We’re a little less than a month away from spring practices for Notre Dame football and the Irish will be looking to improve on their 12-1 season from last year. In order to return to the BCS Championship Game, there’s a few questions that need to be addressed by Head Coach Brian Kelly and his staff need to address:
The biggest offensive issue last year for Notre Dame was the lack of a g0-to receiver. Freshmen Chris Brown and Davonte Neal became more consistent later on in the season and sophomore Davaris Daniels made a few good plays, but the Irish lacked a legitimate receiver to consistently get open and produce for the offense throughout the entire season.
In 2011, Michael Floyd capped off his career as one of the greatest receivers in school history, catching 100 passes for 1147 yards and nine touchdowns. Tight end Tyler Eifert backed that up with 63-803-5. For the 2012 squad to match just the top two from the previous season, you’d need to add up Eifert and receivers TJ Jones and Daniels as well as half the yards from running back Theo Riddick. Even after all four of those players, you only get ten touchdowns. In fact, Floyd and Eifert combined for 15 touchdowns in ’11 which is four more than all receiving touchdowns in 2012.
In order for the Irish to contend with teams like Alabama in a BCS game, they will need to establish someone as big time receiver. Daniels and Brown are both quick, reliable pass catchers, but they’re young. Along with Neal, one of these young guys will need to step up this off-season and give quarterback Everett Golson something to rely on.
Incoming freshmen Torii Hunter Jr. and Corey Robinson will bring star power to the 2013 Irish squad. Hunter’s father Torii Hunter plays in the MLB and Robinson’s father David, is The Admiral of NBA fame, but can they make names for themselves? Both are a little raw, but have huge upside. Hunter is very quick and will provide the double-move/quick slant receiver coach Brian Kelly is looking for, but after fracturing his femur at the Army All-American Bowl, we’ll need to see if he maintains his speed. Robinson is on the other end of the spectrum. At 6′-5″, Robinson has a huge frame that will create mismatches in the slot and in the red zone. Even as a freshman, don’t be surprised to see him targeted with a few jump balls.
The wide receiving corps for 2013 will be deep and talented but after last year, the fear is that they are loaded with number two receivers and lack the big number one. My guess is that Daniels will step up and lead this class of receivers, but the field is wide open.
Last year, Notre Dame finished 96th in average kick return yardage at 19.6 yds/ret. That’s bad enough for a top tier team, but this next one is worse: at 2.2 yds/ret, the Irish sat at 120th. There’s no easy way to say this: those numbers are just awful. There’s a bevy of athletic talent on this team and it’s getting deeper with the incoming class. Top athletes Max Redfield and Tarean Folston will join a group of young guys vying for playing time and special teams could provide the additional looks the coaches need to get guys in the game.
On the other side of the ball, the Irish fared a little better. Ranking 67th in yards per punt at 40.77, Ben Turk’s numbers are slightly skewed by quality punts (inside the five, fair catches, etc.) and Kyle Brindza did a fine job pinning opposing teams on kickoffs with a solid (and improving) 37% on touchbacks. These numbers could definitely improve, but they aren’t hindrances.
Brindza was also a 74.4% field goal kicker, hitting 23 of 31 attempts. This overall number isn’t too bad, the number that absolutely must improve, however, is his 8/11 from 30-39 yards. This should be a gimmie kick and those are points that Notre Dame cannot afford to miss out on if their offense isn’t as high-powered as Coach Kelly would like.
The offense has some issues with inexperience and a lack of productivity and those should be fixed as time goes on, but if the return numbers don’t improve, the offense will once again be put into a lot of deep holes from which to work.
Backfield In Motion
The Irish lost their two biggest producers from the backfield this year. Theo Riddick was the nations 73rd best rusher (917 yds, 190 carries, 4.8 ypc) and Cierre Wood fell in at 111th (742/114/6.5). All together, including time and yards by George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel and the quarterbacks/wide receivers, Notre Dame held the 38th best rushing attack in the nation, averaging 189.4 yards per game. Although not quite the numbers of a top tier football team, it was a solid improvement on the 2011 squad which was 54th at 160.4 ypg.
Lots of reasons for this improvement exist. First of all, the emergence of Everett Golson at quarterback as a legit scrambling threat reduced sacks (which counts against rushing yards in college football) as well as added the quarterback into an option-like package getting him many more planned touches than Tommy Rees, Dayne Crist and Andrew Hendrix the year before. The re-addition of Riddick to a supposedly depleted backfield was the final touch to a revamping of the Irish offense that looks to be even deeper next year.
Both Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood will be missing from next year’s roster. Riddick is out of eligibility while Wood left early for the NFL Draft, citing a lack of playing time and carries as the biggest reason. It’s a problem that Notre Dame will have for a while now, with a very deep and well-stocked cupboard of running back talent. With the addition of running back Greg Bryant (#2 RB according to ESPN) and athletes Max Redfield and Tarean Folston (#2 and #6 ATH), the Irish backfield will be chock full of talent, but who is the main guy? Like the wide receivers, there’s no clear leader in this position group.
Atkinson III has the clear experience advantage, and although he averaged 7.1 yards on 51 carries, the three freshmen all have superior talent and unique skills. Bryant will definitely become the every-down back, but will it happen this fall? Redfield, if he plays offense, would likely see time both in the backfield and the slot receiver position, similar to Riddick. Folston is stockier version of Atkinson, but just as capable of an every down back as Bryant with huge big play capabilities.
The odd man out here, may be USC transfer Amir Carlisle. Can he step up after the year off to push for playing time at the top of the rotation? His development could be the key to an extra year of eligibility for one or more of the freshmen, as well as allowing the athletes to develop as special teams returners, a sorely needed position on this team.
My guess is that Bryant will be too good to keep off the field. He and Atkinson III will split the main haul of the carries while the rest of the young talents slowly build experience.
Filling the Gap
With the graduation of all-everything linebacker Manti Te’o, the Irish will have to make up for one of the most prolific defenders in the history of the storied program. What seems to have gone unnoticed last year, was the production of everyone around Te’o. People forget how dominant this entire unit was in 2012. It wasn’t just a one-man army, but eleven or so young men who performed their tasks almost perfectly.
At linebacker, the Irish aren’t as deep as in middle but the addition of Michael Deeb should help out. Deeb is a Dick Butkus-like middle linebacker. A hard-nosed, thick-necked bruiser who likes to hit the hole with the intent of demolition, he’ll likely shadow projected starters Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox and Jarrett Grace. Fox split time with Calabrese this season, though you may not have noticed during the Te’o fanfare of 2012. If you ever said, “Who’s that guy with the hair?” you were probably referring to Dan Fox. Grace, if you go back a couple of years, was a highly recruited backer.
I honestly don’t have a good prediction for who will fill the Mike position. In fact I don’t know how either of the two inside positions will be filled. All I know is that the three guys fighting for playing time will make the unit stronger. Should be another good defense this year.
Notre Dame was a perfect 8-0 at home for the first time in over a decade. That said, there were a couple of games that should have been much easier victories to come by. Most notably was the Pittsburgh game which after a controversial pass interference, three overtimes and a lucky missed field goal could (or maybe should) have gone a different direction. The Purdue game was early and the offense (particularly quarterback Everett Golson) had just barely gotten it’s feet wet. I’m fairly confident in saying that if the two played later in the season, you’d be looking at a three touchdown spread.
The games against Stanford, Michigan and BYU should be expected. Notre Dame always has a bigger-than-life target on their back and it only grows when you go 12-0. Needless to say, the Irish will once again be treated as bowl opponents against every team they face in 2013. Tough games against Michigan State, Oklahoma and an angry USC will be huge hurdles again this year.
In another improvement department, the Irish need Golson to continue to develop at a superhuman pace. Freshman phenoms will always exist, but Golson was very raw coming into his first season as a starter but he drastically cut down on interceptions, bad decisions and time mismanagement. I don’t expect him to be a Heisman contender, but he needs to step up and earn a “C” on his jersey. The team needs a captain, and with a very talented Malik Zaire learning the ropes this year, he needs to make the film sessions about teaching his backups, and not learning from his own mistakes.
I also look to the defensive backfield. They will once again be young, but with Lo Wood (achilles) coming back, and some very talented incoming freshmen, the backfield will be deep and talented to make up for the lack of experience. Luckily, all starters but safety Zeke Motta will be back, though don’t be surprised if some shuffling occurs to get the best four or five guys on the field at once.
Regardless of these and other questions facing the Irish this spring, it should be another very entertaining, very successful squad in 2013. Just as last year, I don’t expect a 12-0 season, but the Irish could very easily have BCS dreams on the line (if not solidified) by the time they make it to the final game against Stanford.
Keep on the lookout for my schedule breakdown, including an all too early prediction for their inevitable bowl game.