Notre Dame has won at least eight games in each of Brian Kelly’s five seasons, but the Fighting Irish are looking to rebound after an 8-5 campaign in 2014. After a 7-1 start, Notre Dame lost four out of its last five games. Injuries and youth hindered the Fighting Irish last season, but the experience and additional depth should pay dividends for Kelly’s team in 2015.
Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports
Previewing Notre Dame’s Offense for 2015
Notre Dame showed marked improvement in scoring (from 27.2 ppg in 2013 to 32.8 in 2014) and total offense (405.8 ypg to 444.9), and all but four starters return in ’15. The challenge is maximizing the assets. And there’s clarity at the quarterback after uncertainty surrounded this position at the end of spring ball. Everett Golson transferred in early May, which leaves the starting job to promising sophomore Malik Zaire.
The offensive line, led by veterans Ronnie Stanley (left tackle), Nick Martin (center) and Steve Elmer (right guard), is the foundation upon which the Irish attack is built.
There appear to be plenty of skill-position buttons to push, starting with wideout Will Fuller, who exploded as a sophomore with 76 receptions for 1,094 yards and a school-record-tying 15 touchdowns. Running back Tarean Folston also had a quality sophomore season (889 yards rushing). Now the challenge is to get former five-star recruit Greg Bryant in the mix with Folston.
Weapons abound in the receiving corps, but reliability is the challenge. Corey Robinson, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle have yet to put together consistent seasons. C.J. Prosise offers versatility in the backfield and receiving prowess from the slot. Durham Smythe is the heir apparent to a dynamic tight end tradition.
Previewing Notre Dame’s Defense for 2015
It was a tale of two defenses in 2014, but most of the unit is back. The hope is the group that held its first five opponents to 60 points (12.0 ppg) will show itself more than the defense that surrendered 319 points (39.8 ppg) against the last eight opponents.
Ringleaders include two-time captain/defensive tackle Sheldon Day (7.5 tackles for a loss, nine QB hurries), linebacker Jaylon Smith (team-leading 112 tackles, 9.0 tackles for a loss) and linebacker Joe Schmidt, who garnered defensive MVP honors despite missing the last five games with a broken ankle.
To get to the next level, the Irish will need a more stout performance up front than the 26 sacks of 2014. Defensive end Isaac Rochell (7.5 tackles for a loss, 10 QB hurries) emerged as a building block as a sophomore. Nose tackle Jarron Jones, also coming off a significant foot injury, forms a dynamic one-two punch with Day up the middle. The pass rush should come from ends Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti, among several candidates. Look for freshman nose tackle Jerry Tillery to make an impact.
The return of cornerback KeiVarae Russell after his academic suspension is huge. He’ll pair with Cole Luke, who tied for the team lead with four interceptions to go with 15 passes defensed and 11 broken up. Safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield struggled a good portion of the time in 2014, but they’re back and their troubles were not for a lack of talent.
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
Previewing Notre Dame’s Specialists for 2015
Do-everything Kyle Brindza is gone after a quality but often-erratic career with the Irish. There could be a drop-off punting with Tyler Newsome moving into the lineup, but highly touted true freshman kicker Justin Yoon has the skills to hit the ground running. Fuller, Carlisle and Bryant are the likely return men.
It’s the sixth year of the Brian Kelly regime, and in only one of the previous five — 2012 when the Irish played for the national title vs. Alabama — has Notre Dame finished with fewer than four losses.
This is the deepest, most well-equipped team Kelly has fielded. If the Irish can maximize Zaire’s talents at quarterback, establish a consistent ground game and play more stout up front defensively, this season should resemble 2012 more than any of the others under Kelly. That would mean playing in a New Year’s Day bowl if not contending for a playoff spot.