by Mike Coffey
As we look over another regular season, the IBG takes a moment to reflect on what was, what could have been, and what is yet to come. I think the re-jiggering of the format last week worked well, and with a tweak or two, I can make it work even better. So now, on to the five … er, three questions asked by my fellow IBG participants.
Keith Arnold, NBC: With the Irish not playing in a top-tier bowl, how do you treat the practice and run-up to the game? Is it best served getting young players practice and game reps? Is winning the game most important? If you’re Brian Kelly, what are your priorities?
I believe winning the game is the highest priority. After an underachieving season, it’s of paramount importance ND go into the offseason having put their best foot forward, which means a good performance and win in the bowl game. We all saw what laying an egg in the bowl game got us last year. ND needs the positive momentum more than it needs a couple extra reps for players who have already spent an entire season getting them. Focus on winning the game, and cross the other bridges when you get to them.
Frank Vitovich, UHND: What position where Notre Dame will be replacing starters in 2014 concerns you the most heading into the off-season. Additionally, what position where Notre Dame returns starters in 2014 needs to see the most improvement for the Irish to get into the playoff conversation next year?
The most worrisome position seeing replacement will be inside linebacker. The unit didn’t perform well before it got hit with the injury bug, and it remains to be seen whether or not Jarrett Grace will return at full strength and Joe Schmidt will continue to develop. If ND’s defense up the middle doesn’t improve by several orders of magnitude next year, no playoff conversations will be had.
On the flip side, the returning starter at quarterback must make a difference and be better than this year. I realize I may not be answering the question in the spirit in which it was intended, because Tommy Rees is graduating, but Golson was the starter in 2012 and he’ll be back next year. He has to show the semester spent working on his quarterbacking skills wasn’t a waste, and utilize the entire field while making good decisions with the ball.
Aaron Horvath, Strong & True: Now that the 12-game regular season is done, give me the player who surprised you the most this season and the player you are most excited about for next season.
I don’t know if it qualifies as a surprise, but Jaylon Smith certainly proved he’s the genuine article this season. For a freshman, he was extremely poised, and certainly delivered above the level you’d expect from someone with his level of experience. If he can avoid the sophomore slump, he’s poised to do even better things next season.
The player I want to see more of next season is Greg Bryant. Tarean Folston showed us what he can do, and I’m interested to learn what Bryant can bring to the equation. A one-two punch in the backfield like that would give opposing defenses a lot to worry about.
Jon Walsh, Her Loyal Sons: Does this 8-4 feel any different to you than Brian Kelly’s previous 8-4′s under the Dome? What I mean by this question is this: did this team under-, or over-, perform in your eyes, or did you get what you expected from the 2013 Fighting Irish? Does the loss of Coach Martin change your outlook on 2014? Does the “gain” of Golson?
This team significantly under-performed. At the beginning of the season, I thought 10-2 was very reasonable given the talent ND had returning and the level of competition they would face. The results of the season seem to have borne that out given how ND’s opponents have fared both outside and inside of their games against the Fighting Irish.
But this 8-4 doesn’t feel any different than the previous 8-4′s because they all came about the same way — poor decisions by the coaching staff. With four months to create a high-success game plan after having lost Golson, Brian Kelly et al chose to pound the square peg of Tommy Rees into the round hole of a QB-centric offense. Tackling on defense regressed to pre-2012 levels. And special teams, outside of Brindza, once again were abominable.
Chuck Martin’s departure doesn’t change my 2014 outlook because I don’t believe he had a strong influence on the offense. Brian Kelly called the plays, no matter what he said in press conferences, and he’ll continue to do so. I’m relieved Golson is back for 2014 because now we’ll see whether or not 2012 was an outlier on the Brian Kelly spectrum or if it’s a reproducible result. I’m hoping very hard for the latter.
Finally, the question I asked the group, and the one you’re welcome to respond to in the comments:
As Brian Kelly searches for a new offensive coordinator, what direction do you hope he’ll go? Should he promote from within, or should he look outside? Either way, what name is on top of your list?