Notre Dame Football: Reason For Optimism In A Transition Year

Brian Kelly has succeed in restoring Notre Dame football to consistent respectability after the disaster of Charlie Weis and Kelly showed in 2012 that he’s capable of producing a nationally elite team if the circumstances are right.



Whether the head coach’s fifth year will produce the proud program’s first major bowl win since 1993 and its first national title since 1988 will require a lot to go right, but Notre Dame continues to appear moving on an upward trajectory.

college football bowl historyBoth coordinators will be new this season and for all the right reasons. Bob Diaco, the highly regarded defensive coordinator is the new head coach at UConn and Chuck Martin, the offensive coordinator, is now the boss at Miami-Ohio. It’s a mark of the respect Kelly’s staff has within coaching, but also presents some transition issues for the coming season.

The defense, the staple of Notre Dame’s big year in 2012 and the unit that kept them a pretty good team in 2013, will be the focal point of the transition. Not only under a new coordinator, but the incoming man, Brian VanGorder runs the opposite philosophy of Diaco. The latter ran a 3-4 scheme that thrived on bending, but not breaking. VanGorder plays a four-man front and believes in attacking.

With this kind of philosophy change, perhaps it’s just as well that Notre Dame will replace a lot of its front seven. They lose sack leader Stephon Truitt and line anchor Louis Nix III. But the talent that returns should meld easily into a more aggressive style.

Outside linebacker Jaylon Smith is only a sophomore, but the five-star recruit quickly established himself as a playmaker who can disrupt an offense. The secondary is the strength of the defense, with excellent corners in KeiVare Russell, Florida transfer Cody Riggs and Matthias Farley, moving over from safety. The remaining safeties, Austin Collingsworth and Elijah Hardey, are experienced.

If you want to play an aggressive defense, having someone like Smith that you can turn loose, combined with corners capable of playing man coverage and safeties smart enough to be in the right place, is a good place to start. We’ll see Notre Dame give up a few more big plays than in year’s past, but I also expect to see the Irish make a few more of their own, with the end result being that the defense is still the strength of the team.

Kelly oversees the offense himself and there’s some significant rebuilding that has to take place here. The offensive line is young, the receivers unproven, the running backs mostly unproven themselves and quarterback Tommie Rees is gone. That’s the bad news.

Here’s the good news—the offensive line might be sophomore-heavy, but those kids were highly regarded as recruits and the developmental phase might not be that long. The same goes at running back—Cam McDaniel is a reliable senior and if Kelly wants more upside he can turn to redshirt freshman Greg Bryant, one of the prize recruits in the country when he came to South Bend.

And the new quarterback isn’t so new. Everett Golson was behind center when Notre Dame made its run to the national championship game in 2012. After academic problems cost him last season, Golson is back and ready to go this year. There’s not a reason to be optimistic about the receivers, but if the defense can help set up Golson in good field position and the running game comes through, ND won’t need to throw a lot.

If Notre Dame were playing a normal schedule, I’d say this looks like a 9-3 or 10-2 team with the potential to go higher if everything broke right. But this is no normal schedule.

There are no fewer than four big games. There’s the usual home date with Michigan and another one with Stanford. There’s a road trip to Arizona State, a rising force in the Pac-12. And that October 18 trip to Florida State? Yeah, that looks pretty big too.

I would also include an October 11 home game with North Carolina on the list of upper tier games. UNC would have won their division in the ACC two years ago if not for probation and they were a solid bowl team a year ago. This is a program on the move under innovative head coach Larry Fedora and if ND is peeking ahead to Florida State when they play, the Tar Heels can walk out of South Bend with a W.

Nor did I include the USC game as a big one, even though tradition demands it and you can make a pretty good argument that the Trojans’ current talent demands it. I’d like to see what Steve Sarkisian can do with USC before assuming this will be a titanic clash, but if you want to put this game in its usual upper-tier spot on the ND schedule, I can see why.

We still haven’t gotten to games with Navy, Syracuse, Northwestern, and Louisville, all of which will at least be pesky, and could be very tough. The weakest game on the schedule is Purdue and even that’s not a cakewalk.

So with this schedule in mind, what’s a realistic expectation for Notre Dame football this year? I’ll draw a distinction between an expectation and a goal. The former is the minimum required to avoid disappointment. The latter is the maximum that you can expect without going to an extreme rosy scenario.

For Notre Dame, the expectation would be 8-4—schedule or no, this is still Notre Dame and there is still a lot of five-star recruits walking around the locker room. You have to expect a victory two of every three times you play. And the goal? I’d say 10 wins would be the high end. My own prediction would probably end up around 8-4, with the potential big year in South Bend being 2015.