No. 15: Notre Dame
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 19, 2011
You can compare two coaches in many, many ways. By wins, for example. Another way? Take a look at Notre Dame’s increased discipline under its first-year coach in 2010. From 2006-9, the Irish ranked 81st, 76th, 61st and 73rd nationally in penalties, respectively. In Kelly’s first season, the Irish ranked 14th nationally in penalty yardage, at 40.5 yards per game, and tied for seventh in penalties per game at 4.5 — and that’s very, very significant. In short, that looks like the difference between a college coach and an N.F.L. coach trying his hand at the college game. One’s Brian Kelly, who’s won at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame, though the best is yet to come in South Bend. The other is his predecessor, who could coordinate an offense but failed at identifying, projecting and developing talent — you know, the things that win games on the college level. With year one in the books, Kelly seems to be all that he was made out to be. And more? We’ll know in January, but all systems are go at Notre Dame.
South Bend, Ind.
17 (9 offense, 8 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 3
- Sept. 10
- Sept. 17
- Sept. 24
- Oct. 1
- Oct. 8
- Oct. 22
- Oct. 29
- Nov. 5
at Wake Forest
- Nov. 12
Maryland (in Landover, Md.)
- Nov. 19
- Nov. 26
Last year’s prediction
Asking for 10 wins is far too much; the Irish still have holes to fill, must undertake wholesale changes in philosophy on both sides of the ball and face a difficult schedule. Having said that, expecting eight wins is not too much to ask. This team’s story will be dictated by the play of the defense, which has in its corner experienced performers at each level. So, to sum up: the offense is good, potentially great with Kelly running the show; and the defense, while needing to prove itself on the field, does not lack for talent. The schedule will prevent the Irish from making more than a two-win improvement over last season’s total, but this team will be far better — on the field and on the sidelines.
In a nutshell There might have been only a two-game improvement in the win column, but that’s not something to gloss over; eight wins might not be the pinnacle, but it was a great step forward for Notre Dame. There’s simply a different tenor surrounding this program: negativity is out, replaced by optimism, enthusiasm and — befitting the institution — faith. Belief that better days lie ahead, more than anything else. There’s reason for optimism: Notre Dame has a coach. Brian Kelly was able to cobble together eight wins despite major injury issues on offense, most notably at quarterback. Not that Dayne Crist was setting the world afire under center; he was completing less than 60 percent of his attempts when his season was cut short due to a knee injury in late October. What was surprising was that Notre Dame played its best football without Crist, with little-known Tommy Rees under center instead. The offense wasn’t great. The defense was — at least in November; when the two sides of the ball come together, a B.C.S. bowl is in the cards.
High point A 20-16 win over U.S.C. to end the regular season. While Notre Dame would have gone bowling at 6-6, unlike a year ago, the win provided Kelly with his signature moment. A win over Miami (Fla.) in the Sun Bowl wasn’t all that impressive, but it was still a bowl win, only Notre Dame’s second since 1994.
Low point A home loss to Tulsa on Oct. 30. The loss, which came by a single point, left Notre Dame at 5-6 entering the final two games of the regular season. Actually, no it didn’t: the loss to Tulsa dropped N.D. to 4-5, as being 5-6 was not only wrong but impossible, seeing that the Irish finished the year 8-5 — funny how that works, isn’t it?
Tidbit Notre Dame has played in 12 different bowl games: Rose, Cotton, Orange, Sugar, Gator, Liberty, Aloha, Fiesta, Independence, Insight, Hawaii and Sun. And they’ve posted a win at nine of those stops: Rose in 1925, its first and only bowl game in Pasadena; Cotton in 1971, 1978-79 and 1993-94; Orange in 1975 and 1990; Sugar in 1973 and 1993; Gator in 1976; Liberty in 1983; Fiesta in 1989; Hawaii in 2008; and Sun in 2010. That leaves three bowl games where N.D. is still waiting for its first win: 0-1 at the Aloha Bowl, losing to S.M.U. in 1984; 0-1 at the Independence Bowl, losing to L.S.U. in 1997; and 0-1 at the Insight Bowl, losing to Oregon State in 2004.
Tidbit (defense edition) What did you really want to see from Notre Dame in 2010? Well, you wanted to see wins most of all. But you also wanted to see steady improvement, which Notre Dame found on the defensive side of the ball in November. The defense was terrible in September: 532 yards allowed against Michigan, 477 yards at Michigan State and 404 yards against Stanford. And the defense struggled again a month later, giving up 438 yards to Navy — 367 on the ground — and 399 in a humbling loss to Tulsa. Then a light clicked: 265 yards in a 28-3 win over Utah, 174 yards in a 27-3 win over Army and 261 yards in a 20-16 win over U.S.C., Notre Dame’s first since 2001. The 22 points allowed over a three-game span was the program’s fewest since giving up 20 combined points to Purdue, Stanford and Pittsburgh in 1993.
Former players in the N.F.L.
33 DE Victor Abiamiri (Philadelphia), RB Armando Allen (Tampa Bay), WR Arnaz Battle (Pittsburgh), OT Jordan Black (New Orleans), S Sergio Brown (New England), S David Bruton (Denver), TE John Carlson (Seattle), QB Jimmy Clausen (Carolina), C Jeff Faine (Tampa Bay), TE Anthony Fasano (Miami), RB Ryan Grant (Green Bay), OT Ryan Harris (Philadelphia), LS J.J. Jansen (Carolina), CB Terrail Lambert (New Orleans), DT Derek Landri (Philadelphia), DT Trevor Laws (Philadelphia), OT Mark LeVoir (New England), S Kyle McCarthy (Denver), LB Kerry Neal (Indianapolis), OG Eric Olsen (Denver), QB Brady Quinn (Denver), TE Kyle Rudolph (Minnesota), LB Brian Smith (Cleveland), OG Chris Stewart (New York Jets), WR Maurice Stovall (Detroit), C John Sullivan (Minnesota), WR Golden Tate (Seattle), DE Justin Tuck (New York Giants), CB Darrin Walls (Atlanta), NT Ian Williams (San Francisco), OT Sam Young (Dallas), S Tom Zbikowski (Baltimore).
Arbitrary top five list
Active N.F.L. running backs who were not drafted
1. Arian Foster, Tennessee.
2. Mike Tolbert, San Diego.
3. Ryan Grant, Green Bay.
4. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England.
5. Fred Jackson, Buffalo.
Brian Kelly (Assumption ’83), 8-5 after his first season with the Fighting Irish. His ascension to college football’s premier spot is justified: Kelly compiled a 34-7 record in three seasons at Cincinnati, a period that included a pair of conference championships. He won the Big East Coach of the Year award in each of his three full years with the program. Kelly followed up a 10-win debut season with an 11-3 mark in 2008, which included the program’s first Big East title and B.C.S. bowl birth. Cincinnati took another sizable step forward in 2009, running through the regular season undefeated and making a claim to playing for the national championship. None can doubt the distinct impression Kelly left on the Cincinnati program after replacing current Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio prior to the 2007 International Bowl. Kelly had taken the job 34 days prior to the bowl game, and instead of merely taking that last month to familiarize himself with the program – or even staying away until the end of the season – Kelly determinedly installed his offensive philosophy, something that was undoubtedly key in Cincinnati’s strong finish in his first full season in charge. He has gained a well-earned reputation as a program builder, something that drew him national attention during his three-year stint at Central Michigan (2004-6). The Chippewas, who had won more than three games only once in the previous four years, improved in each of Kelly’s seasons, from 4-7 in 2004 to 6-5 in 2005 to a 9-4 mark and a MAC championship in his final season. Before moving up to the F.B.S. with C.M.U., Kelly was the coach at Division II Grand Valley State for 13 seasons, winning back-to-back D-II titles in 2003-4. Overall, Kelly brings a 179-63-2 career record into his 22nd season coaching on the N.C.A.A. level. All that Kelly had achieved prior to arriving in South Bend meant little come last September, but after a solid debut there’s little reason to suspect his successful career won’t continue in earnest with the Fighting Irish.
Players to watch
Here’s the key statistic to take from 2010: Notre Dame was 7-0 when rushing for more yards than the opposition, 1-5 when not. Seal it, put a stamp on it and forget it: the Irish want to run the ball, not just make an effort to run the ball, and that 7-0 mark hammers home the thought that this offense can’t succeed without proper balance. Roughly half of last year’s rushing yardage must be replaced without Armando Allen and Robert Hughes, but the running game should be better in 2011.
What N.D. returns is last year’s leading rusher, junior Cierre Wood (603 yards, 3 scores). Wood is a rarity, at least in recent program history: he averaged 5.1 yards per carry last fall, the second-most by an Irish back over the last 14 years. Any questions about his ability to carry the running game on his own were answered over a six-game stretch when N.D. was without Allen; Wood averaged 80.2 yards per game over this span, which comes out to more than 1,000 yards when extrapolated over an entire season. So look for Wood to challenge that mark in 2011. What the Irish lack is proven depth. Senior Jonas Gray has 75 career carries, but N.D. will likely be without sophomore Cameron Roberson this fall thanks to an injury. For now, Notre Dame will need at least one of two true freshmen, George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel, to step up and provide depth.
There are no depth issues at receiver, where the Irish bring back all three of last season’s starters and several experienced reserves. You know the big name: Michael Floyd had his springtime issues but is now back with the team, ready to recommence his assault on the Notre Dame record books. After posting 79 receptions for 1,025 yards and 12 scores last fall, Floyd enters his final season — and few thought he’d be back rather than head to the N.F.L. — just shy of school records for receptions and receiving yards, already holding the career mark with 28 touchdown grabs. All Floyd needs to do is keep out of the blotter, and that falls solely on the gifted senior. Rounding out the starting lineup are sophomore T.J. Jones (23 receptions for 306 yards) and junior Theo Riddick (40 for 414), who took well to last season’s move from running back to receiver.
Depth comes from seniors like John Goodman and Deion Walker, juniors like Robby Toma and sophomores like Daniel Smith, among others. There’s enough experience here to keep a highly-touted newcomer like DaVaris Daniels on the bench, though Jones’ performance last fall did indicate that the best players will play — basically, that those who produce will see the field irrespective of youth. One silver lining stemming from last season’s injury to tight end Kyle Rudolph is that it gave junior Tyler Eifert (27 for 352) a half-season in the starting lineup. He’s one of a handful of rising sophomores and juniors who will be greatly improved thanks to last season’s experience.
Remember what I said earlier about Notre Dame’s late-season growth in Kelly’s first season? And that 7-0 mark when running the ball better than the opposition? Look at this offensive line as a microcosm of Notre Dame’s growth as a team down the stretch: a question mark — and a non-factor — early, this group was playing inspired football in November and December. Four of last year’s starters return; the only hole can be found at left guard, where N.D. will replace Chris Stewart with either senior Andrew Nuss or junior Chris Watt, with that competition still to be decided. The line’s best is senior right guard Trevor Robinson, a starter since arriving on campus. The Irish are also strong on the outside with junior left tackle Zack Martin, who really was a nice surprise last fall, and fifth-year senior Taylor Dever at right tackle. Rounding out the line is senior Braxton Cave at center.
Last year’s finish has many dreaming big, big, big with this defense, and perhaps rightfully so. Let’s slow things down just a bit, however. Firstly, Notre Dame’s improved defensive performance did come against a few teams with offensive allergies — Utah wasn’t clicking, Army was less than explosive and U.S.C. had hit the skids, thanks to a lack of numbers. But you couldn’t help but be impressed by the way N.D. began to grasp the 3-4 defense, which does lend credence to the belief that the Irish are just beginning to crack the surface of their potential on this side of the ball. More good news? As of today, Notre Dame’s starting lineup will feature seven seniors, three juniors and one sophomore. Things could change as we move through August, but experience overall plus experience in this system… you do the math.
Seniors lead the way up front, but depth comes from a batch of untested freshmen and sophomores. The Irish have a pair of steady, consistent starters at end in seniors Ethan Johnson (34 tackles, 5 sacks) and Kapron Lewis-Moore (62 tackles, 2 sacks). Have a dictionary handy? Flip open defensive ends, scroll down to in the 3-4 and you’ll find pictures of Johnson and Lewis-Moore, two 300-pound linemen who anchor Notre Dame’s run defense on first and second down. You’ll find ballyhooed true freshman Aaron Lynch on the second line, thanks to his spring arrival. He’s one of a quartet of incoming freshmen ends; it was quite a haul for N.D. in February.
As at tight end, an injury to a since-departed starter allowed senior Sean Cwynar (33 tackles, 3 for loss) to earn significant snaps in the starting lineup at nose guard. He’ll be backed up by senior Hafis Williams, who has played both inside and out thus far in his career but has found a home along the interior of the line. The Irish will also find a way to get sophomore Louis Nix III on the field in some capacity; he was one of several freshmen to star on the scout team in 2010.
You wouldn’t think he’d move so well. It doesn’t seem like he is, actually, but then — bang! — Manti Te’o is right there, laying out the ball-carrier, lead blocker, what have you, in yet another highlight reel-worthy display of his South Bend-sized abilities. I’m not even sure if South Bend can contain his potential, which is massive: Te’o is getting there, as illustrated in his 133-tackle sophomore campaign, but he can get better. And he will, once his mental game catches up with his physical gifts. A perfect fit as a 3-4 inside linebacker, Te’o is an all-American, a national award candidate and the heart and soul of this defense.
He’s also one of three returning starters at linebacker, though only one of the remaining pair, senior Darius Fleming (49 tackles, 6 sacks), seems assured of a starting role. The fight to line up alongside Te’o at inside linebacker should come down to junior Carlo Calabrese (60 tackles), the incumbent, and senior Anthony McDonald, who has battled injuries in the past. It will be impossible for N.D. to keep Prince Shembo off the field, as all the sophomore did last fall when given the opportunity was produce — to the tune of 15 tackles (5 for loss) and 4.5 sacks. The combination of Fleming and Shembo at outside linebacker gives Notre Dame two edge rushers with a proven ability to get to the quarterback. Here’s how it works, in short: Johnson, Lewis-Moore, Fleming and Shembo push ball-carriers inside; Te’o cleans up and asks for more.
That Notre Dame was merely average in turnover margin can be largely credited to senior safety Harrison Smith, whose seven interceptions — five over the team’s last four games — were good for fourth nationally. Interceptions are like relief pitchers: outside of the rare few, it’s hard to predict how they’ll carry over from one year to the next. But Smith’s an all-American candidate for a reason, because of his production, and he’s the defining figure in the N.D. secondary. Smith is also one of four seniors who will hold a major role. Two can be found at cornerback, where Gary Gray (66 tackles) and Robert Blanton (52 tackles, 2 interceptions) bring a combined 33 career starts into 2011.
The fourth senior, Jamoris Slaughter (31 tackles), will compete with junior Zeke Motta (50 tackles) for the starting safety spot next to Smith. Slaughter opened last year as the starter before injuries took their tool, pushing Motta into the starting lineup for Notre Dame’s last eight games. This is a solid pair, but neither has shown an ability to force turnovers. That’s not an issue as long as Smith continues to be a menace in the passing game. Any concerns over this secondary? Not really. But the Irish are thin on the second line at cornerback, a situation that could be ameliorated should sophomore Lo Wood hammer down his role as the first cornerback off the bench.
The return game needs a lot of work, both on kickoffs and punts. In the latter, the Irish can’t just settle for the fair catch; they’re hurting themselves by not inserting someone who can turn around starting field position. Notre Dame has a pair of consistent kickers in David Ruffer, a 2010 Lou Groza Award finalist, and Nick Tausch. Punter Ben Turk isn’t a boomer, but he’s done a fine job on placement.
Position battle(s) to watch
Quarterback It would have been easy for Kelly to simply reinsert Dayne Crist into the starting lineup, as the senior only lost his grasp on the starting role last fall due to a pretty significant knee injury. Then again, it would have been easy — a little less so, but still easy — for Kelly to name Tommy Rees the starter, as the sophomore fared well under extremely adverse circumstances, going 4-1 as a rookie down the stretch. That N.D. has two options at the position is what has prevented Kelly from making any concrete decision at quarterback; instead, he’ll wait as long as possible before making his selection. You could even say that N.D. has a four-man competition, if you include sophomore Andrew Hendrix and true freshman Everett Golson, but for all intents and purposes this position battle will come down to Crist and Rees. Well… don’t sleep on Hendrix. From all accounts, he impressed the staff with his play as Notre Dame’s scout team quarterback in 2010. But he’ll need to have a great set of fall practices to advance ahead of either Crist and Rees, both of whom have what Hendrix does not: experience. What’s my gut feeling? If he can recover from his knee injury — his second in as many years, albeit on different knees — I think Crist gets the nod. While he continued to commit far too many turnovers, Crist did seem to be turning a corner in this offense prior to his injury. Rees did well enough to justify earning the job, but I think N.D. goes with the senior.
Game(s) to watch
The schedule seems to lack the cachet of the recent past, doesn’t it? Maybe that has much to do with Michigan’s slide and the probation incurred at U.S.C., but the slate doesn’t pop out like it used to. And that’s a great thing for Notre Dame’s bottom line. Stanford’s picking up the slack, as are Navy and Air Force. The Irish will play only six true home games: South Florida, Michigan State, Air Force, U.S.C., Navy and Boston College.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Let’s pump the brakes just a little bit: Notre Dame’s not built for a national title run even with this schedule, though I do tend to think those sort of days await in the future. This year’s team lacks optimal depth, for starters, but there are lingering questions at quarterback — this above all else — and along the interior of the defensive line. But those are survivable issues, as I think Kelly is going to land improved quarterback play regardless of which candidate assumes the starting role. They’re survivable to a point, at least; again, Notre Dame doesn’t strike me as a team capable of running the table. But you know what I really like about the Irish, and Kelly’s rebuilding job in particular? It doesn’t seem like he’s rebuilding this program with smoke and mirrors, but rather going about rejuvenating a storied program from the bottom up: by demanding discipline, by relying on offensive balance, by going hard after front seven prospects on the recruiting trail and, basically, by putting forth a product that seems to be improving by the day. The play we saw last November and December will carry over to 2011, when we’ll again find the Irish progressing on the field throughout the season. So what’s the ceiling? I can see 10 wins, and don’t scoff. Forget what you’ve known about Notre Dame since 2006; this team won’t wilt, will avoid the month-long lulls that defined the previous era and, should push come to shove, have one of the nation’s best coaches upon which to rely. This is new, folks. I hesitate to say 10-2, but I think nine wins is very much in the cards. Just think: that’s only a two-game improvement in the win column from last year’s regular season, and that’s not a huge amount. It’s an exciting time for Notre Dame. This time, I think the excitement is justified.
Dream season Notre Dame makes a triumphant return: 12-0 in the regular season, the Irish are vaulted into the national title game with a win over then-No. 2 Stanford in the regular season finale.
Nightmare season The Irish tread water in the win column, finishing the regular season 7-5, but that’s a disappointment for a team with B.C.S. aspirations.
In case you were wondering
Where do Notre Dame fans congregate? As expected, you can’t log on the Internet without bumping into at least one Notre Dame Web site. Here are a few to check out: One Foot Down, ND Nation, Irish Envy, Gold Helmet, UHND.com, Irish Illustrated and Irish Eyes. I’m sure I’m missing a few, so list them below. As one reader pointed out last summer, Irish Sports Daily might be the best option of all.
Through 106 teams 333,001.
Who is No. 14? As a college junior, the head coach at tomorrow’s university completed less than 52 percent of his attempts for 1,893 yards while adding 230 yards on 1.8 yards per carry on the ground.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: Brian Kelly, Cierre Wood, David Ruffer, Dayne Crist, Ethan Johnson, Harrison Smith, Independents, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Manti Te'o, Michael Floyd, Notre Dame, Prince Shembo, Theo Riddick, Tommy Rees, Trevor Robinson
Leave a Comment