After a disappointing end to Notre Dame's season in 2011, and valuable players such as Michael Floyd and Harrison Smith heading to the NFL, it is apparent that more than a few players will need to step up their game if the Irish want to get back to national prominence. Notre Dame has some candidates that they are hoping will do just that, and there are a few who stick out in my mind who are most vital in the Irish's rebuilding process.
There has been no position group hurt worse by Notre Dame's graduating class than their secondary. With the loss of starting cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, it's likely that highly-touted Tee Shepard could be one of their starting corners to open the season.
He will have to compete with fellow corners Lo Wood, Josh Atkinson and Bennett Jackson, but when it comes to raw talent and ability in coverage, Shepard may have a step on all of them. If Shepard can show glimpses of the elite corner that all Irish fans are hoping he becomes, it would be absolutely huge for a team desperately needing a playmaker in the secondary
Now that Davonte Neal's unbelievable recruiting saga has ended and is in the fold, we can now talk about how big his impact with the Irish will be in his freshman season. It seems probable that last season's primary slot receiver Theo Riddick will move back to running back to spell Cierre Wood, leaving the speedster Neal to reap the benefits.
Neal, who is in a similar situation to fellow freshman Tee Shepard, does have his share of athletes to compete with (Robby Toma, John Goodman, among others), but I don't see how Brian Kelly could potentially leave his fastest player off the field. In an interview with UND.com conducted shortly after Neal's commitment, he stressed Neal's playmaking ability and how he can make plays in all phases of the game, including special teams. Notre Dame was absolutely terrible returning punts next year and Neal's blazing speed could help them fix that dire need.
While Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt shined their freshman year, the highly-touted prospect to get lost in the shuffle last year was outside linebacker Ishaq Williams. Reserved to mop-up duty and certain pass-rushing situations a year ago, it is widely expected by the coaching staff and the fan base that Ishaq replaces Darius Fleming and improves the Irish pass rush.
With Williams' insertion into the starting lineup, the Irish front seven has the potential to do a lot of special things in 2012, and if they all live up to the hype and "star talent" posited by various recruiting websites, it could be downright scary.
Over recent years, Notre Dame has had its fair share of consistent play at the safety position from the likes of Tom Zbikowski, Kyle McCarthy, and the recently-departed Harrison Smith. Now, another safety from the same mold, Zeke Motta, will be the full-time starter in 2012 and will have to raise his game to a level close to his predecessors to eliminate some doubts about the Irish secondary.
It would be a stretch to say Motta's at that point in his career at Notre Dame currently, as it seems as if sometimes he gets lost in coverage and his ball skills could be better. If he takes that next step and can become a little bit more like a "ball-hawking" safety, it'll be tough to find anything wrong with the Irish defense next year.
There is not a bigger question in South Bend right now than who will be starting at quarterback for the Fighting Irish in 2012. It is believed to be a battle in spring practice among four different options: Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel. One thing I do know is that no matter who Head Coach Brian Kelly names as his starter for the season opener, they have to drastically improve from last season's woes.
In my opinion (and I'd like to believe I'm not the only one who thinks this) Notre Dame was a team capable of a 10-2 or 11-1 record last season, but was hampered by quarterback play you'd see from a 6-6 team. The incumbent Tommy Rees tried to force a lot of passes last year, especially in the red zone, which ended up being the downfall for the Irish on more than one occasion. So the mission is pretty simple for whoever is at the helm in 2012: Don't try to be Joe Montana. Just don't turn it over and your team will win a lot of games.
Well, I have said my piece, Irish fans. I hope you all enjoyed the article and I encourage you to comment with your thoughts and tell me where you think I went wrong. Let's all hope the players I mentioned (and then some) raise their games and we have a successful season!