balance with physicality of running it and still being able to throw it.”


Here are five things to watch for when the Seminoles open the season Aug. 30:

RUNNING MAN: The Seminoles lost 1,600 rushing yards and 56 percent of the ground game from the title team to the NFL. Enter Karlos Williams. The preseason all-ACC selection ran for 748 yards and 11 touchdowns after switching from safety last season. The senior needs to prove he can carry the load from the opening whistle with only youngsters joining him in the backfield.

NO FLY ZONE: FSU boasted the top pass defense in the nation in 2014 and had a school record 26 interceptions. The secondary remains the deepest position on the team. P.J. Williams and Jalen Ramsey are stars. Ronald Darby is one of the top cover cornerbacks in the country and Nate Andrews led the team with four interceptions in 2013. Safety Tyler Hunter is back from a neck injury.

HELP THE HEISMAN: Receiver Rashad Greene returns ranked in the top seven in FSU history in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. There is no significant experience at the position outside of Greene. Jameis Winston needs someone to emerge from sophomores Bobo Wilson and Kermit Whitfield, seniors Jarred Haggins and Christian Green and five-star freshmen Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane.

JUNIOR JACKED: Defensive lineman Mario Edwards, Jr. is ready to join the ranks of the truly dominant Florida State lineman. The former No. 1 recruit in the nation reshaped his body and diet, increased his speed, is squatting 600 pounds and benching 450 pounds. The goal is double-digits sacks and consistent domination.

TRENCH DIGGING: The Seminoles return five seniors, including four starters to the offensive line. The group has a combined 112 starts between left tackle Cam Erving, right tackle Bobby Hart, center Austin Barron, left guard Josue Matias and right guard Tre Jackson. This unit should set the tone for an offense that lost several starting skill players.

WAKE FOREST 2014: Clawson faces tough task at rebuilding Wake


WINSTON-SALEM — New Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson has a pretty quick sense of humor.

The way this season is shaping up, he’s going to need it.

On paper, it looks like it will be a tough year for the Demon Deacons. They’re facing the difficult one-two punch of adjusting to a new coaching staff and filling the significant holes left by last year’s seniors.

Wake Forest has been a universal pick to finish last in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Atlantic Division, and when the league’s formal preseason predictions were released, Clawson provided a bit of deadpanned levity.

“Were we picked to win it? Were we unanimous first? We were?” Clawson quipped. “The bull’s-eye is on us.”

Well, not really.

Expectations are low for Clawson’s first group of Demon Deacons, who must replace the school’s career receptions leader (Michael Campanaro), a four-year starting quarterback (Tanner Price), the team’s top rusher (Josh Harris) and perhaps the defense’s most irreplaceable player (nose tackle Nikita Whitlock). About two-thirds of the team’s total offensive yardage last year is gone.

It doesn’t help that the Demon Deacons share a division with defending national champion Florida State, Orange Bowl champion Clemson and league newcomer Louisville. Or that their permanent crossover game comes against resurgent Duke.

Hired last December to replace Jim Grobe, Clawson has spent the offseason trying to get the remaining players faster, stronger and better.

He’ll get his test on Aug. 28 at Louisiana-Monroe.

“We can win games this year. The formula might have to be a little bit different but our job is to find a way to get in games against good teams and find a way to get to the fourth quarter ... and find ways to pull them out,” Clawson said. “It’s not a huge margin for error this year. I get it.”


5 things to watch in Clawson’s first season at Wake Forest.

CLAWSON’S PEDIGREE: Clawson is known as a program-builder — and his new school sure could use a bit of rebuilding. He reconstructed the programs at Fordham and Richmond of the FCS, earning Division I-AA national coach of the year awards at each school. Then he helped Bowling Green — which earned three bowl berths in his five seasons— upset then-No. 16 Northern Illinois in the Mid-American Conference title game before accepting the challenge of building a winning program at a tiny, private school with high academic standards that wants to compete at college football’s highest level.

NEW QB: The new coach is asking a new quarterback to lead the offense. John Wolford will become the first true freshman QB to start a season opener for the Demon Deacons since 1974. Clawson says Wolford “gives us the best opportunity” to win games.

REPLACING CAMPANARO: When Price was in trouble in the pocket, he could always count on Campanaro to get open. With Campanaro in the Baltimore Ravens’ camp, this year’s quarterback — whoever it is — won’t have that luxury. Tyree Harris, who had 23 catches for 225 yards last season, is the only returning receiver who caught more than 19 balls.

REYNOLDS WRAP: It’s time for Orville Reynolds to start resembling the player Grobe raved about during his freshman season three years ago. After playing some receiver the past couple of seasons and catching two touchdown passes in 2013, Reynolds returned to his natural position of running back. “It’s difficult for me to imagine us having a really good season if Orville Reynolds doesn’t have a great year for us,” Clawson said.

THE ROAD AHEAD: None of Wake Forest’s six road games resembles anything like an easy win. The Demon Deacons open at Louisiana-Monroe — which won 21-19 last year — and make a tricky trip west to face Utah State and dangerous QB Chuckie Keaton. They visit Louisville and Florida State in back-to-back weeks, head east to play a North Carolina State team that looks improved under second-year coach Dave Doeren and finish up at Duke — which has won two straight in the series.


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NOTRE DAME 2014: Irish want to be back in ‘national conversation’

BY TOM COYNE, Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame has four straight winning seasons for the first time this century, played a key role in deciding the national championship for two straight seasons and reclaimed the title of winningest football program it lost to Michigan in 2003.

That’s still not enough to satisfy Fighting Irish fans who measure success by national championships and have been waiting since 1988 for the school to win another. The Irish slipped to 9-4 last season and finished the season ranked No. 21.

They went 12-0 in the regular season in 2012 before an embarrassing 42-14 loss to Alabama in the title game. The highlight of last season was a 17-13 victory over Michigan State, a lone loss that cost the Spartans a shot at the national championship.

Coach Brian Kelly acknowledges that isn’t good enough.

“You don’t want to have an undefeated season and then have just winning seasons. You want to be part of the national conversation,” he said. “At Notre Dame, that’s where we want to be.”

Kelly enters this season in a position like few Irish coaches — without a national championship after four seasons and without his job in jeopardy. The only Notre Dame coach who lasted more than five seasons without winning a national championship was Elmer Layden, who coached the Irish for seven seasons from 1934-40.

The 2014 season brings artificial turf for the first time at Notre Dame Stadium, new Under Armour uniforms, four games against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents and a fan base eager for some old-style success. Here are five things to know about the Irish:

SCORING POINTS: Kelly arrived at Notre Dame with a reputation as an offensive-minded coach, keeping defenses off-balance with a no-huddle, hurry-up spread attack. In his final season at Cincinnati in 2009, the Bearcats finished fourth in the nation in scoring at 38.6 points a game. In four seasons at Notre Dame the Irish haven’t averaged better than 26.3 points a game. Kelly hopes having an experienced, mobile quarterback in Everett Golson, who is back after serving a semester academic suspension, will allow the Irish to score more points by using the read option and running a no-huddle, hurry-up spread attack.

ATTACKING DEFENSE: The Irish enjoyed a lot of success using former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s read-and-react style, finishing in the top 27 in scoring defense nationally four straight years. Diaco is head coach at Connecticut now, replaced by Brian VanGorder, who prefers a more attacking scheme. The Irish are inexperienced up in the front seven, with former walk-on Joe Schmidt expected to start at middle linebacker. The Irish have a difference-maker in linebacker Jaylon Smith, though, and a lot of experience in the backfield, especially at corner with KeiVarae Russell and Cody Riggs, a transfer from Florida who was fourth on the Gators in tackles last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Irish coaches spent part of the offseason visiting NFL and other college teams looking for ways they could improve Notre Dame’s not-so-special teams, whose play Kelly has described as “unacceptable.” The Irish last season ranked 120th out of 123 teams on kickoff return coverage, 84th in punt return coverage and 80th in punt returns and haven’t been much better the previous years.

GOLDEN ARMY: The Irish freshman class gave itself the nickname during the recruiting process and now is expected to contribute immediately, especially to the front seven of the defense. Kelly already has defensive end Andrew Trumbetti listed as a starter at defensive end and is expecting contributions from defensive linemen Jonathan Bonner, Jhonny Williams, Daniel Cage, linebackers Nyles Morgan and Kolin Hill, wide receiver Justin Brent and tight end Tyler Luatua.

RIVALRIES END: This season marks the end of some rivalry games because Notre Dame agreed to play a batch of games against the ACC, the conference of most Irish sports. The four games this season include an Oct. 18 game at defending national champion Florida State. The Irish have played Michigan all but six seasons since 1978, but that rivalry ends Sept. 6. The annual game with Purdue, started in 1946, ends Sept. 13 in Indianapolis. Michigan State, on the schedule all but four seasons since 1948, doesn’t play the Irish again until 2016. Traditional games against Navy, Stanford and Southern California remain.