Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn’t a list of the 25 best teams going into the spring, just the 25 we’re keeping the closest eye on.
What happened in 2012
Notre Dame has made significant strides under Brian Kelly. As he put it after the season, when he came to the Irish three seasons ago, there wasn't one player on the roster that had experienced beating a top 25 team. Last season, Notre Dame went 12-0 in the regular season. Losing to an incredible Alabama team in the BCS Championship Game shouldn't take away from what a season it was.
But, that doesn't mean Notre Dame will remain at that same elite level in 2012.
Five of Notre Dame's 12 wins came by seven points or less, and that doesn't count a win against a USC team that had a freshman quarterback making his first career start for an injured Matt Barkley. Notre Dame wasn't lucky in 2012 – the defense never got quite enough credit for how great it was, and the offense had some productive playmakers –but it also got some breaks it can't depend on every season.
What makes them interesting in 2013
Now that the Irish is finally relevant again, the question is if they can stay that way. They are replacing possible first-round picks in linebacker Manti Te'o and tight end Tyler Eifert, and running backs Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick. Eight Irish players in all were at the NFL scouting combine.
There is a lot back, however. Nose tackle Louis Nix passed on a chance to go to the NFL, and while he won't win the amount of awards Te'o did, he is a dominant piece of the Irish defense. Left tackle Zack Martin also passed on the NFL to return. Quarterback Everett Golson made some significant strides late in the season. The great defense will return eight starters. A recruiting class that was ranked third overall by Rivals will help the cause, as well. Notre Dame has enough pieces to be very good again. Perhaps not 12-0 good, but then again, nobody expected the Irish to do that last year.
What needs to happen this spring
Golson's development is crucial. He was a shaky option in the early stages of the season but matured a lot in the final month of the regular season, becoming an accurate, productive passer. His confidence grew late in the season and he seemed in control of the offense, finally. He loses his leading receiver and the offense loses its top two rushers, so more responsibility will be on Golson this season. He has to continue to be a player the entire offense can revolve around.
To help Golson out, the team is going to have to figure out who can help at running back. There's some intriguing options (more on them in a moment), but no obvious workhorse that can replace the production of Wood and Riddick. The defense should still be fantastic, and that unit will mostly be fine tuning in the spring. The offense needs to become more explosive (it ranked just 54th in yards per game last season, just ahead of Duke) if the Irish are going to be in the BCS hunt again.
Someone (or two, or three) will emerge to run the ball for Notre Dame. The Irish landed five-star recruit Greg Bryant at tailback, along with four-star recruit Tarean Folston. There are veterans on the Notre Dame roster who have the ability to make those two afterthoughts as freshmen.
George Atkinson, who will be a junior in the fall, is 210 pounds and averaged 7.1 yards per carry in 2012 over limited duty. He seems to be the most likely candidate to get first crack at the starting job. Cam McDaniel shuttled between cornerback and running back last year, and had 125 yards in garbage time. Amir Carlisle was a USC transfer that was out last year after suffering a broken ankle. If he's healthy, he's another possibility. There are options for the Irish. The right combination can give the Irish a strong rushing attack.
Oh yeah, Notre Dame has to replace perhaps the most decorated defensive player in college football history. Te'o had 36 more tackles than any other Irish player last season, and seven of the team's 16 interceptions. No pressure, Jarrett Grace.
Grace is a big, 6-3, 240-pound inside linebacker who is the early favorite to replace Te'o. He's also largely unknown. He didn't play in 2011 and had 12 tackles in 2012. He wasn't a highly recruited player, as a three-star player by Rivals in the 2011 class, but now he has a chance to make a name for himself. He has a great group around him in the front seven, which will help take the pressure off. But until Grace is in the spotlight, Notre Dame can't be quite sure what to expect.
Sept. 7 at Michigan
Sept. 21 vs. Michigan State
Sept. 28 vs. Oklahoma
Oct. 19 vs. USC
Nov. 30 at Stanford
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