A year ago this time, Notre Dame football was in an ugly place. The Fighting Irish were coming off a 4-8 season and the NCAA had mandated that the program vacate the 21 wins from the 2012 and '13 seasons. Head coach Brian Kelly blew up the coaching staff, but many supporters of the program didn’t think those changes were enough.
One year later, Notre Dame goes into the offseason as a 10-win team, one that closed the season with an exciting victory over LSU in the Citrus Bowl. While November was hardly spectacular and there have been several personnel losses to both the roster and the coaching staff since the season ended, reasons for optimism remain.
Mike Elko is now the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M after one successful season in South Bend. Though his departure stung, Kelly elevated linebackers coach Clark Lea to the head defensive spot and the system put in place by Elko will continue on. More importantly, the decisions by rover Drue Tranquill, linebacker Tevon Coney, and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery to return to school for one more year gives the Irish a lot of experienced talent on each of the defense’s three levels. Plus, All-American cornerback Julian Love (above, right) is back to shut down the opponent’s best receiver. There are issues at safety and questions about edge pass rush, but Notre Dame should field a quality defense in 2018.
2. Year two of Matt Balis
Besides the head coach, perhaps the most important person in a collegiate football program is the strength and conditioning coordinator. Prior to Balis’ arrival, Notre Dame had problems in this area. By all accounts, the first year under Balis was a rousing success, with players’ body shapes being noticeably changed for the better. And that was just year one. While the Irish did a better job of being physically and mentally tough at the end of close games, the next step is to take that toughness all the way through the 12 game schedule.
3. Kicking game
The Citrus Bowl made it clear how important the kicking game can be. If LSU had even a mediocre placekicker, the result would have been different. Notre Dame is solid in this area and it will be a big benefit in 2018. After missing two kicks in the opener against Temple, Justin Yoon connected on 14 of 16 field goal attempts the rest of the way. He was perfect from inside 40 yards and is 33 of 37 up to that distance in his career. The Irish also will welcome back punter Tyler Newsome, who averaged 43.6 yards per kick this past fall, which was a sliver below his career average. In a season that should be filled with close games against tough opponents — and with the defense expected to be a team strength — Yoon and Newsome could be very important next season.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.