With spring practice only days away, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will soon begin preparing for the 2014 college football season.
When the squad reports to camp on March 3, there will be a lot of work to do. Starting jobs will be on the line and several positions will need to be filled.
Needless to say, Notre Dame will have its hands full trying to improve from a disappointing 9-4 mark in 2013.
Here’s a checklist the team must complete in order to compete during the upcoming season.
1. Regain Identity on Defense
It’s no secret that the Irish’s path to the BCS title game in 2012 was paved by a formidable defense—No. 2 in scoring (12.8 PPG) and No. 7 in total defense (305.5 YPG).
The same can’t be said about last season, as the unit appeared vulnerable more often than not. At times, Notre Dame seemed to be handing out points as if they were club flyers.
Seven opponents scored at least 24 points last season, while only two accomplished the feat in 2012.
Although the unit eventually began to find its form by the end of the season, the Irish will once again have to go back to the drawing board. The defense loses six starters from a year ago, including defensive end Stephon Tuitt, defensive tackle Louis Nix III and cornerback Bennett Jackson.
Head coach Brian Kelly hopes bringing in Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator will help Notre Dame’s defense regain its swagger.
A firm believer in stopping the run, the 54-year-old backed up his talk with the New York Jets last season. As the linebackers coach, he took a team that ranked No. 26 against the run in 2012 (133.6 YPG) and helped transform it into one of the NFL’s best—ranked No. 3 last season (88.3 YPG).
Look for VanGorder’s presence to have the biggest impact on rising sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith.
2. Develop a Rushing Attack
This is an area that has plagued the Irish for quite some time.
In fact, since 2006, the team has only had a 1,000-yard rusher once—Cierre Wood (2011).
Hopes were high for George Atkinson III following his 2013 campaign (93 CAR, 555 YDS, 3 TD). However, the Stockton, Calif., native decided to declare early for the NFL draft.
Now, Notre Dame will have to rely on either Cam McDaniel (152 CAR, 704 YDS, 3 TD) or Tarean Folston (88 CAR, 470 YDS, 3 TD).
Both backs had solid seasons last year. But the jury is still out on whether either can help the team improve from its No. 81 ranking in rushing offense from a year ago.
Former 4-star prospect in the class of 2013, Greg Bryant, should also be healthy to compete for the job.
3. Settle on a Quarterback
It seems a season doesn’t go by without the Irish having some kind of drama at the quarterback position.
In 2012, it was Kelly’s inability to stick with either Tommy Rees or Everett Golson in games. Just last season, Golson’s suspension made headlines.
Now, redshirt freshman Malik Zaire is expected to compete with the returning Golson in 2014.
“I’m not being cute, but that’s assuming that (Golson) is the starter, right?” Kelly asked when approached by a question regarding Golson as starter, per WNDU.com’s Angelo Di Carlo. “We think there is going to be some very good competition for that position with him.”
To his credit, Golson certainly can claim he’s earned the starting job. After all, he started the majority of 2012, leading Notre Dame to the BCS title game.
However, any and all entitlement Golson had went right out the window the minute he got himself suspended.
Zaire—a 4-star dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2013—brings exciting potential to the position. Kelly is making the right move to give the youngster a chance to show what he’s capable of.