Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly likely welcomed the turn of the calendar this New Year.
The calendar year began with his team getting trucked in the national title game by Alabama, continued with his star quarterback getting suspended in the spring and ended with a lackluster four-loss season that both began and ended with a sputter. The Irish began the season 3-2 with disappointing losses to fellow bluebloods Michigan and Oklahoma. After four solid wins, the Irish ended the year losing two out of three with a bad loss at Pitt and yet another painful defeat at the hands of rival Stanford.
A nine-win season is a solid year for most programs but Kelly has raised expectation levels after his run at perfection two seasons ago. However, competing for national championships is what coaching at Notre Dame is all about. Quarterback Everett Golson returns to the team after his semester-long hiatus and one of the most gifted rosters in the nation — the 10th-best roster in the nation to be exact — should take the field with a goal of landing in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
And Kelly will do so with two new coordinators.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 9-4
Spring Practice Opens: March 3
Spring Game: April 12
Three Things to Watch in Notre Dame's 2014 Spring Practice
Welcome back, Everett
Near the end of the 2012 run to the BCS national title game, Everett Golson was developing into a future star under center for Brian Kelly. In fact, one could argue he was the only player who didn't look like he quit against Alabama. But after missing an entire season due to academic problems, Golson returns to the practice field this spring in his customary red jersey. Tommy Rees wasn't bad, considering the hand Kelly was dealt by Golson, but quarterback was clearly an issue on this team a year ago. Golson has the talent to be a special player and he gives Kelly what he desperately craves at quarterback — mobility. The signal caller spent two months working with QB guru George Whitfield but questions still exist about Golson's ability to step right back into the swing of things. Is Golson rusty? Is he focused off the field? How much has the year off set him back? This month of practice is a great chance for Golson to prove his fantastic freshman campaign was no fluke and earn his way back into the starting lineup.
Rebuilding the front seven
Brian Kelly and new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder have their work cut out for them up front on the defensive side of the ball. Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III departing for the NFL has literally left a 635-pound gapping void along the defensive line. Additionally, the linebacking corps will lose the top two tacklers on the team in Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese as well as Prince Shembo's 48 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Finding star power and developing experience up front will be critical if Notre Dame is going to compete for a playoff spot in 2014. Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and a host of other names have elite upside and are ready to make plays as Kelly has recruited extremely well on the defensive side of the ball in recent years. Look for VanGorder, a specialist at developing linebackers, to settle on a rotation up front this spring.
Replace Zack Martin
The Irish were great at protecting the quarterback a year ago, ranking second nationally with just eight sacks allowed, due in large part to the play of their stud left tackle Zack Martin. However, this unit ranked just 80th nationally running the football and filling holes at left tackle and left guard (Chris Watt) will be difficult. The surest way to help Golson ease his way back into play-making form will be to develop a running game and find protection for his blindside. The good news is Kelly and new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock return plenty of talent returning up front in the form of tackle Ronnie Stanley (13 starts), center Nick Martin (11) and guards Christian Lombard (7) and Steve Elmer (4). And there are highly touted recruits from the last few classes lined-up to earn a starting spot. With plenty of capable ballcarriers in the backfield and the return of a star at quarterback, creating running lanes and protecting the passer should be the focus of the new offensive hierarchy in South Bend.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 9-11
Notre Dame once again has a nasty schedule to face in 2014 with potentially seven preseason top 25 teams and 11 potential bowl teams on the slate this coming fall. Navigating that schedule to 11 wins — likely what it takes to reach the playoffs — will be extremely difficult while breaking in a new supporting staff under Kelly. That said, this is one of the best collections of talent in the nation and the Golson returns to lead the offense after a year off. The early part of the schedule is manageable as the Irish could easily be 4-0 heading into a home game with Stanford, but the final two months will feature the reigning BCS champs, the reigning Pac-12 champs, road games at Pac-12 South frontrunners USC and Arizona State and two home dates with ACC contenders North Carolina and Louisville. This team has the talent to compete for a playoff spot, but the Irish will have to win critical rivalry games amid a brutal final two months to put itself into postseason contention.