After reaching the BCS title game in 2012, Notre Dame took a step back in 2013, finishing 9-4 in Brian Kelly’s fourth year. The Fighting Irish return only nine starters for 2014 but regain the services of quarterback Everett Golson. With Golson’s return, along with a solid offensive line, Notre Dame’s offense should show improvement after averaging 27.2 points a game last year. The defense is in transition with a new coordinator and the loss of defensive linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. As always, the schedule isn't easy at Notre Dame. However, games against Florida State, USC and Stanford allow for marquee wins for the Fighting Irish.
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Previewing Notre Dame’s Offense for 2014:
Notre Dame has yet to average 30 points per game in any of Brian Kelly’s four seasons in South Bend. The main culprit has been the offense’s inefficiency in the red zone, scoring just 53 touchdowns in 105 trips (.504) the last two seasons.
The Irish are loaded with offensive potential, beginning with quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire and running backs Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant and Cam McDaniel. The receiving corps took a hit with the graduation of wideout TJ Jones and the early departure of tight end Troy Niklas. But DaVaris Daniels headlines a deep albeit inexperienced receiving corps, and Ben Koyack looks primed to follow in the long line of standout tight ends.
The Irish are without left tackle Zack Martin, who started an incredible 52 straight games from 2010-13, and his left guard running mate, Chris Watt. But Zack’s younger brother, Nick Martin, holds down the center job, and Ronnie Stanley has the skills to ably follow Zack Martin at left tackle with veteran Christian Lombard returning to the right side at guard.
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Previewing Notre Dame’s Defense for 2014:
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Irish fans grew impatient with Bob Diaco’s bend-but-don’t-break, keep-the-football-in-front-of-you approach, because it seldom created turnovers. But it did keep points off the scoreboard. The Irish allowed an average of 17.9 points per game from 2010-12. In ’13, the worst under Diaco, they still allowed just 22.4 points per game and held five of 13 opponents to 13 points or less.
Diaco is now the head coach at Connecticut. Enter Brian VanGorder, who has been plying his trade in the NFL after coordinating one of the best defenses at Georgia a decade ago.
The Irish lose five starters on the front seven, led by nose guard Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Inside linebacker Jarrett Grace may have to skip the 2014 season as he continues a slow recovery from a nasty leg injury. That would leave the Irish with a former walk-on, undersized Joe Schmidt, lining up next to the team’s most dynamic defensive player, Jaylon Smith, who moves from Sam to Will linebacker.
KeiVarae Russell looks like one of the best cornerbacks in the nation. Sophomore Cole Luke will challenge fifth-year Florida transfer Cody Riggs for the starting job opposite Russell. Fifth-year senior Austin Collinsworth heads into ’14 on a three-game interception streak. Sophomore Max Redfield, a former five-star recruit, takes over at the other safety.
Previewing Notre Dame’s Specialists for 2014:
Kyle Brindza talks like a football player, not a kicker, and looks like a linebacker. He converted 23-of-31 field goals in 2012 and 20-of-26 in 2013 with half his games coming on Notre Dame’s treacherous old stadium turf. Brindza also took over punting duties last fall, averaging 41.1 yards per attempt.
Kelly took Cincinnati to BCS games in back-to-back seasons (2008-09) and Notre Dame to the national championship game in 2012. He did it with offense in Cincinnati and defense at Notre Dame.
With a defense that loses five of its front seven — a year after it bid farewell to Manti Te’o, the most decorated defensive football player in college football history — it’s imperative that Kelly and his new offensive coordinator, long-time assistant/first-time coordinator Mike Denbrock, carry the lion’s share of the burden in 2014 while the defense gets its bearings.
If the offense can average 30-plus points per game — which means producing against good defenses, too — and VanGorder can create a productive, up-tempo defensive attack to mask some of the unit’s deficiencies, the Irish could make a run at a spot in the initial College Football Playoff.
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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Notre Dame No. 13:
1. Everett Golson’s return
After throwing for 2,405 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, Golson appeared to be on his way to emerging as one of the top quarterbacks in college football. However, he was suspended for a season due to academics. Golson might be a little rusty from missing all of last year, but his return should provide a boost for Notre Dame’s offense.
2. The schedule
With 10 bowl teams from 2013 on the slate, Notre Dame’s 2014 schedule is among the toughest in the nation. The Fighting Irish have trips to Florida State, Arizona State and USC, while Stanford, North Carolina, Louisville and Michigan visit South Bend. While a tough schedule could help with playoff chances, there are several swing games on this schedule. And with Notre Dame’s transition on both sides of the ball, will the Fighting Irish match last year’s win total?
3. Transition on defense
New coordinator Brian VanGorder plans on adding a few tweaks to Notre Dame’s defense, which will be a challenge with the departure of linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III. The back seven should be the strength of the defense, as linebacker Jaylon Smith, cornerback KeiVarae Russell are expected to be in contention for All-American honors. How quickly can VanGorder blend the new starters together on defense?
4. Potential at the skill positions
With DaVaris Daniels back in the mix this fall, Notre Dame’s skill positions will help ease Golson’s transition to the starting role. Tight end Ben Koyack is a rising star, and the ground game will have additional help from redshirt freshman Greg Bryant. TJ Jones will be missed at receiver, but there’s also a lot to like about the potential at receiver and in the backfield.
5. Strength on the offensive line
Despite losing left tackle Zack Martin and guard Chris Watt, Notre Dame could have one of the top 15-20 offensive lines in college football in 2014. Ronnie Stanley could slide to left tackle to replace Martin, while the guard spots are anchored by veterans Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty. Nick Martin is back after starting 11 games last season, and sophomore Steve Elmer is expected to claim the right tackle job. Notre Dame allowed only eight sacks last year, and this unit should open up more holes for its running backs after averaging only 4.5 yards per carry in 2013.