Notre Dame took a large step backwards in 2013, losing four regular season games after running the table with an undefeated regular season the year before. As summer workouts progress and the Irish refocus their efforts, Brian Kelly's squad is taking dead aim at a spot in the College Football Playoff.
On paper, Notre Dame's inclusion seems like a long shot. The Irish will play six teams that won double-digit games last season. They'll also need to rebuild a defense and replace eight players that were drafted, including five in the first three rounds.
But the Irish welcome back quarterback Everett Golson. They also continue to war chest weapons on both sides of the football.
Nobody saw the Irish's BCS title game run coming. Can a team Kelly thinks is his most talented top to bottom do it again?
Let's take a look at Notre Dame's strengths, weaknesses and secret weapons in 2014.
If there's one position that can change the fortunes of a football program it's quarterback. And after adversely effecting Notre Dame's fate in 2013, Golson can return the Irish to prominence with a big 2014 season.
Golson was one of the top redshirt freshmen in the country in 2012, as the first-year starter led the Irish in rushing and passing touchdowns (while limiting his mistakes) as he piloted Notre Dame to a 12-0 regular season. After a much-discussed suspension from the university after cheating on a test, Golson returned to school and the football program in the spring and will likely become the engine of Kelly's reinstalled spread offense.
While the depth behind Golson isn't strong, rising sophomore Malik Zaire impressed this spring, playing well in the Blue-Gold game. He'll give Notre Dame another dual-threat quarterback that's even more dangerous than Golson on the ground. Freshman DeShone Kizer is on campus as well, giving Notre Dame three quarterbacks that all fit Brian Kelly's offensive system.
Just as Notre Dame's quarterback play is expected to improve, it should get harder to throw against the Irish as well. With Florida transfer Cody Riggs on campus and training with the Irish this summer, Notre Dame adds a key piece to a position group that's already stocked with talent.
Riggs' best trait is his versatility, something new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder plans to utilize. After playing mostly Cover 2 under Bob Diaco, the Irish cornerbacks will be asked to play a heavy dose of man coverage. That's easier to do when you add Riggs to a stable of starter-level players like KeiVarae Russell, Cole Luke, Matthias Farley and Devin Butler.
Adding to that depth is incoming freshman Nick Watkins, who will immediately challenge for playing time. The Irish being able to go more than six-deep at corner should allow VanGorder to scheme and tweak his game plans as Notre Dame plays a diverse set of opponents.
While most of the focus offensively has been the return of Golson and Kelly's move to a more traditional spread attack, expect to see Notre Dame run the football far more effectively this year. With Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant as the Irish's three-headed monster, the Irish will likely have a dynamic presence in the backfield after struggling to find a rhythm last season.
While McDaniel is the senior and veteran of the group, he will struggle to keep Folston and Bryant off the field. Even as the team's most reliable runner in 2013, McDaniel just doesn't have the big-play ability that the sophomore duo has. And while Bryant was the star of the spring, Folston is likely the team's most complete back from day one.
The Irish have played their best football under Kelly when the running game is effective. Theo Riddick also supplied a pass-catching threat out of the backfield in 2012, something Folston and Bryant look capable of as well.
Folston's five first-half catches out of the backfield in the spring game would've been a season-high for Irish runners last season. And Bryant's long run in the Blue-Gold game lets you know that while George Atkinson's home run speed has departed, the Irish will still be able to pick up yards by the chunk on the ground.
Notre Dame's success in 2014 will likely be determined by how well the front seven replaces long-time contributors Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox. While scheme and personnel changes will determine how well the Irish can stop the run, how Notre Dame plans to rush the passer remains up in the air.
The Irish plummeted to 83rd in the country in sacks last season, a year after their 33 sacks had them at No. 25. Considering that Notre Dame needs to find a pass rush without Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and Louis Nix, there's certainly cause for concern.
Sheldon Day is shifting inside from defensive end to play tackle. Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara are moving from outside linebacker to starting defensive ends. That means the Irish are relying on three players at new positions to get after the quarterback. Three players with a combined two sacks last season? Defensive line coach Mike Elston has work to do.
If the Irish pass rush is the first worry for VanGorder, then the depth at linebacker is right behind it. Notre Dame can ill afford injuries to any of its projected starters, especially considering that after Jaylon Smith, not much is really known about the Irish's plans for their linebacking corps.
Smith will be Notre Dame's best defensive playmaker, expected to stay on the field all three downs and work sideline to sideline after shifting to the Will linebacker spot in VanGorder's new scheme.
Behind Smith, only former walk-on Joe Schmidt appears to have a job lined up, though Schmidt's physical limitations might make it difficult for him to be an effective linebacker against the run. Incoming freshman Nyles Morgan will be counted on to work his way into the rotation, but after Morgan, no candidates emerged this spring.
Position shifts and personnel tweaks brought former safety John Turner and converted wide receiver James Onwualu into the linebacking plans. That the Irish will need unproven talent to move into the starting lineup shows the depth concerns. But if any injuries hit, VanGorder will likely need to call a handful of other true freshmen into action—a very difficult situation for young players like Kolin Hill, Greer Martini, Drue Tranquill and Nile Sykes.
As difficult as it is for any Notre Dame football player to fly under the radar, a few candidates are primed for breakout seasons.
The first is wide receiver Will Fuller. After leading the Irish in yards per catch last season, Fuller should be one of the primary beneficiaries of Golson's return to the starting lineup. Fuller is the team's best deep threat, capable of getting behind just about any defense. But the departure of TJ Jones should open up some other opportunities for Fuller, running underneath patterns and quick slants that get the ball into Fuller's hands more.
Just about every Irish fan expects big things from Greg Bryant. After a nagging knee injury required a medical redshirt, Bryant hopes to make up for lost time in 2014, using the spring to get back up to speed. Bryant is likely the team's best power-running option, something sorely missing in 2013 with no short-yardage back able to bail out the Irish's mediocre red zone offense.
Bryant might not be the biggest back at 204 pounds, but he's the team's most powerful runner. Combine him with Golson, who led the Irish in rushing touchdowns, and the Irish could have a double-digit touchdown scorer.
Lastly, the Irish's top secret weapon might be their offensive line. While saying goodbye to Zack Martin and Chris Watt isn't easy, Harry Hiestand's unit could be on the verge of something very special.
If Mike McGlinchey can settle in at right tackle, Notre Dame could play a massive group that's equal parts powerful and athletic. Ronnie Stanley is taking to left tackle, filling the very large shoes Martin left behind. After playing solid football as a first-time starter at right tackle last season, Stanley looks like he'll anchor the pass protection, while continuing to get stronger at the point of attack.
Steve Elmer will stay at guard, taking over for Watt, even though the 6'5.5" sophomore has the size of a guard. With Christian Lombard and Nick Martin healthy, the Irish should have five very good starters and excellent depth behind them.