Notre Dame Football: 5 Reasons to Be Optimistic for 2012
Notre Dame's loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl wasn't the best way to end the year, but there are still some things to look forward to going into next season.
Brian Kelly will be working tirelessly to improve upon the Fighting Irish's 8-5 record this season.
Coach Kelly has a few key guys returning, and the soon-to-be third year Irish head coach will get to develop a number of young, talented players next year.
The quarterback position may be in flux, but Irish fans could be pleasantly surprised with who is the starter in the season opener against Navy in Dublin.
The Return of Manti Te'o
Manti Te'o returning for his final season must be music to Brian Kelly's ears. Te'o could have forgone his senior season with the Irish for a giant NFL paycheck, but he chose to remain at Notre Dame.
What do the Irish get with the return of Te'o? Well, other than on and off-the-field leadership, Notre Dame gets a linebacker that produces.
Last season, Te'o finished the season with 67 assisted and 66 solo tackles, three quarterback hurries, 9.5 tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble.
This season, although he was dealing with an ankle injury all season long, Te'o had another solid season.
He ended the year with 66 and 62 solo tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, four quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.
If fans are wondering who could be a team captain next season, look no further than Te'o.
Notre Dame is likely returning three starters from its stellar offensive line next season (if Braxston Cave decides to return for a fifth year), and there are a number of promising young players to fill the remaining two positions.
Chris Watt played well in his first season as the starting left guard, and Zack Martin is a genuine star at right tackle.
While Mike Golic Jr. has performed admirably at center in Cave's absence, Cave is the superior lineman and will give a boost to the line upon his return.
The competition at left tackle and left guard is abundant, too.
Fluidity and familiarity are extremely important with any offensive line, but with the depth at the two positions, there shouldn't be much of a drop-off from the line, even though it ranked 27th in sacks allowed and 23rd in tackles for loss allowed this season.
The poor performances by both Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix in the Champs Sports Bowl opened the door for speculation.
One of the most urgent issues for Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish is to shore up the quarterback position.
Everett Golson might not be able to fix the quandary at quarterback, but after red-shirting his freshman year, Golson comes in to the 2012-2013 season with a ton of potential and four years of eligibility left.
And there is no question that Golson is talented enough to become the full-time starter as early as next season.
After a year where the Irish played three quarterbacks, having a starter who is cemented into the position, or just getting to see Golson on the field, will be a welcomed change.
Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt
There may be no position with a more promising future for Notre Dame then defensive end.
Kapron Lewis-Moore is expected to return for a fifth year after he recovers from knee surgery on his ACL, but it is two first-year players who should have Irish fans excited about next season.
True freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt have continued to develop throughout the season.
Lynch led the Irish in sacks with 5.5, including his 1.5 sack performance against Florida State and the mobile E.J. Manuel in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Tuitt has played well, too, and used his power to push back offensive linemen all year long. He had two sacks on the season and three quarterback hurries against Florida State.
With the invaluable experience the two have gained this season, Tuitt and Lynch are going to make a giant imprint on the Irish defense next year.
New Wide Receivers
Michael Floyd leaving the Notre Dame Fighting Irish isn't anything to be happy about, but the talent that could emerge in his absence is.
There is a feeling of change in the receiver core. John Goodman, T.J. Jones, Robby Toma and Theo Riddick (who could end up at running back next season) haven't been able to provide a true threat to defenses opposite Floyd.
Here is where the preseason competition comes in.
A number of players could challenge for a starting or backup receiver role, and after getting burned by Florida State's freshman wideout Rashad Greene for 99 yards and a touchdown in the Champs Sports Bowl, the Irish coaching staff must be wondering which young wide receivers could be a spark to the Irish offense next season.
Fans can expect some new blood on the field next season.