College football preseason has officially arrived. It's a time for optimism--time to drink the kool-aid, grease the wheels of the bandwagon, and start dreaming big. The prognosticators and so-called "experts" may have pegged your team for a December 28th bowl in Shreveport but what do they know? Your boys are 0-0 and control their own destiny.
Productivity at work takes a hit because time needs to be set aside to watch pump-up YouTube videos, dissect practice reports, and trade emails with fellow diehards about locking down plane and game tickets.
Unfortunately, some negativity has crept into my inbox this August. A fellow Domer cut and pasted a relatively depressing post from ND Nation that talked about how that feeling of preseason excitement hasn't hit him and probably won't any time soon.
I read the ND Nation message boards, the Rivals boards, and the Scout boards, and it appears that the years of shortcomings and disappointments have finally pushed much of the Irish faithful to their breaking point.
Much like Owen Wilson's character in Wedding Crashers, I'm an idea man--I thrive on enthusiasm. This somber preseason attitude just won't cut it. I'm well aware that there are plenty of question marks and concerns going into the fall, but there are also plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
I feel an obligation to infuse positive vibes into those who are down so let me close out of my Orbitz search for a Tempe flight/hotel package for the second weekend in January and give ND fans 10 reasons to be optimistic about this fall.
10. Jon Tenuta is no longer the defensive coordinator
What does this mean? Our defense won't be as mind-blowingly inflexible and ineffective. Last year Tenuta was given the keys to the defense and switched the squad to a 4-3 base--despite the fact that we had recruited players for a 3-4 scheme. His philosophy--as every Irish fan knows--was blitz, blitz, and when that's not working blitz some more. As a result Notre Dame's defense was shredded week in and week out.
It didn't matter if the opponent ran the option (348 rushing yards by Navy), the spread (we made Tate Forcier look like Joe Montana), or if they trotted out a terrible quarterback (Boston College QB David Shinskie threw for 279 yards against us--his highest total of the year--and he was one of the worst quarterbacks ND has seen in a long time); everyone seemed to have a career day against our defense.
A large part of the blame for last year's disaster falls squarely on Jon Tenuta's shoulders. He was in charge of our defense and the unit looked ill-prepared, constantly out of position, fundamentally unsound, and consistently overmatched against inferior talent. He was bullheaded, inflexible, and belittled those who questioned his methods.
When a situation called for a round peg he still tried to jam in the square one. Jon Tenuta cost Notre Dame wins and the main reason that Charlie Weis ultimately lost his job (perhaps fitting since Weis made the controversial and ill-fated decision to promote him ahead of Corwin Brown).
There is no plausible excuse for being lit up the way we did in 2009. There was plenty of talent to play with and there still is...which conveniently leads us to our 9th reason to be optimistic!
9. The talent, speed, and athleticism on defense
We have talent on the defensive side of the ball--in fact, we have a lot of talent. It may be young and a bit raw, but the potential is sky-high. We're back to the 3-4 scheme, which is a much better fit for the personnel we have on the roster. Along the line we're a bit thin when it comes to proven depth, but the starting ends (Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson) are young, strong, and athletic.
I have some questions about whether Ian Williams can be the nose tackle we need, but if he can be even an average space-eater that occupies blockers it will allow an extremely talented linebacking core to make plays.
There's a heated competition between Anthony McDonald and Carlo Calabrese at one of the inside linebacker positions, but the other three are manned by a four-year starter (Brian Smith) and two of the most dynamic linebackers we've had at Notre Dame since the early 90's: Manti Te'o and Darius Fleming.
Not even included in that discussion is pass rushing freak of nature Steve Filer, who apparently is on the verge of unseating Smith on the outside but at the very least will provide serious heat on pass rushing downs. That's a front seven with an intriguing combination of experience and potential.
The defense is also equipped with the best set of corners since Walton and Duff--the trio of Darrin Walls, Robert Blanton, and Gary Gray. If Harrison Smith can realize the potential he flashed earlier in his career and either Zeke Motta, Jamoris Slaughter, or Danny McCarthy can step up, then the secondary will quickly flip from liability to strength.
New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has been raving about the athletes they have at every position. He's said if they can stop the run on first down and force 2nd and 3rd and long this defense will be able to tee off on opposing offenses.
There are plenty of "if's" to be overcome, but there's enough talent in the fold that if things come together the right way this unit can do a complete 180 from last season's debacle. Something that will be made easier because of reason #8...
8. A light schedule by Notre Dame standards
Now there's a huge chunk of Notre Dame Nation acting like adding Western Michigan and Tulsa to the schedule at the last minute is the equivalent of putting an Adidas logo on the helmet. While it's unfortunate that our schedule isn't as interesting as in years past, that problem is being corrected long-term thanks to AD Jack Swarbrick switching the scheduling philosophy. It's not a travesty of a schedule and actually, when it comes to the present, it's probably the best setup we could ask for to break in the new era.
We have a few games right off the bat that can be categorized as cream puff, slam dunk victories (Western Michigan, Tulsa, Army). Our home slate has some tricky games that will come with tight point spreads (Stanford, Pitt, Utah) but as the home team we should be favored and expected to prevail.
Navy will be tough if only because Ricky Dobbs--their best quarterback since Chris McCoy in the 90's--is back for one more go-around, but we need to remember there's a reason we beat them 43 straight times. Purdue is still a year away. Michigan is still mired in the failure of the Rich Rod experiment and is as down as we can ever hope them to be.
The Irish will only have to travel to play three true road games: Michigan State, Boston College, and Southern Cal. They'll all be tough contests in hostile environments, but across the board Notre Dame has more talent than both MSU and BC.
Southern Cal once again is the only team on the schedule with a roster more loaded than ours, but we don't play them until the final game of the season. There are three reasons that's important: the ND offense should have hit its stride by November, attrition on a thinned out roster will start to impact the Trojans, and there's a real possibility that Lane Kiffin will already have a full-throttle mutiny on his hands.
It's not a stretch to say that we're going to be the favorite in Vegas for every single game until the final one in Los Angeles. While it'd be stupid to say "I expect Notre Dame to go undefeated," one has to acknowledge that it's not as far-fetched as Lane Kiffin making it to December without committing another NCAA violation.
7. Paul Longo
A problem Notre Dame has faced over the last few years has been running out of gas late in games and late in the season (See: last two November swoons). Part of the problem had to do with the fact the strength and condition program Ruben Mendoza put together never seemed to know what identity they wanted to embody.
Each year it varied--one spring they wanted the offensive linemen bulked up, the next they wanted them trim. Very rarely did the Irish dominate in the trenches and by the end of each season players were said to have lost 30-40lbs. The general disarray and lack of a plan showed as the season wore on.
Enter Paul Longo.
Longo is one of the most respected strength coaches in the business. He put the team on a strict diet plan, an intense lifting plan, and set out with a clear agenda of making every player more explosive at his respective position. The results in just eight months are incredibly impressive. Every player that's been in front of a microphone has commented how they're in the best shape of their life. Chris Stewart--all 340lbs of him--can now do 26 pull-ups. Practice reports are quick to point out that players look leaner and more cut.
Kelly likes to run practices and play games at a breakneck speed the team was unfamiliar with before he arrived. Longo's workouts were the most basic step in moving the team toward playing the way Kelly wants them to play and by all accounts the first offseason workout program was a huge success. The fruits of their labor will show when other teams run out of gas while the Irish are still flying around the field on both sides of the ball.
6. The stable of extremely talented running backs with diverse skill sets
Armando Allen enters his senior season within shouting distance of becoming statistically one of the most productive backs in Notre Dame history in terms of all-purpose yards. For two years he's been on the verge of breaking big runs only to be thwarted by shoestring tackles and misplaced blockers. The guy can fly, it just seems he can't ever get over that last hurdle that springs him for the big run.
If he can't figure it out then Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood are sitting right behind him. Gray found himself buried on the depth chart last year due to a case of fumblitis, but according to camp reports his confidence is high and he's tearing it up.
Cierre Wood was probably the least fan-celebrated top 100 recruit we've gotten in the last five years, due in large part to the fact that he committed so early and then slipped from #2 in the country. Wood has shown flashes of gamebreaking ability every opportunity we've had to watch him. Certain guys just have that "home run" gene and he seems to possess it in spades.
Lastly, there is the bruiser Robert Hughes. Sometimes he has a tendency to dance and run soft, but if he attacks like he did in the Purdue and Washington games last year, he'll be an extremely valuable weapon in short yardage and red zone situations. He also has underrated hands (Weis was once quoted saying Hughes had the best hands on the team), something no one will appreciate until he snares a Reggie Brooks Snow Bowl-esque two-point conversion late in a game.
We're very deep in the backfield and can present a variety of different looks depending on who we send on the field. We've got pure speed (Allen), the shiftiness (Wood), power (Gray), and bruising goal-line potential (Hughes). This is the most talent we've had in the backfield since the Tony Fisher-Julius Jones-Terrence Howard combination of ten years ago.
5. The receiving unit may be the deepest and most talented in Notre Dame history
We are STACKED. Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph are the headliners of a Marianna's Trench deep unit. Floyd could be better than Golden Tate--he's so good that Mark May (yes, THAT Mark May) has christened Floyd as his darkhorse Heisman candidate. Rudolph could be the best tight end in the history of Notre Dame--a list that includes Hall of Famers (Dave Casper and Ken MacAfee), first rounders (Irv Smith), and countless NFL starters (Mark Bavaro, Anthony Fasano, and John Carlson to name a few). This pair will make Dayne's life infinitely easier because anything thrown in their general direction will either be caught or they'll draw a pass interference penalty.
Floyd and Rudolph are just the tip of the iceberg. Converted running back Theo Riddick has already locked down the slot position despite missing significant time in the spring due to injury. He's a gamebreaker that has the shiftiness and speed to go the distance every time he touches the ball.
There's a stable of talented wideouts that will all be given a chance to contribute this fall and there's an exciting mix of speed (Shaq Evans, TJ Jones, Robby Toma, Deion Walker) and size (John Goodman, Duval Kamara, Tyler Eifert).
The spread offense allows for a lot of receivers to contribute and the Irish have a wealth of depth and talent eager to do so. If Kelly wants to go five-wide with receivers/tight ends that are 6'2" or taller he can line up with Rudolph, Floyd, Eifert, Kamara, and Goodman. If he wants to go with five guys who can just fly and stretch the field he can send Floyd, Evans, Jones, Goodman, and Walker.
How are teams going to prepare for this unit other than lighting candles at The Grotto before they head in to Notre Dame Stadium?
4. The emergence of Zach Martin
There have been a lot of positive reports out of camp since it's opened, but the one that has caught my eye the most has been redshirt freshman Zach Martin leaving no doubt that he deserves the starting Left Tackle spot. If the key to the season is Dayne Crist's health and development, a related sub-plot is the offensive lines ability to kept Crist upright. Martin started establishing himself as a potential contributor this spring and has emerged as the clear-cut starter, something Irish fans should be extremely excited about.
The Irish are forced to replace three starters on the offensive line this season which has many people worried. But the way I see it, the only one that has big shoes to fill is center, where Eric Olsen started last season. Yes, Sam Young was a four-year starter at Tackle, but I spent most of those four years growing gray hairs thanks to his inconsistency (culminating with his indefensible decision to attempt to cut block a Navy defensive end he outweighed by 70lbs on the deciding play of the 23-21 loss to the Middies). Paul Duncan was someone I didn't trust at all. The bar the newcomers have to surpass isn't set very high.
Martin is an agile athlete that perfectly fits the mold of tackle in the spread offense. His stellar performance to date tells me we could actually be seriously upgrading over Duncan. It'll take time for this unit to gel and we can only hope that either Taylor Dever, Andrew Nuss, or Matt Romine steps forward like Martin has, but if you asked me to pick one spot to have someone shine unexpectedly right out of the gate, I'd take the protector of Dayne's blind side every time.
3. On-field leadership
One of the main things that Kelly has attempted to do is change the culture of Notre Dame Football. It's one that's been mired with mediocrity, a sense of entitlement, and selfishness. In the spring Kelly commented that "most of the guys here were more interested in whether they were on Mel Kiper's Big Board--I want guys who are more interested in what they can do for Notre Dame."
Shaking a program's very foundation and reshaping it is a tall order, but it becomes easier when the leaders on the field come naturally ingrained with the attitude the coach is looking for the team to adopt. That the exact scenario that Kelly walked into with quarterback Dayne Crist and linebacker Manti Te'o.
These are guys who came to Notre Dame for all the right reasons: because they love the school, realize and embrace the importance of tradition, and understand what it would mean to be a part of the team that brings Notre Dame back to the Promised Land.
Both players chose Notre Dame despite circumstances that seemed to stack odds against the Irish. Crist was a five star recruit that committed despite Jimmy Clausen's enrollment in the previous class while Te'o (another five star recruit) chose the Irish over Southern Cal despite the huge distance from home and after watching the Syracuse debacle in person on his visit. Why? Because they simply fell in love with Notre Dame.
These are the type of players we need leading the program. Talented, hard-working players that lead by example on the field and sincerely believe that they owe the school as much as it owes them. I couldn't be happier that this pair has stepped to the forefront during this transition. The impact of their leadership will be felt much more than in the wins column this season.
2. Brian Kelly
Ara Parseghian has said in the past that the head coach at Notre Dame needed to have extensive experience as a college football head coach in order to set himself up for success. He stated Notre Dame is the most pressure-packed job in sports and not a place for someone to learn on the job. After four failed coaching selections since Lou Holtz's departure that didn't fit Ara's criteria, the administration has finally decided to follow the proven blueprint.
Brian Kelly has been a head coach in the college game for 19 seasons. He has a hand in every aspect of his team, spending time with the quarterbacks, the defensive backs, and everyone in between. He won multiple championships in Division II, took Central Michigan to a conference championship, and even led perennial doormat Cincinnati to back-to-back BCS bowls. He's a proven winner with a wealth of experience--all of which will be valuable when taking on the tall order of returning Notre Dame to the top of the college football world.
Since taking the job Kelly has set out to tear down the losing, selfish culture that has poisoned the program and build up a sense of confidence, responsibility, and accountability. He's also tried to unify a splintered Notre Dame Nation with a barnstorming tour that has taken him to almost 200 speaking events since he was hired.
For the first time in a long time, we have a coach who gets it. Kelly understands what it takes to be successful in college football, embraces the challenges Notre Dame must overcome instead of crying about them, and has a clear plan he's set forth to turn things around quickly.
An impressive resume doesn't guarantee success and I'm not ready to anoint him a stone-cold lock to be the savior of Notre Dame Football, but his track record is undeniable and his first nine months have given Irish fans ample reason to be optimistic.
1. THIS IS NOTRE DAME FOOTBALL
Brian Kelly said that players shouldn't need any extra motivation from coaches to get excited to play football for Notre Dame. I'm here to echo him: the alumni and subway alumni shouldn't need extra motivation to get excited for an upcoming season. The doom and gloom, downtrodden attitude that has permeated the fan base needs to stop.
On the afternoon of September 4th, the Band of the Fighting Irish will belt out the greatest of all fight songs and those gold helmets will flood out of the tunnel. When you close your eyes and picture that scene you can almost feel the electricity. A new era will dawn and new hope will be born.
The program has had a tough run recently, but dark times cannot erase decades of unparalleled greatness and glory. There's still plenty of magic left within the walls of that hallowed stadium, plenty of Notre Dame Moments waiting to be seized, a new and great chapter of Irish history waiting to be written. Notre Dame has risen from the ashes before and they will again.
Miracles are interwoven in the very fabric of our history and Notre Dame Nation's passionate belief that those miracles are possible is a large part of the mystique that makes this program so special. Will the next miracle dramatically arrive in the first year of the Brian Kelly Era like it did in Ara Parseghian's inaugural season over four decades ago? That remains to be seen. Odds certainly seem stacked against it.
But this is Notre Dame...you can never rule it out--especially before a ball is snapped.