COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2011 PRESEASON TOP 25
HEAD COACH: Brian Kelly, 16-10 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Chuck Martin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bob Diaco, Kerry Cooks
With uncertainty on offense, it’s up to the defense to carry the Irish in 2012.
Notre Dame’s offensive production, as well as its quest to reduce its turnover total (29), begins at quarterback, where Tommy Rees accounted for 65.5 percent of the turnovers (14 interceptions, five fumbles lost). If Rees can’t solve his penchant for coughing it up, junior Andrew Hendrix, redshirt freshman Everett Golson and/or true freshman Gunner Kiel will get a shot.
The receiving corps is a work in progress following the loss of Notre Dame’s all-time leading receiver, Michael Floyd. Tight end Tyler Eifert is as good as it gets at his position. But he’ll need some playmaking help from wideouts John Goodman, TJ Jones, Robby Toma and several other nondescript, unproven pass-catchers.
The offensive line has three veterans in Braxston Cave, Chris Watt and Zack Martin at center, left guard and left tackle, respectively. What was a concern depth-wise a year ago at running back is now a strength with Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III all providing big-play capability.
The loss of defensive end Aaron Lynch to transfer (South Florida) took away the team’s greatest playmaker by far. He would have produced double-digit sacks as a sophomore.
Still, it’s a veteran defensive front, led by Kapron Lewis-Moore and talented youngsters Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt. Linebacker Manti Te’o’s decision to return for his senior season ties the front seven together, although the Irish need improved weak-side linebacker play from the Dan Fox-Carlo Calabrese tandem. The Prince Shembo-Ishaq Williams duo at Cat linebacker should be productive, but there are questions about the Danny Spond-Ben Councell pairing at Dog linebacker.
Three of the four starters in the secondary are gone, including productive safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Robert Blanton. The safeties should be good, led by Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta. But questions abound at the cornerback positions.
Manti Te’o, LB—Notre Dame’s leading tackler the last two years and the heart and soul of the defense.
Tyler Eifert, TE—The premier tight end in the country likely will shoot past his career-high numbers (63 catches, 803 yards, five TDs) of 2011.
Cierre Wood, RB—Emerged as a big-time back with 1,102 yards and nine TDs in '11.
|Sept. 15th||at Michigan State|
|Oct. 20th||Brigham Young|
|Oct. 27th||at Oklahoma|
|Nov. 10th||at Boston College|
|Nov. 17th||Wake Forest|
|Nov. 24th||at USC|
It’s a rarity that a college football team can lose a kicker who converted 33-of-40 field goals in his career, and the next season replace him with one of near-equal ability. But even with the loss of David Ruffer, who converted 82.5 percent of his field goal attempts, the Irish have junior Nick Tausch waiting in the wings. Tausch made 14-of-17 field goals as a freshman in 2009 before suffering a late-season leg injury. Punter Ben Turk, who struggled his first two years, became an asset by the end of 2011.
The Irish totaled just 48 yards in punt returns in 13 games. Brian Kelly hopes Riddick finally assumes the role. On the other hand, George Atkinson III gave the Irish a huge spark as a freshman, returning kickoffs 89 and 96 yards for scores.
If Kelly can get his quarterback situation settled, the Irish have enough talent to match their victory total from the last two seasons, even against a schedule that includes three 11-win opponents (Michigan, Stanford and Michigan State) and a pair of 10-win squads (USC and Oklahoma).
Although this isn’t necessarily a crossroads season for Kelly since Notre Dame seems committed to his renovation project, the 2012 campaign will go a long way toward determining how good the Irish can be in 2013-14. There are too many holes/question marks to look at this season as anything but a transitional year under Kelly. Find a consistent quarterback and show improvement, and regardless of the record, Kelly should approach a combined 20 victories in 2013-14. Fall flat and continue to struggle protecting the football and the regime could be in jeopardy.