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College Football QBs Who Could Shock by Starting Week 1

Part of the intrigue of the 2015 college football season is that there are so many unanswered quarterback competitions heading into preseason camp. On top of that, many of those ongoing battles are taking place at high-profile programs, many of which have College Football Playoff aspirations.

Having an experienced quarterback isn't a prerequisite for winning a national championship, but having a settled quarterback competition is.

But what if the offseason front-runner or favorite doesn't end up winning the job? Given how wide-open some of these quarterback races are, we could be in for some surprises in the next few weeks. That's the inspiration behind this list: the quarterbacks who would shock the college football world by starting in Week 1. 

Because there are a variety of quarterback races, few are the same. Some are wide-open, while others are down to two or three players. In any case, the following races should have clear—or at least perceived clear—front-runners. In other words, in a dead heat between two quarterbacks, it wouldn't be surprising to see either player earn the starting nod.

Instead, we'll spotlight the dark horses who may have a chance to leapfrog the front-runners in preseason camp.

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College Football Predictions: Sleeper Picks for Major College Football Awards

The July onslaught of award watch lists have come and gone, and the time for locking in all of those preseason predictions is approaching.

Each college football individual award, from the Heisman to the Guy, already has a who's-who list of favorites heading into the 2015 season.

TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin is the top choice to take home player of the year awards, while Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa looks to reignite his race with Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III for the major defensive trophies.

But with so many players and teams in the world of college football, there are always a handful of stars who defy preseason expectations to take home some major hardware. Who could've predicted a clean sweep of the trophy case for Wright last season? What about the Doak Walker Award run for Andre Williams in 2013?

Let's take a look at a sleeper pick for 10 of the biggest awards in college football. These players might have made a watch list this summer—really, who doesn't these days?—but they are far from the top contenders. Keep an eye on these potential breakout stars.

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Michigan Football: Wolverines Need Experienced Offensive Line to Step Up in 2015

The Michigan Wolverines return five experienced players on the offensive line, but Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff need the big blockers to step up in 2015.

Mason Cole, Ben Braden, Graham Glasgow, Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson—who combined for 47 starts last season—each return to a unit that was slightly above average. The running game tallied 4.6 yards per carry, good enough for 49th nationally and up 66 spots from the dismal year prior.

However, according to Football Outsiders, Michigan managed 2.73 yards in standard-down situations, ranking 94th in the country. Setting the tone on first down will be a key focus, especially under Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno.

The Wolverines' new coaching staff is the biggest reason expectations must be raised for the offensive line. Good coaches expedite development, and Michigan's NFL-caliber coaches bring even more knowledge to the practice facility.

Now, it's not like the linemen have magically become marionettes that Harbaugh and Drevno can manipulate mid-play. The pressure remains on the players to heed the advice and translate it to their on-field performance.

But here's the thing: Thanks to spending countless hours involved with the team, focused college players improve from year to year.

For example, Cole broke into the starting lineup as a freshman. The 6'5", 287-pound sophomore left tackle is heralded as the program's next great lineman, and with or without the new staff, he'd be closer to attaining that status in 2015 than 2014. It's that simple.

Yet it certainly doesn't hurt to have what Michigan boasts on the sideline.

Drevno—who doubles as the line coach—has worked under Harbaugh for 10 of the last 11 years. During Drevno's three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, the team's rushing offense finished No. 8, No. 4 and No. 3 in the league. That followed three straight top-20 campaigns at Stanford.

If Drevno was a part of tremendously successful offensive lines in both the NFL and college, there's no reason Michigan's players won't be taught the proper tools to dominate.

And that, per MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner, is Harbaugh's ultimate goal for the offensive line anyway.

"I'd like it to be dominant," Harbaugh said.

Barring injury, Cole shouldn't leave his post at left tackle. While the rest of the offensive line isn't locked into certain positions quite yet, Michigan should have a solid idea of how the first-team spots will shake out.

Glasgow is the most versatile player, considering he can occupy any interior position. The senior logged 24 starts over the last two seasons. Consequent to Jack Miller's abrupt retirement, though, Glasgow will likely take over at center.

Kalis, Braden and Magnuson should each earn a No. 1 role, but at which position remains a small question. Kalis could play either guard spot, while Braden—the right tackle in 2014—was moved inside, opening a place for Magnuson at right tackle.

On media day, in a video captured by Isaiah Hole of 247Sports, Drevno called the starting five "a work in progress."

The reserve did take a notable hit recently. According to Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free PressChris Fox elected to retire following a couple of injury-riddled seasons. Fox only appeared in one game while in Ann Arbor, but perhaps Drevno could've utilized that 4-star talent.

Nevertheless, Logan Tuley-Tillman, David Dawson, Patrick Kugler and Juwann Bushell-Beatty provide much-needed depth at tackle, guard, center and tackle, respectively.

Michigan enters fall camp with five clear starters and four others competing for playing time, all under one of college football's best run-focused coaching tandems. The blockers will do the dirty work so Derrick Green, Ty Isaac, De'Veon Smith and Drake Johnson (when healthy) can receive the glory.

It's up to Drevno and his experienced linemen to provide the running backs with that space on a more consistent basis than a year ago.


All recruiting information via 247SportsStats from cfbstats.comQuotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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Alabama's Top Fall Camp Priority Is Creating More Turnovers on Defense

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When Nick Saban wasn’t talking about how well he thought the summer went, injured running back Bo Scarbrough’s four-game suspension or how he’s someday going to write an autobiography, he established Alabama’s most pressing priorities during his first press conference of training camp Thursday.

While most would think picking a starting quarterback would head that list, it didn't as Saban is pretty confident that competition will eventually work itself out. Instead, his top area of emphasis was something else entirely.

“The last couple of years we have not done very well in turnovers,” the coach said. “We had a minus-two turnover ratio last year for a team that won 12 games—almost unheard of.”

While stressing the importance of turnovers isn’t necessarily new for the coach—Saban made it a team priority in both the spring and summer—the first practices of the fall are when he’ll start seeing if his months of effort are starting to paying off.

He doesn’t just want turnovers to be something that's talked about. He wants the pursuit of turnovers to be ingrained in everything the Crimson Tide defense does.

“Stripping at the ball, running backs falling to the ground, trying to strip the ball,” junior defensive end A’Shawn Robinson said about turnover drills, which have become a bigger part of practice.

A steady decline in the Crimson Tide’s statistics, which culminated with last year's 11th-place finish in the Southeastern Conference in turnover margin (71st nationally), led to Saban's renewed focus on this aspect of the game.

Texas A&M (five), Vanderbilt (six) and LSU (10) were the only SEC teams with fewer interceptions than Alabama (11) in 2014. The Tide's 11 picks were less than half of what they recorded during their 2009 national championship season, and the total brought the program’s average during the Saban era down to 16.6.

In comparison, Saban’s LSU teams averaged 15.2 picks per year (with a high of 21 in 2003), and his Michigan State squads averaged 12.4 (with 15 in 2003).

Moreover, Alabama’s defense only recovered nine fumbles in 2014, tying for No. 68 in the nation. Again, that was low for the Crimson Tide overall, though it was actually up from the previous season’s eight.

"A lot of people weren't really stripping at the ball in the past year," said senior linebacker Reggie Ragland, who led Alabama in forced fumbles with three last season. "We had a down year for turnovers really, so coaches gave an idea for guys to really just start trying to get at the ball and get the ball out."

Actually, they had numerous ideas.

It started with Saban hiring former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker as Alabama's defensive backs coach and promoting Tosh Lupoi to outside linebackers coach. Among other things, both were tasked with making their position groups more of a ball-hawking force.

“I think he’s kind of reestablished the standard for expectation in terms of how we play back there in terms of the effort that we give,” Saban said about Tucker.

Next was the creation of the continuous “Ball Out Champion” award, a boxing-style belt that will regularly be passed around among defenders who make big plays. It was on the move a lot during Alabama’s A-Day scrimmage, in which they tallied six interceptions, a fumble recovery and broke up eight passes to go with 19 tackles for a loss, including eight sacks.

Then, Saban changed the messenger. He’s big on having guest speakers regularly address the team, and one of the reasons why is that sometimes some things sink in more if they come from someone else. (Saban compares this to a parent telling a child the same thing over and over, but as soon as another person says it they believe it.)

So during the offseason, Saban called upon one of his former assistant coaches, Jason Garrett, the current Dallas Cowboys head coach who was his quarterbacks coach with the Miami Dolphins and had an invitation to follow him to Tuscaloosa.

“He had NFL stats from five, 10, 20 years,” Saban said. “When you are plus-one in turnovers you have an 80 percent chance to win. When you’re plus-two in turnovers you have a 95 percent chance to win, and it goes up from there.”

Finally, the coaches decided that the members of their defensive front seven needed to come into training camp leaner and ready to go, and all indications Tuesday were that they did just that. Among those who appeared a little trimmer were All-SEC preseason selections Ragland and Robinson, and Robinson told reporters that his weight was down to 314 pounds.

That’s down from a year ago when he played at 320, and Robinson’s hoping to be closer to 310 when the season starts Sept. 5 against Wisconsin in Arlington, Texas (8 p.m. ET, ABC). Jarran Reed, who is often next to him on the defensive line and is listed as 313 pounds is also trimming down.

“He’s a lot better,” Robinson said about Reed. “He’s lighter, he’s quicker. He’s faster off the ball, can convert and run the pass just as well as anybody on the team. And so he’s been working on that and just about everything.”


Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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What Is Ohio State's Biggest Obstacle to Repeat in 2015?

The Ohio State Buckeyes ended their 2014 season as national champions. Bleacher Report's College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Adam Kramer discuss what might stop the Buckeyes from repeating in 2015.

Do you think they can repeat? Watch the video and let us know!

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How a College Football Program Is Built from the Ground Up

KENNESAW, Ga. — It's one thing to build a program into a national power, but it's entirely different to build one from scratch. 

The support, money and logistics associated with starting a college football program are enough to make an administrator's head spin.

Despite that, several startup programs have found success over the last 20 years, including Georgia State, Old Dominion and South Florida—which played its first game in 1997 and was ranked No. 2 in the nation in 2007. 

Two decades ago, Kennesaw State University was a blip on the college athletics radar. A commuter school. A road sign on I-75 just northwest of Atlanta that, if you weren't paying attention, would miss as quickly as that Chick-fil-A a couple of exits ago that you desperately wanted to stop at for lunch.

Fast-forward 20 years, and Kennesaw State is much more than a road sign, it's a full-fledged destination university that's about to make a major splash on the college football scene.

A project that's been six years in the making, the Owls will join the world of college football as part of the Big South Conference in FCS in 2015, with their season opener taking place on Thursday, September 3 against East Tennessee State in Johnson City, Tennessee.

How will they do it? A blend of a coaching superstar, support from the community and a staff that's familiar with the state of Georgia.


A Front Man

Around most of Georgia, Vince Dooley is known as the man who brought a national championship to Athens. In Kennesaw, though, he's known as the man who became the first face of Kennesaw State football.

Dooley was named as the chairman of Kennesaw State's football exploratory committee in December 2009. That committee included 34 people, four subcommittees and was charged with coming to a consensus on whether or not to pursue football.

"It took us about seven months, but finally, with a document about an inch thick, the consensus was, overwhelmingly, that we recommend to the president that he move forward with starting a football program," Dooley told Bleacher Report.

Why take the risk of attaching his name to a startup program in rather uncertain economic times?

Simple. Dooley recognized that, for Kennesaw State, football was the logical next step.

"This is a school that started out as a commuter school, and then it became a residential school," he said. "Now it has dormitories and a dining hall, and the next big step is to give it a culture and something for people to be proud of with a mascot, their colors and a fight song. Football does that more so than any other sport on campus."

It wasn't without pressure, though.

The Georgia Board of Regents was the determining factor in whether or not to allow Kennesaw State to pursue football. It recently allowed Georgia State to start up a program just as the economic crisis of 2008 began to take hold, and requested that Kennesaw State find $5-10 million to cover startup costs before being approved.

"They took a little bit of a firmer stance than they have in the past," Dooley said. "Georgia State started football, and they didn’t have hands on as much now. They’re watching everything, and making us jump through a lot of financial hoops, and they’ve been able to do that."

Fifth Third Bank hopped on board and became the first business to partner with the Kennesaw State football program. Their investment will be prominent in Year 1. The 8,318-seat soccer-specific stadium built in 2010, which is located adjacent to campus and was used by the now-defunct Atlanta Beat of the Women's Professional Soccer, has been rebranded for football as Fifth Third Bank Stadium.

"This relationship has always felt like a great match due to the similarity in our growth plans, community commitments and values,” Hal Clemmer, President and CEO of Fifth Third Bank Georgia, said. "Our expanded relationship with KSU reflects our plans to continue growing in Cobb County, the broader Atlanta metro area and throughout the state, supporting our communities and building our brand."

The pressure to find a company willing to take a risk on a startup plan helped the committee focus on what's important and how to build the program the right way.

"It’s because of that, that we really think they have a sound plan, good leadership in position and got the right coach," Dooley said.


Homegrown Head Coach

The "right coach" was one who wouldn't take no for an answer, and one with more ties to the state of Georgia than roads named "Peachtree" in the metro Atlanta area.

Brian Bohannon didn't know much about Kennesaw State University when he was the wide receivers coach at Georgia Tech under Paul Johnson

He barely even knew it existed.

"I live in Woodstock, which is eight miles from the Kennesaw State campus," Bohannon told Bleacher Report. "I’m commuting to Georgia Tech every day down I-75, which can be challenging. I had heard of Kennesaw State, but I knew nothing about it. I had never been on campus."

Yet, when Kennesaw State president Daniel S. Papp began the quest to get football approved, it was something that Bohannon pursued feverishly. 

"As I’m hearing all of these rumblings of football starting at Kennesaw State, Chip Rogers—a former state senator—is coaching my 10-year-old son’s basketball team," Bohannon said. "He said that [the team] is going to watch Kennesaw State play basketball, and I asked if I could go because I’ve never been over there. I said, ‘Listen, I think they’re going to start football, and I might be interested in this job."

"So we go over to the Convocation Center, and they weren’t very good at basketball at the time," Bohannon continued. "They had just transitioned to a new coach. I walk in, and the place is packed. I’m going, ‘you gotta be kidding me?’"

Bohannon's connections in Georgia were a huge selling point for athletics director Vaughn Williams. As an FCS team in the talent-rich Peach State, the administration and various committees knew that they'd have to find a relentless worker who knew the recruiting grounds backward and forward.

Bohannon's work in the Peach State, his time as a Georgia receiver and his roots as the son of a legendary head coach (Lloyd) in Griffin made him a natural fit.

"I wanted somebody from this state," Williams told Bleacher Report. "Football in this state is huge, and I felt it was very important to have somebody who has recruited here, who has played here and who has lived here at all levels. Bohannon happened to have all of those attributes, and a lot of others did too, but it was important to have a native son."

Bohannon didn't sit back on his Peach State resume and assume they'd find him. He tracked down Williams in December 2012—two months before football was even announced by the school. 

On a cold, rainy Christmas Eve at the Marietta Diner just southwest of campus, the two met for a job interview that would define the future of the program.

"We talked for a couple of hours, not really football—just stuff," Bohannon said. "He said, ‘Brian, have you ever seen the stadium?’ I said no, and we went up to the stadium. I walk in to basically a brand-new stadium, all chair-back, and my mouth drops. The thing about it is that I’ve been by the school the entire time, and I had seen all the buildings all the time."

"Now I’m walking through the football stadium after going to the basketball game and thinking, ‘You have to be kidding me. There’s a brand-new football locker room with 101 lockers, and they don’t even have football yet,'" he explained. "You see the support of the students and fans at the basketball game, the dedication of the program to a sport that doesn’t exist yet and I thought, ‘This is a no-brainer.’"

Bohannon got a taste of what Kennesaw State wanted to be, and wanted more.

"I went after the job. I hadn’t interviewed for a job in 17 years," he said. "I took the job with Coach Johnson and that wasn’t really even an interview. He took me out to eat at Snooky’s in Statesboro and asked what time can you be here. I went after this one. I’m contacting people on the committee. I’m doing everything I can, because to me, this was a no-brainer."

On March 24, 2013—just a month and change after the school announced football as a sport that will start in 2015, Bohannon was named its head coach. What's more, in an effort to provide stability, Williams signed Bohannon to a seven-year contract.

"We gotta lock down Georgia as much as we can, and we are doing a good job of that," Williams said. "Brian had an understanding of what he wanted to do. We needed individuals who wanted to be here for a while, and that’s the top priority. I signed Brian to a seven-year contract right out of the gate, because we need to keep this staff together as long as we can."

The combination of Williams and Bohannon leading the charge is a perfect fit in the eyes of Dooley.

"[Bohannon] was the right man for the job, and he’s done a terrific job in the two years of recruiting, organizing the staff," Dooley said. "He’s got an incredible enthusiasm. I’ve never seen two people, the AD and the football coach, with as much enthusiasm. The first game, Vaughn will be running out first with the flag leading Brian, whose eyes will be huge."


Buying In

With Bohannon set and a small staff in place, it was time to spread the word.

The lifeblood of any program is recruiting. Kennesaw State isn't going to go toe-to-toe with the Georgias, Georgia Techs and big-time regional programs on the recruiting trail and win many battles. The skeleton staff of Bohannon, offensive coordinator Grant Chestnut, defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator Liam Klein and linebackers coach Shane Bowen set out to make it known to high schools that they're planning on acting like those programs with prospects.

"Not knowing what we could recruit was a challenge. Who can we get? Who can’t we get? I took the state and divvied it up," Bohannon said. "The first spring evaluation, four of us went to every school in the state of Georgia. It was the old-school, ‘come see us, this is what we have, this is what we’re doing’ type of thing." 

It wasn't long until Bohannon and his staff got their first commitment in program history.

Quarterback Chandler Burks of nearby South Paulding High School became the first to commit to the Owls, and he has the pride in the program that the staff is constantly looking for on the recruiting trail.

"You have to start somewhere," Burks said in June 2013, according to Doug Roberson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "If it has to start with me, I don’t mind. This program is going to be successful. You look at who they are recruiting, they are going for the best of the best. We are going to start a tradition that will start a dynasty."

Finding commitments for the 2014 class proved to be incredibly challenging though. Anybody who signed as part of the first recruiting class in school history had to agree to a year-and-a-half of nothing but practice.

"We were fundamentally-oriented—four skill sets per position," Bohannon said. "That’s all you’re working on getting better at. We adopted the EAT motto—effort, attitude and toughness. We created competition, changed up what we did and did everything we could to keep them engaged. We involved them in leadership seminars once a week. The fall was devoted to that. Was it a challenge? Absolutely. Youth is a challenge."

Youth in players, but "youth" as a program and as coaches as well.

"Sometimes my walk from the locker room to the practice field, I talk to myself and remind myself, 'Hey, know where you are,'" Bohannon said. "We’re taking baby steps. Our kids have had a great attitude laying a foundation and being a part of history. They’ve really bought in."


Community Support 

On the field, Bohannon and his staff were busy laying the foundation for a successful program. But a program is much bigger than the product on the field. 

Williams engaged other programs who recently started football, including Georgia State, Old Dominion, UNC-Charlotte and others, to find out what the right path to success is. They were all in consensus. It takes partners, fans and community to truly build a successful program, and Kennesaw State has that by the boatloads in suburban Atlanta.

"We have a game-day community football committee with around 95 people from around Kennesaw, including neighbors, mayors, commissioners, the Chamber, businesses," Williams said. "They’re all involved. We are all thinking about how game day is going to be and how it impacts the community, and it’s been meeting for almost two years now. You have to have your community involved."

Community involvement is great, but it also takes money. With Fifth Third Bank already on board, Williams and his staff set out to get in front of as many local and regional businesses as possible. Everything from the press box to the loge section to the student section will be sponsored—mostly by businesses that have ties to the program and local community.

"We’ll have a lot more fans 10 years from now, but right now, we have a community behind us," Williams said. "They’re supporters. They went to school in different places, and that’s fine. A lot of them said to use football to showcase the institution."

That institution, though, didn't have much of an athletic identity prior to the announcement that football would begin in 2015.

Things have changed.

"We wanted to make it easy, and start building traditions," Williams said. "There was no fight song before we got here. We changed the logo. All of these different thing are new, and we wanted to engage people in all of these things. Engage everybody in every part of the process, and people feel like they’re a part of this thing, because they are."


The Future

With a fertile recruiting ground in its own backyard and the path Georgia State took to FBS and the Sun Belt as a precedent, it might be assumed that Kennesaw State is on the fast track for college football's highest division.


The words of other startup schools that Williams spoke to during the process have stuck with him—"be who you are."

What Kennesaw State is, is a school that is only 32 years into athletics, has soccer and lacrosse using the football stadium and fills the FCS void left in the state after Georgia State and Georgia Southern moved up to FCS.

"Ten years from now, I think we are winning FCS championships," Williams said. "I think we will have the most amazing game day in FCS football. I think our supporters will have turned into rabid fans. We’ve spread that brand. This community will be painted in black and gold."

Bohannon disagrees with that goal, but in a way that pleases Williams and Owls fans.

"I told the first class, 'The goal here is to compete for a championship before you leave.' We aren’t here just to do it, we are here to win. We have a five-year plan, from scholarships to the whole ball of wax. The goal is to win an FCS championship."

After many steps off the field to accomplish that goal, the first step between the white lines takes place Thursday, Sept. 3 in Johnson City, Tennessee, at Kermit-Tipton Stadium.

It's only fitting that the field in Johnson City is named after a local legend who's well-versed on taking college programs from the outhouse to the penthouse—former Florida and current South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier.


Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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CFB Recruiting 200: Top 36 Wide Receivers in Class of 2016

After thorough study using specific scoring criteria, Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analysts Damon Sayles, Sanjay Kirpalani and Tyler Donohue have graded the top 200 players in the 247Sports composite rankings and provided in-depth analysis on each young athlete. Bleacher Report will run a position-by-position breakdown series of the best college football recruits in the class of 2016.Here we present the Top Wide Receivers.

Other Positions

Pass-catchers play a prominent role in the 2016 college football recruiting cycle, claiming more spots among top-200 prospects than any other position. It's a group that figures to elevate aerial attacks for offenses across the nation in coming seasons.

We've spent the past year scouting these dynamic young talents through in-person assessments at camps, showcases and live game action, along with film study. Here's a closer look at wide receivers who've emerged as elite members of a star-studded class, grading each recruit based on speed, agility, release, route running, blocking and—of course—hands.


All prospects scouted by Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Tyler Donohue. Players ordered by appearance in 247Sports' composite rankings.

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Notre Dame Football: What to Watch When Irish Open 2015 Camp

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The Notre Dame football squad loaded the bases and shuttled south through Indiana on Thursday, heading to Culver, Indiana, for the start of fall training camp Friday morning:

With the season opener against Texas quickly approaching, Irish head coach Brian Kelly met with the media Thursday morning to preview Notre Dame and its upcoming campaign.

What should Irish fans be watching when camp opens?


Defensive Fluidity

As hampered as Notre Dame was by its turnovers in 2014, the Irish defense did the squad no favors down the stretch in the regular season.

Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder enters his second year in South Bend and returns the bulk of the 2014 contributors.

“We have a number of guys who played a lot of football for us,” Kelly said. “The second year into Coach VanGorder's nomenclature, way of communicating the defensive structure, certainly everybody is much more comfortable with what they're doing, what their assignments are, what their task is, and we probably have some of the best leaders that we've had here at Notre Dame.”

Kelly called linebacker Joe Schmidt’s ability to communicate and recall information “off the charts.” The head coach also listed fellow linebacker Jarrett Grace, defensive tackle Sheldon Day, defensive back Matthias Farley and cornerback KeiVarae Russell as effective leaders on the defensive side of the ball.

“At times last year we struggled with communication,” Kelly said. “This year we feel so good about the ability to get the task done defensively because of great communicators.”


Malik Zaire

Confident and exuberant starting quarterback Malik Zaire will draw eyeballs Friday, as he steps into view as the undisputed general of the Irish offense.

With limited meaningful game experience at Notre Dame, we’ll see what the southpaw brings as a runner, thrower and leader.

Zaire rushed for 96 yards on 22 carries, including one touchdown, in the Music City Bowl victory over LSU. How similarly does Notre Dame run its offense in 2015, and what does Zaire bring to the read option?

“Anytime you have a quarterback in Malik Zaire that you feel confident that he could get the ball to your wide receivers and balance out the numbers in the running game as somebody that could run the football, it’s a great equalizer in college football today,” Kelly said.

As a passer, Zaire has only logged 35 attempts (21 completions) in his Irish career, totaling 266 yards and one score. Kelly said the Ohio native still has work to do technically, a continuation of a process from the summer, when Zaire worked with former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer at the Elite 11. For instance, Dilfer tutored Zaire on his stride and how it can affect Zaire’s timing.

Never lacking confidence, Zaire now takes over the offense.

“As a leader, he has some natural innate ability to stand in front of the group,” Kelly said. “What we're working on is clarity in message—tendency to get a little emotional in the way he talks—and you guys have interviewed him. He goes off on tangents a little bit, so we have to reel him in a little bit. And he'll do that a little bit in front of the group, and that's fine because he's comfortable in front of the group.”


Running Backs

Junior Greg Bryant won’t play for the Irish in 2015, changing the running back landscape.

Fellow junior Tarean Folston is still the top dog, and C.J. Prosise, a converted slot receiver, is now fully with the running backs.

Kelly praised Folston for his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and his improved pass protection, a noted sore spot in the middle of the 2014 season.

“He's going to be called on this year to carry a larger load for us as a featured back,” Kelly said. “But what we like about him is we know what we have there, and he is an established, national-caliber running back, and that is a strength for any football team going into the season.”

Kelly lauded Prosise’s “home-run” ability and said the 220-pound speedster will have the opportunity to land a lot of carries.

“Becoming more comfortable running north and south and being patient [is key for Prosise],” Kelly said. “The biggest thing with running backs is their patience and letting the offensive line work in unison and work up to that next level. I mean, that is the most difficult thing.”

Second-year wide receiver Justin Brent will get an “audition” at running back, Kelly said, a position the Indiana product played during his senior season of high school.

“If he takes it and he goes downhill and he plays physical, I'll find some carries for him, and I'll get him on every special team,” Kelly said. “If he wants to do that, then I think I can get him some playing time. If not, I think it's going to be hard for him to get on the field because we have such great depth at the wide receiver position.

“Will it work? I don't know. But he is a very gifted athlete.”


Offensive Line

Perhaps unexpectedly, Kelly labeled running back as “a strength of our offense.” It sure helps when there’s an experienced, physical offensive line to plow ahead. And echoing his spring sentiments, Kelly highlighted his line.

“We're a much more physical group than we were last year,” Kelly said.

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley, center Nick Martin and right guard Steve Elmer return plenty of starting experience, while right tackle Mike McGlinchey is an imposing figure at 6’7½,”, 310 pounds. Redshirt freshmen Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars will compete for the left guard spot.

“I think the strength there is experience, size and we now can really say that physically that we can match up with anybody,” Kelly said.

Martin, Kelly said, is fully healthy and weighs more than 300 pounds—“just a different football player,” Kelly said—now that he’s 100 percent heading into the season.


All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Mike Monaco is the lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.

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