An undefeated run and a BCS National Championship were clearly premature for Brian Kelly. However, no one has ever doubted his ability to return the Golden Dome to national prominence and 2012 was proof. Now, the bar has been raised considerably for Kelly and his Irish. With elite recruiting class stacked upon elite recruiting class, Notre Dame fans are as optimistic about their future, including 2013, as any team in the nation. And the next run at a national title begins with the start of spring football on March 20.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2013 Spring Preview
2012 Record: 12-1
Spring practice dates: March 20-April 20
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 8
Passing: Everett Golson, 187-of-318, 2,405 yards, 12 TD, 6 INT
Rushing: George Atkinson III, 51 car., 361 yards, 5 TDs
Receiving: TJ Jones, 50 rec., 649 yards, 4 TDs
Tackles: Bennett Jackson, 65
Sacks: Stephon Tuitt, 12.0
Interceptions: Bennett Jackson, 4
Redshirts to Watch: DL Jarron Jones, RB Will Mahone
Aug. 31 Temple
Sept. 7 at Michigan
Sept. 14 at Purdue
Sept. 21 Michigan State
Sept. 28 Oklahoma
Oct. 5 Arizona State
Oct. 12 Open Date
Oct. 19 USC
Oct. 26 at Air Force
Nov. 2 Navy
Nov. 9 at Pitt
Nov. 16 Open Date
Nov. 23 BYU
Nov. 30 at Stanford
Offensive Strength: Offensive line. This group returns three starters with a combined 39 starts last year and a deep host of elite recruits.
Offensive Weakness: Playmakers. The top two rushers, the main two contributors at wide receiver and tight end Tyler Eifert have moved on. The offense needs to find skill players to contribute.
Defensive Strength: Defensive line. Losing Kapron Lewis-Moore hurts but this unit returns largely intact, and with more experience, could be one of the nation's elite front lines.
Defensive Weakness: Leadership. Four senior leaders, including Manti Te'o, Lewis-Moore and safety Zeke Motta have departed. Each layer of the defense will need a new leader.
Spring Storylines Facing the Fighting Irish:
1. Replace Manti. There is no shortage of talent in the Irish linebacking corps. Dan Fox, Prince Shembo, Carlo Calabrese and Danny Spond have loads of experience while Ishaq Williams, Ben Councell, Jarrett Grace and Kendall Moore add intriguing upside to the position as well. However, Te'o was the heart and soul of the locker room and his leadership will be missed as much as his 113 tackles and seven interceptions. Williams has a chance to be special and will push for time on the outside along with Concell. Fox, Calabrese and Grace appear to be the most likely candidates to fill Te'o's spot on the inside. Look for coordinator Bob Diaco to pay special attention to this group over the next month.
2. Build a supporting cast for Everett Golson. Running back and tight end, in particular, should be interesting position battles this spring. Troy Niklas is the most talented tight end of the bunch but Ben Koyack and Alex Welch will battle for time as well. George Atkinson III is the top returning rusher but Kelly undoubtedly wants to establish some depth behind the speedster. USC transfer Amir Carlisle, redshirt freshman Will Mahone and junior Cam McDaniel will all see plenty of time this spring in an effort to replace Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood. Two star freshmen are waiting to show what they can do in the summer (Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston), so spring practice should be an opportunity for one or more ball carriers to step up and take control of the position.
3. Find safeties. Zeke Motta, Jamoris Slaughter and Dan McCarthy are all gone. Slaughter missed all but three games last year with an injury while Motta was an unquestioned leader of the secondary. So rebuilding depth at this position is important this spring — especially considering the gaping voids Alabama exploited in the Irish backfield in the BCS title game. Matthias Farley has the most experience and he will be joined by Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti on the backend. Austin Collinsworth could also factor in if healthy. Developing the talent at cornerback, which appears like it could be a position of strength in 2013, will help break in the new safeties as well. Getting Lo Wood back after missing all of 2012 will improve the defensive backfield overall.
4. Rebuild the interior of the O-line. The return of Zack Martin was a huge boost to the Irish offseason's expectations. But losing Braxton Cave and Mike Golic hurts the interior of the offensive line. Kelly has recruited at an elite level along both lines of scrimmage and new names will need to step up this spring to fill voids at center and guard. Matt Hegarty is first in line to take over at center and should be more than capable after playing in nine games last year. Nick Martin played in 13 games, Conor Hanratty played in six games and is versatile along the line while Bruce Heggie was officially the backup at right guard last year. Look for Kelly and O-line coach Harry Heistand to have some fun sorting through a very talented depth chart up front on offense.
5. Handle expectations. Notre Dame's unexpected run to the BCS national title game sped up the expectations calendar in South Bend. Many have long believed that Kelly is the right fit at Notre Dame and last year proved that to be accurate. However, after throngs of Irish fans left Miami Gardens, Fla., with their heads buried in their hands, Kelly will have his work cut out for him in 2013. Key seniors have departed at key positions, and despite those losses, Irish faithful are still expecting another push at a national title. This roster and coaching staff is capable of returning to a BCS bowl game once again in 2013, but Notre Dame is no longer the hunter. They now have to handle the bulls-eye firmly planted on the backs of their jerseys.
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