Even after their utter evisceration at the hands of Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game, the 2013 offseason was supposed to be one of adulation and looking forward to a bright future for the Irish.
Everett Golson was a blossoming young star at quarterback, the defense lost star Manti Te'o but brings back a host of characters—including defensive end Stephon Tuitt—and Brian Kelly's status as something of an instant-oatmeal miracle worker continues to grow.
After looking bleak for so long, things were starting to finally perk up in South Bend.
Yet the early summer months have already turned 2013 into a year of tumult. Golson's dismissal from the school sent shock waves through the Notre Dame community and left some wondering about the viability of this program in the upcoming season.
The young signal-caller was not the overarching reason the Irish were able to make their way to the title game last season, but his expected growth under center had led many to be bullish about the program's chances.
Good things still abound in South Bend, and Kelly still has time to adjust how he looks at this current roster. But that doesn't eliminate the hole Golson leaves on the roster, nor does it obscure Te'o's departure also playing an underrated factor in this team's ceiling.
While we're still a long way from Notre Dame's Aug. 31 kickoff, let's take an early look at some burning questions that need answering if the team looks to contend in 2013.
Tommy Rees Was Named Starting QB. Will He Stay There?
Give this to Kelly—he didn't waste any time naming Golson's replacement under center. A little more than a week after the incumbent Notre Dame starter was dismissed, Kelly announced that 2012 second-string quarterback Tommy Rees would take over, per the South Bend Tribune's Eric Hansen.
“We have Tommy Rees, who is an established player, and he will be our starter," Kelly said. "We think Andrew Hendrix and Malik Zaire can contribute, but Tommy will be our starter.”
While the Rees announcement didn't exactly shock anyone, his appointment will come with some uneasiness in South Bend. The senior signal-caller walked into fall camp last year as the expectant starter—he had been a heavy part of Kelly's first two years with the Irish—before losing the job to Golson.
Even last season, Rees played a strangely integral role in Kelly's plan. He closed out Notre Dame's 17-14 win over BYU and was almost viewed as a "closer" for long stretches of the season, with Kelly's faith in Golson seemingly waxing and waning every week. It wasn't the most sensible plan then and it is still baffling now, but Rees' experience in that pressure-cooker should bode well for his chances as a full-time starter.
Dave Miller of the National Football Post even noted a particularly promising statistic with Rees' red-zone numbers:
#NotreDame QB Tommy Rees career in the red zone: 74.3 completion percentage, 20 to 4 TD-to-INT ratio and 62.5 percent on third downs.— Dave Miller (@Miller_Dave) June 17, 2013
All of these things are well and good. They just obscure the most salient question: Is Tommy Rees any good over a long-term sample size?
That answer is far more unsettled. Rees spent the entire 2011 season oscillating between spectacular and dreadful—one game looking like the next in Notre Dame's long lineage of great quarterbacks and the very next moment being the subject of derision. His complete inability to hold onto the ball cost him the job last season, with Kelly preferring the Golson's steadiness over Rees' erraticism.
Kelly has maintained that Rees won't have to fight to keep his job this time around. His experience under center obviously plays a major factor in that decision, especially with a team expected to be among the nation's best
But should Rees come into camp and struggle again? It will be interesting to see if and how Kelly's answers change should Hendrix or Zaire start showing real flashes in August.
Can Troy Niklas Replace Tyler Eifert?
The answer to this question might loom large in answering the ones left by the Golson's suspension. Even if Golson was returning for his redshirt sophomore campaign, the youngster would be doing so without his biggest safety valve, Tyler Eifert.
Eifert, who was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals No. 21 overall in April's NFL draft, made 50 receptions for 685 yards and four touchdowns last season—all statistics in which he led the team or was tied for the lead.
But more important than Eifert's counting stats was the role he played within the Irish's offensive attack. Kelly, long known for his more spread-oriented offense at Cincinnati, has noticeably shaved off his innovator label with the Irish to adjust to his personnel.
That's the mark of a great coach, one that can morph to any situation.
The adjustment for Kelly, though, has been to go almost holistically traditional and conservative. Notre Dame's longest completion of the season last year was 50 yards, which was only done twice and only once for a touchdown.
Golson's progressions consisted almost entirely of a web of intermediate and short passes, ones designed to keep the chains moving, the clock running and (hopefully) end with points. Whether that was three or seven was often irrelevant, though everyone obviously prefers the latter.
Eifert was almost inarguably the Irish's most important cog in that lineup, a man who helped enable the them to still finish among the nation's best passing offenses from a metric perspective. His ability to run subtle underneath routes and always find a pocket in the defense—even when he was the third or fourth progression in Golson's reads—was critical.
Replacing a player with that skill set obviously isn't going to be easy.
Junior Troy Niklas is expected to take the bulk of that workload. A converted linebacker, Niklas has all the physical tools to make it happen. At 6'7", he's a hulking presence who commands the respect of defenses and seemed to pick up on the position well last season.
Plus, Notre Dame has a pretty good history of developing tight ends over recent years. It's hard to see Niklas having the same effect as Eifert, who was the nation's best tight end, but the production shouldn't fall off a cliff.
Notre Dame's Defense Is Good. Is It Great?
We can sit and talk about questions on the Irish offense for days. I haven't even mentioned the departures of Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, both of whom represented a great deal of the Notre Dame attack. While that's mostly because George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle should be able to handle sharing the workload, their ascent isn't without some concern.
What this season will really come down to, though, is how the Irish defense responds to their biggest losses.
The name Manti Te'o has become more synonymous with his off-the-field story, so it's easy to obscure what a phenomenal player he was in South Bend. He was the unquestioned leader of the Irish defense, emotionally and physically, and finished second in the Heisman voting. This isn't a guy you can just shrug at losing, even if the Irish have a strong stable of linebackers waiting to take over.
Also gone are stalwarts in defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore and safety Zeke Motta.
Jamoris Slaughter went to the NFL as well, though he missed most of last season with an injury; to add him in with those players would be a bit of a disservice.
Don't get it twisted, losing these players isn't insurmountable. Stephon Tuitt is one of the best, if not the best, defensive ends in the country, Louis Nix is equally brilliant inside, and the return of talented cornerback Lo Wood should give Notre Dame come comfort in almost every area. Linebacker isn't worth worrying about because it'll be just fine: Te'o was a great player, but the Irish will be able to find a decent facsimile of his production if not his leadership.
This should be a very good defense. The answer to whether it's a great one—and possibly the answer to whether Notre Dame will be a BCS bowl candidate this season—could come down to the safety spot. Nicky Baratti and Matthias Farley are both wholly unproven commodities, both having a chance to soar into the stars or make the Notre Dame defense have a leaky back half.
Overall, it's a good problem to have. The Irish will have one of the 20 best defenses in the country this season even if the safety duo gives below-average production. Then again, Notre Dame excelled last season because of the transcendence of its defense; merely being good won't be good enough.
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