No. 32: Notre Dame
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 2, 2010
Finally, we can close the book on the Charlie Weis era, which crumbled under the weight of missed opportunities and its own massive expectations. In the big picture, it didn’t have to end like this. We all remember the glory of Weis’ first two seasons, which led to successive B.C.S. bowl appearances and the awakening, many felt, of college football’s largest sleeping giant. Then came the last three seasons: nothing short of disastrous. But last year’s team was clearly the best of Weis’ final three, and one could potentially make the claim that if a handful of juniors had remained in school and not declared themselves for the N.F.L. draft, Notre Dame would enter 2010 as a B.C.S. bowl contender. Such talk is ridiculous, of course. Weis’ replacement, the former Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, brings to South Bend an equally sterling reputation, one enhanced by success on the college level and a demeanor well-suited for the spotlight under which all Notre Dame coaches serve. After Weis flamed out so spectacularly, I ask: Are Notre Dame fans ready to love again?
South Bend, Ind.
15 (6 offense, 9 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 4
- Sept. 11
- Sept. 18
at Michigan St.
- Sept. 25
- Oct. 2
at Boston College
- Oct. 9
- Oct. 16
- Oct. 23
- Oct. 30
- Nov. 13
- Nov. 20
Army (in New York)
- Nov. 27
Last year’s prediction
Thinking logically, I have to give the Irish a loss to U.S.C.; another loss will come from the group of Nevada, Michigan State, Pittsburgh and Stanford; I also can’t escape the feeling the team will lose one game it shouldn’t. If you can say with a straight face that the Irish are not talented enough to make at least a one-win improvement over last season’s finish, either A) you know something I don’t; or B) your hatred for all things Fighting Irish has blinded you against all sense of reason. I’m thinking Notre Dame goes 9-3, a finish that could earn the Irish a B.C.S. bowl appearance, but with this schedule more likely a spot between Nos. 16-23 in the final regular season poll.
In a nutshell Last season could have — should have, it’s safe to say — gone far better. The Irish stood at 6-2 through October, with wins over Michigan State and Boston College and narrow defeats at the hands of Michigan and U.S.C. The 0-4 month of November spelled the end for Weis, but when the season came to close, all six of Notre Dame’s losses came by a touchdown or less. Not excusing Notre Dame’s decision to cut ties with its coach, not by a long shot. In fact, if the Irish could have received better coaching, more consistent coaching — particularly on defense — this was clearly an eight-win team. As has been the case for each of the last two years, the talent was there to achieve far more. From top to bottom, even on defense, the pieces were in place for a B.C.S. run. All that was missing? Coaching. Now that Notre Dame has the coaching, it needs to rebuild a roster damaged by both graduation and early entrants into the N.F.L.
High point Four fourth quarter wins in a five-week span from Sept. 19 – Oct. 24. That quartet, in conjunction with a blowout of Washington State on Halloween, left Notre Dame with a 6-2 mark entering November. And well within range of my prediction of a 9-3 finish, I should add.
Low point November. Notre Dame’s 0-4 finish featured losses to Navy (again), Pittsburgh, Connecticut (at home) and Stanford (snapping a 7-0 streak). The writing was on the wall following the Navy loss; the look on Weis’ face as time ran out said it all. The humiliating final month overshadowed an earlier loss to U.S.C., Notre Dame’s eighth straight in the rivalry.
Tidbit I had the opportunity to eat breakfast with Brian Kelly and a small handful of colleagues in early March, when Kelly and a few university administrators were in Manhattan to watch the Fighting Irish play in the Big East tournament. I took three key things from this conversation. One, Kelly is as passionate about college football — not just football, college football, mind you — as anyone I’ve come across. Two, his attention to detail — how he planned to run spring practice, his day-to-day coaching philosophies, what he expected from his team — is unparalleled. Three, and perhaps most telling, Kelly is not going to allow his team to use this coaching change as rationale for using that dreaded word — rebuilding. Kelly expects to win, to win now, and win big. As the first-year coach said later in the spring:
“It’s important that we win right now… There is no patience in college football, and Notre Dame fans have been patient for way too long.”
No excuses. And Kelly, as he has shown at each of his three previous stops, will give no quarter to those who rely on them.
Tidbit (top 10 edition) Notre Dame has finished in the Top 25 seven times since 1995, but in the top 10 only once since 1993. The following programs have also finished in the top 10 once over that span: Tulane (1998), Northwestern (1996), Arizona State (1996), Marshall (1999), Miami (Ohio) (2003) and Missouri (2007). Others have done it twice: Kansas (1996, 2007); North Carolina (1996-97); Arizona (1993, 1998); Louisville (2005-6); T.C.U. (2008-9); and Boise State (2006, 2009).
Tidbit (schedule edition) It’s always interesting to look at Notre Dame’s schedule, which features the typical cast of characters with several new, intriguing additions. The usual: Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Navy and U.S.C. The new: Pittsburgh — somewhat — Western Michigan, Tulsa, Utah and Army. In all, six opponents have already appeared on the Countdown: Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Western Michigan, Tulsa and Utah.
Former players in the N.F.L.
34 DE Victor Abiamiri (Philadelphia), WR Arnaz Battle (Pittsburgh), OT Jordan Black (Jacksonville), S Sergio Brown (New England), S David Bruton (Denver), TE John Carlson (Seattle), QB Jimmy Clausen (Carolina), OG Paul Duncan (Denver), C Jeff Faine (Tampa Bay), TE Anthony Fasano (Miami), RB Ryan Grant (Green Bay), WR David Grimes (Kansas City), OT Ryan Harris (Denver), LS J.J. Jansen (Carolina), RB Julius Jones (Seattle), CB Terrail Lambert (Indianapolis), DT Derek Landri (Carolina), DT Trevor Laws (Philadelphia), OT Mark LeVoir (New England), LB Corey Mays (Kansas City), LB Kyle McCarthy (Denver), S Chinedum Ndukwe (Cincinnati), OG Eric Olsen (Denver), QB Brady Quinn (Denver), CB Mike Richardson (Kansas City), C Dan Santucci (Cincinnati), WR Maurice Stovall (Tampa Bay), C John Sullivan (Minnesota), WR Golden Tate (Seattle), DE Justin Tuck (New York Giants), OT Michael Turkovich (New York Jets), OT Sam Young (Dallas), S Tom Zbikowski (Baltimore).
Arbitrary top five list
Worst losses of the Charlie Weis era
1. 2008: Syracuse 24, Notre Dame 23.
2. 2007: Navy 46, Notre Dame 44.
3. 2007: U.S.C. 38, Notre Dame 0.
4. 2009: Navy 23, Notre Dame 21.
5. 2007: Air Force 41, Notre Dame 24.
Brian Kelly (Assumption ’83), entering 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 last fall, running through the regular season undefeated and making a claim to playing for the national championship. Most impressively, Kelly entered the 2009 season facing his toughest task yet: continuing his double-digit win streak – dating back to Central Michigan – while replacing the overwhelming majority of Cincinnati’s impressive defense. None can doubt the distinct impression Kelly left on the Cincinnati program after replacing the 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. Over all, Kelly brings a 171-58-2 career record into his 21st season coaching on the N.C.A.A. level. All that Kelly has achieved previously means nothing now, of course, as he become the latest to attempt to bring Notre Dame back to the forefront of college football. If he fails – and I don’t think he will, but if he does – I don’t know where Notre Dame goes next.
Players to watch
The Dayne Crist era begins. He steps into some large shoes following the departure of Jimmy Clausen, who put his complete game together as a junior. Asking Crist to put forth Clausen-type numbers — 3,722 yards, 28 touchdowns against 4 picks — is asking far too much; he doesn’t bring much experience into 2010, attempting only 20 passes a year ago. What does Crist does bring to the table is experience in Kelly’s system, at least on a rudimentary level: he ran this type of offense in high school, which might not mean much but does give Crist a slight advantage over his competition. Crist will need to indicate he has regained some of his mobility following last season’s A.C.L. tear, which limited him during the spring. Regardless, with his ability — and Kelly’s track record — there’s reason to be excited about Crist’s potential.
Armando Allen will continue to do much of the heavy lifting on the ground, as he did for eight games last fall. He missed four games with an ankle injury, however, a setback that lessened his impact over the second half of the year. When healthy, Allen was the most productive Notre Dame running back since Darius Walker: 697 yards rushing on 4.9 yards per carry, with four games with at least 98 yards rushing. Senior Robert Hughes lends a tougher running style to the table, using his 245-pound frame to grant Notre Dame a presence between the tackles. Keep an eye on Cierre Wood, one of the nation’s top prospects in the 2009 recruiting cycle, who should make an impact in his first season of action.
Despite losing Golden Tate, last season’s Biletnikoff Award winner, the Irish will have a deep, talented receiver corps. Leading the way is junior Michael Floyd; when on the field, Floyd was the most productive wide receiver in the country — yes, ahead of Tate. Floyd accounted for 44 receptions for 795 yards in his seven games, earning at least 85 yards receiving in six games and at least 104 yards in five. What he’s capable of achieving in 2010 depends only on Floyd’s ability to avoid injuries; when healthy, he’s as good as they come. Senior Duval Kamara will also be in the mix, though he’s largely been unable to build upon a very strong start to his career. Look for a handful of youngsters, all extremely talented, to earn significant time: Shaquelle Evans, Theo Riddick and Tai-ler Jones, among others, with the latter a highly-touted incoming freshman. Notre Dame can also turn to junior Kyle Rudolph, one of the finest receiving tight ends in the nation.
Few teams return as much starting experience: the Notre Dame defense brings back 10 players to have started at least seven games a year ago. In addition, a shift in coaching staffs will spell a change in overall defensive philosophy, with the Irish transitioning back to a 3-4 base set after serving in the 4-3 a year ago. This is a good thing for this defense, which returns four experienced hands at linebacker.
The first is speedy, aggressive sophomore Manti Te’o, who will man one of the two inside spots. Te’o lived up to his immense billing last fall, coming on strong with a productive second half of the year. He concluded his debut campaign with 63 tackles (5 for loss), fourth on the team. Even greater things are expected from the sophomore in 2010. Even though Te’o had his share of freshman moments last fall, he’s an all-American candidate as a sophomore. Brian Smith is the team’s most experienced returning defender: he’s made 24 career starts, including 12 a year ago. Though Smith played on the inside last fall, he’ll move outside in the new look. Joining him on the outside will be either junior Darius Fleming (29 tackles, 3 sacks) or senior Kerry Neal (25 tackles, 3.5 for loss), with both making at least five starts a year ago.
The play of the defensive line will largely depend on whether the Irish can locate a tackle to play over the center, giving it a key building block with which to put forth a competent 3-4 defense. The task will fall to senior Ian Williams, a nine-game starter at tackle a season ago. There’s little experience behind Williams, increasing his importance to this defense. I like what the Irish can put forth at end: junior Ethan Johnson (32 tackles) has prototypical 3-4 end size, while fellow junior Kapron Lewis-Moore (46 tackles, 2.5 sacks) showed an ability to get into the backfield in his first season in the starting lineup. It takes some time for most linemen to grow accustomed to the 3-4; however, take note that this defense played the 3-4 in both 2007 and 2008 before moving to the 4-3 last fall.
What about the secondary? Like both along the line and at linebacker, the Irish return players with starting experience. Each of the cornerback trio of Gary Gray, Robert Blanton and Darrin Walls made at least seven starts a year ago; again this group will lead the way at the position. Obviously, Notre Dame is secure at cornerback, even if all three have had their bouts with ineffectiveness over their respective careers.
It’s a different story at safety, where the Irish must replace starters Kyle McCarthy and Sergio Brown. One player assured of a starting role is senior Harrison Smith, who has alternated time between linebacker and safety a season ago. He started the first six games of the year at safety before moving down, finishing the year with 69 tackles, third on the team. The strong safety spot remains open to debate, with junior Jamoris Slaughter the likely starter come September. Keep an eye on sophomore Zeke Motta, who could double at both safety spots; given his linebacker background, he seems a logical pick to see significant time at strong safety. Another player capable of breaking into mix is Dan McCarthy, Kyle’s younger brother.
Position battles to watch
Offensive line We’ve been here before. This year’s offensive line faces the challenge of replacing three starters — three players who combined to make 105 career starts. Those departures leave holes at both tackle spots and a center, though the Irish return guards Chris Stewart, a fifth-year senior, and junior Trevor Robinson. Added experience up front will come from senior Dan Wenger, who will compete for the starting role at center. Wenger was widely considered to be the program’s next multiple-year starting center following Dan Sullivan’s departure in 2007. Unfortunately, Wenger saw his playing time greatly diminish last fall, eventually ending the season in a reserve role. Now, in his final year of eligibility, Wenger is mired in a tough battle with junior Braxton Cave. In fact, Cave took the majority of first-team snaps during the spring, and should be considered the favorite to start the season with the starting lineup. It appears that sophomore Zach Martin and senior Taylor Dever will bookend, with Martin coming off a de facto redshirt season — Notre Dame doesn’t grant redshirts until after a player’s fourth year — and Dever bringing 18 games of experience, mostly of special teams, into 2010. The tackle spots are a bit of a concern, given the inexperience each of the projected starters bring into the season. The Irish have other options, such as senior Matt Romine, but Dever and Martin will get first crack at bookending the line. One note about this offensive front: Kelly and Notre Dame landed a good one in offensive line coach Ed Warriner, formerly the offensive coordinator at Kansas. He’ll have some work ahead of him, but it’s not as if the line is in shambles, such as it was over the latter years of the Weis era. The offensive line is still the weakest part of the offense, however.
Game(s) to watch
The usual suspects: Michigan, Stanford, Boston College and U.S.C. Games with Pittsburgh and Navy have been close affairs in recent years as well. I’m particularly intrigued by the game with Utah, as the Utes are sure to look at that game as one of the biggest on their schedule.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Even with the departures of many talented offensive skill players, Notre Dame retains enough talent on that side of the ball to keep this team in nearly every game. Having Brian Kelly around won’t hurt, obviously. His arrival in South Bend provides spark to a team mired in the darkest days in program history, with 16 wins over the last three seasons and morale at an all-time low. Kelly will help in both regards, of that I’m sure. Can he perform another one-year turnaround, such as he did at Cincinnati? 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. Perhaps Crist won’t duplicate Clausen’s numbers; chances are high he won’t, in fact. Nevertheless, he’s a good fit for this offense, and should put forth some impressive numbers. He has weapons to work with at receiver and tested options on the ground, though the line remains a slight question mark. 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.
Dream season A resounding success. The Irish go 9-3, with losses to Boston College, Utah and U.S.C., and return to the B.C.S.
Nightmare season Notre Dame struggles in its first year under a new coach and system, finishing 5-7 and home for bowl season for the third time in four years.
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: 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, Irish Sports Daily might be the best option of all.
Who is No. 31? Our next program is in the midst of the finest stretch in program history: six consecutive non-losing seasons.
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Tags: Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
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