The 2011 edition of Notre Dame Football was shaping up to be good. Very good.
However, on March 21st of this year, star wide receiver Michael Floyd was arrested for DUI in the early morning hours. Floyd has been projected by most to be one of the first receivers taken in the next NFL draft and had already set most of the receiving records at Notre Dame.
In the minds of almost every American (or so it seems), the Irish went from very good to just decent. The general consensus is that the Irish offense led by either Dayne Crist or Tommy Rees will struggle mightily to move the ball without Michael Floyd. We received more information today as to whether that will be the case, as Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly told the South Bend Tribune that Floyd will either be reinstated entirely or miss the entire season, an "all-in or out situation" according to the coach.
In contrast, there is evidence to show that Notre Dame can still win and win big without Floyd hauling in 70-yard passes with his teeth. I don't know about most Notre Dame fans, but aren't you guys a little tired about hearing about what a mediocre football team we are without Michael Floyd? About how much of a game-changer he is and how we're doomed to fail without him?
Fear not, because these are the five major reasons why Notre Dame does not need Michael Floyd to be successful.
Does everyone remember the bye week last year when it seemed like the Irish were dead men walking while missing the starting quarterback, star tight end, starting running back, leading tackler on the defensive line and starting cornerback? It seemed like opposing defenses would simply key onto the running game and force Tommy Rees to throw the ball to the walking wounded. There was no way we could win four straight, right?
Well Brian Kelly was aware of these facts as well and completely reorganized the offense, calling for less passes, more runs and screens, longer ball control and emphasis on hard-nosed football.
The result? The Irish went from 4-5 with an inconsistent offense to 8-5 with an offense that could be expected to move the ball when it mattered most. The run blocking improved exponentially, Rees usually had all day to throw while Robert Hughes and Cierre Wood gashed opposing defenses for seven yards a play.
The moral of the story? Brian Kelly will not "force-feed" a Michael Floyd-less offense to the team. He will tailor a game plan to meet the needs of the offense and use the strengths of the players he has. In similar situations at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, Kelly did not try to use a system that was broken once a key player (such as Tony Pike or Vidal Hazleton at Cincinnati) was injured. He stepped back, re-evaluated the situation and made the changes necessary to make sure things would continue to move smoothly.
The Irish offense in the weeks of practice leading up to the season will get plenty of time to prepare without Michael Floyd and will have a solid game plan in place to deal with his loss. Once the time is right and Floyd comes back, another game plan will be enacted, and the Irish will have simply gained another weapon.
Relax, our program is in great hands.
Notre Dame fans may be asking, "What?! Of course it's not. Brian Kelly is our head coach now! How is this relevant?" Indeed, Charlie is now down at Florida drinking beers with Will Muschamp and screaming at John Brantley.
However, it appears that many fans, writers, analysts and so-called "experts" seem to have no knowledge of this glaring fact. Remember the good days of the Weis Era? When Jeff Samardzija, Maurice Stovall, Rhema McKnight and Golden Tate were catching everything thrown their way?
Well, 2007 will prove my point. Only one of these guys I just mentioned was on that team, and he only started one game. Notre Dame had no go-to receiver. Sure, David Grimes was a quick dude, and George West seemed to be an excellent target, but there was no argument that Notre Dame had no elite receiver as they had a year before. John Carlson could only do so much, and half the time he was helping Jimmy Clausen run for his life.
Instead of taking advantage of the fact that his new receivers were burners who could fly by most defenders, Weis opted to run the exact same medium-range passing offense he had a year ago. Very few times did we see the offense try to run simple check-down plays or crossing patterns or even deep verticals, instead we saw the quarterback get sacked every other play.
Weis' rigid, no-change offense became the death of a promising year as a ton of talent was squandered trying to imitate players who would collect millions in the NFL (or in Samardzija's case, the MLB).
As shown in the previous slide, Brian Kelly will create an offense that does what is needed with what it has, unlike Weis', which demanded that players with no experience do everything flawlessly with a quarterback who spent more time on his back than looking for places to throw the ball. This is the Brian Kelly Era at Notre Dame, we can trust a receiver not named Floyd to catch a pass.
I think it's about time that the media notice that there's a new man in South Bend.
It's no secret that Notre Dame's defensive pride has suffered a terrible beating this last decade under coordinators who, if they gave up a 10-yard pass two plays in a row, were shipped out of town and a new one brought in. In 2009 they hit rock bottom, giving up so many yards that Toby Gerhart and Tate Forcier publicly apologized for tearing them up so badly.
A year later, eight games into the season, the Irish looked to be in the same position after a disaster against Navy. However, something changed that day as Bob Diaco admitted that he never had a backup plan for when things didn't go well against the Midshipmen.
The next week versus Tulsa, the Irish defense only gave up 13 points in an effort against the top-ranked offense in the country...but lost. The next four games, the Notre Dame defense gave up three points to Utah, three points to Army, 16 points to USC (every single Trojan drive started within the Irish 40-yard line) and 17 points to Miami (14 scored in garbage time).
An incredible average of only 10.4 points per game given up over the last five games of the season, which, had those numbers been projected over an entire season, would have placed the Irish second in the nation behind only TCU in points allowed.
In addition, the Irish defense would have ranked in the Top 25 in yards per game allowed, rushing yards allowed, passing yards allowed and opposing passing efficiency. The four-game win streak at the end of last year can actually be better attributed to the defense playing lights out rather then the offense becoming more consistent as the Irish defense dominated every single one of their last opponents.
The same could be said for this year's offense should Floyd be missing if the defense will continue their run of shutting down opposing defenses.
The defense will only get better in year two under Bob Diaco as they return nine starters and add depth at critical positions with blue-chip recruits such as Aaron Lynch, Ishaq Williams, Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix. Add them with Manti Te'o, Harrison Smith and Kapron Lewis-Moore, and we are talking about a defense that could compete with the best in the SEC and we all know it.
Let it sink in Irish fans, we finally have a great defense.
As I stated earlier, Dayne Crist or Tommy Rees will not have an inexperienced corp of receivers to throw to in the games that Michael Floyd misses because of his suspension. Returning starters Theo Riddick, TJ Jones and Robby Toma are more than capable of filling the void left by Floyd. Tyler Eifert will also be expected to contribute greatly out of the tight end position after a great first year.
Junior Theo Riddick will certainly be the leader of the returning receivers and for good reason. Despite only catching 40 balls last year for 414 yards, those numbers are a little skewed by the fact he missed four games and played the last two of the season mostly running out of the Wildcat. He has unbelievable speed and has some of the best moves I've ever seen out of a wide receiver (look at that first-down catch during Pitt game).
He and Robby Toma are incredibly similar in this regard as both have great speed and are perfect fits to run Kelly's spread offense.
Sophomore TJ Jones is an entirely different monster. He has Floyd-like hands, which have been evidenced by great catches he made early last year. Like Riddick, his numbers were not huge, but that is also because of injury (three games) and the fact that he shared time with Duval Kamara most of the year.
With Kamara gone, Jones' excellent hands will have a chance to showcase what they can do. Look for the quarterback to throw to him often in the red zone. My enthusiasm for Jones' potential is off the roof after seeing what he could do last year.
Tyler Eifert may be the best and most important out of any of these players. Production from the tight end position did not drop off one bit after future NFL star Kyle Rudolph was lost for the season and Eifert actually surpassed Rudolph's numbers in his playing time.
He also has a fantastic set of hands and is a huge target in the middle of the field. He runs extremely well and is a huge factor in run blocking while also being a threat to catch touchdowns. He will be the quarterback's best friend this year and is as reliable as they come.
So don't worry about the other wideouts, they know what they have to do.
My vote for most important player on next year's team goes not to whomever the starting quarterback will be, not to Michael Floyd, but to Cierre Wood. Notre Dame has to go back to the days when Darius Walker ripped off 100-yard games every weekend to find a true game-changer at running back, and Cierre Wood has the tools to be better than him.
This kind of speed in the backfield simply hasn't been here at Notre Dame in quite a while (not even Julius Jones is as fast as Wood). He has what it takes to put next year's offense on an entirely different level.
Coach Kelly has heaped praise upon Wood ever since he's been in South Bend, and why not? Wood averaged over eight yards a carry in his first collegiate action in the season opener against Purdue. After Armando Allen was sadly lost for the season, Wood really stepped up his game and was a crucial part of the offense in the four-game tear to end the year as the Irish averaged 156 yards on the ground in those last four games.
After a great Blue-Gold Game where he once again displayed his speed and elusiveness, Cierre Wood is reminding us that the passing game isn't everything.
Senior Jonas Gray is Thunder to Wood's lightning. Much has been said about the fumbling problem that Gray has had over the years and he has given us reason for concern. However, the question is does he have the tools to make the running game more effective? That answer is a resounding yes.
He has excellent speed for a running back his size, and word out of spring practice was that his footwork has really improved and he will complement Wood well in the backfield.
Granted depth at this position is thin, but should the offensive line do their job and no disastrous injuries occur, the Irish running should be potent once again.
Floyd's off-field incidences fall squarely into the category of "team distraction" which would derail most college teams seasons (Michigan under RichRod), but not this team.
After the lackluster loss to Navy and the tragic death of Declan Sullivan, the Irish lost in devastating fashion to Tulsa by one point in what seemed to be a game the Irish let slip away in the final moments. We all remember what happened afterwards. Rumors of a lost locker room, players de-committing left and right, calls for Coach Kelly's head to roll etc... Find me one person who felt like Notre Dame was going in the right direction after that game (trust me, I'm not one of them).
Going up against the 14th-ranked Utah Utes, there was really no one who gave the Irish a realistic chance to win much less compete. However, the team that came out of the tunnel on that rainy, overcast afternoon was focused, motivated, and most importantly, ready to play.
The end result was a 28-3 blowout win over a top-15 team that finished 10-3. Behind closed doors with a media hurricane swirling around the program, Brian Kelly showed why Notre Dame hired him in the first place by keeping the team together and sending them out ready to play on Senior Day.
All skeptics were completely defeated after the Irish won their last four straight and went into the offseason a completely different program then the one that walked off the field just a month earlier missing five key starters to a 4-5 football team.
So if we're missing one player (granted he is a superstar) who doesn't necessarily have to touch the ball every play, why should we expect anything different from Notre Dame than that nasty, in-your-face attitude that obliterated opponents in November and in the Sun Bowl? This is one of those teams that thrives in the face of scrutiny and adversity and has experience in overcoming both of those.
Trust me fellow fans, even though it looks like Michael Floyd will definitely be back to set all of the school receiving records, I think there is sufficient evidence to show we will win games with him, or without him.
Thanks for reading and there will be more to come.