by John Vannie
Following consecutive lackluster 8-5 campaigns in which Notre Dame generally underachieved on the gridiron, the advent of the 2012 season gives rise to legitimate expectations that Coach Brian Kelly will demonstrate he is a marked improvement over his recent predecessors.
Year three is traditionally a significant data point in the resume of successful Irish coaches, but Kelly can take comfort in the fact that no one expects him to compete for a national championship this fall. Still, he needs to distance himself from the Weis/Willingham/Davie regimes by winning more than the seven games the preseason polls suggest he will. Given the talent at his disposal, a coach who is more than a middle-of-the-pack plodder should be able to snatch a couple of additional wins.
The schedule includes two road games against top five teams in USC and Oklahoma, and seven contests against non-entities such as Navy, Wake Forest and Boston College. The Trojans and Sooners may be out of reach for this year’s team, but a more fair test for Kelly arises when the Irish battle three teams ranked a few slots above them who do not have an advantage in talent. Two of these teams, Michigan and Stanford, travel to Notre Dame Stadium while the Irish will face the Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing. If Kelly can go 2-1 against this trio and turn in a 9-3 regular season, most neutral observers will declare success.
There are several reasons for beleaguered fans to be optimistic after two decades of frustration. Sophomore Quarterback Everett Golson promises to bring excitement to a moribund and mistake-prone offense. While Kelly focuses on Golson’s development, newly assigned Offensive Coordinator Chuck Martin and incoming Offensive Line Coach Harry Hiestand are expected to revitalize the running game. Kelly’s three recruiting classes have added size, depth and athleticism to the defense, so Kelly no longer has to wait for “his guys” to mature.
Although there are concerns at cornerback, Bennett Jackson has been solid in camp and is a lock to start. A spirited competition is taking place on the other side and at nickel back. Veteran Jamoris Slaughter is moving to free safety to replace Harrison Smith (now playing for the Minnesota Vikings), and a number of athletes are lined up behind Slaughter and returning strong safety Zeke Motta. Notre Dame is loaded at linebacker, where the group flanking Manti Te’o now includes young studs like Kendall Moore, Romeo Okwara, Ishaq Williams and Jarrett Grace in addition to familiar names like Carlo Calabrese, Danny Spond, Dan Fox and Prince Shembo.
Generating a pass rush will be the key element for Bob Diaco’s defense. The starting line has three future NFL players in Stephon Tuitt, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Louis Nix. Reinforcements include solid players such as Chase Hounshell and Kona Schwenke, and promising newcomers like Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones.
The difference between a best outcome of 10-2 and a disappointing 6-6 mark will largely be determined by Golson’s ability to use the weapons at this disposal while avoiding the crushing turnovers that have plagued Kelly’s first two Irish teams. Golson will be protected by an above-average offensive line and have three capable running backs to share the load. All-American tight end Tyler Eifert will be his security blanket, and the offense can really hit its stride if a legitimate deep threat emerges from a group of wide receivers comprised of unheralded and unproven players.
The line between success and failure for Kelly this season is razor thin. He must do a better job of tailoring his offense to the strengths of his key players. He will also have to simplify things for Golson in the first few weeks and he or Martin must do a better job of calling plays in a timely manner.
Intangibles such as team unity, injuries, conditioning and luck will move the needle in either direction, but Notre Dame fans are tired of coming out on the short end of that equation. It will take more than eight wins for Kelly to convince people that his program is on the rise rather than drifting further into the two-decade abyss, but this year’s edition of the Fighting Irish has the talent to live up to expectations and even overachieve.