As Notre Dame begins the spring semester, the Fighting Irish football team begins anew. While games won't be played for another nine months, the 2014 season begins in earnest now.
On Thursday, Matt Fortuna of ESPN reported that four seniors—Austin Collinsworth, Christian Lombard, Kendall Moore and Justin Utupo—will be invited back for a fifth year. While those moves aren't official until the four graduate and receive admission into graduate programs at Notre Dame, it's the first step toward forming the roster that'll compete next season.
Twelve Saturdays will determine if 2014 is a success or not. But the groundwork for that journey begins now.
With the team starting its offseason training program, and signing day and spring football just around the corner, let's take a look at the blueprint for a perfect Irish offseason.
A Strong Finish to Recruiting
We've already focused on the hole that needs filling at defensive tackle. But that doesn't make it any less important.
The Irish have a handful of targets that will be receiving visits from defensive line coach Mike Elston and new coordinator Brian VanGorder. There's every reason to believe that one defensive tackle is going to like what the Irish staff is selling, especially with VanGorder's pedigree and Elston's work producing productive linemen.
The departures of Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III were all to varying degrees unexpected. But they also allow the Irish to add up to four more players to their recruiting class, by signing a group of 26.
The Irish staff is doing its best to lock up slot receiver and return man Isaiah McKenzie, finally setting an official visit for the last weekend in January. Notre Dame's also holding out hope for John "JuJu" Smith, an elite safety that could walk in and challenge for a job.
The Irish coaching staff will spend the rest of January traversing the country, visiting Notre Dame's committed recruits while also pushing for official visits from other prospects. That includes elite targets like Michigan commitment Malik McDowell and newly available defensive tackle Michael Sawyers.
Defensive end Andrew Trumbetti and wide receiver Justin Brent have enrolled early and will get their chance to make an impact when spring practice starts.
But with a recruiting class that's already rated in the top 10, adding a few more prospects could really help reload the roster.
Establish the Identity of the Defense During the Spring
That the Irish weren't able to match their 2012 season isn't a huge surprise. But that it took so long for the 2013 team to establish its identity was one of the true disappointments of the season.
During Notre Dame's 12-1 campaign, the Irish played stingy defense, anchored by a stout run defense. The Irish complemented that with a strong running game and an offense that controlled the clock and didn't turn the football over.
While critics hounded Tommy Rees for his up-and-down play this season, the Irish defense was the primary culprit for the team's regression, with neither the run defense nor the ability to limit big plays a touchstone for the team. Neither unit had anything it could hang its hat on, and the inconsistencies haunted the Irish in their four losses.
It's now Brian VanGorder's job to spend the spring establishing the framework for next year's defense. He'll need to find solutions for losing elite players like Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, while also needing to replace starters Prince Shembo, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Bennett Jackson.
With key contributors like Jarrett Grace and Tony Springmann still coming back from injury, knowing exactly what the Irish have before training camp might be wishful thinking. But the groundwork needs to be set during the 15 practices this spring, with offseason work dedicated to reestablishing a group that can force offenses to be one-dimensional.
Get Everett Golson (and the Offense) Back Up to Speed
While working with George Whitfield for 10 weeks this fall certainly helped Everett Golson focus on his fundamentals and the craft of playing quarterback, there's still going to be some rust on Golson, as he will have gone 20 months without having taken a live snap. But with Golson back on campus and working out with the team, he'll jump straight into the deep end for spring ball.
With Andrew Hendrix already taking classes at Miami, there are only two scholarship quarterbacks on campus this spring—Golson and Malik Zaire are carrying a heavy load. Expect Golson to take as many reps as he can handle, with the offense now back in the hands of the quarterback handpicked by Kelly to run it.
As much as the spring is an opportunity for the defense to have a fresh start, the same goes for Kelly's offense.
While no official announcement has been made, multiple outlets have reported that Kelly plans on calling plays next season. With it looking more and more like Mike Debrock will be the offensive coordinator, Kelly has also zeroed in on a quarterback coach to replace Chuck Martin. He talked about that process with SiriusXM's Bill King.
"I’ve interviewed the coaches that I needed to talk to," Kelly told King. "I think I’ve got it down to that quarterback coach that I want. We’ll probably try to get that announced sometime next week."
With a talented depth chart returning and Golson back at the helm, it's time for the offense to become the unit most expected when Jack Swarbrick brought Kelly in from Cincinnati. After grinding out victories the last two seasons and putting constant pressure on the defense, it's time for the offense to take a big step forward.
"If you look at the BCS games, I think the average number of points that were put up were about 38 points per game," Kelly told King. "You’ve got to score points in college football today. We won a lot of games when we went [undefeated] 17-14. You can’t do that. I think we’ve got to score more points."
Avoid the Pitfalls
It wouldn't be an offseason at Notre Dame without the unexpected happening. The suspension of DaVaris Daniels caught many by surprise, another bump along a road that tends to get awfully treacherous in South Bend.
The past few years have been a wild ride.
Everett Golson's suspension from school. Eddie Vanderdoes' abrupt U-turn. Tommy Rees and Carlo Calabrese's embarrassing bout with the South Bend police. And all that doesn't include the one-year anniversary of the Deadspin story that changed Manti Te'o from legend to punchline.
In the fishbowl that is Notre Dame football, you've got to expect a certain number of twists and turns. But for this to be a successful offseason, the Irish need to limit the surprises.
That'll mean a little bit of luck with injuries.
It'll also mean a smooth few months off the field, something that's been elusive for Brian Kelly since he's arrived in South Bend.