Notre Dame Football: 10 Important Storylines to Watch Develop Throughout 2012
At the outset of every college football season, each program has certainties and lingering questions. What makes the progression of each season so intriguing is how those certainties may change, and how the questions are answered.
Such is the case for the Fighting Irish entering the 2012 season, head coach Brian Kelly's third in South Bend.
These storylines will form a unique narrative for this season's Irish squad, and I'll provide you with what aspects will be most important.
Let's get started.
Will Notre Dame Take Care of the Football?
What made Notre Dame's 2011 season so incredibly frustrating was the Irish's penchant for turning the ball over.
The Irish finished last season with a mind-boggling 29 turnovers, 19 of which came from quarterback Tommy Rees, who has since lost his starting position to redshirt freshman Everett Golson.
However, the most disgusting statistic was the Irish's turnover margin of minus-1.15, which ranked 118th nationally at the conclusion of the 2011 season. What made that statistic even more painful was the distressing trend of Notre Dame committing a large chunk of those turnovers inside the red zone.
Hope is on the horizon in this department, though.
Upon naming Everett Golson as starting quarterback, Brian Kelly stated that a highlight of Golson's game is his ability to protect the football. The 6'0", 185-pound quarterback only threw three interceptions during the entirety of fall camp, which featured a high volume of live 11-on-11 play.
Filling Michael Floyd's Shoes
Notre Dame's offense will no longer enjoy the luxury of having an All-American wide receiver on the roster, as Michael Floyd has taken his talent to the NFL's Arizona Cardinals.
During his career in South Bend, Floyd set new school records for career receptions (271), career 100-yard games (16), career receiving yards (3,686) and career touchdown receptions (37). Replacing those numbers is not a possibility, but the Irish can lessen the blow of Floyd's departure through a committee approach.
Four receivers on the depth chart to keep an eye on are John Goodman, Daniel Smith, T.J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels.
Obviously, none of the four will come anywhere posting Floyd-like numbers, but a combination of the four can make up for Floyd's absence on the depth chart.
Also look out for freshmen receivers Chris Brown and Justin Ferguson to see playing time, despite being third-team receivers at the current moment.
An Under-the-Radar Offensive Line
While perusing the Notre Dame depth chart, it's easy to become infatuated with the depth at running back and linebacker, but the one position group that deserves more praise is the offensive line.
The line will be led by fifth-year senior center Braxston Cave, who is one of three returning starters up front. Mike Golic, Jr. will start at right guard, Chris Watt at left guard, Christian Lombard at right tackle and Zack Martin at left tackle.
The group allowed 17 sacks last season, which ranked 26th nationally. With a veteran unit returning for the 2012 season, expect to see that number decrease.
Also, with the Irish offense featuring a variety of multiple tight end sets this season, the offensive line will be responsible for paving the way for what is shaping up to be a lethal ground game.
How Does Tommy Rees Fit into the Equation at Quarterback?
When Tommy Rees was arrested at an off-campus party during the first week of May, he automatically relinquished his starting job. It was the straw that broke the camel's back, if you will.
Yet Rees' time as the Irish's starting quarterback was coming to a close, even before his arrest.
Rees' one-game suspension for his run-in with the law forced head coach Brian Kelly to name Everett Golson as his Week 1 starting quarterback, placing Rees in quite a precarious position.
Once Rees returns for Notre Dame's home opener against Purdue, will he take a single meaningful snap? My guess is yes. Kelly has shown that he has a short leash for his quarterbacks. At the first major mistake from Golson, Rees will be inserted in his place.
That assumption will certainly be met with vitriol from Irish fans, and rightfully so. Kelly chose Golson as his starter and did not mention Rees' name in doing so. He needs to stick with one quarterback this season in order to regain credibility.
In a perfect world, Rees would serve as an emergency backup, which suits the Lake Forest, Ill. native perfectly.
Will the Irish Finally Solve Their Punt Return Woes?
Through Notre Dame's 12 regular-season games in 2011, the Irish had amassed a grand total of three punt return yards. The coaching staff turned to the safe option, having John Goodman serve as, essentially, a fair-catch punt returner.
In turn, Notre Dame accepted an automatic loss in the field-position battle in nearly every game.
Reinforcements have arrived, though. Last week, Brian Kelly named freshman Davonte' Neal as the Irish's starting punt returner.
Neal's ability to make something out of nothing may be the cure for Notre Dame's punt returning illness.
Has Ishaq Williams Finally Arrived?
Brian Kelly and his staff reeled in a top 10 recruiting class in 2011, headlined by three 5-star defensive players in Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams.
Lynch and Tuitt immediately found their grooves on the defensive line, but Williams struggled with the transition to college, as well as to his new position of linebacker. A defensive end at Lincoln High in Brooklyn, NY, Williams had a difficult time adjusting to the speed and intensity of the college game.
With a season under his belt, and a newfound commitment to Notre Dame, Williams finds himself in a dogfight with Prince Shembo for playing time at outside linebacker.
My bold prediction is that Williams will eventually usurp Shembo from his starting position.
Moving on from the Aaron Lynch Debacle
When Aaron Lynch arrived at Notre Dame, he was praised as the most fearsome pass-rusher under the golden dome since Justin Tuck was in South Bend during the early 2000s.
Lynch immediately made his presence felt on the defensive line, becoming one of the most promising young players in the country. Despite earning a starting job as a freshman, Lynch constantly complained about the weather in South Bend, the city's lack of night life, etc. You get the picture.
Lynch's displeasure with being at Notre Dame eventually led the Cape Coral, Fla. native to seek a transfer to the University of South Florida.
There seemed to be troubles in the locker room stemming from Lynch's attitude, and it eventually manifested itself in a fight between Lynch and offensive lineman Tate Nichols on the practice field during a spring scrimmage.
Without Lynch, the Irish defensive line won't take nearly as big of a blow as fans may think. I'll explain why in the following slide.
Will Stephon Tuitt Have a Breakout Season?
Stephon Tuitt, a heralded member of the Irish's 2011 recruiting class, burst onto the scene as a freshman, earning a starting spot at defensive end.
Tuitt was forced to learn on the fly, with his sheer size and talent making up for any mistakes that the Monroe, Ga. native committed a season ago.
2012 will be a different story for Tuitt. The former 5-star prospect has increased his body size significantly, checking in at 6'6" and 303 pounds at the outset of the 2012 season. The second-year starter has shown a determination through fall camp to become a more consistent player, as well as a leader of a relatively young defense.
He isn't worried about the absence of Aaron Lynch on the roster, either. Tuitt knows that he and fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore form a dynamic duo at defensive end, and they have great depth behind them in Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Chase Hounshell.
Brian Kelly's Sideline Demeanor
In last season's opening game against the South Florida Bulls, Brian Kelly's behavior on the sidelines caught the attention of the national media.
Kelly's face turned all different shades and hues of purple during multiple profanity-laced tirades during a game in which the Irish committed five turnovers and eventually lost, 23-20.
In the weeks following that devastating loss, fans and the media alike gave their perspectives on Kelly's language and demeanor on the sidelines. While I believe that yelling at players is a part of any sport, Kelly needs to show a bit more restraint while dealing with frustration this season.
Because Kelly holds a job that receives nearly as much media coverage as the president of the United States, his behavior is monitored more closely than most college football head coaches.
Is 2012 a Make-or-Break Season for Brian Kelly?
In two seasons as the head coach at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has posted an overall record of 16-10. Fighting Irish fans aren't satisfied with that figure, and their patience is growing thin.
Kelly's third season at the helm arrives with monumental expectations, despite a rugged schedule, in which the Irish will play five Top 25 opponents.
Should Kelly's squad finish 8-5 for a third consecutive season, he won't be fired, but he will automatically be placed on a scorching hot seat. And with Notre Dame having no tie-ins with non-BCS bowls, the 2012 season may turn out to be BCS or bust.
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