Gotham Gridiron

Gotham Gridiron: Notre Dame Preview 2013

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One of my former pals at the Associated Press, Frank Nolan, has been writing a preview of Notre Dame football the last few years and I thought I’d share it here:

BY Frank Nolan

It’s been quite a year.

ndfootballweekendsNotre Dame started the 2012 season unranked, with some wholly unqualified sources (see, yours truly) predicting a mediocre 8-4 record. Improbably, the Irish won all the games they ‘should have’ and pulled off a few upsets, finishing the regular season with a 12-0 record, a unanimous #1 ranking, and a spot in the National Championship Game. The dominant ND defense was led by all-everything linebacker Manti Te’o and a talented line. The offense was just good enough, and redshirt freshman Everett Golson improved significantly during the second half of the season.
Things were looking up. Way up. Finally.

And then January 7th rolled around. And the Irish got rolled by the Tide. And thus began the offseason from hell. Te’o’s fake girlfriend got the most headlines, but the program will be more impacted by the suspension of Golson for the 2013 season, the permanent loss of starting linebacker Danny Spond (and temporary losses of contributors Nicky Barratti and Tony Springmann) to injury, de-commitments from three five-star recruits, and the transfer of receiver/returner Davonte Neal. And of course there is the matter of Brian Kelly’s flirtation with the NFL, which we probably start hearing about again in a few months. Given the drama of the last 8 1/2 months, this season cannot start soon enough. And it will, tomorrow.

The bad news is obvious: Te’o and Tyler Eifert, the two best players on the 2012 team, are now on NFL rosters. Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, who each rushed for over 1,000 yards a year ago, are also gone. As is Golson, at least for this season. Those are very big holes to fill on a team that needed every effort and a few improbable plays to eke out more than one of its 12 wins. And this year’s schedule is very difficult, highlighted by the season finale against a Stanford team ranked near the top of every preseason poll.

But there are positive signs as well. At least on paper, this is the most talented Notre Dame team in twenty years. Kelly has put together consistent and stellar classes, and a few of the Weis-era bright spots return as seniors and 5th year players. Seven of 11 starters remain from last year’s defense, which is led by preseason All-American defensive linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. Three starters on the offensive line are back, including standout left tackle Zack Martin. The starting receivers are all back. The running backs, while unproven, are talented and plentiful. The coaching staff somehow had no defections in the offseason. While the Irish will play Michigan in Ann Arbor and Stanford in Palo Alto, they will host USC, Michigan State, Oklahoma and BYU, all teams they beat on the road last season.

Where does that leave us? With a lot of questions and a team that prognosticators have ranked anywhere from 5th in the country to 22nd. So let’s break it down by position. In the spirit of celebrating 2012’s team, which became fairly passe after the beatdown in Miami and whatever the hell that was with Te’o, I will proceed in the same order I did a year ago.

Cornerbacks – Bennett Jackson (SR, Captain), KeiVarae Russell (SO)
Nobody expected Jackson and Russell to play as well as they did did last year. Neither had started a game on defense before 2012, much less at the cornerback position, and Russell was a true freshman. They both played well throughout the season (with the notable exception of the Alabama game). Highly touted freshmen Cole Luke and Devin Butler will provide some depth. Lo Wood, who was slated to start going into 2012 before suffering a season-ending injury, could provide more support if the rumors of his imminent transfer prove false.

Wide Receivers – TJ Jones (SR, Captain), Davaris Daniels (JR), Chris Brown (SO)
Kelly has convinced the local media (and perhaps himself) that Jones is a 1st round NFL talent. He did have 50 catches last season, but has never taken over a game, even when defenses were keyed on Eifert. But Kelly rarely talks up guys who can’t contribute, and by naming Jones captain and punt returner, Kelly is not hedging his bets. Daniels was a rare bright spot in the Alabama game. He looked big, fast and athletic, even against SEC talent. Brown is the best deep ball threat, although the likelihood of Rees throwing 50 yard strikes is very low. Corey Robinson, a true freshman and the son of NBA hall of famer David, has impressed the coaches this summer. Like his dad he is a late bloomer. He’s already 6’4″ and growing and has made very difficult catches against the first team defense during the open practices. CJ Prosise may supplant Brown in the slot, and senior Daniel Smith should also see the field.

Quarterback – Tommy Rees (SR)
This just hurts. With Golson out, the team’s biggest weakness is at the quarterback position. Rees did have some solid moments during spot play for Golson in 2012, but I still have nightmares about his countless fumbles and inexplicable interceptions from the last two years. His coaches and teammates have fallen all over themselves explaining that Rees has improved, but there is no question the offense is more limited without Golson. Rees will need to be able to make the longer throws (30+ yards) and save broken plays from time to time to allow the run game to gain traction. Thus far he has simply not been able to do either of those things with any consistency. The upside is that Rees is able to stay cool under pressure and he’s made several dramatic plays late in games. Perhaps the best thing that could happen to this offense is for a consistent receiving target to emerge. Last season, many of Rees’ biggest moments came from his ability to find Eifert despite everyone knowing what was coming. Hopefully Daniels or Jones or Robinson can help fill that void. It also should be interesting to see Rees run the newly installed pistol offense, which ND will be running on occasion. Regardless, Rees’ play will be the difference between an 8-4 season with a mediocre bowl and a 10-2 season with a BCS bowl. If he completely falls apart, look for Andrew Hendrix or possibly true freshman Malik Zaire.

Safeties – Austin Collinsworth (JR), Mathias Farley (JR)
Farley returns as the free safety, where he played very well last year. He is fast and physical, and made a key backfield tackle on the goal line stand against USC at the end of the regular season. Collinsworth, along with freshman star Max Redfield, Elijah Shumate, and John Turner, will try to fill the void left by Zeke Motta.

Note: Most of the safeties will also factor into special teams. Kelly has said that special teams have suffered during his tenure due to a lack of depth of talented players. Because he did not want to risk injuries to his starters, he has used special teams to develop younger guys (that is where Collinsworth starred before missing all of 2012 with an injury). Now that the team is more loaded with talent, Kelly may place more of a focus on special teams. So far, that has been the single biggest weakness of his Notre Dame squads. Well that and throwing fades inside the 10 yard line.

Defensive Line – Stephon Tuitt (JR), Louis Nix (SR), Sheldon Day (SO)
Along with the fame, money, and women that come along with writing this preview, each year I enjoy engaging in hyperbole about the most exciting and dominant players on the team. Last year it was Eifert and Te’o. Before that it was Mike Floyd, Golden Tate and Jimmy Clausen. This year the focus is on Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix. Tuitt is second only to Jadeveon Clowney among college football defensive ends. During the first game in 2012 Tuitt ran back a 77 yard fumble; by the end of the run he was still distancing himself from the pursuing skill players on the other team. He had 12 sacks a year ago, and got more physically dominant while playing smarter as the season went on. Tuitt had surgery in the offseason for a hernia, so he’s put on weight. We will see if that affects his mobility and quickness, but the coaches have so far laughed that off. Nix is arguably the best interior defensive lineman in the country, and without question the best Twitter follow among any athletes, professional or amateur. Nix is also one of the few players who looked good in the Alabama game, and if he stays healthy he should be able to play nearly every down this year. Sheldon Day got significant minutes last year, and Kelly has talked him up during summer camp. He is talented and experienced enough to balance this line and help provide loads of opportunities for the linebackers and safeties. Along with Tuitt, Day is a pass rushing threat. Kona Schwenke is a solid backup for Nix, but with Tony Springmann out for the year, depth is a problem. If there are no significant injuries, the line should provide the backbone for another dominant defense. And we should enjoy it while we can. Nix and Tuitt will be NFL bound at the end of the season and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will most certainly have his choice of head coaching positions if this defense plays well in 2013.

Offensive Line – Zack Martin (5th, Captain), Chris Watt (5th), Nick Martin (JR), Christian Lombard (SR), Ronnie Stanley (SO)
Much has been made about Nix’s return to the team, and rightfully so. But Zack Martin coming back is equally significant. He is a three year starter, two time captain, and one of the best left tackles in the country. His brother Nick will replace Braxton Cave at center. Watt solidifies the strong left side of the line, which will be tested by the defensive lines of Michigan State, Arizona State, and Stanford. Lombard will start at right guard, moving from his former position at right tackle. Sophomore Ronnie Stanley will step into right tackle, and Kelly has indicated freshman Steve Elmer and sophomore Connor Hanratty will also see the field. There is experience and depth and size (average is over 300 lbs) for the first time in a long time. Hopefully Kelly takes advantage.
Linebackers – Prince Shembo (SR), Carlo Calabrese (5th), Dan Fox (5th), Jaylon Smith (FR)

Linebackers – The official party line in the spring was that junior Jarrett Grace was poised to replace Te’o at one of the inside linebacker spots. It now appears that there may be a rotation of sorts, with Grace sharing the two inside spots with Calabrese and Fox. The worst news of the offseason is the loss of Spond, who announced last week that he will no longer play football due to a serious medical condition. He will be replaced by Smith, who is the best defensive prospect ND has landed since Mr. Lennay Kekua himself. Shembo, most known for his pass rushing, is the star of this unit. Junior Ishaq Williams will hopefully live up to his billing as a 4-star prospect out of high school. He will see time on the outside and as a down lineman when the team switches to a 4-3.

Tight End – Troy Niklas (JR)
The last four ND tight ends are currently starting in the NFL: Eifert, Rudolph, Carlson, Fasano. Niklas is a big step down from that group, at least so far. But he’s enormous, which helps in the run game, and considering he moved from the offensive line a couple of years ago his receiving skills are above average. Ben Koyack and Alex Welch provide some depth here and true freshmen Durham Smythe and Mike Heurmann are the latest additions to the strong ND tight end pipeline. Anywhere other than at ND (or in the NFL) this would be a position of strength.

Running Back – George Atkinson (JR)
Atkinson is very, very fast, and his breakaway speed has been evident on kickoffs (see, USC 2011) and against bad defenses (see, Miami and Navy 2012). He will start the year at kick returner. But while he’s had more carries than the rest of the team’s backs combined, it does not appear that he has set himself apart as the starting tailback. That is partly due to his competition: Amir Carlisle, a transfer from USC who was injured all of 2012; Cam McDaniel, a small, quick back who played well in garbage time in 2012; sophomore Will Mahone; and true freshmen blue chippers Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. Bryant is particularly intriguing. He is a big, fast back who was recruited by every top program in the country and is physically ready to play already. Kelly ran the ball far more often in 2012 than he did in 2011 and 2010, particularly late in games and with a lead. With an experienced and physical line this group of players has the potential to equal last year’s rushing output. One caution: Kelly also likes to use his backs as receivers so the loss of Riddick’s versatility in that regard will be felt.

Stanford is the toughest game on the schedule, and that would be a difficult win even with Golson. BYU, Michigan State, and Oklahoma are also good, particularly on the defensive side. Those games are all later in the season, by which point we should know if Rees has settled in and if Kelly has maximized his running back talent. Michigan is in week two, which is great for Notre Dame given the current Michigan injuries and young roster, although quarterback Devon Gardner is very good. With those five teams on the schedule, along with ASU and USC, another undefeated season is extremely unlikely. But the fact remains that there is a ton of talent on this team and Kelly has proven to be steady in command (something I thought I’d never write).

Everett Golson or not, I think this team will ride another strong defense and ball control offense to go 10-2 and make a BCS bowl game. Where they will promptly get smoked by an SEC team.