By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 8-5
Spring practice: March 21-April 21
Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 6
Passing: Tommy Rees, 269 of 411, 2,871 yds., 20 TD, 14 INTs
Rushing: Cierre Wood, 217 car., 1,102 yds., 9 TDs
Receiving: Tyler Eifert, 63 rec., 803 yds., 5 TDs
Tackles: Manti Te’o, 128
Sacks: Aaron Lynch, 5.5
Interceptions: Three players tied with 1
Redshirts to watch: QB Everett Golson, WR DaVaris Daniels, CB Josh Atkinson, CB Jalen Brown
Early Enrollees: QB Gunner Kiel, DE Sheldon Day
Transfer to watch: OT Jordan Prestwood (Florida State), RB Amir Carlisle (USC)
Sept. 1 Navy (Dublin, Ireland)
Sept. 8 Purdue
Sept. 15 at Michigan State
Sept. 22 Michigan
Oct. 6 Miami (Chicago)
Oct. 13 Stanford
Oct. 20 BYU
Oct. 27 at Oklahoma
Nov. 3 Pittsburgh
Nov. 10 at Boston College
Nov. 17 Wake Forest
Nov. 24 at USC
Offensive Strength: There’s plenty to like about Notre Dame’s offense for 2012. Cierre Wood leads the ground attack after rushing for 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns last season, while the receiving corps is solid with the return of Theo Riddick, T.J. Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert. Two starters must be replaced on the offensive line, but left tackle Zack Martin, center Braxston Cave and guard Chris Watt return. But the offense won’t go anywhere unless…
Offensive Weakness: …The quarterback play is improved. Three quarterbacks received playing time last year and none were able to consistently move the offense. Dayne Crist decided to transfer to Kansas, leaving Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, redshirt freshman Everett Golson and true freshman Gunner Kiel to battle for the starting spot.
Defensive Strength: By the end of the 2012 season, the Irish could have one of the best front sevens in college football. End Aaron Lynch had a solid freshman year, recording 5.5 sacks and 33 tackles. He will be joined by junior Louis Nix at nose guard and sophomore Stephon Tuitt at end to form a solid trio up front. Senior Manti Te’o turned down the NFL Draft and will anchor a Notre Dame linebacking corps that could be among the top 10-15 in the nation.
Defensive Weakness: The Irish need to hope the defensive line can consistently get pressure on opposing quarterbacks early and often in 2012, as both starting cornerbacks (Robert Blanton and Gary Gray) and safety Harrison Smith are gone. There’s some experience returning at safety, but cornerback is a bigger concern. While the defensive line is talented, depth is an issue.
Spring Storylines Facing the Fighting Irish
1. High expectations surrounded Notre Dame in 2011, but the team started off the year with a disappointing loss to South Florida in the season opener and a last-second defeat to Michigan in Week 2. The Irish finished a respectable 8-5, but still fell short of preseason expectations, which pegged Notre Dame as a likely BCS bowl team. Going into Brian Kelly’s third season in South Bend, it’s important for this team to show progress. Is Notre Dame back on track or should Kelly be on the hot seat entering 2013? Needless to say, only one of those questions can be answered this year for the Irish. The schedule isn’t particularly easy, as the Irish will face eight bowl teams and two others (USC and Miami) that would have played in the postseason if it wasn’t for NCAA investigations. Although the schedule will be a challenge, the Irish should be able to contend for nine victories in 2012.
2. Getting back to a BCS bowl in 2012 will largely hinge on what happens under center. Dayne Crist started the season opener against South Florida, but was pulled in favor of Tommy Rees. Although Rees started the remaining 12 games, he enters spring practice locked into a tight battle for the starting job. Crist decided to transfer to Kansas, leaving sophomore Andrew Hendrix, redshirt freshman Everett Golson and true freshman Gunner Kiel to battle for the No. 1 spot. Hendrix played some last year, rushing for 162 yards and one touchdown, while completing 18 of 37 passes for 249 yards and one touchdown. Golson and Kiel are both highly-regarded prospects, but have yet to take a snap. This should be a wide-open battle with the winner not likely to be announced until late in fall camp. Although Rees is the returning starter and most experienced quarterback on the roster, don’t be surprised if Hendrix or Golson takes the opening snap for Notre Dame in 2012.
3. The quarterback battle is going to get all of the attention in spring practice, but the Irish also need to find a replacement for receiver Michael Floyd. Theo Riddick and TJ Jones each caught 38 passes last season and will be counted upon to fill a bigger role in the passing attack this year. Robby Toma and John Goodman are capable weapons at receiver, but the return of tight end Tyler Eifert for his senior year is the biggest positive in the developing the passing attack for 2012. Freshman Davonte Neal is also expected to challenge right away for playing time, so the Irish should have plenty of options. However, Floyd was clearly the go-to guy. Is Riddick or Jones ready to be that type of player? Or will Eifert see more passes in his direction? The Irish should be fine in the receiving corps, but it’s not easy replacing a talent like Floyd.
4. As highlighted in the strengths and weaknesses, Notre Dame’s defensive line could be among the best in college football by the end of 2012. Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix are a promising young trio and should wreck havoc on opposing offensive lines. Senior Kapron Lewis-Moore will provide veteran leadership and recorded 32 stops last season. However, there’s very little depth up front, which could require incoming freshmen Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones to play right away. Although Notre Dame should be fine with its top four linemen, keep an eye on depth if an injury occurs during the season.
5. While the Irish are set in the front seven, all eyes will be on the secondary this spring. Cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, along with safety Harrison Smith have expired their eligibility, leaving the secondary with two returning starters – Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter. While Slaughter and Motta should be a solid combination at safety, cornerback is the team’s biggest question mark. Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood are the team’s most experienced options, but neither is as proven as Gray and Blanton. The Irish expected incoming freshman Tee Shepard to play a key role at cornerback, but he decided to leave before spring practice started. Expect redshirt freshmen Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson and incoming freshman Elijah Shumate to see a lot of playing time at cornerback in 2012.
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