SOUTH BEND — For the first time in program history, Notre Dame football will open its season on Labor Day. The No. 9 Fighting Irish are the only game being played on the holiday when they visit Louisville on Monday at 8 p.m.
“It’s going to be a raucous environment,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “Only game being played on a Monday, Labor Day, against an ACC opponent. We know how that plays out with our opposition. Louisville will be up for the challenge.”
Notre Dame has used the College Football Playoff Semifinal loss to Clemson as fuel all summer. The players are excited to finally get on the field and put the CFP loss behind them.
“It’s been fun playing our own guys and whatnot, but we’re ready to play someone else,” redshirt senior quarterback Ian Book said. “Can’t wait for Monday to get here and go play a good opponent in Louisville.”
“I’m excited to just hit someone else, other than a blue or white jersey,” redshirt junior safety Alohi Gilman added. “Excited to just see who we are as a team and get this thing rolling.”
A couple of Irish players will make their first starts of their careers.
Lawrence Keys will start at one of the wide receiver positions in place of the injured Michael Young. Keys will be an outside receiver, opposite Chase Claypool. Chris Finke starts as the slot receiver for Notre Dame.
Kelly noted Keys added some weight in the offseason. The redshirt freshman is listed at 173 pounds, 13 pounds more than his high school weight of 160. His speed also played a factor in earning him a starting position.
“Everybody can see that when he touches the ball, he’s got great speed,” Kelly said. “One of the things that he does that’s a little bit different than all of our guys is that he catches the ball at full speed. Some guys have to throttle down a little bit. He can catch it at full speed. That’s a great trait to have.”
Another player making his starting debut is Shaun Crawford. The graduate senior has suffered three straight season-ending injuries, but has rebounded from that to earn a starting cornerback spot in Week 1. He joins a starting secondary with Gilman, senior cornerback Troy Pride and senior safety Jalen Elliott.
“There’s always going to be those times, those low points where you’re going through a third operation that maybe it’s not in the cards,” Kelly said. “I have always felt that (Crawford) was going to overcome this again because that’s the kind of spirit he has. He’s exactly where I thought he would be. (He’s) going to be playing a major role in the success of this football team.”
The linebacker position battle has been the storyline of fall camp. The three starters for Notre Dame will be graduate senior Asmar Bilal, redshirt junior Drew White and redshirt junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Kelly noted all eight linebackers listed on the depth chart will see playing time Monday.
“I still think we’re in a position where they got to go play in a live game for us to really continue this process of solidifying rotation and finding those guys,” Kelly said. “This is a pretty fluid situation. … The arrows are up on all of those guys. They’ve all made significant progress and have done the things we’ve wanted them to do. They’ve earned playing time.”
Louisville, which is coming off a 2-10 season in 2018, has a new head coach in Scott Satterfield. The former Appalachian State coach went 51-24 in six seasons coaching the Mountaineers, winning three straight bowl games from 2015-17.
Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem said the Irish have been watching both Appalachian State and Louisville tape to prepare for what type of offense the Cardinals will throw at them.
“Our coaches have put us in position to be well prepared for this matchup,” Kareem said. “So, I think we’ll be good.”
“We’ve been looking at a lot of (Appalachian) State stuff, but we recognize Louisville, personnel-wise, has a lot of really good players,” Gilman added. “Receiving corps is probably their best. They have a capable quarterback (junior Jawon Pass) that can make a lot of plays, so we definitely have to respect that. They have a lot of good players on that side of the ball.”
This will be just the second true road opener for Kelly since coming to Notre Dame. The only other time was 2016, when the No. 10 Irish lost to an unranked Texas team, 50-47, in double overtime. Kelly knows the environment in Austin that night will be similar to the one the Irish will experience in Louisville.
“There will be a great amount of excitement in the stadium,” Kelly said. “We will have to match that with really a fine performance but more importantly poise and confidence, discipline, all the things that you have to have when you go on the road. That’s important in an opener.”