Not B1G 2012 // Notre Dame Cocktail Party Preview

Cierre Wood (No. 20) will be the top dog at running back, but who will start at quarterback? Credit: Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE

THIRTEENTH IN A SERIES: THE NOTRE DAME COCKTAIL PARTY PREVIEW

Off Tackle Empire asked someone at the Notre Dame SBN site One Foot Down to write a preview to extend this wonderful offseason series, and I happily accepted.

As you know, the Fighting Irish are not in the B1G and likely never will be, but there's enough connection with the university being in Indiana and we also like to play Michigan State, Purdue, and Michigan an awful lot so there's generally a decent amount of attention paid to Notre Dame from B1G folk.

Notre Dame is going into its third season under Brian Kelly and historically this is a telling season for Irish coaches, but that won't really be the case this year---have you seen the schedule? There's probably going to be a new quarterback to be groomed (as we've been saying all offseason, don't sleep on Everett Golson) and that means some growing pains but hopefully more dynamic playmaking ability.

But first let us recount last year before moving on to this year's preview.

On Last Season

The Good News...

Back-to-back 8-win seasons is tangible progress giving the state of the program after the 2009 season. The offensive line played really well when healthy and only surrendered 17 sacks---the lowest total in what seems like 20 years. That line also paved the way for Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray to combine for 1,893 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns. That was literally the best running duo for the program in nearly 20 years. Of course Michael Floyd got his 100 receptions and a 1st round selection in the NFL Draft. Also selected in the first round was safety Harrison Smith who captained an improving defense. No one expected Notre Dame to beat ranked Michigan State after starting 0-2, but they did. It was nice to see Tyler Eifert emerge as one of the best tight ends in the country. The Irish avenged the 2010 loss to Navy with a whipping for the ages on the Middies at Notre Dame Stadium. The team actually proved that when it doesn't turn the ball over they can score a lot of points as they did against Purdue, Air Force, Navy, and Maryland. Giving how some things played out over the season, 8-5 sometimes doesn't seem that bad. Plus, the advanced stats loved Notre Dame in 2011---we should have been a BCS team! Of course that leads to...

The Bad News...

Turnovers, turnovers, and turnovers. Not just turnovers, but the most back-breaking turnovers coming at the worst moments at the wrong spots on the field. Two (yes, two) 99-yard fumble returns for touchdown surrendered in key moments of eventual losses. Multiple end zone interceptions and even more turnovers in the red zone. The season opening loss was the strangest game ever seen inside Notre Dame Stadium. A 4th quarter meltdown for the ages against Michigan in week two after holding the Wolverines to roughly 7 yards of offense through 3 quarters. A bad start and failed comeback against USC at home in front of a night crowd and approximately 397 recruits. Outplayed against Stanford on the worst turf known to humanity and then a nice collapse against Florida State in the bowl game---complete with Tommy Rees end zone picks to start and finish the game. Oh yes, and the quarterback controversy! Dayne Crist won the starting job for a half and then was benched the rest of the season (well until Rees got hurt for a series and Crist decided to fumble on the goal line against USC) in favor of the aforementioned Rees. Tommy Rees played well at times but he was pretty average overall and likely held the team back from winning 10 games. Might as well throw the recruiting losses of Ronald Darby, David Perkins, Taylor Decker, and Deontay Greenberry, plus the transfers of Aaron Lynch and Tee Shepard in there as well.

On the Offensive Side of the Ball

The Good News...

The offensive line is shaping up nicely with three returning starters and some All-American potential at a couple spots. The tight end position is deep and talented led by Tyler Eifert and a trio of former top recruits. Cierre Wood returns at running back after a 1,100+ yard season and he'll be backed up by the shifty hybrid running back/slot receiver Theo Riddick and speedy sophomore George Atkinson. In fact, the depth and talent at running back is as good as its been in South Bend in a long, long time with USC transfer Amir Carlisle eligible and a couple nice freshmen coming in as well. This offense might even play to its strengths and roll out a lot of two-tight end sets and run the ball a whole lot, but we'll see about that---Kelly hasn't done that since his Grand Valley State days so the skepticism is warranted. There's a handful of young unproven players that people are positively giddy about seeing the field soon: DaVaris Daniels as the next great wide receiver, and Davonte Neal as the Rocket-like playmaker, being the biggest two. If the quarterback situation can stabilize, this might be the best offense in some year for Notre Dame, even with the loss of Michael Floyd.

The Bad News...

That pesky quarterback situation---this competition is going well into August and fall practice. Some are praying Rees never starts again after his offseason arrest, some wish the strong-armed and power running Andrew Hendrix would find more consistency, while most others are waiting for silky smooth Everett Golson to grab the reigns and end all the nonsense. Either way it's looking like either an inexperienced quarterback is starting or one that is a terrible fit and giant lead weight on the offense. Four of the five offensive line spots are strong but the last spot has yet to be determined and will be played by either a mediocre veteran (Mike Golic), unproven behemoth (Tate Nichols), or inexperienced redshirt freshman (Nick Martin). Receiver is pretty sketchy with the loss of Michael Floyd. If Daniels or Neal don't light the world on fire the offense is going to be relying a lot on pretty so-so wideouts in John Goodman and TJ Jones. Most of all, the offense needs to prove it is over the turnover problems from last year.

Notre-dame-nd-in-use_medium

On the Defensive Side of the Ball

The Good News...

Manti Te'o decided to come back for his senior season and the front seven as a whole is looking somewhere between highly pleasant and fearsome, even with the loss of Aaron Lynch. A starting trio on the line of Kapron Lewis-Moore, Louis Nix, and Stephon Tuitt offers the best combination of experience, size, and explosiveness at Notre Dame in many years, while the depth behind them is solid. There's a lot of experience at linebacker and hopefully Te'o stays healthy this year and plays even better than he did in the past. Prince Shembo moves to a more comfortable pass-rushing outside linebacker position, and a couple emerging young studs in Ben Councell and Jarrett Grace are expected to get their noses dirty in 2012. Jack-of-all-trades safety Jamoris Slaughter came back for a fifth year and might be the glue to hold the secondary together.

The Bad News...

The secondary is not looking good and most just hope for competent play this season and nothing more. Zeke Motta is back at strong safety with plenty of starting experience, but he's known to take some of the worst angles in the history of division-I football and he generally makes more bad plays than good. Both corners graduated and mostly inexperienced guys will take their place. The physical and super speedy Bennett Jackson will hold down one corner spot and he's expected to play well but there are still legitimate questions as he's a converted wide receiver with minimal playing time. The other spot looks to be a toss-up between the smaller and more experienced Lo Wood, or sophomore Josh Atkinson who has just special teams and a few regular defensive snaps to his name. The defense overall should be good but it is going to be tested because of this pretty average secondary.

On Special Teams

The Good News...

Experienced placekicker Nick Tausch is back after losing his job to David Ruffer the past two seasons. Ruffer rarely missed and so has Tausch for most of his career (Ruffer broke Tausch's school record for consecutive field goals made) although there are some concerns about his range. Punter/kicker Kyle Brindza offers a sledgehammer leg and will compete for both placekicking and punting duties while holding down kickoff duties. Ben Turk is back as punter and is probably the most hot and cold performer in the country, but he looked phenomenal in the spring game and can really unleash bombs when he's on his game. For the most part, the tackling on special teams has been excellent and the blocking likewise when they actually decide to block. George Atkinson flourished in the kick return game with two touchdowns in 2011 and should get better while most expect Davonte Neal to make an immediate impact somewhere in the return game.

The Bad News...

The punt return was non-existent last year except for that one time when they said "Ah, screw it" and let Michael Floyd go back there in the bowl game. Last year, the coaching staff pretty much just shut down the punt return game for fear of even more turnovers. Theo Riddick may still be an option but judging by last year he may drop as many as half the punts. John "Fair Catch" Goodman took most of the reps last year which included waiving his hand, getting out of the way on a bad punt, or taking the ball and running laterally for a loss of two yards. Quite simply, something positive has to come out of the punt return game this year and with the way things went last year it shouldn't be too difficult to achieve some improvement.

On the Schedule

The Good News...

The early games are finally not too hard with Navy and Purdue to start. There's a lot of variety with games in Ireland, Chicago, and Norman. Stanford and Michigan State may be taking a step back competitively. The game against Michigan will be a night game. Miami might shiver to death during the game at Soldier Field. The Irish might have the chance to knock off an undefeated USC team to end the season.

The Bad News...

It's probably the toughest schedule in the country right now. There's no really super easy games. As much as half of the schedule will start out ranked in the Top 25. There's likely 3 preseason Top 10 teams and 2 preseason top 5 teams. It features a handful of legitimate Heisman candidates in Denard Robinson, Landry Jones, Matt Barkley, and Robert Woods. The games at Norman and Los Angeles have the potential to get ugly if the Irish don't bring their A-game.

If You're Talking to a Notre Dame Fan

Don't Mention:

The Bush Push, Tom Hammond, yellow mums, stadium noise, Pete Carroll, TV timeouts, Michigan 2011, Tom Hammond's face, turnovers, Tommy Rees' foot speed, referees during USC '64, referees during Michigan '09, Gary Gray making a play on the ball, Sam Young's agility, Charlie Weis, Kevin White, North dining hall, Florida State's '93 title, Boston College and sometimes Purdue, Tyrone Willingham, Pitt running backs, B1G conference affiliation, Tom Hammond's accuracy with names, Tommy Rees' arm strength, 2000 Nebraska red out, turnovers, Brian Kelly's purple face, Syracuse '08, Little Giants, The man with orange gloves, Crazy Train, field turf, Under the Tarnished Dome, Kim Dunbar, ESPN Lou Holtz, NDNation, turnovers, and stadium ushers.

Do Mention:

The Hydro Graphics Inc. helmet, Mike Mayock, fullbacks, 11 national titles, werewolves, Touchdown Jesus, Father Hesburgh, K of C sandwiches, Hammes Bookstore, Bob Diaco, the Band of the Fighting Irish, Rudy, the Song Girls, Kelly's recruiting on the lines, George Gipp, cut-off Champion jerseys, Clausen's '09 accuracy, coach Lou Holtz, record against Alabama, Knute Rockne, the Grotto, graduation rates, the Victory March, Tight End U, The Shirt, 7 Heisman's, national recruiting, the relationship with Navy, the class of 1946, Moose Krause, the Golden Dome, strength of schedule, Miami '88 pre-game fight, breaking Oklahoma's winning streak, Joe Montana, Rocket Ismail, the leprechaun, PLACT sign, Jerome Bettis, Alan Page, No. 1 vs. No. 2 record, Joe Moore, the Cheerios bowl, the savvy of Jack Swarbrick, Michigan State '06 comeback, '88 Michigan crowd noise penalty, and absinthe.

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