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Scouting Notre Dame: A look at the 2015 Fighting Irish

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Notre Dame redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer scores a touchdown on a 2-yard against Pitt at Heinz Field on Nov. 7, 2015. Notre Dame won, 42-30. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Notre Dame redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer scores a touchdown against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field on Nov. 7. Notre Dame won 42-30. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

On New Year’s Day, two of the most storied programs in the history of college football, Ohio State and Notre Dame, are set to square off on the gridiron.

The Buckeyes and Fighting Irish last played each other in 2006 in the same game they’re playing on Jan. 1: the Fiesta Bowl.

This year’s game is considered by many to be the best matchup outside of the College Football Playoff semifinals, as the teams’ three combined losses have all come against opponents ranked in the top 6.

OSU’s lone loss came via No. 3 Michigan State on Nov. 21, while Notre Dame’s first defeat was at the hands of top-ranked Clemson by just two points on a rainy, sloppy Oct. 3 in South Carolina.

The Fighting Irish’s second loss was again by a mere two points, but this time against sixth-ranked and Rose-Bowl-bound Stanford on Nov. 28.

A lot of the hype focusing on the game is due to OSU and Notre Dame’s history, but a decent portion of it is because a missed kick or a successful two-point conversion might have been enough to put both teams in the playoff.

But instead, they’re slated for a date in the desert to welcome in the new year.

Here is a deeper look at coach Brian Kelly’s team.

Injuries wearing off

With each passing week, it seemed like another key cog for the Irish fell victim to the injury bug. As it stands, five players sustained season-ending injuries that will keep them out of the Fiesta Bowl. That number should be higher, except the long layoff is allowing two major contributors to get back in the lineup after initially being ruled out for the year.

The first of that duo is tight end Durham Smythe. The redshirt sophomore tore his MCL during Notre Dame’s win over Virginia on Sept. 12, resulting in an operation on his right knee, as well as a minor procedure on his right shoulder.

Spring practice was originally set as his return date, but his rehabilitation has gone quicker than expected. In early December, Kelly said he was at “full strength” and had been cleared to practice immediately.

Smythe had been the starting tight end for the first two games of the season prior to being hurt. He had two catches for 13 yards and one touchdown. The 6-foot-4 Texan will be a big boost to the Notre Dame passing game that, at times, has struggled to find a secondary target beyond junior wide receiver Will Fuller.
Rejoining the active roster alongside Smythe is redshirt junior Jarron Jones. The defensive tackle tore his MCL during fall practice and has yet to play in a game for the Fighting Irish. The Rochester, New York, native was projected to start at nose tackle, but instead, Kelly was forced to look elsewhere to fill that spot.

Jones had appeared in 12 and 11 games in his first two seasons, respectively. Sophomore Daniel Cage, who is from Cincinnati and had been recruited by OSU, filled Jones’ void for the most part, doing a decent job. Cage will likely start the Fiesta Bowl, but Jones will be in the rotation on the defensive line.

OSU junior running back Ezekiel Elliott has the ability to wear teams down as the game progresses, so Notre Dame getting Jones back adds to the depth, allowing Cage and his fellow defensive linemen to stay more fresh throughout the game’s 60 minutes.

Players coming back from injury doesn’t just stop with Smythe and Jones, though. Two more contributors, linebacker James Onwualu and running back C.J. Prosise, are trading their spots on the injury report for a place on the depth chart.

Onwualu, a junior and former wide receiver, missed the final two games of the season with an MCL sprain, but he will be back at his outside linebacker spot in Arizona. On the year, Onwualu has 36 tackles, five of which were for a loss.

The Notre Dame defense has, by no means, been impenetrable this season, but it still ranks 39th nationally, surrendering 362 yards per game. It has dealt with a gaggle of injuries throughout the year, but getting two contributors in Jones and Onwualu back will certainly help the unit in its quest to slow down the Buckeyes.

For Prosise, the redshirt junior will be back after missing the third-to-last game against Wake Forest, as well as the regular-season finale versus Stanford, with injury.

A concussion and upper body injury kept him sidelined against Wake Forest, but he returned the next week against Boston College, only to suffer a high ankle sprain, causing him to leave the game prematurely, while also missing the loss to Stanford.

Prosise wasn’t even supposed to be the starter this season, but Tarean Folston tore his ACL on his third carry of the year against Texas, elevating Prosise to the No. 1 spot. He responded nicely to the promotion, carrying the ball 156 times for 1,032 yards and 11 scores.

He might not get the same percentage of carries prior to the injury, but for Kelly’s offense, having Prosise back alongside freshman running back Josh Adams is another crucial addition.

Players being lost to injury dominated the narrative surrounding this Notre Dame team during the regular season. If the Fighting Irish are victorious against the Buckeyes, players with injuries again might be part of the discussion. But this time, it might be about the players’ contributions after returning, instead of their departures.

Counting on Kizer

Under center for the Fighting Irish on New Year’s Day will be redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer. Fitting with the theme surrounding the rest of his team, Kizer was not supposed to be the starter, but Malik Zaire fractured his ankle against Virginia in Week 2 and has been out ever since.

Kizer assumed the starting position with questions swirling about whether the freshman was ready to lead the Fighting Irish.

He answered them.

The Toledo native, who was not offered a scholarship from OSU, has been rock solid for Kelly’s squad — even sensational at times — throwing for 2,600 yards and 19 touchdowns on a 63 percent completion rate.

Kizer supplemented that with 499 yards and nine scores on the ground. He has developed exceptional chemistry with Fuller, the team’s leading receiver with 1,145 yards and 13 touchdowns. Smythe returning helps Kizer, too.

When Kizer took over for Zaire, it was, essentially, sink or swim for Notre Dame. The Irish would either go down in flames with the inexperienced Kizer, or he would flourish, keeping the team in the discussion as one of the nation’s elite.

The latter happened.

Kizer has proven that despite being 19 years old, he was ready for the limelight associated with being at the helm for Notre Dame. The OSU defense will definitely be a test for him, but based on his performance throughout the year, the expectation is he will not sink under the pressure.

OSU and Notre Dame are set to kick off at 1 p.m. in Glendale, Arizona, on Jan. 1.

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