Year two of Brian Kelly's quest for a national championship for Notre Dame football will be underway in a few short months. All teams undergo changes from year to year, with player personnel changes, good or poor recruiting cycles and coaching changes.
Many of the changes we will see this season will be obvious and others will be more subtle. One thing that I can guarantee from coach Kelly's squad in 2011 will be a better sense of familiarity, not just to offensive and defensive schemes but to day to day operations with the second year coach.
The following is a list of situations that Notre Dame fans should keep an eye out for in 2011.
Entering his third season as Notre Dame's middle linebacker, Manti Te'o is already a seasoned veteran. He has started 23 of the 25 games that he has appeared in and racked up 196 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss and two sacks.
Te'o led the Irish in total tackles with 133 in 2010 and was one of seven defenders to start every game. His 21 tackles against Stanford were the second most ever by an Irish sophomore, and he finished the season ranked No. 18 in the nation with 10.23 tackles per game.
Looking back to the fourth quarter of Notre Dame's 33-17 victory over Miami in the Sun Bowl, the Irish defense seemed different without Te'o on the field. Miami was held to 213 yards of offense in the first three quarters only to gain 192 in the final stanza, without Te'o.
Look for Manti Te'o to combine his field presence with his familiarity of the system to become more of a field general on the defensive side of the ball. Te'o should embrace this role and make the defense his.
Everyone knows that Michael Floyd is a play-maker. He is also one of the most unselfish players in recent memory. His 1025 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in 2010 speak volumes of his talent. The statistic that gets lost is his yards per catch average, in 2010 Floyd averaged 13.1 yards per catch, down from 18.0 in 2009.
How can losing almost five yards per catch be a positive? Very simply, Floyd made adjustments to a new coach, new offense and multiple quarterbacks. And he did so without making waves.
In fact, Michael Floyd decided to honor his commitment and return for his senior season. While Floyd's play will speak for itself, the benefits to the underclassmen in the receiving corps will be noteworthy.
With the quarterback situation still unresolved, now is the time for Michael Floyd to grab the reigns of the offense and make a statement.
Numbers don't lie. Notre Dame finished with the 51st ranked defense in the nation in 2010, a little better than middle of the pack. If you break it down a little further the numbers are very interesting. The Irish had the No. 32 ranked defense in victories.
By month Notre Dame was ranked 103rd at the end of September, 49th at the end of October and second in the nation at the end of November. That is an impressive leap, a leap that can be attributed to getting familiar with Bob Diaco's system.
The crucial moment came after the loss to Navy.
The players had a choice, they could turn their backs on Diaco and his system or they could buy in. They chose to buy in, and the results were incredible.
With the return of virtually the whole defensive unit, everything should be in place for a fantastic defense. The most critical part will be the familiarity with coach Diaco's system.
Cierre Wood needs to carry the football 250 times next season. In 2010 Wood and Robert Hughes combined for 226 carries and 1117 yards. Establishing a primary back that will provide the bulk of the carries will not only solidify the running game but also be a selling point for much needed running back recruits for the 2012 cycle.
As a team the Irish carried the ball 414 times in 2010. With the limited amount of running backs available in 2011, designating a primary back to handle the majority of the carries will provide stability at a position that hasn't been stable since the days of Autry Denson.
Notre Dame must improve upon the 92nd ranking that they finished with last season in rushing. This should prove to be an attainable task, taking into account Wood's presence last season and a more expanded play book.
It's no secret that I have been on the Louis Nix bandwagon for three years now. The time is now. Nix will prove to be an impact player from the first snap. After sitting out the 2010 season Nix will be "Caged heat."
A player with Nix's intensity is not satisfied hitting players wearing the same jersey. The raw power of this 6'3" 340 pound punisher will be unleashed in week one.
Nix also has the benefit of learning from one of the best in Ian Williams, these types of lessons don't come from coaching, these are life lessons.
Louis Nix is physical and dominant, and should be even more improved after a year on the scout team. Factor in a year with coach Longo and the possibilities are endless with Mr. Nix.
The dye is already cast. It is no secret that Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Williams will make waves this season. Digging a little deeper into the 2011 recruiting cycle, young men like Jalen Brown, Stephon Tuitt and Cam McDaniel, who didn't enroll early, are also in a position to make early contributions.
At 6'0" and 170 pounds, cornerback Jalen Brown will be in a prime spot. He has the opportunity to study under Gary Gray, who has 20 career starts, and Robert Blanton: two unheralded cornerbacks that get the job done, week in and week out.
Stephon Tuitt could make an impact due to his strength alone, and his 6'5" frame looks as though he will be able to put more mass on without weighing down his game. Tuitt's 3.4 GPA proves his intelligence. Look for him to create some havoc on the field one way or another this season. He is too talented to not see action.
Cam McDaniel is going to be getting a crash course in Division I football. The Irish have already been bitten by the injury bug at the running back spot, so look for McDaniel to be called to duty, whether he's ready or not. McDaniel comes from a highly competitive league and has power and balance. He will surprise those that talk like he was an afterthought. I really believe that there are no afterthoughts in coach Kelly's system.
Everyone watches different things during pregame warm ups. Some folks watch the receivers run routes, others watch the big uglies bang each other around.
I encourage anyone who is at a Notre Dame game this season to do what I do. Watch Ben Turk. I have made this comparison before and will say it again, watching Turk is like watching a professional dart thrower. His accuracy is unreal. Turk could knock a dollar off the pylon and leave 50 cents change.
He is that accurate.
Only 14 of Turk's 68 punts were returned last season, he landed 26 punts inside the 20 yard line, and had only three touchbacks. Turk averaged 38.3 yards per punt last season and has one of the quickest releases that you will ever find.
The torch has been passed. Tyler Eifert stepped in for an injured Kyle Rudolph last season and all he did was rank third on the team with 27 catches for 352 yards and two touchdowns.
More importantly, look for Eifert to carry on the tradition of quality tight ends making big contributions. Others will benefit from Eifer as well. Jake Golic and Alex Welch will have a mentor with game experience.
Ben Koyack will step on campus and immediately fall into a system that has flourished for years.
Further down the road, this pipeline of tight ends to the NFL can only help in recruiting future tight ends such as Taylor MacNamara, a prep standout from San Diego.
Look for Tyler Eifert to step up and carry on, the same as he did when called upon last season.
Brian Kelly spoke about building a foundation. The foundation is set.
Everything should run smoother in 2011, from practice to execution. Last year valuable time was wasted just teaching players where to be and when to be there under a new regime. Time was spent "uncoaching" also. This season everyone should be on the same page.
It is my own estimation that we saw maybe 30 percent of Brian Kelly's offense last season, due in part to Tommy Rees' unfamiliarity with the system.
As expected, the Irish were a more in tune offensive unit at the Sun Bowl, which was expected because of the extra practice time.
Look for a more explosive offense in 2011, coupled with a stingy defense.
Notre Dame football is on the verge of something special.