Notre Dame Football: What to Expect from the Fighting Irish in 2012

Connor KillorenSenior Analyst IDecember 15, 2011

STANFORD, CA - NOVEMBER 26:  Andrew Hendrix #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs with the ball against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Stanford, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It's hard to believe, but it's already that time of year again. Time to leapfrog past the Champs Sports Bowl, and take a look at what's to come in the 2012 season for the Fighting Irish.

Brian Kelly's squad will kick off it's third season under the former Cincinnati head coach on September 1st against Navy at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland.

That's far from the most daunting trip, though.

The Irish will be flying to Norman, Oklahoma to take on the Oklahoma Sooners on October 27th, and to Los Angeles to play USC on November 24th.

Don't forget about a bus trip to East Lansing to meet Michigan State, either.

Such will be the life of Notre Dame's football team in 2012. The challenges abound, and it's not unreasonable to be nervous about the potential outcomes if you're a fan.

However, there's also reason to be enthusiastic.

Just take a look at the pieces the Irish have coming back on both sides of the ball. We'll start with the offense.

To the dismay of many a fan, Tommy Rees will be entering his junior season in South Bend, and is likely to be named the starter for the season's first game against Ken Niumatololo's Navy Midshipmen.

Despite Rees' deficiencies, he does have experience on his side. He'll also have the change-up element in play, with redshirt sophomore Andrew Hendrix.

Add to that an offensive line that is likely to return three of five starters from this past season, and those pessimistic feelings begin to subside.

That offensive line will have the pleasure of run-blocking for Cierre Wood, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark earlier this season. Wood's complement, Jonas Gray, will be sorely missed, but sophomores-to-be George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel should combine to fill Gray's shoes.

As for the receivers, it's no mystery that Michael Floyd's absence will be quite noticeable. No single player will be able to match his production, but incoming freshman Deontay Greenberry has a similar build to Floyd, at 6'3" and 187 pounds. Some work in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo will add some bulk to Greenberry's frame.

All in all, this offense is primed to have another productive 2012 season.

The defensive side of the ball is equally as promising, save for the secondary. The losses of Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray (I know I'll take some heat for including Gray) will be evident.

Will incoming freshmen defensive backs Ronald Darby, Tee Shepard, C.J. Prosise and John Turner be able to make a difference? Only time will tell.

The good news for this defense is the return of inside linebacker Manti Te'o, which I detailed in an article published earlier this week. His experience and leadership will be key in leading a young Notre Dame defense in 2012.

STANFORD, CA - NOVEMBER 26:  Cierre Wood #20 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Stanford, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The defensive line may be young as well, but it's extremely talented, nonetheless.

Returning for the Irish will be standout defensive ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, along with monster defensive tackle Louis Nix. Add incoming defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day to the mix, and you have the makings of a nightmarish D-line.

So how will the makings of this 2012 squad handle the buzz-saw of a schedule? It's certainly up for debate. After taking a long, hard look at the aforementioned schedule, it's safe to say that the Irish may be in for another 8-4, or even 7-5, regular season.

We might be surprised, though. Third-year coaches in South Bend have, historically, had success.