Notre Dame Football: 7 Things Holding the Fighting Irish Back from a BCS Bid
With a number of starters departing and the quarterback position dripping with uncertainty, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will be flying under the radar come September.
In order to overachieve, the team will have to address some key concerns.
A starting quarterback is just one of many positions that will have to be named in late spring. The evolution of the running game (particularly, Cierre Wood), and the development of a group of inexperienced wide receivers and linebackers all must happen rather quickly.
Don't forgot about the much-needed improvement in the punt return unit, or how the Irish will have to figure a way to push through a brutal schedule.
If Brian Kelly makes a few adjustments and picks the right players to hit the field, then this season could be a surprising success. If not, well, fans will certainly be disappointed in the results.
Bad Quarterback Play
One area that devastated Notre Dame's chances of attending a BCS bowl last year was unspectacular play at the quarterback position.
There were times when Tommy Rees appeared in control of the game, but at the most inopportune moments, like when the team was in the red zone or starting to build some momentum, the second-year quarterback would throw an inexplicable interception.
Rees played worst when the spotlight was the biggest, too. He did make an impressive drive at the end of the game against Michigan, but against USC, Stanford and Florida State, he didn't do nearly enough.
Unfortunately, Rees didn't dominate weaker competition either. When the Irish played one of the worst passing defenses in college football at the time, Pittsburgh, he struggled all game (although he was praised by Kelly after the game for a late drive).
When Brian Kelly decided to use Andrew Hendrix to supplement Rees, Hendrix played average at best (he did show promise with a strong arm and good mobility, though).
First and foremost, Kelly needs to address the mediocre play at quarterback.
He doesn't need someone that will simply come in and manage the game so there is less of a chance that the ball will be turned over. Coach Kelly needs a player who can run his system and take chances while protecting the football.
Who is that player?
Fans will just have to wait and see.
The biggest area of concern on defense for the Fighting Irish in 2012 will be at cornerback.
While Robert Blanton and Gary Gray didn't always play up to their potential (especially Gray in 2011), they were at least well-schooled at the position (and I know, although he slightly improved throughout the year, Gray still had trouble finding the ball in the air).
Now, the Irish will have to install two new starters at the position.
The two players with the most experience, Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood, will probably get the starting jobs, but if they do end up starting, neither should feel secure with their starting status.
The Irish have a number of options behind Jackson and Wood.
Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown have great size for the position, and Tee Shepard has the talent to be considered the best cornerback on the team as soon as he hits the field.
Even a highly skilled safety like Eilar Hardy or incoming freshman C.J. Prosise could end up moving to corner and make an impact.
There is always a chance that the new starters will adjust quickly, or even that the Irish pass rush will be so dominant that it doesn't matter who the coaches put at corner, but whoever is on the field against Navy will likely be a work in progress.
An Inconsistent Running Game
Last season, Notre Dame played its best football when the running game was humming.
After Jonas Gray was injured against Boston College, the running game was completely stagnant.
Hopefully, Wood will develop into a better runner in 2012 (not that he was bad in 2011).
Those Irish fans who watched Armando Allen's progression at running back should be content that Tony Alford is back coaching the position.
Allen's development might not have jumped out at fans. However, when he was able to stay on the field and away from injury, he truly became a game-changer.
Allen developed into a solid blocker, had great speed (although he didn't have many long runs) and excellent field vision.
Robert Hughes also came into his own under Alford's watch. Hughes had fullback speed, but he still finished his career at Notre Dame with impressive numbers. He was a punishing runner by the time he left for a shot at making an NFL team.
But Wood shouldn't have to do it all by himself.
Brian Kelly needs to find some other viable options, whether that means keeping Theo Riddick as the backup, finding a power back or giving the ball to the younger players like George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel.
The running backs should develop nicely under Alford. Now, it is just a matter of which player will break out first.
I won't skirt around the issue. The punt return game has been pathetic ever since Brian Kelly arrived in South Bend.
The Irish have a number of viable options if the coaches can instill how important it is to block on special teams. And using the team's best playmakers as return men may be the best choice.
While Theo Riddick's stint didn't work so well, during the Champs Sports Bowl when Notre Dame put Michael Floyd as the returner, the team had its best punt return of the season.
Kelly can't be content with having John Goodman in to simply call fair catches. The field-position battle is too important to a team's success.
After running back two kickoffs for touchdowns, the Irish seem to have found a steady kickoff return man in George Atkinson III. He might be the best immediate option to return punts.
There are a number of guys who have quick feet and enough acceleration to get the job though (yet Tom Zibikowski taught everyone that running with power can be just at vital as speed).
Bennett Jackson, Cierre Wood, Cam McDaniel, Austin Collinsworth (who has shown he has promise as a returner), DaVaris Daniels and even Everett Golson are possibilities.
Punt return has been a glaring issue for the Fighting Irish during Kelly's tenure, and Notre Dame needs to fix this problem before the start of the 2012-2013 season.
Only One Elite Linebacker
Manti Te'o is an absolute stud and will be a top pick in the 2013 NFL draft. However, outside of Te'o, there haven't been many impact players at linebacker.
Te'o has been great at getting to the quarterback and blowing up screens, but the team's best pass-rushing linebacker, Darius Fleming, is heading to the NFL.
His quickness will need to be replaced on the outside.
Troy Niklas, Danny Spond, Ishaq Williams and Ben Councell will all be vying for the job at outside linebacker. And don't be surprised if freshman Elijah Shumate and Romeo Okwara (a safety/linebacker and defensive end respectively), who both have the athleticism to see the field from day one, are thrown into the mix for the job (Nicky Baratti and John Turner may become linebackers as well).
No linebacker has excelled at pass coverage for the Irish either. The position played pretty well against the run last year, but when the linebackers were asked to cover, they struggled.
On the top of the list of players who had trouble covering were inside linebacker Dan Fox and outside linebacker Prince Shembo (out of the starters). Both players were either a step behind or couldn't wrap up their assigned receivers.
If players can't defend against the pass, then they will see their time on the field cut drastically. And whoever is best in coverage will quickly endear themselves to the coaching staff.
Fans know that a healthy Te'o will bring it game in and game out, but beyond him, the team needs more from the linebackers.
No Set Rotation at Wide Receiver
There is a whole lot of uncertainty surrounding the wide receiver unit in 2012.
Theo Riddick (if he plays some wideout, which fans should expect him to), John Goodman, T.J. Jones and Robby Toma should all contribute next season, but behind them, the depth chart is up in the air.
However, Brian Kelly wants to build depth at wide receiver, so there is likely to be a constant rotation at the position.
One of the biggest issues that needs to be addressed is development.
Coach Kelly needs the younger players to be ready to play. What does a lack of development and readiness do to an offense?
Think back to 2009, the last season under Charlie Weis.
Shaquille Evans enters the game against Michigan in place of a hurt Michael Floyd. The Irish need a first down to help seal a 34-31 victory. On third down, as Jimmy Clausen sends a rope outside to Evans on an out route, the young wide receiver was outside of the ball's reach.
It was obvious that Evans didn't know where he should be. Clausen anticipated Evans' cut to be right next to the sideline, but the wideout was at least a few yards from the edge of the field.
Michigan got the ball back with 2:13 on the clock and scored (yes, it was another late-game defensive collapse by a Weis team). The Irish lost 38-34.
Young wide receivers need to be taught exactly where they should be, but they also need to build a rapport with their quarterback.
If the Irish want to succeed in 2012, then Mike Denbrock, Tony Alford and Kelly have to oversee the development and progression of the Irish wide receivers.
A Tough Schedule
The Irish have a number of issues holding them back from greatness, but the strength of their schedule is at the top of that list.
If Notre Dame addresses some of its problems before the season, there isn't a single team on the schedule that is unbeatable. There are some extremely tough matchups though.
Stanford and Michigan State will need to find new starting quarterbacks, but USC, Michigan and Oklahoma all retain their starters.
Miami's roster is always loaded with talent, and BYU is going to put up points. Notre Dame can't sleep on Navy either, so the team shouldn't roll into Dublin thinking about Week 2.
What do the best teams in the country say when a big game is weeks ahead but reporters focus on what they like to call the "big game"? Great teams simply remark "one game at a time."
If the Irish play with that mentality in 2012, the mountain of a schedule will look more like a molehill.