Brian Kelly's quarterbacks at Central Michigan and Cincinnati put up big numbers. That hasn't happened at Notre Dame, and quarterback again is a position of concern.
It looks to be a four-man battle for the starting job. There's returning starter Tommy Rees, who has a good grasp of the offense but can't seem to avoid mistakes (22 career interceptions); in addition, he was arrested in May and charged with four misdemeanors after an alleged altercation with police who were trying to break up a party. There is sophomore Andrew Hendrix, who played in five games last season and showed more as a runner than as a passer. There is athletic redshirt freshman Everett Golson, who is short (he's listed at 6 feet) but athletic and was highly productive in high school in Myrtle Beach, S.C. And there's true freshman Gunner Kiel, a strong-armed early enrollee.
If one of those guys come through, all should be fine in South Bend. If not? Kelly will be feeling the heat a year from now.
Last season: 8-5 overall
Coach: Brian Kelly (16-10, 3rd season; 69-32, 11th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (8) – C Braxston Cave, TE Tyler Eifert, WR TJ Jones, T Zack Martin, QB Tommy Rees, WR Theo Riddick, G Chris Watt, RB Cierre Wood. Defense (7) – LB Dan Fox, E Kapron Lewis-Moore, S Zeke Motta, T Louis Nix, LB Prince Shembo, S Jamoris Slaughter, LB Manti Te'o. Special teams (1) – P Ben Turk.
Fast fact: Notre Dame has lost at least five games in five consecutive seasons. That is the second time in school history that has happened (1959-63).
Taking care of the ball is vital. The Irish committed 29 turnovers last season; only nine teams nationally had more.
Rees was responsible for 19 turnovers; he tossed 14 interceptions and also lost four fumbles. There's no question he gets the offense; the problem is he doesn't seem to value ball possession. That could open the door for Golson, who had a strong spring and adds a different dimension with his running ability. Kelly's quarterbacks at Central Michigan (Dan LeFevour) and Cincinnati (Ben Mauk, Tony Pike and Zach Collaros) were running threats as well as productive passers.
In addition to finding a quarterback, Kelly and his staff need a new go-to receiver to emerge and for a rebuilt line to jell quickly.
The go-to receiver might be senior TE Tyler Eifert, who thought about going pro but remained in school. He had 63 receptions for 803 yards and five TDs last season, and should be the best tight end in the nation.
Eifert is, by far, the leading returning receiver. T.J. Jones and Theo Riddick each had 38 catches last season, but Riddick is moving to tailback. Jones didn't do all that much in the second half of the 2011 season, and might not be able to handle the go-to role. Seniors John Goodman and Robby Toma, redshirt freshman DaVaris Daniels and touted true freshman Davonte Neal should be fixtures in the rotation, too.
Junior T Zack Martin is heading into his third season as a starter, and he is the Irish's best lineman. Senior C Braxston Cave and junior G Chris Watt are the other returning starters up front. Sophomore Christian Lombard is the likely starter at right tackle, and senior Mike Golic and redshirt freshman Nick Martin are the top contenders at the other guard spot. Depth is questionable.
There aren't questions at tailback. Cierre Wood ran for 1,102 yards and nine TDs last season despite sharing time with the since-departed Jonas Gray. Riddick played tailback as a true freshman in 2009 and could be a breakaway threat. Sophomore George Atkinson III also could get some carries.
Defensively it's all about improving the secondary. The Irish had just eight picks last season and allowed 23 TD passes. And that was with experienced corners. There are no experienced corners on this season's roster: Projected starters Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood are juniors who never have started a college game. Depth at corner is a huge question, too.
At least the safeties look OK. Jamoris Slaughter has good coverage skills and could play some corner. Zeke Motta is a big hitter. Austin Collinsworth, Cris' son, is a solid reserve.
The Irish use a 3-4 set, and should be fine at end with Kapron Lewis-Moore, a returning starter, and Stephen Tuitt, who started three times last season as a true freshman. Depth is iffy, though, and Aaron Lynch's transfer really hurts.
Sophomore Louis Nix is coming off a solid season at nose tackle. He is strong against the run and has the quickness to make occasional forays into opposing backfields.
The star of the defense is senior ILB Manti Te'o, who again will vie for All-America honors. He is fast and physical, and is coming off a 128-tackle season. He also had five sacks, two pass breakups, four quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. Te'o had nine games with at least 10 tackles.
OLB Prince Shembo and ILB Dan Fox also are returning starters, and junior Danny Spond and sophomore Ishaq Williams are expected to battle for the open outside 'backer spot. Depth looks good.
P Ben Turk returns after averaging 40.3 yards per attempt, but the Irish need a new kicker. It likely will be junior Nick Tausch, who was 14-of-17 on field-goal attempts in 2009 but has attempted just one kick since.
Atkinson is a dangerous kick returner (26.1-yard average, with two TDs last season), but the Irish punt returners were horrendous last season (48 total yards on 13 returns). The coverage units also need big upgrades.
The Irish face a tough schedule; there are tough games early (at Michigan State and vs. Michigan in back-to-back weeks in Setember), in the middle (vs. Stanford and at Oklahoma in October) and late (at USC to close out the regular season).
There are nine teams on the schedule that played in bowl games last season; in addition, Miami would've been in a bowl had it not self-imposed a postseason ban.
The Oct. 6 matchup with the Hurricanes at Soldier Field in Chicago is one of three games against ACC teams; there also are three against Big Ten foes.
Turnovers doomed the Irish last season. Three of their losses came by four or fewer points, and they committed 13 turnovers in those three setbacks.
Notre Dame has the defense to at least hang with almost everybody on their schedule. The offense again is the issue. It really bogged down late last season (44 total points in the final three games), and Kelly needs to find a way to rev it up. That means finding a quarterback with whom he is comfortable – and one he can count on to avoid mistakes.
The schedule is such that if the Irish don't solve their offensive problems, a 6-6 record beckons. The flipside: If the offense comes together, a 10-win season is possible, and a 10-win Irish team would end the season in a BCS game.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 13th nationally
The buzz: The possibility of signing a top-10 class was dashed on National Signing Day when touted WR Deontay Greenberry of Fresno, Calif., backed out of his commitment and instead surprisingly signed with Houston; several other top targets chose other schools, too. Despite the late disappointments, Kelly and his staff signed the nation's No. 20 class. The late addition of Scottsdale (Ariz.) Chaparral four-star WR Davonte Neal helped ease the sting of Greenberry's loss. The gem of the class is five-star QB Gunner Kiel, nephew of former Irish QB Blair Kiel, who enrolled in January to challenge for the starting job as a true freshman. – Josh Helmholdt, Rivals.com
QB Everett Golson. It's not even a sure thing Golson will win the starting job, but with Tommy Rees' legal problems, the position is more wide open now than during spring ball. Kelly desperately wants Golson to grab hold of the job. If the sophomore shows improved maturity in the film room and practice, Golson probably will. It's hard to imagine Notre Dame overachieving or the Irish offense evolving without Golson. The former early enrollee was electric in the Irish spring game. – Pete Sampson, IrishIllustrated.com
For more on Notre Dame throughout the season, check out IrishIllustrated.com
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