- Associated Press - Friday, August 12, 2016

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Who will be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback isn’t the biggest concern facing coach Brian Kelly.

Kelly knows DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire can both play at a high level. That isn’t necessarily the case elsewhere. The Irish have holes to fill at linebacker, along the offensive and defensive lines, at defensive back and at receiver.

Most of those vying for starting positions don’t have a lot of experience.

“It’s a balance of some guys that have played a lot of football and have had success with some young players,” Kelly said. “The balance at times would make you leery, and at times is very exciting. Because there’s a lot of talent on this football team.”

Enough balance, Kelly believes, to compete to be a playoff team.

“We don’t have a conference championship. So everything that we work toward is to be one of those four teams,” Kelly said.

A key factor in that is expected to be quarterback play. Kelly said the competition between Kizer, the returning starter, and Zaire, who was the starter last season until breaking his right ankle in the second game, is close. Kelly has said he doesn’t know when he will make a decision and hasn’t ruled out using both players. He said both have looked sharp in practice and neither has an advantage. Kelly said coaches already know what each can do.

“So every day is not, ‘All right, what did you see to decide about Malik,’ or, ‘What did you see that’s going to help you decide on Kizer?’ We already know about them,” he said. “It’s really about focusing the offensive play calls and the offense we want to run through Malik and focusing the play calls we want to run through Kizer. That’s really what we want to do right now.”

REPLACING JAYLON

One of the biggest questions is who will replace weakside linebacker Jaylon Smith, who led the team with 114 tackles last season. Sophomore Asmar Bilal, who didn’t play as a freshman, appeared to have the early edge, but Kelly said Thursday that junior Greer Martini, who started four games last season and had 35 tackles, and sophomore Te’von Coney have moved ahead of him.

DOUBLE-DIGIT WINS

The Irish have won 10 or more games in a season twice in six seasons under Brian Kelly, including going 10-3 last season. The Irish did it once in five seasons under Charlie Weis, once in three seasons under Tyrone Willingham and failed to do it in five seasons under Bob Davie. The Irish will be trying to win at least 10 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since doing it three straight seasons 1991-93 under Lou Holtz, whose teams accomplished that feat five times in 11 seasons.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

Among the freshmen Kelly expects to help this season are: receivers Javon McKinley, Chase Claypool, Kevin Stepherson, defensive backs Donte Vaughn, Tony Pride Jr. and Julian Love, Devin Studstill and tailback Tony Jones Jr.

KEY GAMES

The Irish open the season on the road at Texas on Sunday night, Sept. 4, but the Irish will likely be favored coming off their season-opening 38-3 victory last season. The toughest games are expected to be at home against Michigan State on Sept. 17, against Stanford on Oct. 15 and at USC in the final regular-season game on Nov. 26.

PREDICTION

Kelly appears to have the Irish rolling, and this year’s schedule doesn’t appear to be as difficult as those in recent years: 10-2.

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