Notre Dame Football: Brian Kelly's 5 Biggest Challenges in 2014
As much optimism as there is surrounding Notre Dame football with a new season on the way, there’s plenty of uncertainty, too.
Along with new coordinators, there’s young talent, and there’s a high level of excitement for the 2014 campaign. But what will be the biggest challenges that Irish head coach Brian Kelly must face this season?
These hurdles could be repeated flaws from recent years or large question marks specific to this year’s team.
In judging the magnitude of both forms of challenges, we’ll consider their importance in guiding Notre Dame to a successful 2014 season.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of CollegeFootballStats.com and all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Spark the Punt Return
In 2013, Notre Dame tied for 81st in the nation with 7.07 yards per punt return.
Taken by itself, that number doesn’t seem terrible relative to the entire 125-team FBS landscape. But Notre Dame’s No. 81 ranking came on the heels of the Irish finishing 120th, 112th and 101st, respectively, in the same category over the past three seasons.
For whatever reason, Notre Dame has struggled to return punts in Kelly’s four seasons in South Bend. Now, this isn’t to say the Irish can’t be successful without a boost on punt returns, but it’s a fairly significant challenge for Kelly to overcome.
A sizable return can provide a major shift in momentum during a game, which is something the Irish have not received much of from punt returners over the last few years.
Maneuver Through a Difficult Schedule
While it’s undoubtedly important for Notre Dame to focus on itself before worrying about its tough schedule, the Irish will have to nimbly wade through a tough slate in 2014. The four marquee opponents are, in order: Michigan, Stanford, Florida State and USC. Yet even teams like Rice, North Carolina, Arizona State and Louisville should present formidable challenges for Notre Dame.
It will be important for Kelly to keep the team focused from week to week—especially following a loss—in order to ensure that there aren’t any major stumbles.
Improve on Third Down
The Irish offense took a slight step backward in 2013 in terms of third-down conversions, finishing 53rd in the nation with a 42 percent conversion rate. Notre Dame ranked 25th and 18th, respectively, in 2012 and 2011, converting more than 46 percent of the time in such situations.
Sure, that’s a seemingly small decrease in third-down efficiency, but a small margin separates the great teams from the good ones on third down.
Third downs were an even bigger problem for the Irish defense in 2013. Notre Dame checked in at 85th in the nation in opponent third-down conversion rate after three consecutive years of finishing within the top 36 among FBS teams in the category.
During spring ball, we saw the Irish focus a good deal on third-down defense, and Kelly talked after the Blue-Gold Game about the importance of finding defensive role players for specific situations—like third down.
Execute in the Red Zone
When the Irish got inside the red zone last season, they came away with points 80 percent of the time, which ranked them 79th in the nation. But only 53 percent of the time did Notre Dame find the end zone and post six—rather than three—points up on the scoreboard, a red-zone touchdown rate that ranked 100th among FBS teams.
Now, Notre Dame was also 100th in touchdown rate in 2012, but the Irish counteracted their offensive struggles with an elite defense.
Kelly spoke in early April about correcting problems offensively inside the 20-yard line, beginning with the men under center. “Certainly for our quarterbacks, being able to take care of the football in that area is absolutely crucial,” Kelly said.
The more points the Irish put up and the more field goals they turn into touchdowns, the less pressure Notre Dame will have to put on its defense.
Develop the Young Defense
Speaking of defense, developing the young talent on that side of the ball will be the biggest challenge for Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
It’s less of a challenge in terms of likelihood and more of a challenge by way of the widespread inexperience defensively.
Five of the starters from last year’s front seven are gone, and some of the expected replacements are especially green, even the upperclassmen. Junior defensive tackle Jarron Jones has made just one career start, senior linebacker Joe Schmidt only tallied 15 tackles last season, and junior linebacker John Turner is a converted safety.
Still, there’s talent across the defense among the inexperienced players, including the three aforementioned players as well as underclassmen such as safety Max Redfield and cornerback Cole Luke.
How much Kelly and VanGorder can cultivate the natural ability on defense in 2014 will go a long way in determining Notre Dame’s success.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco on Twitter.