Things have changed quite a bit over the past year since predictions of a BCS berth in 2011, and expectations are tempered in 2012 for Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
The quarterback situation is still up in the air and the Irish will be without their leading receiver from last season in Michael Floyd and their captain in safety Harrison Smith. Furthermore, a lack of experience at the cornerback spots has many fans thinking that pass coverage will once again be a problem in 2012.
Beyond that, the team will need to find replacements for two starting offensive linemen, two defensive linemen in Ethan Johnson and Sean Cwynar, who both had ample playing time under their belts, a breakout senior running back and a pass-rushing specialist at outside linebacker (Darius Fleming).
While that might cause trepidation to some, they better get used to it. That is college football.
Uncertainty and new faces are as much a part of the game at the college level as anything else. Of course, it would be great to sign Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt to a 10-year deal, but they too will have to leave at the end of their four-year stint with the team.
Even when facing uncertainty at the key position of quarterback, a new season should breed nothing but excitement. It allows young players (like Tuitt, Lynch and George Atkinson III in 2011) to make a name for themselves and older players to step up (like Jonas Gray did last season). It opens the door for improvement, but admittedly, it can can lead to abject failure.
That is where the coach comes in. One often hears the term "rebuilding" when talking about a team who has lost a number of its starting players. The coach's job is to minimize the transition factor as much as possible by building depth for the purpose of competition and getting backups experience.
As of now, at least in a couple of important areas, I can't say that Brian Kelly has completely achieved that goal. In others, though, he has done quite well.
The oldest of the players currently at cornerback, Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood, didn't see the field often in 2011, but growing depth at the position will at least make it a competitive spring (there are five cornerbacks as of now without including Davonte Neal, but expect to see at least one player switch positions if Neal doesn't end up there).
Intent on winning the most games as possible last season, Coach Kelly redshirted fan favorite Everett Golson, and he sparingly let Andrew Hendrix play (not to say that either were completely ready). After a subpar season from Tommy Rees in 2011, quarterback has become the most debated position on the roster.
Although there is a consensus among fans that Tommy Rees should not get the starting nod, no one else on the roster remotely comes close to his knowledge of the playbook or in-game experience.
However, if Coach Kelly does decide to stick with Rees in 2012, it will be to the vast disappointment of the fan base. Even with little or no experience, nothing would be more exciting to fans then having Golson, Hendrix or even freshman Gunner Kiel starting at quarterback for the Irish in the upcoming season.
But things haven't been completely mismanaged. The Irish have both depth and experience on the offensive line and defensive line, as well as at running back, wide receiver, linebacker, tight end (although I'm not sold on Troy Niklas moving away from linebacker) and safety.
Uncertainty isn't comforting. The abyss of the unknown isn't supposed to be, but I can't wait for the new faces in 2012 and to see which players step up to the plate.
A tough schedule and no set depth chart at key positions seems to have given many license to say the Irish can't succeed this season.
Personally, until things actually go horribly, I will approach this season just like any other: filled with exhilaration about what will come. Could it be anguish and turmoil? Certainly.
But isn't that part of the draw, the attraction of sports in general (not knowing what will happen)?
And there is nothing better than being considered the underdog and proving people wrong. If the Irish have a great season in 2012, then that is just what Notre Dame will do—shut up its critics.
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