NCAA Football Preview - Notre Dame Fighting Irish
By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Coming off a crippling loss to Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship game (42-14), one that exposed the Fighting Irish in a multitude of ways, Notre Dame needed to rebound and prove that a 12-0 regular- season mark a year earlier was no fluke.
But even before the Irish took the field for an official game, the team was hit with a damaging blow when starting quarterback Everett Golson was suspended due to what was being reported as an academic violation. Golson was allowed to return to the university in December, but still he could not practice with the team, instead proving that he was worthy of being given a second chance.
Without Golson, the Irish turned to Tommy Rees to not only open the 2013 campaign but also carry them all the way through to the postseason. Notre Dame trampled Temple at home, 28-6, but that was merely a warm-up for the real test, a clash with Michigan in Ann Arbor the following week.
Ranked 14th in the country, the Irish had their hands full with 17th-ranked Michigan and ended up going down by a score of 41-30 in front of an NCAA- record crowd of 115,109 in the Big House.
Dropping seven spots in the rankings, Notre Dame then set out to defeat Purdue (31-24) and Michigan State (17-13), albeit by slim margins.
The squad was then taken out at home by Oklahoma (35-21), as Rees completed a total of just nine passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns. Perhaps the loss to the Sooners was a wake-up call because the Irish managed to rattle off victories against Arizona State, USC, Air Force and Navy in the coming weeks.
While the month of October was certainly a favorable one for the Fighting Irish, November took the team back a few steps with defeats at both Pittsburgh (28-21) and Stanford (27-20). Still, with eight wins in 12 opportunities, Notre Dame was headed to the postseason to take on Rutgers in the fourth annual Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, a meeting that resulted in a 29-16 victory for the Irish.
Against one of the worst pass defenses in the nation, Rees finished 27-of-47 for 319 yards, but failed to toss a single touchdown and had to rely on the kicking game to come up with five field goals, and still head coach Brian Kelly was pleased with his quarterback's performance.
"I'm a Tommy Rees fan for life," coach Kelly said afterwards.
OFFENSE: In what has become a very fluid situation at Notre Dame, there are quite a number of changes taking place on both sides of the ball, although the most notable is perhaps the assertion that Golson will be taking over for Rees as the starting quarterback.
With Rees no longer with the program, Malik Zaire was set up to compete for the starting job, but on Aug. 13 coach Kelly made public his choice to go with Golson and give the South Carolina native another shot to redeem himself.
"Generally, when you look at making that decision, I'm using January through right now as the basis," Kelly explained. "I looked at winter workouts, how he handled himself with the team, his spring season, his leadership in the summer and then camp here. I think he's put himself in the position to get that opportunity to be our starter against Rice."
Golson was an immediate threat when he took the field for Notre Dame as a sophomore in 2012, starting 11 games and leading the program to 10 consecutive wins. The signal caller threw for 2,405 yards and 12 touchdowns, against six interceptions, and also added 298 rushing yards, the most for a Notre Dame quarterback in more than a decade.
Going with Golson was almost a no-brainer for coach Kelly, given the fact that senior Charlie Fiessinger was never really in contention, Zaire is just a sophomore and the other two quarterbacks on the roster (DeShone Kizer and Montgomery VanGorder) are fresh out of high school.
The team brings back only two returning starters along the offensive line in Ronnie Stanley and Christian Lombard, which might be another reason why Golson is the quarterback of choice right now, being an athletic and versatile performer who can overcome the fact that he might not have the best protection available to him early on.
Golson was to have wide receiver DaVaris Daniels at his disposal as a returning starter, but the wideout's availability has now been brought into question amid an academic fraud probe that was announced in the middle of August. Daniels was to be the top returning receiver for the Irish after catching 49 passes for 745 yards and seven touchdowns, but that is now in jeopardy.
In addition to Daniels, defensive back KeiVarae Russell, defensive lineman Ishaq Williams and linebacker Kendall Moore are also players who are being called into question and have been removed from certain aspects of the football team as a result.
"Because of the potential for NCAA violations, the university notified the NCAA today, and the four football players will be held out of practice and competition until the conclusion of an ongoing investigation and the University honor code process. Any possible academic dishonesty by other students will be addressed appropriately," the school said in a statement on Aug. 15.
Hopefully, the return of both Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston to the backfield will help to take the focus off some of the distractions. McDaniel was responsible for 705 yards and three touchdowns on 152 carries and Folston added 470 yards and three scores on 88 rushing attempts.
However, the receiving corps does not look as promising, with Chris Brown being a key figure who caught only 15 balls for 209 yards and a single TD a year ago. Ben Koyack has potential after turning his 10 receptions into 171 yards and three TDs.
DEFENSE: Last season, the Irish had one of the better pass defenses in the nation, allowing just 198.2 ypg to rank 15th in that category, but the loss of significant starters and the issues with Russell, Williams and Moore will certainly bring that number back to reality.
Linebacker Jaylon Smith will have even more pressure heaped upon him to keep the defense on-task. Smith finished 2013 with 67 tackles, third-most on the unit, but while he numbered 6.5 TFL, he failed to register a single sack. For his efforts, Smith has been named to the Bednarik Award, Nagurski Trophy, Butkus Award, Lombardi Award, and Lott IMPACT Trophy Watch Lists.
On a more positive note, UND does bring back strong safety Austin Collinsworth who led the program with three interceptions, adding three quarterback hurries when he was able to make his way into the opposing backfield.
While he doesn't necessarily pile up the stats, finishing with 33 tackles in 11 games last season, lineman Sheldon Day is nonetheless a key figure in the trenches for the Irish, and he has been named to the Outland Trophy Watch List.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Almost single-handedly winning the bowl game for Notre Dame, kicker Kyle Brindza has earned his just rewards by being named to the Lou Groza Award Watch List. Brindza, one of nine players at the FBS level to take care of both the punting and place kicking duties for his team, already holds the single-season scoring record for the Irish with 98 points.
Brindza is almost flawless (14-of-15) in game-winning, game-tying, overtime or fourth-quarter lead-extending field goals during his career, which is the sort of clutch performance that every team dreams of having when they turn the ball over to the special teams.
The kicker averaged 41.1 yards per punt and launched seven of them in excess of 50 yards a year ago.
OUTLOOK: To say that Notre Dame's season is off to a rocky start even before hitting the field would be an understatement. For the last several years the team has had to deal with distractions off the field, from Golson and his academic issues, to Manti Te'o and the hoax surrounding a nonexistent girlfriend, and now allegations of more academic fraud with a new crop of student-athletes.
Obviously, coach Kelly cannot be pleased with how the summer has ended up for his squad, with the attention being taken off the action on the field, but his job is to get whatever players he does have ready for the season.
The Irish will probably open with a positive result against Rice, but from there on out there are no easy tests for Notre Dame, a team which opens the campaign ranked 17th in the nation according to the Associated Press. Michigan, the second opponent on the slate, may be down this season, but everyone knows the meetings between these two heated rivals take on a life of its own no matter what the status of the programs on a national scale.
Unfortunately, Notre Dame will be faced with some serious competition in 11th- ranked Stanford, 23rd-ranked North Carolina, and top-ranked Florida State all in a span of three weeks in October, a run that could easily break the will of the Irish.
Arizona State and USC, a couple of nationally-ranked Pac-12 program are also on the list for Notre Dame in 2014, which means nothing will be given to the squad from South Bend this time around.
08/20 12:39:01 ET