Irish expectations will be double-digit wins in 2011.
By: Athlon Sports | 5/27/11, 1:00 AM EDT
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#6 Notre Dame
HEAD COACH: Brian Kelly, 8–5 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Charley Molnar | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bob Diaco
Although the Irish have two quarterbacks with playing experience — which is two more than they had a year ago at this time — the position remains a bit unsettled with the talented Dayne Crist and the savvy Tommy Rees reaching for the starting job. Crist went 4–5 as the starter without much help from a rushing attack or a defense. When Rees took over for the injured Crist, both the running game and the defense picked up, which made Rees a winner despite his three interceptions and a fumble in a comeback victory at USC. Now talented youngsters Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson are in the mix.
The Irish are lacking depth at running back and receiver, but they still boast a decent starting unit with Cierre Wood at running back, Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick and TJ Jones at wide receiver, and Tyler Eifert at tight end.
The Irish need senior Jonas Gray (75 career carries) to provide the big-back option that graduated Robert Hughes offered in victories over USC and Miami. Senior John Goodman (15 catches) and junior Robby Toma (14) also will be in the mix at receiver, as will senior Mike Ragone, redshirt freshman Alex Welch, and possibly true freshman Ben Koyack at tight end.
The line is the most settled area on offense with starters returning at both tackles (Taylor Dever and Zack Martin), right guard (Trevor Robinson) and center (Braxston Cave).
Notre Dame will go undefeated in 2011.
Eight starters are back from a defense that improved as the 2010 season progressed, including junior inside linebacker Manti Te’o, whose 133 tackles were the most by an Irish defender in 27 seasons. Te’o is joined along the front seven by veteran ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson, as well as four exciting up-and-comers — redshirt freshman nose guard Louis Nix III, true freshman ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, and true freshman outside linebacker Ishaq Williams. The outside linebacker corps also is solid with veteran Darius Fleming at the Cat outside linebacker spot and sophomore Prince Shembo at the Dog outside linebacker position.
The Irish lost a good one in the secondary to graduation — cornerback Darrin Walls — but Gary Gray and Robert Blanton both excelled in 2010 and are playing with confidence and a swagger. Tying it all together on the back end is fifth-year senior Harrison Smith, whose seven interceptions in 2010 were the most by an Irish defensive back in eight seasons.
Michael Floyd, WR Emerged as a bona fide star in ’10 with 79 receptions for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Manti Te’o, LB His 133 tackles were the most by an Irish player in 27 seasons.
Darius Fleming, LB A 23-game starter with 25.5 career tackles for a loss, 11.5 sacks; paced the Irish in both categories in 2010.
|Sept. 3rd||South Florida|
|Sept. 10th||at Michigan|
|Sept. 17th||Michigan State|
|Oct. 1st||at Purdue|
|Oct. 8th||Air Force|
|Nov. 5th||at Wake Forest|
|Nov. 12th||Maryland (Landover, MD)|
|Nov. 19th||Boston College|
|Nov. 26th||at Stanford|
David Ruffer, who hit the first 18 field goal attempts of the 2010 season, is back to contend for the Lou Groza Award. Early entry freshman Kyle Brindza will challenge for the punting job, which has been handled by Ben Turk the better part of 2009 and all of 2010. Bennett Jackson returns as the leading candidate to handle kickoffs after averaging 22.2 yards per his 29 attempts. Riddick could be a real threat returning punts.
Most of the defenders who spearheaded the 2010 revival are returning, and so are most of those skill position athletes who were forced into the lineup prematurely due to injuries. Sprinkle Floyd back into the mix, maximize Wood’s abilities, and find a quarterback who can avoid the crucial mistake, and it looks like the Irish should be able to generate enough offense to accommodate an improving and suddenly depth-laden defense. The combination of Kelly’s offensive track record and the improving defense could send the Irish in pursuit of a BCS bid in 2011.