Prior to the 2013 season, Notre Dame made no secret of its ultimate goal of returning to the BCS Championship Game.
While the Irish fell well short of that aspiration, fourth-year head coach Brian Kelly and his staff have continued to pour a solid foundation for the program heading into the future.
A trip to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl isn't much of a consolation prize, but with former starting quarterback Everett Golson expected to return next season, Kelly and Co. could very well return to the summit.
However, the most pressing issue facing Notre Dame is replacing nose guard Louis Nix and, potentially, mammoth defensive end Stephon Tuitt should he forgo his senior season and enter the 2014 NFL Draft.
Regardless of what transpires between now and the decision deadline, Kelly has his program on track to be included and relevant in the national conversation on an annual basis.
With the way next season's roster is beginning to take form, 2014 may come to be known as the year of the offense for the Irish.
Former starting quarterback Everett Golson is expected to be readmitted later next week, and should that process successfully transpire, the Myrtle Beach, S.C. native would have a plethora of skill-position talent surrounding him.
In particular, the running back position has the potential to be the team's best positional unit should the coaching staff settle on an effective, consistent rotation.
Quarterback: Everett Golson (RS SO), Malik Zaire (RS FR), DeShone Kizer (FR)
Running Back: George Atkinson III (SR), Cam McDaniel (SR), Tarean Folston (SO), Greg Bryant (RS FR), Amir Carlisle (SR), William Mahone (RS SO)
Wide Receiver: DaVaris Daniels (RS JR), Corey Robinson (SO), William Fuller (SO), James Onwualu (SO), CJ Prosise (JR), Chris Brown (JR), Torii Hunter Jr. (RS FR)
Tight End: Troy Niklas (SR), Ben Koyack (SR), Durham Smythe (SO), Mike Heuerman (RS FR)
Offensive Line: Nick Martin (RS JR), Steve Elmer (SO), Ronnie Stanley (RS SO), Conor Hanratty (RS JR), Hunter Bivin (SO), Matt Hegary (RS JR), Mark Harrell (RS SO)
Defensively, Notre Dame must overcome the loss of nose guard Louis Nix, who, more or less, anchored the Irish's stellar defensive line for the past three seasons.
Should defensive end Stephon Tuitt declare for the 2014 NFL Draft, the defensive line will become the Irish's Achilles heel defensively in 2014 along with middle linebacker where Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese will be missed.
However, the secondary will most certainly be Notre Dame's best defensive unit, as it returns a tremendous amount of experience.
Defensive Line: Stephon Tuitt (SR), Jarron Jones (RS SO), Sheldon Day (JR), Isaac Rochell (SO), Matt Dickerson (FR), Jay Hayes (FR), Andrew Trumbetti (FR)
Linebacker: Jaylon Smith (SO), Romeo Okwara (JR) Ishaq Williams (SR), Joe Schmidt (RS JR), Greer Martini (FR), Jhonathon Williams (FR), Richard Yeargin III (FR), Jonathan Bonner (FR)
Secondary: Elijah Shumate (JR), Max Redfield (SO), Bennett Jackson (JR), Cole Luke (SO), Matthias Farley (RS JR), Eilar Hardy (RS JR), Devin Butler (SO), Rashad Kinlaw (RS FR), Nick Watkins (FR), Drue Tranquill (FR)
With Notre Dame already having received 19 verbal commitments in its 2014 class, the Irish have gone all in on a handful of remaining targets.
Following are the Irish's remaining top targets, via Blue and Gold Illustrated:
- John "juju" Smith, ATH
- Thomas Holley, DT
- Tyler Luatua, TE
- Matt Elam, DT
- Michiah Quick, ATH
- Solomon Thomas, DE
- Nyles Morgan, LB
- Nathan Starks, RB
- Isaiah McKenzie, WR
Expect to see the Irish make a big push this week, as the NCAA-mandated "dead week" is rapidly approaching.
It's worth noting that last season the Irish were able to secure commitments from running backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston as well as safety Max Redfield following the conclusion of the regular season.
Thus, a few more commitments are inevitable.
Due to the recruiting abilities of head coach Brian Kelly and his staff, the Irish have assembled a plethora of talent to stock their depth chart.
Known as a brilliant offensive mind, Kelly has seen to it that his offense possesses championship-caliber skill-position players, and he has accomplished that through recruiting.
With a loaded depth chart at nearly every position along the offense, the Irish won't be worried about putting points on the scoreboard moving forward.
Tarean Folston, RB
One of two highly-acclaimed freshmen running backs to sign with Notre Dame during the previous recruiting cycle, Folston wasn't expected to make the type of impact he did this season.
The Cocoa, Fla. native finished the regular season with 397 rushing yards on 71 carries to go along with two touchdowns. During the course of the season, Folston appeared as the most well-rounded, fluid back, even earning the fans' collective desire for him to be named the Irish's starting running back.
Given George Atkinson's struggles and Cam McDaniel's proverbial ceiling, expect to see Folston listed as Notre Dame's No. 1 running back entering spring practices.
Jaylon Smith, LB
Becoming the most heralded defensive recruit of the post-Lou Holtz era at Notre Dame, Smith began his collegiate career with a bang.
The Fort Wayne, Ind. native finished the regular season ranked third on the team for total tackles with 61. Smith also recorded an interception, though his ability to create turnovers will only improve with time and added experience.
With an expanded knowledge base of the often mentally challenging DOG linebacker position, expect to see Smith contend for All-American honors in 2014.
There was a bit of shakeup among the coaching staff last week, as offensive coordinator Chuck Martin accepted the Miami (Ohio) head coaching job.
Brian Kelly has yet to name a replacement, though passing game coordinator and outside receiver coach Mike Denbrock has been named as the interim offensive coordinator.
Aside from that, the Irish coaching staff has remained unchanged.
Head Coach: Brian Kelly
Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coord./Linebackers: Bob Diaco
Offensive Coordinator/Outside Receivers/Passing Game: Mike Denbrock
Running Backs/Slot Receivers/Recruiting Coord.: Tony Alford
Tight Ends/Special Teams: Scott Booker
Co-Defensive Coordinator/Cornerbacks: Kerry Cooks
Offensive Line: Harry Hiestand
Defensive Line: Mike Elston
Safeties: Bob Elliott
Unexpectedly losing your starting quarterback for an entire season is grounds for deeming said season a fluke.
That is essentially what Notre Dame's 2013 season turned out to be with the Irish finishing with an underwhelming 8-4 record and an invitation to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
But regaining the services of Everett Golson along with a quick-strike offense to surround him may be the necessary ingredient to return Notre Dame to the national stage it became accustomed to during the 2012 season.
Whether the Irish are legitimate title contenders in 2014 remains to be seen, but the pieces are in place for that to be the case. However, they must traverse a rather treacherous schedule to keep that condition in play.
Also worth noting is that the Irish are in the midst of removing one team from the 2014 schedule, as they have 13 scheduled games for only 12 spots.
2014 schedule, via fbsschedules.com:
- Aug. 30 vs. Rice
- Sept. 6 vs. Michigan
- Sept. 13 vs. Purdue
- Sept. 27 vs. Syracuse (MetLife Stadium)
- Oct. 4 vs. Stanford
- Nov. 1 at Navy
- Nov. 8 at Arizona State
- Nov. 15 vs. Northwestern
- Nov. 29 at USC
- TBA vs. Louisville
- TBA vs. North Carolina
- TBA vs. Wake Forest
- TBA at Florida State