Notre Dame Football: The Official Domer Law 2010 Season Preview

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Notre Dame Football: The Official Domer Law 2010 Season Preview
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**Yes, I am aware of the changes to the depth chart. This is a fluid situation, and this post has been two weeks in the making. Please accept the slight inaccuracies.**

So, the season is now upon us. The team has finished up training camp and transitioned into game week mode for practices. Most of the positional battles have shaken themselves out, and we are now on the verge of beginning the Kelly era in South Bend.

So here is my annual 2010 Season Preview. I'm going to break down the roster and the schedule, with predictions across the board. Unlike my last post, I'm going to try to present a realistic view of our chances of success, but I do think that there is a very high ceiling for the team this year.

So, without further ado, please allow me to present your 2010 Notre Dame Fighting Irish!

Positional Breakdown

Head Coach

Brian Kelly,
First year at Notre Dame, 21st year as a head coach, 25 years experience in coaching
Career record:  171-57-2 (.748 winning percentage)

Previous experience:
Grand Valley State, Assistant Coach, Head Coach, 17 seasons (13 as head coach)
Record: 118-35-2, five conference titles, six playoff appearances, two Div. II National Championships
Central Michigan University, Head Coach, three seasons

Record: 19-16, 1 MAC conference title, qualified for Motor City Bowl (Kelly did not coach bowl game)
University of Cincinnati, Head Coach, three seasons
Record: 34-6, 2 Big East conference titles, qualified for two BCS bowls (Orange and Sugar), three-time Big East Coach of the Year (2007, 2008, 2009), ESPN / Home Depot National Coach of the Year (2009)

Coach Kelly comes to us with an impressive resume and a meteoric rise up through the coaching ranks from Grand Valley State. For perspective, when we hired Coach Willingham, Coach Kelly had just lost his first appearance in the Div. II National Championship game. Now, he's ascended to very pinnacle of the coaching profession, leading the University of Notre Dame.

For those who are concerned that Coach Kelly can't bring Notre Dame back to prominence, consider the fact that while at Cincinnati, he took a program that had never won 10 games in a season to back-to-back BCS bowls and an undefeated regular season in 2009.  

That's an indication of how quickly he's learned to develop the talent of his players. Indeed, the three year turnarounds he orchestrated at Central Michigan and Cincinnati coincides well with the three-year championship mark set by every National Championship coach in Notre Dame's history.

Quarterback

Dayne Crist, RS Sophomore
Third year at Notre Dame, first year as starter, consensus 5-star recruit out of high school
Career stats: 10-20, 130 yds., 1 TD, 1 INT; 5 rush, 16 yds., 0 TD
Backups: Nate Montana (JR), Tommy Rees (FR), Andrew Hendrix (FR), Luke Massa (FR)

In his first year at the helm of the Irish offense, Dayne Crist comes in as the clear starter, taking over for Jimmy Clausen. A highly touted prospect out of high school, Dayne is an imposing figure, at 6'4" 235 lbs. He's got excellent athleticism, and a strong arm. Really, he has the potential to be the perfect spread QB, if lacking top end speed.  

Think Tim Tebow with more size and speed, better throwing mechanics, and nearly all of the intangibles (except perhaps the bravado). The only question marks are his recovery from a torn ACL last season, his relative inexperience, and the difficulties in changing systems from a pro-style attack to the spread.  

I expect him to be a little hesitant at the beginning of the year, and progress nicely as he settles into his new role—he will be one of the best QBs in the country by season's end, barring injury.
Running Back

Armando Allen, Senior
Fourth year at Notre Dame, fourth year as starter
Career stats:  33 games, 19 starts, 362 rushes for 1,630 yds (4.5 avg) 6 TD, 102 rec 695 yds (6.8 avg) 3 TD, 54 KR 1,247 yds (23.1 avg), 1 TD
Backups: Cierre Wood (RS FR), Jonas Gray (JR), Robert Hughes (SR)

Armando Allen is returning for his fourth and final year of eligibility, and despite being entrenched as a starter, he has never shown the explosiveness that everyone has expected to see from him.

He does have one kickoff return TD to his credit, but he's never seemed to have the capability to get out in the open field and blow past people. He is a solid option at running back, with good blocking skills, good all-around running skills, and if he ever learns the vision necessary to see his openings, very good speed.

I hope Armando develops into the breakaway back we've all been expecting him to be, but if he does not, we do have some other options in the backfield.

Cierre Wood, consensus 5-start running back talent that redshirted his freshman year last year, has moved up right behind Armando on the depth chart, and showed some serious skills in the Blue/Gold game. If Armando can't start to find ways to make big gains from the line of scrimmage, Wood will snatch his starting position, and I doubt he'll ever give it back.

Robert Hughes will be a valuable change of pace as a more bruising (but surprisingly agile) back, probably turned to in short yardage situations. And Jonas Gray has shown himself to be a solid all-around back, and will be given plenty of opportunities to make an impact as well. In fact, we were so deep at the running back position that the coaching staff moved Theo Riddick to receiver so they could find opportunities to get him on the field more.

This unit should be the strength of the offense early in the season, and give defenses fits if they worry too much about the pass game.

Tight End

Kyle Rudolph, Junior
Third year at Notre Dame, third year as starter
Career stats:  23 games, 22 starts, 62 rec 704 yds (11.4 avg) 5 TD
Backups:  Tyler Eifert (SO), Mike Ragone (RS JR), Jake Golic (RS FR)

Kyle Rudolph may be the best player on the team. A preseason All-American and arguably the odds-on favorite for the John Mackey Award, Rudolph has already shown himself to be the most complete tight end in the country.

With Coach Kelly talking about utilizing Kyle as a Wildcat, his freakish athleticism and size could find new avenues for productivity as well. He creates some ridiculous matchup problems for opposing defenses, and I'm certain that he will be a lynchpin to this team's success, especially early in the season. He will be lined up all over the field, as Kelly and Co. try to keep opposing defenses scrambling to cover him.

Of particular interest, however, is that while they have been resting Kyle during summer camp for a tweaked hammy, Coach Kelly had high praise for the second tight end on the team, calling Tyler Eifert the best tight end he's ever coached. Put that together with one of the best receiving corps in the country (more on that in a moment), and there should be plenty of weapons to keep this offense juiced.

Wide Receivers

Michael Floyd, Junior
3rd year at Notre Dame, third year as starter
Career stats:  18 games, 17 starts, 92 rec 1,514 yds (16.5 avg) 16 TD

Duval Kamara, Senior
4th year at Notre Dame, fourth year as starter
Career stats:  36 games, 19 starts, 75 rec 781 yds (10.4 avg) 6 TD

Theo Riddick, Sophomore
2nd year at Notre Dame, first year as starter
Career stats:  12 games, 0 starts, 29 rushes, 160 yds (5.5 avg) 6 rec, 43 yds (7.2 avg), 37 KR, 849 yds (22.9 avg)

Backups:  John Goodman (JR), T.J. Jones (FR), Shaquelle Evans (SO)

Arguably one of the best receiving corps in the nation, the tools are in place for the spread passing attack to be extremely prolific this year. Michael Floyd is arguably the best receiver in the nation, competing with A.J. Green (Georgia), Julio Jones (Alabama), Jonathan Baldwin (Pitt), and Demaryius Thomas (Georgia Tech) for that honor.

Duval Kamara has his last opportunity to shine at receiver, after a full career as a backup to the Tate and Floyd show. If he has developed as a more complete receiver this offseason, he will have plenty of ball thrown his way, as teams try to find ways to contain Floyd and Rudolph.

Theo Riddick was moved to the receiving corps from the running back logjam, and the coaching staff is excited with what he can do in space with the ball in his hands. He'll get a lot of running opportunities out of the slot as well on reverses and end-arounds.

What's really impressive here, however, is the insane depth we have at receiver. Tai-ler Jones is going to be a special receiver, and will be given plenty of opportunities this year to stretch the field. John Goodman has proven himself to be an excellent possession receiver with good speed, very reminiscent of Samardzija. And Shaquelle Evans is on the two-deep as well, and has almost been lost in the shuffle with the ridiculous amount of talent, but he's no slouch and is probably the fastest receiver we will put on the field.

Offensive Line

Zack Martin, Sophomore, Left Tackle, 
2nd year at Notre Dame, first year as starter
0 games, 0 starts

Chris Stewart, Senior, Left Guard
4th year at Notre Dame, fourth year as starter
28 games, 22 starts

Dan Wenger, Senior, Center
2nd year at Notre Dame, first year as starter
29 games, 19 starts

Trevor Robinson, Junior, Right Guard, 
3rd year at Notre Dame, third year as starter
22 games, 14 starts

Taylor Dever, Senior, Right Tackle
4th year at Notre Dame, first year as starter
18 games, 0 starts

Backups: Matt Romine (SR LT), Mike Golic, Jr. (JR LG), Braxston Cave (JR C), Chris Watt (SO RG), Andrew Nuss (SR RT)

This is an interesting lineup for the Irish offensive line, and their ability to produce will largely decide how the season goes for the Fighting Irish.

The biggest surprise is redshirt freshman Zack Martin winning the left tackle position battle handily. While he is inexperienced, and that's never good for the guy responsible for guarding the QB's backside, the fact that this coaching staff named him early on to that position and has never wavered tells me that he has the skills to be extremely successful there.

Next to him is fifth year Senior Chris Stewart, who brings a ton of experience and intelligence with him—Stewart is the first ever Div. I football player to start while also enrolled in his first year of law school.  

He's got the size and experience to be a standout, but as an alumnus of Notre Dame Law School, I am somewhat worried about his ability to keep up with the demands of both Law School and football. If he can keep his head in the game, he will be invaluable to the inexperienced Zack Martin.

Dan Wenger is in a heated battle at the center position, but his consistency in shotgun snaps means that he will probably hold onto the position until Braxston Cave (a stronger blocker) can demonstrate that he won't throw the ball away in a crucial situation. He also brings a ton of experience to the table.

Trevor Robinson is one of those guys that just comes to work every day and gets his job done. He started on the O-line his freshman year, and has had a stranglehold on the right guard position ever since, and probably will until he graduates. No worries here.

Bookending the line is Taylor Dever, who has been a bit of a project during his career here. He redshirted his freshman year and appeared mostly on special teams and in a reserve role the next two years. Now, he's finally gotten himself in a position to start, and hopefully the experience of Robinson right next to him will keep him from getting lost. This is the potentially weakest link on the offensive line. 

Coach Kelly has said that he believes he has 10 guys on the offensive line that can play championship football, so if injuries or inconsistencies plague any of the starters, there are plenty of guys chomping at the bit for their shot.

Defensive Line

Ethan Johnson, Junior, Defensive End, 
2nd year at Notre Dame, first year as starter
25 games, 15 starts
50 TT, 24 UT, 11.5 TFL (-60 yds), 7.5 sacks (-49 yds), 1 FF, 2 FR, 2 PBU

Ian Williams, Senior, Nose Guard
4th year at Notre Dame, fourth year as starter
25 games, 9 starts
39 TT, 18 UT, (per Rivals - UND has not update '09 stats for Ian)

Kapron Lewis-Moore, Junior, Defensive End
2nd year at Notre Dame, first year as starter
12 games, 9 starts
46 TT, 26 UT, 7 TFL (-23 yds), 2.5 sacks (-12.5 yds), 1 FF, 1 FR

Backups: Hafis Williams (JR DE), Sean Cwynar (JR NG), Emeka Nwankwo (SR DE), Louis Nix (FR NG)

The defensive line has long been a problem for the Fighting Irish, as teams have repeatedly gouged us on the ground the last few years. This year, we should be much stouter against the run.  

Switching to a 3-4 alignment allows us to take advantage of our strength (the linebacking corps) while minimizing an area where we lack depth (D line). That said, we are very well situated on our D-line, with Ian Williams manning the Nose Guard with size, improved strength, and a ton of playing experience.  

Rushing the passer will be two very talented pass rushers, who will both likely have big years. Ethan Johnson has a ton of experience and is the most complete defensive lineman we have right now, but Kapron Lewis-Moore is a freakish athlete who may be much more of a threat than Johnson as the season wears on.

Linebackers

Darius Fleming, Junior, Outside Linebacker, 
3rd year at Notre Dame, third year as starter
24 games, 10 starts
53 TT, 33 UT, 14.5 TFL (-55 yds), 5.5 sacks (-39 yds), 1 FF

Anthony McDonald*, Junior, Inside Linebacker
3rd year at Notre Dame, first year as starter
12 games, 0 starts
10 TT, 5 UT, 5 AT 

Manti Te'o, Sophomore, Inside Linebacker
2nd year at Notre Dame, second year as starter
12 games, 10 starts
63 TT, 29 UT, 5.5 TFL (-25 yds), 1 sack (-12 yds), 1 PBU

Brian Smith**, Senior, Outside Linebacker
2nd year at Notre Dame, first year as starter
12 games, 9 starts
150 TT, 81 UT, 13.5 TFL (-75 yds), 5 sacks (-44 yds), 2 FF, 3 FR (35 yds), 2 PBU, 3 INT (35 yds)

Backups:  Kerry Neal (SR OLB), Steve Filer (JR OLB), Carlo Calabrese (SO ILB), Steve Paskorz (SR ILB)
* Anthony McDonald is injured for the opening game, and will likely only see backup duty—he is the probable long-term starter.
** Coach Kelly has talked about Steve Filer and most recently Kerry Neal as possibly supplanting Brian Smith, but I think that is more motivation than anything—Brian's experience and motor will keep him as the No. 1 guy long term, with Neal and Filer seeing plenty of time.

This unit is anchored by underclassman Manti Te'o, one of the most heralded recruits in Notre Dame history, who thus far has lived up to his billing. He's an absolute beast, and his athleticism will definitely create problems for opposing defenses who want to run against him.

The veteran leader of the squad is Brian Smith, who it seems has been playing linebacker for 20 years now. He's being pushed by the talent behind him, with both Kerry Neal and Steve Filer being mentioned by Coach Kelly as possibly passing Brian at the outside slot.

Darius Fleming is the pass rush specialist, who will certainly wreak some havoc in opposing backfields this year.

Joining Manti inside will be some combination of Anthony McDonald and Carlo Calabrese. McDonald had the edge coming out of camp until he got sidelined by injury, so Calabrese will get the nod to start the season.

This is a very deep unit, however. The competition at outside linebacker will be heated all season, and while nobody will supplant Manti short of injury, there are several other players pushing for playing time inside as well.

Secondary

Darrin Walls, Senior, Cornerback, 
5th year at Notre Dame, fourth year as starter
32 games, 21 starts
99 TT, 45 UT, 3.5 TFL (-18 yds), 2 FF, 16 PBU, 2 INT (75 yds)

Gary Gray, Senior, Cornerback
4th year at Notre Dame, second year as starter
20 games, 7 starts
43 TT, 32 UT, 3 PBU, 3 INT (95 yds) 

Harrison Smith, Senior, Safety, 
4th year at Notre Dame, third year as starter
12 games, 10 starts
126 TT, 78 UT, 15 TFL (-51 yds), 3.5 sacks (-26 yds), 11 PBU

Jamoris Slaughter, Junior, Safety
3rd year at Notre Dame, second year as starter
12 games, 1 start
14 TT, 12 UT

Backups: Robert Blanton (JR CB), Lo Wood (FR CB), Dan McCarthy (JR S), Zeke Motta (SO S)

This unit worries me. If they stay healthy, the front line players are very good. Harrison Smith is back at his natural position with a staff that knows how to teach him to play. Jamoris Slaughter can bring the wood, and Walls and Gray have both shown the ability to be shut-down corners. Robert Blanton coming in as the nickel back makes this an excellent starting unit, with Dan McCarthy to come in and give people a breather at times.

Problem is, we're about one or two injuries away from complete disaster. There is almost no depth here, and if we lose a couple of starters, we're going to have some very green players back there who may get torched for a lot of yards.

So light a candle in the Grotto each week for this unit, that they can stay healthy and productive all season long.

*****

2010 Schedule
Now, a week-by-week breakdown of our opponents for 2010, with predictions for each game.

9/04/2010  vs. Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue is, in my opinion, the perfect opponent to start the season against. They should be a decent team this year, but the Irish have more talent and should win this game. 

Last year, a poor defense allowed Purdue to keep it close, and a last second touchdown pass by Jimmy Clausen sealed the win.

This year, look for the Irish defense to be improved, and the Purdue offense may take a little while to get going under new quarterback Robert Mavre, a transfer from the University of Miami. While the Irish offensive attack may also take some time to develop, Purdue's weak secondary should allow the Irish passing attack to gain some confidence early in the season.

The battle to watch here will be Purdue's defensive end, Ryan Kerrigan, doing battle with our new offensive tackle Zack Martin. If Martin is as good as the Irish coaching staff thinks he is, and he can handle Kerrigan, that will bode very well for the season. If Martin can't contain Kerrigan and we are forced to keep a back in to double team him, the Irish may struggle a bit.

Optimistic prediction: Notre Dame 49 Purdue 24 (W)
Notre Dame comes out of the gate guns blazing, torching Purdue's weak secondary en route to an impressive debut for Coach Kelly.

Realistic prediction: Notre Dame 24 Purdue 14 (W)
Notre Dame's offense is productive, but their inexperience rears its ugly head, shooting themselves in the foot on multiple occasions, allowing Purdue to keep it close.  But we do get some glimpses of what this team is capable of.

Pessimistic prediction: Notre Dame 14 Purdue 17 (L)
The Irish can't keep Dayne Crist upright and as a result, Notre Dame loses the turnover battle. Purdue comes out looking like the team that beat Ohio State last year, and finds a way to squeak out a victory.

9/11/2010 vs. Michigan Wolverines
The Michigan program is still struggling to find its feet under coach Rich Rodriguez. There is a lot of team speed, and their offensive line should be much improved this season.

They have two dangerous QBs, Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier, who are still battling for the starting position. Robinson is a speedster that can be dangerous running out of the backfield, while a little inconsistent as a passer. Tate Forcier is a much better passer, but isn't as dangerous running the football.

Michigan is still looking for receivers to step up their game and fuel this spread offense, and they are dangerously shallow at several positions. Unfortunately, we get them early in the season before the lack of depth really starts to damage this team's potency.

Even Michigan fans don't really know what to expect here. If Rich Rod goes 5-7 again, he'll surely be canned at the end of the season. However, if he finds a way to win eight or nine games, then he'll develop some momentum to build this program long-term.

The key matchup to watch here will be Michigan's cornerback Troy Woolfolk versus Notre Dame's wide receiver Michael Floyd. Indeed, I may go so far as to say whoever wins that battle wins the game. Michigan will score some points, but they will also struggle to keep Notre Dame from scoring if they can't contain Floyd one-on-one with their senior cornerback.

Optimistic prediction: Notre Dame 35 Michigan 10 (W)
Notre Dame's offense, confident off the previous week's torching of Purdue, comes out with a lot of confidence and Michigan can't figure out how to cover both Floyd and Rudolph at the same time. Meanwhile, Michigan still can't seem to find consistency at the quarterback position and disgruntled Michigan fans start to call for Rich Rodriguez's head.

Realistic prediction: Notre Dame 45 Michigan 35 (W)
I think that both teams score a lot of points, but ultimately the Irish advantage at the receiver position means that Michigan just can't keep pace.

Pessimistic prediction:  Notre Dame 14 Michigan 38 (L)
Notre Dame's offense continues to struggle finding its identity, while Michigan finally starts to get it under Rich Rod's system, as the defense doesn't have an answer for Michigan's team speed.
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