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Notre Dame Football: 5 Areas Fighting Irish Need to Improve Next Season

James ToljCorrespondent IIAugust 24, 2016

Notre Dame Football: 5 Areas Fighting Irish Need to Improve Next Season

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    Led by Tommy Rees, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish didn't have the storybook season that many fans thought was a possibility on opening day.

    At times, the offense was on fire but the defense played poorly. At others, the offense struggled to produce while the defense kept the team afloat.

    No one would debate that the Fighting Irish need to improve as they move toward next season.

    There are a multitude of areas in which Notre Dame could get better, but which ones exactly?

    Quarterback, the pass-rush, and punt return are just a few of the places where the Irish need a significant boost.

Quarterback

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    It should come as no surprise that the position of quarterback made this slideshow.

    I'm not of the philosophy that dogging Tommy Rees' talent will help the situation. He doesn't have an NFL arm, but he has shown some promise. At the end of the Michigan game, for example, Rees put the Irish  in position to win with a touchdown on their last drive. And the soon-to-be junior quarterback has played slightly better this season, statistically at least, than in his rookie year.

    However, if Rees is the player most capable of running the Irish offense, then the number of turnovers, in particular the turnovers in the red zone, was inexcusable.

    Rees ended the year with 14 interceptions, many of which came at crucial points of the game or in the red zone.

    Rees also had his worst performances when the team needed him the most—the young quarterback just hasn't been able to get in done against elite competition. 

    Tyler Eifert, the team's starting tight end and second-leading receiver, is returning, but Michael Floyd, Rees' favorite target, is leaving, so the starting quarterback won't have the luxury of having a dominant wide receiver to throw to.

    Whether Rees gives the team a better chance to win games next season than Everett Golson or Andrew Hendrix will, that is for Brian Kelly to decide. But if Notre Dame wants to be successful next season in playing an extremely tough schedule, the quarterback will have to play much better, whoever it is.

Pass-Rush

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    The Notre Dame pass-rush wasn't horrible this season.

    After four sacks in the first half of the Champs Sports Bowl against the Florida State Seminoles, the Irish pass-rush looked unstoppable. But when Bob Diaco decided to stop blitzing the inexperienced Florida State offensive line, Notre Dame had only one sack in the second half and lost a heart-breaking game.

    The Irish's five-sack bowl game helped their status with the FBS. The team shot up the rankings and was tied for 58th in the FBS with 25 sacks on the year.

    Sacks aren't the only way to judge the team's pass-rushing success, though. Aaron Lynch had 14 quarterback hurries and Stephon Tuitt had five. Those statistics certainly helped the Irish attain the 38th-ranked passing defense by only making the secondary cover for a short stints, but with almost no experienced cornerbacks returning, the pass-rush will need to get a lot better next season.

    The likely return of fifth-year player Kapron Lewis-Moore will help, and with Lynch and Tuitt another year older, the pass-rush should be even better next season.

    The fate of the Irish pass defense could be tied to just how well Notre Dame can rush the quarterback, but the young guns at defensive end could make first-year starters at cornerback look like veterans. 

Wide Receivers

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    Losing Michael Floyd could be a devastating blow to the Irish offense.

    Floyd finished his senior season as Notre Dame's best receiver, with 100 catches for 1,147 yards and nine touchdowns. 

    Robby Toma, Theo Riddick, T.J. Jones, and John Goodman had a combined 102 receptions for 1,074 yards and seven touchdowns.

    Tight end Tyler Eifert, who had 63 catches for 803 yards and five touchdowns, will likely become the starting quarterback's top target, but the Irish offense will need to spread the ball around to make up for the loss of Floyd's tremendous production.

    To do so, a couple of the aforementioned receivers, or some new blood, will need to step up following Floyd's departure.

    The Irish have a few interesting candidates who haven't played much or have yet to see the field, including  incoming freshmen, but one thing is certain: Every receiver will have to pick up his game in 2012-2013.

Punt Returns

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    There is only one word that adequately describes the punt return game of the Fighting Irish this season—pathetic.

    The Irish were ranked 112th in the FBS in punt return yardage with just 3.69 yards per attempt—it is hard to believe eight teams were worse—but that doesn't account for the rather high number of times Notre Dame had to call for a fair catch.

    Michael Floyd provided a boost in the Champs Sports Bowl. Although putting Theo Riddick as the punt returner didn't turn out well for the Irish early in the season, the days of just getting anyone back there who can call for a fair catch should end immediately (if you didn't know, I am referring to John Goodman).

    The importance of field position is often underestimated. Former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie, writing in an article for ESPN about special teams, stated that players "must buy into the fact special teams are truly one-third of the football game and decide the outcome in many games." 

    The Irish have been horrible retuning punts the past two seasons. Unless they improve dramatically, most fans won't even remember what they are missing.

Cornerbacks

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    The two starting cornerbacks for Notre Dame this year, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, have used up their eligibility for next season. This means the team will have two new starters at the corners.

    Gray and Blanton had their faults, but young, inexperienced players usually have difficulty flourishing at the cornerback position. So, while it will be a challenge, the new cornerbacks will need to at least hold their own.

    Luckily, the Irish are building up a surplus of talent at secondary. If Jamoris Slaughter returns, he will be alongside Zeke Motta at safety, which affords Brian Kelly the opportunity to put the best players available at cornerback.  

    Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson might have the edge because of experience, but Jalen Brown, Eilar Hardy, Josh Atkinson, and incoming freshmen Tee Shepard, C.J. Prosise and Elijah Shumate will compete, along with, I hope, Ronald Darby.

    A few of those players may be a better fit at safety or are already listed there, such as Hardy, Shumate, and Prosise, but if they have fluid hips and can cover, they will get a shot to play cornerback for the Fighting Irish next season.

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