How much more celebrating will ND fans get to do this year?
The season is six months away, but that doesn't mean it's too early to dive right in to breaking down what's to come this fall!
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish ended last season with guns blazing, registering four straight victories thanks to a vastly improved defense and a balanced offensive attack. It was a shocking turnaround considering it came on the heels of a pair of devastating and embarrassing defeats to Navy and Tulsa.
A program left for dead as recently as October has suddenly re-emerged as one of the sexy picks to surprise in 2011. Today we'll examine 10 reasons why the Irish will fulfill those heightened expectations and hit the double-digit mark in victories for just the third time since 1993.
We live in a culture where the last thing to happen is always the most important thing, so let’s kick things off by acknowledging the fact that some serious instant impact freshmen studs are en route to South Bend.
In the last six weeks of the recruiting cycle, Brian Kelly managed to lock down three elite defensive front seven prospects who should all be given a chance to contribute this fall. The triumvirate of Stephon Tuitt, Ishaq Williams and Aaron Lynch arrive with some serious fanfare.
Will they live up to the hype that accompanies them in year one? Smart money says probably not. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if they had zero starts combined by the end of the season.
But what they will do is provide talented depth and—especially in the case of Williams and Lynch—supply a dynamic pass rush in obvious passing situations. Notre Dame hasn’t had physical specimens like this to play with on the defensive side of the ball in a long, long time, and don’t think for a second that coordinator Bob Diaco will let those toys sit on the shelf for long.
The loss of Kyle Rudolph to the NFL draft was a blow to the 2011 edition of the Fighting Irish, but in all honesty, it was forgotten relatively quickly when Michael Floyd announced he would be returning to school for his senior season.
A collective cheer from the Irish Faithful boomed across the country from office to office and dorm room to dorm room, but the most jubilant observers were without a doubt Brian Kelly, Tommy Rees and Dayne Crist. Floyd’s return means that the trio has a weapon on the edge that few teams can match up with.
Among his reasons for coming back was the fact that he “wants to show the country (he’s) the best receiver in college football in 2011.” Coach Kelly has praised his work ethic as one of the best he’s ever witnessed in all his years of coaching, and if Floyd’s hell-bent on being the best in the nation, you can count on him ratcheting his preparation even higher.
Entering his senior season, Floyd has 171 receptions, 2,539 yards and 28 touchdowns. Should he stay healthy for the entire year, he will shatter every career record in the Notre Dame history books and go a long way in making sure his collegiate resume is punctuated with a BCS bowl berth in January.
Martin was the most consistent lineman as a redshirt freshman last season.
One of the biggest determinants of a team’s success on the offensive side of the ball is continuity and experience along the line. The Irish are lucky enough to return four starters this fall—and the one new starter (Chris Watt) logged significant minutes along the interior last season.
The line really hit its stride down the stretch of the 2010 season, reaching its highest point in the road-grading final drive in the rain against Southern Cal that sealed Notre Dame’s first victory over the Trojans since 2001. Kelly’s commitment to the run after Rees took over as starter against Utah went a long way in heightening the confidence of the entire unit.
That wave of confidence should carry over into year two of the Kelly Era when everyone becomes even more comfortable with their duties and responsibilities within the spread offense scheme. The growing pains are over and if the final four games are any indication of what’s to come, pain for the opposition is on the way.
Cierre Wood was the team's leading rusher filling in for Armando Allen.
Speaking of experience, the Irish don’t just possess it along the offensive line—they have it all over the field.
Notre Dame loses three starters on offense (Armando Allen, Kyle Rudolph and Chris Stewart), but those losses are deceptive at least when it comes to lack of experience behind them. In the cases of Allen and Rudolph, they both missed significant time last year due to injury and capable replacements (Cierre Wood and Tyler Eifert) emerged in their absence.
The new starters will have no problem picking up where they left off—and with three years of eligibility remaining for both of them, there will be plenty of time to reach their potential.
Along the line, the loss of Chris Stewart hurts, but what a lot of people may not realize is that his backup Chris Watt logged plenty of minutes filling in for the mammoth law student. The offensive line shouldn’t see any drop-off despite his graduation—in fact, it should actually improve.
On defense the Irish lose just four starters: cornerback Darrin Walls, nose tackle Ian Williams, and linebackers Kerry Neal and Brian Smith. Walls had a fine senior season, but he was in a three-man rotation for two spots at cornerback with Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, who both return. The drop-off should be minimal, though it will hurt depth at a very thin position.
Williams was arguably the MVP of the first two-thirds of the season, but the injury he sustained against Navy allowed backups Sean Cwynar and Hafis Williams to get significant game action. Both proved to be very viable replacements down the stretch as Williams recovered.
Replacing Neal and Smith—who shared time most of the year at the Dog linebacker spot—is a slightly trickier proposition, but they’re hardly irreplaceable talents. One of the slew of talented linebackers on the roster will need to step up and fill their shoes.
Every team has holes that need to be filled by new starters at the beginning of each season. Luckily for Notre Dame, they’ll have just one position where the new starter hasn’t either started at some point in their career or at least logged significant minutes. That’s a luxury few teams in the entire NCAA will have.
The Irish defense stepped up big late in the year.
Since Charlie Weis took the reins in the 2005 season, there hasn’t been a shortage of offensive firepower in South Bend (not including the disastrous 2007 campaign). What was sorely lacking was a competent defense capable of holding its own against the nation’s elite.
After some early hiccups against Stanford and a catastrophe against Navy, Bob Diaco’s defensive squad tightened up and pieced together an unbelievable string of performances over the last five games. Take a look at a comparison between the average points scored and yards gained of the opponents in the games after Navy and what ND allowed:
Tulsa averaged 41 pts and 505 ypg. ND held them to 13* and 399.
Utah averaged 33 pts and 389 ypg. ND held them to 3 and 265.
Army averaged 27 pts and 329 ypg. ND held them to 3 and 174.
Southern Cal averaged 31 pts and 431 ypg. ND held them to 16 and 261.
Miami averaged 26 pts and 422 ypg. ND held them to 17 and 319.
*Tulsa ran a punt back for a touchdown and an interception so they aren’t counted as points against the defense.
On average over those five games the Irish defense held opponents to 21 points and 132 yards below their season averages. That’s dominance on the defensive side of the ball that Touchdown Jesus hasn’t witnessed since Shane Walton and Courtney Watson spearheaded the 2002 unit.
Seven starters return from that defensive unit, and as we touched on in the previous slide, three of those open positions will be filled by players who made major contributions last season. Pair Diaco’s boys with what’s sure to be an improving offense, and you’ve got a combination that could be pretty special.
Speaking of Diaco’s boys, a big addition to his arsenal comes along the defensive line. And by big I mean enormous. And by enormous I mean 350 lbs of unmovable mass named Louis Nix.
Big Lou was the biggest signing of Kelly’s first recruiting class and actually switched his commitment from Miami to Notre Dame after Weis was fired and before Kelly was hired. This endeared him to the Irish Faithful immediately, but what has made him a borderline cult legend before he’s seen a second of action is his tall-tale level size and strength.
Nix will most likely be plugged into the starting lineup as a red shirt freshman next season, providing prototypical size at the nose tackle position. He’s a game-changer capable of occupying multiple blockers and freeing others like Manti Te’o to make plays.
His presence adds a whole new dimension to the Irish defense and will make the 3-4 scheme even more effective than it was last season. That’s a scary thought for opponents—though the thought of a 6'3", 350-lb behemoth crushing their quarterback is probably even scarier.
Sticking with the defensive side of the ball, there’s something that needs to be pointed out. Check the list of defensive coordinators and schemes from the past five years:
2006–Rick Minter, 4-3
2007–Corwin Brown, 3-4
2008–Corwin Brown, 3-4
2009–Jon Tenuta, 4-3
2010–Bob Diaco, 3-4
Since 2006, Notre Dame has had four different coaches heading up the defense, and they’ve flip-flopped back and forth between the 3-4 and 4-3 on three occasions. That lack of continuity and constant scheme-switching have stunted the growth of some players while utterly killing the confidence of others (see: Harrison Smith in 2009).
Finally, it appears Notre Dame has settled on a coach and alignment for the long haul. Bob Diaco did a wonderful job implementing his system, making adjustments and showing marked improvement over the course of the year. It’s safe to assume that his players will be even more comfortable with their individual duties and coaches’ expectations in year two, which can only lead to more and more improvement.
The continuity provided by returning starters is a big deal, but the fact that there’s finally some stability and a long-term plan from the coaches might be even bigger.
The NCAA’s strength of schedule formula said that Notre Dame had the toughest schedule in the country last year. This upcoming campaign the Irish will face off against nine teams that went to bowls last season (and Southern Cal, which was ineligible to go to a bowl but would have qualified otherwise).
It seems as if Notre Dame once again will play an extremely difficult slate, so why would it be one of the 10 reasons they’ll win 10 games?
Let’s take a deeper dive to find out.
Sept. 3–South Florida…home opener is tricky, but ND will be favored.
Sept. 10–@ Michigan…The Big House will be out for blood, but they’ll be breaking in a new coach and unless they found a tree that grows defenses they’ll be in serious trouble.
Sept. 17–Michigan State…Tough game for the Irish, but once again ND has more talent across the board and will be favored at home.
Sept. 24–@ Pittsburgh…The Panthers are going through a coaching transition and a major change in the offensive system.
Oct. 1–@ Purdue…There’s serious rebuilding going on in West Lafayette.
Oct. 8–Air Force…The Zoomies are tough and disciplined, but if you’re to believe ND is on its way back, it will take care of business against the service academies.
Oct. 22–Southern Cal…The only team with more talent across the board than ND has a chance to be favored on the road, but Kiffin is still their coach last time I checked.
Oct. 29–Navy…See the Air Force analysis and add in the revenge factor of two humiliating losses.
Nov. 5–@ Wake Forest…The Demon Deacs are fresh off a dreadful 3-9 campaign.
Nov. 12–Maryland (in DC)…Terps are an interesting matchup, but once again Notre Dame should be favored.
Nov. 19–Boston College…The Eagles have given ND fits at home over the past 10 years, but this is yet another game where the Irish will be favored.
Nov. 26–@ Stanford…The Cardinal will be a Top 5 squad preseason. If they live up to the hype in their Post-Harbaugh World, then the Irish will likely be an underdog on The Farm.
So if you look at the schedule piece-by-piece, you realize that there isn’t a single “stretch” game out there. There are realistically three games where Notre Dame could be an underdog: Michigan, Southern Cal and Stanford. Chances are those spreads will be a touchdown or less (and ND might even be favored in the first two), which means the Irish certainly have a realistic shot of winning.
The days of plus-28 spreads for ND have mercifully come to a close.
The 2011 slate is by no means an easy schedule, but it is very manageable if the team takes care of business and wins the games it’s supposed to. Michigan and Southern Cal—historically the two most difficult opponents on the schedule—are both down and very beatable.
This is a schedule that should net the Irish at least 10 wins if they’re truly on their way back.
Robert Hughes showed the ND Faithful smashmouth football wasn't dead.
At the start of last season, Brian Kelly felt the best way to put the team in a position to win was to air it out and sling the ball around the field 40-50 times per game. This led to some relatively gaudy stats from first-year starter Dayne Crist, but limited success on the scoreboard.
As the season moved along, the head coach's philosophy altered a bit. Part of the reason was the passing wasn't working, but the true root cause of the change had to do with the fact that true freshman Tommy Rees was forced into the lineup because of an injury to Crist.
Starting with the Utah game, Notre Dame unveiled a much more balanced attack that relied heavily on the running game to help protect Rees and limit the freshman's potential mistakes. The result was a four-game win streak and a renewed confidence for the entire offensive unit.
Much like previous coach Charlie Weis, Brian Kelly was best known for manufacturing prolific offenses. In his final season at Cincinnati, his Bearcats averaged 447 yards and 38.6 points per game. When his superstar quarterback Tony Pike went down with an injury, their juggernaut of an offense didn't miss a beat with unheralded and previously unknown backup Zach Collaros.
Whenever there's a major change of offenses like there was when Kelly took over for Weis, there are plenty of kinks to be worked out as the players get acclimated to the new system. In fact, in an interview shortly after taking the job he said that most players wouldn't be completely comfortable with his spread offense until year two or three.
If there's one thing Irish fans can count on, it's marked strides on the offensive side of the ball. With essentially the entire starting lineup returning and absorbing another full year of reps everything should be moving forward as Kelly has planned.
His willingness to tweak his approach like he did down the homestretch of last season is something that has to at least somewhat ease the mind of spread offense skeptics.
The Irish were able to employ the smashmouth, hard-nosed rushing offense so many crave against Utah and Southern Cal, dispelling the myth that the spread was doomed to forever be a finesse offense. Once the passing element of the offense gets up to speed (and based on Kelly's track record at smaller schools with far less talent, it will, whether Rees or Crist leads it), the result will be a well-oiled offensive machine.
With so much experience coming back, don't be shocked if that machine shows up this fall.
Brian Kelly, the man tasked with ND's "Return to Glory."
In each of his coaching stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, Brian Kelly’s teams improved their records from year one to year two. At Central Michigan he led the Chippewas to a two-game improvement in his second season at the helm and registered their first winning season in seven years.
Three years later he was at it again, only this time he ripped off 10 straight victories to lead Cincinnati on an improbable run to the Big East title and a berth in the BCS.
Wherever Kelly has gone he’s found a way to win and keep improving. In his first season in South Bend he completely turned the season around after losing to Tulsa and hitting rock bottom. The Irish dug out of that hole, earned a bowl bid, and reversed the perceived direction of the entire program.
Kelly has a plan to lead Notre Dame back to prominence and little-by-little it has started to show signs of coming to fruition. First, the defense awoke from an eight-year slumber. Next, a more balanced offense emerged as Kelly worked his magic with yet another quarterback—this one a true freshman who looked completely overwhelmed and unprepared earlier in the year. Then in the offseason he inked a recruiting class that filled major needs and fit perfectly into his schemes.
He came in hyped as the hottest coach in college football and the savior of Notre Dame football. This season he's armed with an experienced team, a manageable schedule and an avalanche of momentum heading in the right direction.
The Irish Faithful aren't expecting a national championship yet, but in order to stay the course the team needs to break that 10-win barrier and re-enter Notre Dame in the BCS bowl discussion.
With Brian Kelly leading the charge, fans have to feel good about the chances of that coming to fruition.