2011 Record: 8-5
Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 6
Brian Kelly is back for his 3rd season at the helm in South Bend. In his coaching career, he has compiled a record of 187-66-2, with stops at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati, and now Notre Dame. He has gone 16-10 at ND, taking them to a postseason bowl each year, albeit a lower tier bowl.
Tommy Rees was supposed to be the starting quarterback, that is until he decided to be rowdy and get arrested on a multitude of charges. Rumors are that he was even tasered by a police officer. One suspension later and now Everett Golson has been named the starter. Yet whether it's Golson, Rees, junior Andrew Hendrix, or even Gunner Kiel...they all have had one thing in common---turnovers. Here's an example of Tommy Rees' stats...since he's been the starter.
Now what looks to be the disturbing factor here? Yes, it's the interceptions. Good completion rate, decent yardage vs TD ratio, but way too many interceptions. No team can get the consistency they need to be good when that happens. So now they're going with unproven Golson. Golson has a good arm, decent scrambling ability, and average decision making skills, but what he does not have is experience. He also does not have size, being listed at 6'0 and 185lbs. Can he hold up? Lack of game time experience will hurt them this season. I would not be surprised at all if at some point during the season Golson is benched in favor of another quarterback. I wouldn't even be too shocked if Gunner Kiel was the starter by the end of 2012.
One player that should certainly help is running back Cierre Wood. Cierre Wood leads the ground attack after rushing for 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Listed at 6'0 and 215lbs, he doesn't have a whole lot of breakaway speed, but he can be punishing. If Kelly uses him more in goal line situations then he could score double digit touchdowns easily. Theo Riddick is used as both a runner and receiver, so he'll take a few plays on the outside of the tackles. Look out for George Atkinson III...he's a shifty runner with track speed. Wood recently got in trouble and should miss the first two games, but he should be the starter after that and will be back in time to play Michigan.
As with Golden Tate after 2010, ND has lost Michael Floyd after 2011. That's a huge receiving loss for any team to try and replace. Senior tight end Tyler Eifert decided to come back, and that's a big boost. As a starter, Eifert had 63 receptions for 803 yards and five touchdowns. There is talk of Eifert being drafted in the first round next April if he continues on this path...and the NFL is evolving into a two-TE driven offense league. Eifert should be a major factor on Notre Dame's team this year. Beyond Eifert, TJ Jones is expected to step up and contribute more. With 38 receptions for 366 yds and 3 TDs, Jones might have to earn the number 1 spot. Robby Toma is a smallish receiver who can sneak past bigger defenders but needs to be more than just another guy on the team. John Goodman (not that one) and DaVaris Daniels will probably be competing for the same spot. There are two other tight ends behind Eifert in Alex Welch and Troy Niklas who might see some time. Bottom line is they have enough weapons to be productive on offense, but their designed big plays went to mainly Floyd, so who knows who will take over that role.
On the line, Braxston Cave returns along with two other starters. At 6'3 and 304 lbs, he'll be a rock to move around. Mike Golic Jr. should be taking over at right guard and battling Nick Martin for that spot. Golic is not particularly athletic, but he is solid enough to get the job done. Zack is one of the stars on the line at left tackle. A great pass blocker, he has bulked up recently to take the punishment from the edge pass rushers. Chris Watt looks to take the left guard spot. Working on the other side is junior Christian Lombard was a backup and special teamer last year but now will get the first shot at Taylor Dever’s right tackle job. At 6-5 and 309 pounds he’s big and talented, earning high school All-America honors and named the 2009 Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year honors. He’ll be more than fine in pass protection. Notre Dame should have a deep and experienced line in 2012. The questions will just be in the backfield.
Defensively, the Irish need to be better. They only had 12 takeaways last season, and rarely did anything to change the tide of the game. Of the bright spots, Manti Te'o's shines the brightest. Probably the best linebacker in college football, and a surefire first round pick next April, Te'o led the Fighting Irish in tackles for the second straight season in 2011 with 128. Te'o also led the team in tackles for loss with 13.5 and finished second in sacks with 5.0. He has tremendous size and speed, and makes the most of his ability. Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams should be lining up on the other side.
They lost top pass rusher Aaron Lynch when he transferred to South Florida. That'll leave Kapron Lewis-Moore and Sheldon Day to burden the load. Lewis-Moore is small for a DE, which is why he'll be more of a tackle in the 3-4. Look for Stephon Tuitt to take over the edge rushing duties. He's every bit as good as they say. Louis Nix III will be hogging up the middle at DT. Don't be surprised if this unit is stingy against the run. It's against the pass where they seem shaky.
The safety position looks solid, with Zeke Motta doing a lot of hitting in the secondary. Lo Wood was going to be a starting corner, but he got injured and will be out for the season. Josh Atkinson is poised to take over the role there while Bennett Jackson takes the other starting spot. Jackson is a former receiver, so hopefully his instincts will be right on par to cover a wide area. This is easily the weakest position on the defense and has the potential to be the weakest, even including quarterback. There is a severe lack of depth here that could punish them at times. Plus, the secondary wasn't exactly great last year, getting beat on numerous occasions including Denard's 4th quarterback miracle last season.
Recruiting Spotlight: There is no doubt the 2012 recruiting class is a good one. 5* QB Gunner Kiel comes in and is easily the star of the class. He could/should start at some point but if he doesn't then he should be redshirted. Davonte Neal is a 4* out of Arizona that could get right into a good role on the receiving corps and the Irish have some help coming in the defensive backfield. Elijah Shumate is a 4* recruit that could get some early playing time with Notre Dame's secondary woes. Notre Dame had another 4* player that enrolled early, but decided to leave, which puts even more pressure on a weak secondary.
2012 outlook: As I said earlier, if you're a ND fan...then beware of your schedule. One of the few bright spots of being an independent is being able to make up your whole schedule. So who decided this murderer's row? Opening against Navy in Ireland is one thing, but then you have the plane ride back and face Purdue, after that is MSU, Michigan, Miami (FL), Stanford, BYU, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, Boston College, Wake Forest, and USC. The only easier one among them is Wake Forest, and even then the Demon Deacons have been improving. Seeing as though the quarterback situation is so fluid, I don't see a winning record out of this team.
Notre Dame Predictions:
Ability To Compete With Top Teams: Average
Upset Status: Low to Medium
Bowl Status: No Bowl