| ||2011 SEASON IN REVIEW:Year Two of the Brian Kelly era got off to a rocky start, as the Fighting Irish lost the opener at home to South Florida and then fell at Michigan the following week by a combined seven points. |
The team did get off the canvas though, with a 31-13 rout over 11th-ranked Michigan State, sparking a run of eight wins in nine games to climb back into the national rankings. The only blemish was a 31-17 home loss to USC on Oct. 22. Notre Dame's mid-season charge came to a halt the Saturday after Thanksgiving in a 28-14 setback to Andrew Luck and seventh-ranked Stanford.
Still, eight wins were enough to get the Irish a date with Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. However, FSU rallied in the fourth quarter for an 18-14 victory, sending the Blue and Gold into the offseason on the heels of two straight losses.
In May, starting quarterback Tommy Rees and linebacker Carlo Calabrese were arrested following a run-in with police at a party, and both were later suspended for the season opener against Navy.
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|S 1 at Navy |
S 8 vs. Purdue
S15 at Michigan State
S22 vs. Michigan
O 6 vs. Miami-Florida
O13 vs. Stanford
O20 vs. BYU
O27 at Oklahoma
N 3 vs. Pittsburgh
N10 at Boston College
N17 vs. Wake Forest
N24 at USC
T Zack Martin
C Braxston Cave
G Chris Watt
TE Tyler Eifert
RB Theo Riddick
WR T.J. Jones
RB Cierre Wood
QB Tommy Rees
LB Manti Te'o
DE Kapron Lewis-Moore
S Jamoris Slaughter
S Zeke Motta
LB Dan Fox
NG Louis Nix
LB Prince Shembo
DE Aaron Lynch
P Ben Turk
OFFENSE:Chuck Martin, who won a pair of national titles at the Division II level and has spent the last two seasons coaching the Irish safeties, is the new offensive coordinator and inherits an unsettled quarterback position. Considering Rees' turnover rate and declining play down the stretch of last season, he was going to be facing competition regardless of his suspension. Junior Andrew Hendrix was pushing Rees toward the end of the season, but sophomore Everett Golson was the more highly-decorated high school quarterback and had the best showing at the spring game. Early-enrolled freshman Gunner Kiel, a five-star high school recruit himself, is the other candidate.
"Clearly we'll be focusing on the three young men who were out there in the spring," Kelly said during a recent interview with the team's Web site. "Hopefully we'll be able to get to a point where we can name a starter; don't know when we'll do it but we'll certainly have an eye towards gaining that kind of consistency and continuity at the position."
The coaching staff must also somehow find a replacement for all-time leading receiver Michael Floyd, although All-American tight end Tyler Eifert is back to provide a big, steady target.
Senior Cierre Wood last year became the first Irish running back to eclipse 1,000 yards since Darius Walker in 2006. He'll be backed up by senior Theo Riddick, a converted wideout who was originally recruited to play running back, and is now back at his natural position. Martin indicated Riddick could play some slot back to give defenses a different look.
DEFENSE:The defense has some question marks up front and in the secondary. The defensive line suffered a huge blow in April when Freshman All-American Aaron Lynch decided to transfer to USF. The pressure will be on sophomore Stephon Tuitt (6-6, 295), a top recruit just two years ago, to step up his game.
There are some concerns at cornerback, and not much depth. Junior Bennett Jackson is one option, although he came to South Bend originally as a wide receiver. Seniors Jamoris Slaughter (6-0, 200) and Zeke Motta (6-2, 215) hold down the safety spots.
At linebacker, Calabrese could end up losing his starting spot to Dan Fox alongside All-American Manti Te'o. Thought to be a sure bet to enter the NFL Draft this past April, Te'o instead chose to return for his senior year. Coming off a season in which he paced the squad in tackles (128) and tackles for loss (13.5), he'll be asked to lead the defense once again. Sophomore Ishaq Williams emerged in the spring to claim a starting gig on the outside.
SPECIAL TEAMS:The Irish got little to no production in the return game last year, so those jobs are anything but nailed down entering the season. Nick Tausch will handle the kicking duties, but he has not held that starting position since 2009. Punter Ben Turk needs to improve his 40.3-yard average from last year, as questions abound in all special teams phases.
OUTLOOK:Kelly is entering his third year in South Bend, which is generally about the time that pressure from the Irish faithful reaches a crescendo. Of course, he might sleep a little easier if he knew his starter at the most important position on the field.
"More than anything else, you'll see a guy who we trust with the football," Kelly said when asked which traits will separate the eventual starter from the pack. "Gotta be able to trust him that he'll make good decisions and put our team in position to win."
As usual, Notre Dame will face one of the nation's more difficult schedules. Opening the season against Navy in Dublin, Ireland certainly presents a challenge. Other tough road bouts against the likes of Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC also await.
The Irish have enough talent across the board to win their share of games, perhaps even an upset or two. However, at the end of the day, Kelly's decision at quarterback will dictate their fortunes for this year, and beyond.
By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor