Like Brian Kelly's first season with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, his second season has had its ups and downs. But as disappointing as the year has been at times for fans, Kelly's second season has been a success.
First, let's get the let downs out of the way. The Irish lost some close games due to turnovers and defensive collapses, but most of those problems were from poor execution. Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco deserve some blame, but the players deserve it too.
Second, there seems to be a never ending quarterback competition. Fans are ready for the future, but Kelly and his staff are apt at developing talent. Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson will challenge Tommy Rees for the starting job next season, and the new-look offense is right around the corner.
So, why is this season considered a success? Looking at the team's progression from Kelly's first year to his second, the team has vastly improved.
The offensive line is among the best in the country, and three out of its five starters are going to return (Braxton Cave's return is almost guaranteed).
Last season, Notre Dame's offensive line was 43rd in sacks allowed before the Sun Bowl against Miami. This season, the Irish rank 17th in the nation in sacks allowed.
The Irish running game has improved as well. Last season, Notre Dame ranked 96th with 120.83 rushing yards per game. This season, the Irish are 54th in rushing with 166 yards per contest, and that isn't because the team regressed in the passing game.
The Irish ranked an impressive 27th in passing offense last season and have dropped seven spots to 34th this season. But when taking a closer look at the numbers, the Irish have actually improved.
Notre Dame averaged 257.48 passing yards per game last season compared to 258 passing yards per game this year. Notre Dame's total offense moved up 29 spots to 34th, and its scoring offense moved up 31 spots to 43rd.
So, what about the defense? In most areas, it has improved as well.
In 2010, the Irish ranked 56th in rushing defense and 40th in passing defense. Notre Dame was 46th in total defense and 29th in scoring defense.
In 2011, Notre Dame is 58th in rushing defense and 34th in passing defense (the Irish are allowing only .33 rushing yards per game more in 2011). The Irish are 34th in total defense and 28th in scoring defense.
The three areas on defense the team hasn't improved in are sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers.
The Irish had 18 interceptions in all of 2010, forced eight fumbles and had 26 sacks compared to just eight interceptions, 20 sacks and seven forced fumbles in one less game in 2011.
The Irish do have 41 quarterback hurries in 2011 to 34 in 2010, and injuries and inexperience on the defensive line was a major reason the turnover and sack statistics haven't improved across the board (although they are relatively close).
Beyond statistics, Kelly has made a point to recruit players that mesh and bring in depth at important positions, and he also has a ton of talent returning.
At quarterback, Golson, Rees and Hendrix all have legitimate shots at starting next season, and fans can rest easy that a backup will be able to come in and take over Kelly's intricate offense.
The offensive line will have a ton of competition next season for the openings at right tackle and right guard. While there are some frontrunners, the young talent at guard and tackle make it nearly impossible to predetermine a starter.
It will be interesting to see who Brian Kelly uses at wideout next season to add height to a small receiver core that includes Theo Riddick, Robby Toma and T.J. Jones (and possibly John Goodman).
Behind Cierre Wood, Kelly has brought in a few players with a ton of potential. He will get to choose from a number of different weapons at the position.
George Atkinson III has proven he has game-changing ability. After bringing two kickoff returns back for touchdowns, he will get a shot next season to show if he can transfer those skills to running back.
Cam McDaniel could have a breakout season next year, too. He has great balance and his agility will be a huge asset to the running game.
Cam Roberson and incoming recruit William Mahone have a great chance of being used as short yardage and goal line backs for the Irish next year.
The future of the defensive line is as bright as it has ever been at Notre Dame. Defensive ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt have been studs in their first year. The sky is the limit for Kona Schwenke, and Chase Hounshell has surprised most fans being trust immediately into the rotation (and Kapron Lewis-Moore will likely return and bring his experience back to the line).
Louis Nix will be plugging up the middle for next next few years, and Sean Cwynar is likely going to return. Kelly has two players coming in, Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones, who have the size and skill to play in their first seasons.
The linebacker core has the potential to become one of the best in the nation. Manti Te'o is coming back for his senior season at inside linebacker. Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese also have ample experience on the inside, and Kendall Moore has shown signs of stardom.
Prince Shembo will be battling for a starting job on the outside with Danny Spond, Troy Niklas, Ishaq Williams and a whole host of younger players.
While there isn't much experience at defensive back outside of Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter at safety, Kelly has started to bring in depth.
Josh Atkinson, Lo Wood, Jalen Brown and Bennett Jackson are going to have to hold off Tee Shepard and Ronald Darby at cornerback.
Austin Collinsworth, Eilar Hardy and incoming recruit C.J. Prosise will fight for playing time behind Motta and Slaughter at safety.
Kelly will return to the Irish in 2012 smarter from the mistakes he made and with a boatload of young talent at every position, and he will once again look to improve his football team in 2012.
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