At 3-2, the season isn't over for Notre Dame, but with many heavy hitters remaining on the schedule and the way the Irish have played lately, it's safe to assume that a return trip to the national championship is not going to take place. Notre Dame would even be lucky to qualify for a BCS bowl.
Since Notre Dame's expectations go beyond Insight Bowls and mediocrity, it may be time to start planning for next season. Keep fighting the good fight that is this year, but keep next season in the back of your mind because it will be here before you know it.
So what does Notre Dame have to do to return to the top of the mountain?
The first thing is find consistency at quarterback. The position has become the equalizer in college football. If a team has an elite quarterback, it can do damage. Every Top 10 team in the AP Poll has a quarterback capable of taking over the game. The Irish? Not so much.
Good news is that Tommy Rees won't be eligible next season, so there won't be any worries of him stepping on the field and throwing the game away. Sorry, Coach Kelly, you'll have to find a new man crush. The new quarterback will likely be Malik Zaire or Everett Golson, depending on how his situation plays out during the offseason.
Either one is a clear upgrade over Rees and adds a flair to the offense. Their dual-threat ability and strong arm make it tougher for defenses to defend and can open up the running game. The hardest quarterback to prepare for is one who can hurt you with his legs. Both can do just that and will help improve an offense that is currently struggling to score points.
However, Kelly must pick a quarterback and stick with that decision. He can't flip-flop like he has in the past. Golson's confidence was shaky at best last season, and constantly being pulled won't help him improve in that department. Quarterbacks are going to make mistakes, especially dual-threats who can get wild at times. Benching them every other play doesn't help.
But the quarterback can't do it himself. The running game must improve; however, that all starts with better offensive line play. There's no way a backfield of George Atkinson III, Amir Carlisle and Greg Bryant should be ranked 93rd in the country in rushing yards. Blame the play calls, blame the runners, but the offensive line needs to do a better job of creating running lanes.
The offensive line will be a giant question mark, as center Zack Martin and right guard Christian Lombard will graduate at the end of the year. Two key players along the offensive line, their absence is sure to create issues up front. Replacing offensive linemen is the toughest thing for a coaching staff, as it's their job to get five players on the same page. Tough stuff.
Quarterback won't be a problem, but the running game and pass protection will all come down to how well a new-look offensive line comes together. It will be key to this offense taking strides and becoming a respectable unit for the first time in a few years.
Hunter Bivin is a versatile player who could enter the rotation next season. He's capable of playing either tackle or guard and has a massive frame at 6'6" and close to 300 pounds. Solid in run-blocking and pass protection, it's critical that he lives up to his 4-star potential and blossoms into the next great Notre Dame offensive lineman.
Defensively is where the concerns begin to really set in. The Irish will likely lose their one-two punch along the defensive line in Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. Linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Prince Shembo will graduate, as will defensive backs Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood. Forget losing Manti Te'o from last year, the Irish are losing nearly all of their defensive leaders and key production.
Under defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, this side of the ball has become the bread and butter of these Notre Dame squads. Putting relentless pressure on the quarterback, tackling in the open field and getting in the face of the wide receivers, the Irish have had one of the more talented defenses in the country the last couple of years.
There are a couple of nice building blocks in linebacker Jaylon Smith and cornerback KeiVarae Russell, but there will be more questions than answers defensively. Getting young bodies to step up and contribute will be critical to the team's success. With Diaco running the show, this unit won't fall apart completely but there are sure to be growing pains early in the season with so much youth.
With youth also comes conditioning. Guys better be in game shape by the time the season begins. Hit the weights hard, burn off the baby fat and be prepared to last all 80 plays that these offenses like to run. Notre Dame will play Michigan the second week of the season, which means there is little margin for error in getting in shape.
There's going to be far less experience next season, so if Notre Dame is going to return to the Promised Land, many of this year's backups and recruits will need to make a strong impact. Leaders will need to step up. Right now, the defense looks lost and isn't playing with the same passion that it had last season. Maybe the loss of Te'o really was that monumental, but somebody needs to fill the void.
Whether it's Smith or Max Redfield, somebody must be willing to be that emotional leader on and off the field to keep guys playing with that edge. Last year's defense prided itself to hold a team under 300 yards. This year, it seems like guys don't have the same motivation to pitch a shutout or force an offense to go three-and-out.
Only time will tell if the Irish can get back on track.
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