Notre Dame had its best season in more than two decades with an undefeated regular season that fell one game short of a BCS National Title vs. Alabama, and was a team that featured one of the nation’s best in Heisman runner-up Manti Te’o. However, after a tumultuous offseason, the Irish are in position to win 10 games for the second-straight season for the first time since 1992-1993.
Last year’s starting quarterback Everett Golson is gone after using “poor academic judgment,” so Tommy Rees is back under center for Brian Kelly’s club until Golson returns in 2014. Rees is not the perfect option to run Kelly’s offense, but as Paul Myerberg of USA TODAY Sports writes, it could be much worse.
Tyler Eifert, Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick are gone, but there is talent on the roster to fill their shoes. In addition, Notre Dame features one of the best lines in the country led by Zack Martin, Chris Watt and Christian Lombard.
George Atkinson III, Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel and No. 2 running back recruit Greg Bryant are the top candidates vying for the starting running back position. Bryant could emerge as the team’s leading rusher with his array of skills.
Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels has the most upside, and T.J. Jones tied for the team lead with Eifert with 50 receptions. After these two, there is not a proven option and this should be an opportunity for Will Fuller, James Onwualu, Torii Hunter Jr. and Corey Robinson to earn reps.
#NotreDame‘s Brian Kelly: “(DaVaris) Daniels will be a legitimate BCS WR. He will be a guy you’ll have to pay attention to.”
— Matt Fortuna (@Matt_Fortuna) August 9, 2013
The tight end position has produced two recent pros in Eifert and Kyle Rudolph, while Troy Niklas gets the first crack at being the next great one. He’s 6-foot-7, 260 pounds, but after transitioning from a high school lineman to a college outside linebacker and then to tight end, he is a bit raw. Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman are former top recruits to keep an eye on as the season develops.
Notre Dame finished second in the nation in allowing 12.8 points per game, but even without Te’o, the defense could be even better. The strength of the line will center around Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day. This is the best three-man front in the country, and they’re backed by a deep cast of linebackers led by Prince Shembo and his 14 career sacks.
Jarrett Grace has the unenviable task of filling the big shoes of Te’o, but the 6-foot-3, 250-pound junior should be a tackling machine. He won’t have seven interceptions or be the emotional leader Te’o was, but he can be a better pass rusher and will benefit from the line in front of him.
Despite Danny Spond‘s medical concerns ending his career, the Irish have quality depth in Dan Fox, Ishaq Williams, Carlo Calabrese and Kendall Moore. Jaylon Smith was a top-10 recruit last year and will compete with Ben Councell for Spond’s spot in the starting lineup.
Notre Dame’s front seven this year: 4 former 5-star recruits, 10 former 4-star recruits. Lordy. Thin at DB, but … lordy.
— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) May 15, 2013
The secondary had a number of questions last year with offensive players converting to defense, but 2013 is a different story. The depth is not quite there at cornerback after KeiVarae Russell and Bennet Jackson, but safety is deep despite the season-ending injury to Nicky Baratti.
Max Redfield is a former top recruit that will be hard to keep on the sideline, but the freshman is behind Matthias Farley, Elijah Shumate and Austin Collinsworth on the depth chart. John Turner and Eilar Hardy will also be needed for depth and special teams.
The Irish boast an elite defense that will keep them in every game as Rees and the offense work out potential early-season growing pains. If they can split — and I think they will — vs. Michigan, Oklahoma, USC and Stanford, they will hit that 10-win plateau.
For anyone wondering if last year was a fluke, this season will prove that the Fighting Irish are back among the nation’s elite.