We’re about to enter the final 24 hours of waiting for Notre Dame football to return to our television sets and optimism is growing faster than a port-a-potty line in the Library Lot.
It’s been a rough off-season for Brian Kelly the Fighting Irish. They had to deal with the death of a fake girlfriend. They rode the roller coaster of the recruitment, signing and loss of Eddie Vanderdoes to UCLA. Returning quarterback Everett Golson was kicked out of school for cheating on a final. Senior linebacker Danny Spond had to leave the team due to migraine issues.
I think I can speak for Coach Kelly and all Fighting Irish fans when I say, “Let’s get this season going before something else goes wrong!”
As I sat thinking about how Notre Dame is one off-campus party away from losing (now) starting quarterback Tommy Rees and thus effectively ending an almost shoe-in trip to a January bowl game, I realized there was much more to be happy about. Much, much more.
1) Been There, Done That — Quite frankly, Notre Dame likely faced a tougher schedule last season and came through it with a 12-0 record before the unfortunate drubbing in Miami. I’m not saying it guarantees the Irish will waltz to Pasadena this year, but it has been a LONG time since Notre Dame won twelve games in a row, let alone in one season. It’s a huge step, one that many returning players can rely on. They’ve done it before — they can do it again.
2) Defense Wins Championships — Notre Dame’s defense was one of the best in the NCAA last season, and though Manti Te’o leaves some huge shoes to fill in the middle, the Irish will return much of its core talent. Louis Nix III, Stephon Tuitt, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox will help spearhead an extremely talented defense that may actually be better than its 2012 predecessor. The young defensive backfield has an additional off-season under its belt and future star Jaylon Smith earned a starting spot at outside linebacker. This squad will not miss even a half a step and will continue its shutdown play.
3) Offensive Improvement, Part I — I won’t lie, losing starting quarterback Everett Golson is going to hurt. Hurting slightly more will be the loss of tight end Tyler Eifert, as I’m confident Rees will be at the very worst and adequate placeholder behind center. The Irish have a couple of very talented young freshman running backs, and I don’t think there will be a noticeable drop off there. The improvement, and it will be more than noticeable, will come from the wide receivers. This group was fairly bland last season, even on their good days. However Chris Brown started to get it together late in the season, and freshmen Torii Hunter, Jr. and Corey Robinson are very talented kids who could make a huge impact early.
4) Offensive Improvement, Part II — I could just call this “Tommy Gun” or something catchy like that, but I think it will be more than just Rees’s abilities on the field. Heck, we saw it three or four times last year when Rees either took over late in a game or after the many mini-injuries suffered by Golson. By many accounts, he has improved his arm, his speed and his maturity. He apparently even knows the playbook better than the coaching staff. This could be one of those “blessings in disguise”. Golson gets some quality maturation off the field and time to learn the playbook while Rees gets to show that he’s twice the quarterback he was last season. Considering his numbers were largely pretty darned good, I’ll put some good stock in that.
5) The Coaching Staff — I know Brian Kelly almost left for the NFL (though I still think that was largely contractual posturing), but I firmly believe that he is the true answer to Notre Dame football. He has respect for the Irish tradition, but frankly would sell his grandfather’s soul if it would make his team better on Saturdays. He is willing to do every little thing necessary for his guys and his school. He has the attitude you want in a championship coach, the history and the numbers. He’s recruiting better than any Notre Dame coach since Urban Meyer was wearing the monogram on road trips. He says the right things. He backs them up with victories and takes blame for losses. He studies the game constantly and isn’t mired in “one scheme”. And now, for the final piece of the championship puzzle, he faced the best and got beat. Losing to Nick Saban taught him the one lesson that you just can’t learn any other way: humility. He was smashed by a better coach and a better team, and now he knows what to do to fix it; to do better. Throw in Bob Diaco (at least until he gets his inevitable head coaching job), Tony Alford (see: Diaco, Bob) and company and the Irish are in very, very good hands.
The Irish may not be the sexiest pick after that poor showing in last year’s National Championship Game, but I see no reason why they Irish can’t run the table again this season, and they definitely won’t be that bad again; Brian Kelly, Tommy Rees won’t let them.