10 Questions Notre Dame Football Must Answer This Offseason
10 Questions Notre Dame Must Answer This Offseason
The 2013 college football season was a mixed bag for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and their fans. While a 9-4 record with a bowl win is hard to quantify as a success for one of the nation's most storied programs, it's difficult to label it a failure either.
On one hand, four regular-season losses and a win in the inconspicuous Pinstripe Bowl pales in comparison to the magical run Brian Kelly's team went on in 2012 that culminated in a trip to the BCS National Championship Game. But on the other, a season that produced at least nine wins for only the fourth time in the program's last 11 years after the loss of star linebacker Manti Te'o and quarterback Everett Golson might not have been the decline some say.
Notre Dame is not a place where excuses will be tolerated, however. Although there were several unfortunate reasons why the Irish weren't a national championship contender in 2013, their faithful won't be content until they re-emerge as such. With Golson is returning at quarterback and another impressive recruiting class is in the works, nothing short of qualifying for the first ever College Football Playoff will satisfy the fan base's appetite for a return to glory.
Kelly has undoubtedly equipped the team with enough talent for another exciting run, but several questions about the program must be answered during the offseason before determining if Notre Dame will be a contender in 2014. Here are the top 10 questions the Irish will face this spring.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.
10. Will Recruiting Class Produce Any Playmakers?
Despite Kelly being labeled an offensive guru by many, his offense at Notre Dame has yet to surface as one of the nation's most explosive. It has yielded some pro-caliber offensive talent, but not many true game-changers. A big-play weapon like Plantation, FL native Isaiah McKenzie (pictured), who will visit South Bend on Jan. 31, would be an excellent addition to the 2014 class.
9. Will Nyles Morgan Contribute Immediately?
Notre Dame addressed a position of need when it secured the commitment of four-star linebacker Nyles Morgan earlier this month. The Irish linebackers struggled to shed blocks and cover downfield in 2013, and Morgan should provide them with a superb athlete to pair with outside linebacker Jaylon Smith. The only question is whether or not Morgan will be ready to contribute from day one. Any improvement the Irish defense hopes to make in 2014 may hinge on it.
8. Where Will the Pass Rush Come From?
Under former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the Irish's conservative defense only registered 15 sacks in 2013. And with Stephon Tuitt declaring for the NFL draft and Prince Shembo graduating, Notre Dame is losing two defenders who combined to produce 11 of those sacks. Edge rushers like Ishaq Williams (pictured) will be relied upon to improve this offseason in hopes of filling the void.
7. How Aggressive Can Defense Afford to Be?
Another way in which the Notre Dame defense can generate more pressure is by employing an attacking scheme, which is exactly what new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is expected to do. Diaco's bend-don't-break defense put a considerable amount of pressure on the defensive line to provide pressure on its own. But under VanGorder, expect to see the Irish blitz more frequently.
How aggressive can his defense afford to be, though? The answer lies in how much faith he has in the Irish secondary. With cornerback Bennett Jackson and safety Austin Collinsworth graduating, the onus will fall on KeiVarie Russell (pictured) and company to provide reliable coverage, especially when VanGorder dials up the heat.
6. Who Steps Up At Receiver?
With T.J. Jones graduating, DaVaris Daniels suspended for the spring semester due to an academic issue, and tight end Troy Niklas declaring for the NFL draft, the Irish will be without their three most productive receivers from 2013 when Everett Golson returns at quarterback during spring ball. Golson will get Daniels back for the fall, but will still be in search of some pass catchers to develop rapport with.
The seemingly underutilized Chris Brown (pictured) would be a nice place to start. Torii Hunter Jr. and Corey Robinson -- two sons of famous athletes in different sports -- could also be relied upon.
5. Should Malik Zaire Have Chance To Compete For Starting QB?
Speaking of Golson, should he even be guaranteed his starting job back, or should he have to earn it? Conventional wisdom suggests he should be named the starter from day one, as no other passer on the roster has starting experience. But Kelly could consider making Golson earn the trust of his teammates by winning the job over redshirt freshman Malik Zaire (pictured), who was rated as the third-overall quarterback by Rivals.com last spring.
4. Which Running Backs Will Get Bulk of Carries?
Despite George Atkinson III entering the draft, Notre Dame still possesses a wealth of talent at running back. Cam McDaniel, who led the Irish with 705 rushing yards in 2013, is the most accomplished returnee. But he isn't he most talented.
Tarean Folston showed glimpses of why he could be a special player in South Bend as a freshman and Greg Bryant was a five-star recruit before redshirting in year one. Of the three, two runners will likely surface to form a dangerous one-two punch. It should be a fun competition to monitor during the spring.
3. Is Jaylon Smith Ready to Lead Defense?
Notre Dame clearly missed the presence of Manti Te'o in 2013. Not only did it miss his ability to make sound tackles and big plays, but more importantly, it missed his leadership. Well, a young, talented linebacker could be ready to pick up the slack. Fort Wayne, IN native Jaylon Smith was one of the most coveted recruits in the nation before committing to Notre Dame, and he showed why during his freshman campaign.
Smith tallied 61 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, three defensed passes, one interception and one forced fumble in his first season. He still needs to improve at setting the edge against the run, but he was mostly as advertised. But can he take the next step by not only becoming Notre Dame's top defensive player, but its heart and soul on that side of the ball?
2. Will Recruiting Class Shore Up Defensive Line?
The loss of nose tackle Louis Nix (pictured) is obviously a big blow for the Irish. Nix was one of the nation's stoutest interior defensive linemen and could be a first-round draft pick in May as a result. And with new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's likely incorporation of more 4-3 looks, the Irish are starving for some interior defensive line help.
Kelly and his staff have cast a wide net in recruiting with the hope of landing a few defensive tackles on National Signing Day. Included in that group are targets like Trey Lealaimatafao, Michael Sawyers and Daniel Cage.
1. How Improved is Everett Golson, and is He Ready to Lead Irish?
Everett Golson may or may not return as the unquestioned starter at quarterback. But even if he's forced to enter a competition for the job, there's no doubt he'd be the heavy favorite in a battle with Malik Zaire. Golson's solid play and experience as a freshman in 2012 propel him the most. And despite how awful Notre Dame looked in the 42-14 drubbing it took against Alabama in the title game last January, Golson was one of the few Irish who played well.
But it's uncertain how much Golson has improved in his time away from the program. He's been training with renowned quarterback coach George Whitfield ever since he was suspended for the 2013 Fall semester following an academic scandal. Still, not playing in an actual game for over a year could impede his development. But if it hasn't, look for Golson to pick up where he left off during his last start, as an ascending player who is ready to breakout as a star for the Irish.
Notre Dame's young offense will not only need his arm and legs, but his voice and leadership in 2014. If Golson lives up to his potential next season, there may be nothing preventing Notre Dame from becoming a serious contender.