by John Vannie
It’s the time of year when every college football publication provides team summaries and predictions for the upcoming season. Some are informed and insightful but most barely scratch the surface. If I were to write one of these blurbs for Notre Dame, I would try to include a few details on the new faces for 2013 and what we might expect from them. It would look something like this:
Offense: The strong point of the Irish attack is a capable offensive line, especially on the left side with a pair of fifth year seniors. The coaches identified a need to get stronger after a championship beatdown at the hands of Alabama, and this group will tell us by the second game of the season whether that objective has been accomplished. The Irish line lacks extraordinary size, but they must become strong enough to move the ball on the ground when it matters most.
The receiving corps are lead by TJ Jones, a veteran possession receiver who runs precise routes and gets open consistently. The level of success in the passing game will be determined by the performances of DaVaris Daniels, who must stay healthy and become a consistent target, and Chris Brown, who must make the jump from a situational sprinter to a productive every down receiver. Tight end Troy Niklas is not the downfield threat that Tyler Eifert represented, but he should be able to contribute 40 receptions in this offense. Capable backups Alex Welch and Ben Koyack will also see significant action in single or multiple tight end sets.
Notre Dame will employ several backs in a committee approach to the ground game. If the Irish are to have a viable inside running attack, new centers Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty must play well and freshman Greg Bryant will need to replace the tough yards and grit previously supplied by Theo Riddick. Veterans George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel bring speed and toughness, respectively, but neither is built for the role of a feature back.
Coach Brian Kelly has another group of players to draw from in his desire to spread the defense and create matchup problems for opponents. Athletes such as CJ Prosise and Amir Carlisle represent new wrinkles in the offense this season. Each may line up in the backfield or in the slot, but the objective will be to get them the ball in space against a slower defender. Carlisle in particular appears to be a difference-maker, but has rarely been healthy enough even to practice since transferring from USC in January 2012.
At quarterback, Tommy Rees is a poised senior leader who is long on smarts but short on arm strength, mobility and improvisational skills. Rees should be sufficient to beat most opponents, but the better defensive teams will take advantage of the lack of a downfield passing game, notwithstanding the expected flood of sideline fades. You might recall that Oklahoma held the Irish in check for three quarters last season as safety Tony Jefferson dominated play along the line of scrimmage. This dynamic changed when Everett Golson threw a 50-yard rocket to Brown late in the game to loosen up the Sooners. This play was arguably the key to the entire Irish season, at least from an offensive standpoint. Rees does not have this weapon in his arsenal, so Notre Dame will need to execute the other facets of its attack with professional precision in order to prevail.
Defense: With arguably the best defensive line in the country, the Irish will have a fair chance to win even when the offense struggles. Nose tackle Louis Nix is flanked by Sheldon Day and a healthy Stephon Tuitt, with linebacker Prince Shembo coming up to rush on passing downs out of Bob Diaco’s 3-4 alignment. The only question is whether Diaco can keep his starters fresh by coaxing production out of his backups. The biggest (literally and figuratively) variable in that equation is sophomore Jarron Jones, a 6’6″ giant who must decide if he enjoys the game enough to excel at it.
With Nix occupying blockers, one might believe that the Irish could get by with the Marx brothers at linebacker, but Alabama’s Eddie Lacy disproved this theory. While the outside positions are in good shape with Shembo and Danny Spond, Ishaq Williams could make them even better if he raised his productivity to match his athleticism. If not, he may be supplanted by highly regarded freshman Jaylon Smith. The inside spots are a greater concern, however, given the loss of Manti Te’o. Diaco will fill the two inside spots with a veteran rotation comprised of Carlo Calabrese, Jarrett Grace, Dan Fox and Kendall Moore. This should be a serviceable group but opponents with above average speed will present problems, especially in pass coverage.
The Irish secondary is stocked with quality athletes and key starters at cornerback have a year’s worth of experience under their belt. Lo Wood is back from injury to support Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell. The competition at safety will be very interesting. Matthias Farley has one spot locked down while four players will compete for the other: Austin Collinsworth, Nicky Baratti, Elijah Shumate and incoming freshman Max Redfield. Shumate may be the favorite now but Redfield is a potentially dominant athlete and could become a significant contributor by October if he is as good as advertised.
Special Teams: Kicker Kyle Brindza established himself as a reliable component last season on a team that often struggled in the red zone. His efforts against USC were vital in building a lead in that game, and he should be even better this season. That’s where the good news ends, though. Punting has been a weak element for the program during the Kelly era and a couple of new faces have been brought in to solve the problem. Transfer Alex Wulfeck and walk-on Andrew Antognoli will compete for the job. Brindza could pull double duty in a pinch, but that scenario is rarely an optimum solution.
Coverage teams have been adequate in recent seasons but should improve with the return of Collinsworth to the lineup. The added presence of several young athletes on the roster can finally keep the starters off the field on fourth down. Whether this can generate better results remains to be seen, but the real area of need is in the return game. Notre Dame has been among the worst in this area for the past two season, and it is admittedly not a high priority for the coaching staff. Given the talent infusion of the past two years, there is no reason to neglect it any longer.
Schedule: Once again, the Irish have a demanding schedule, although the difficult opponents are reasonably spaced among weaker teams. A repeat of the 12-0 record in 2012 seems unlikely due to challenging road encounters early (Michigan) and late (Stanford), and a pair of tough mid-season home games against Oklahoma and USC. Other potential trap games are at Pittsburgh, at home against BYU, and a neutral site contest against a dangerous Arizona State team in Dallas. One positive is that Michigan, Oklahoma and USC will be breaking in new quarterbacks, and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan is still a long way from Andrew Luck. If Notre Dame can pull ten wins from this field and make the BCS, it will satisfy most of its fans.
The good news is that the Irish are loaded with more talent than its fans have seen in a long while. Golson’s suspension has dampened the expectations for this season a bit, but the longer term prospects for sustained success are being built. The key going forward is to recruit the quality and quantity of linemen needed to compete at the highest level. Currently, the future of the offensive line looks very bright while there are still a few depth concerns and holes to fill on defense. The bottom line is that Notre Dame fans should see the glass as at least half full right now and for the foreseeable future.