The Notre Dame Fighting Irish head into the 2012 season with a long list of offseason priorities.
Regardless of what the realism would dictate, Notre Dame always faces BCS-or-bust expectations. This season’s 8-5 record, while equal to last year's, is a huge disappointment given the way that the Irish gagged away the Champs Sports Bowl.
While it probably isn’t fair, Brian Kelly’s seat might start to feel a little warm heading into next season. Here’s what he must focus on to get his house in order.
After capping a turnover-infected season with a profoundly disappointing performance in the Champs Sports Bowl, Tommy Rees cannot be the starting quarterback for Notre Dame in 2012.
Whether the starter turns out to be Andrew Hendrix or untested freshman Everett Golson, Notre Dame needs to settle on a quarterback for next season.
Brian Kelly has had success in the past running a dual-quarterback system at Cincinnati, but that situation was created more by injury than by performance. Notre Dame will ideally find one passer that can direct all aspects of the Irish offense.
Open competition is a great motivator, but Kelly can’t allow the debate to drag on into the fall like it did in 2011. An early decision will stabilize a team that’s been in seemingly constant turmoil over the past two years. Whatever quarterback is selected deserves to have the full support of his teammates and some modicum of job security to start the year.
Jonas Gray had a fantastic senior year for Notre Dame, but going into next season, his departure leaves a gaping hole in the Irish backfield.
Cierre Wood will be back next season as the starter, but he’s been banged up a bit during his Notre Dame career. Wood functions best when he can get a total of 20-25 touches between the run and the pass.
Theo Riddick is transitioning back to tailback after spending most of the last two seasons at receiver, George Atkinson III has shown flashes of brilliance as a kick returner, and recently committed running back KeiVarae Russell has the potential to make an impact as a true freshman.
Regardless of which player it is, some other back must step up to take remaining 10 or so touches that are required of Irish runners.
Though some of them have been the fault of bad luck, it's clear that the Irish need to do something about their turnover problems.
Notre Dame made slight progress toward correcting the problem after two disastrous losses to open the season. After 10 turnovers in the first two games, the Irish surrendered the ball an almost acceptable 16 times in their next 10 contests. Yet, any enthusiasm about solving the turnover issue must be dampened by a bowl game in which the Irish handed the ball over three times, twice in the end zone.
Even when the Irish improved in midseason, an average of nearly two giveaways per game isn’t going to cut it if Notre Dame wants to compete for national titles.
In 2012, the Irish must be more judicious with their decision-making and focus on holding on to the football.
Lost in all of the consternation around Notre Dame’s problem with giving the ball away was the fact that the Irish really struggled to take the ball away from their opponents.
Notre Dame forced only 14 turnovers all season. The Irish’s eight interceptions ranked 92nd in the FBS.
Notre Dame’s turnover problems are completely correctable on both sides of the ball, but all of the burden shouldn’t fall on the Irish offense.
The defense has become more aggressive as the season has gone on, but in the offseason, Bob Diaco must coach his defenders on converting the chaos they cause into opportunities for the offense.
The Irish will have to replace seniors Taylor Dever, Andrew Nuss and Trevor Robinson along the offensive line.
The Irish have done a nice job recruiting talent at those positions, but previously untested players like Conor Hanratty, Nick Martin and Matthew Hegarty will be called upon to make major contributions for the first time in their careers.
The talent is there, and similar to the situation at quarterback, it’s in Brian Kelly’s best interests to make an early decision.
More so than any other position group, the offensive line must be able to work together as one unit. Kelly has to give his reconstructed line an opportunity to gel during offseason workouts and spring practice.
Notre Dame debuted some great uniforms this season against Michigan and Maryland. The new duds struck a snappy balance between traditional and trendy.
Get ready for more of the same in 2012.
I expect that the Irish will continue to go to the green uniforms in their annual neutral site game (the 2012 edition will be against Miami at Soldier Field in Chicago), and I’m sure that Adidas will have something special cooked up for the season-opening game in Dublin, Ireland against Navy.
I wrote earlier this season about the need for modernization at Notre Dame.
Some on-field modernizations have already been made with the uniforms; the next item on the list should be the field itself.
A JumboTron would be an outstanding addition to Notre Dame Stadium, but realistically, that’s not happening at an institution with a reputation for enacting change at a glacial pace.
Replacing the grass with FieldTurf, while still a bit of a pipe dream, is a much more attainable ambition for Kelly. His offensive philosophy is build on speed; it makes sense for him to give his team the fastest track possible.
Kelly has smartly made progression his priority. The rest of the Notre Dame administration needs to jump on board.
Brian Kelly has been infamous for his eruptions this season, particularly those directed at his quarterbacks.
It’s tough to figure out exactly what Kelly is bellowing about, but I imagine that most of it pertains to the players not being on the same page with their coach.
In his first season, it was understandable that players might not fully grasp his system. Two years in, that excuse won’t fly anymore.
If Kelly is as red-faced in 2012 as he was in 2011, Notre Dame won’t be anywhere near a BCS bowl. There is certainly a burden on the players to make the proper reads, but Kelly needs to improve as a teacher.
There’s no a whole lot that the Irish can do about this one, but in any case, Notre Dame must do everything it can to stay healthy.
Luckily, most of the major injuries that Notre Dame endured this season came along the defensive line, where the Irish had plenty of depth. Losing Jonas Gray hurt, but it only impacted two-and-a-half games.
In 2012, Notre Dame will be thinner on both lines, as well as at running back and in the secondary. A major injury to a player like Cierre Wood or Aaron Lynch could be devastating.
The Irish have nobody but themselves to blame for most of their losses. Only against Stanford were the Irish completely outclassed, and even in that game, Notre Dame had a chance get it close in the second half.
Most of Notre Dame’s mistakes this season are correctable with some film study and a little bit of elbow grease. Both the players and the coaching staff need to dedicate themselves to implementing changes in the offseason to solve those problems.
The one element of Kelly’s offense that has eluded him in South Bend is tempo. Notre Dame has never been able to consistently push the pace on its opponents. With a speedier quarterback (presumably) taking the helm, the Irish should make tempo a point of emphasis during the offseason. Keeping defenses off balance should make for easier reads for the quarterbacks and help Notre Dame cut down on its turnovers.