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The big 2014 Notre Dame football preview: Act II for Kelly (and Golson)

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

With new coordinators and new on-field leaders, the second act of Brian Kelly's Notre Dame career begins in 2014. Can his Irish survive a top-heavy schedule this fall, or do they have to wait until 2015 to make another big-time run?

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

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1. Act II of Brian Kelly's Notre Dame career begins

Update, August 15: Four key contributors have reportedly been dismissed. Adjust expectations accordingly.

Barring something drastic, the fifth year of Brian Kelly's tenure at Notre Dame should result in something that hasn't come around since 1991: a sixth year for a Notre Dame coach. Bob Davie and Charlie Weis each lasted five years. Ty Willingham lasted almost three. But while Kelly has only twice finished a season ranked (same as both Davie and Weis), his recruiting and depth are solid, and he's gone 21-5 in the last two seasons.

Sure, Notre Dame was drastically outmanned in the national title game in 2012, and sure, there was a three-game regression last fall. But the Irish program is pretty healthy, and there's no reason to think Kelly won't put another good team on the field this fall. That said ... there's change coming.

Kelly has been successful enough in South Bend that other schools are taking away his top assistants. Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin is now the head coach at Miami (Ohio). Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is now the head coach at UConn.

And many of the key pieces of recent Notre Dame squads -- defensive tackles Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III, offensive linemen Zack Martin and Chris Watt, inside linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese, tight end Troy Niklas, and of course quarterback Tommy Rees -- are gone, which leaves a bit of an identity void.

Kelly has plenty of former star recruits to fill the holes, and he welcomes quarterback Everett Golson back into the fold. But Act I of Kelly's time in South Bend, which starred Diaco, Martin, Manti Te'o, Tuitt, Nix, etc., is over, for better or worse.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 26
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
31-Aug Temple 98 28-6 W 38.3 - 20.4 W
7-Sep at Michigan 37 30-41 L 35.0 - 34.3 W
14-Sep at Purdue 114 31-24 W 21.6 - 31.4 L
21-Sep Michigan State 6 17-13 W 26.6 - 16.3 W
28-Sep Oklahoma 20 21-35 L 33.3 - 33.9 L 3.7
5-Oct vs. Arizona State 13 37-34 W 31.1 - 28.0 W 0.8
19-Oct USC 11 14-10 W 26.2 - 22.3 W 1.4
26-Oct at Air Force 113 45-10 W 31.7 - 22.5 W 5.2
2-Nov Navy 58 38-34 W 55.7 - 28.8 W 8.5
9-Nov at Pittsburgh 54 21-28 L 33.3 - 27.5 W 9.8
23-Nov BYU 30 23-13 W 39.3 - 23.8 W 12.3
30-Nov at Stanford 3 20-27 L 26.7 - 32.3 L 10.4
28-Dec vs. Rutgers 91 29-16 W 31.9 - 19.8 W 10.9
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +11.6% 24 +6.4% 33 -0.5% 82
Points Per Game 27.2 74 22.4 27
Adj. Points Per Game 33.1 33 26.2 53

2. Above average to good

It was a strange season for Notre Dame, and not only because the Irish never put their intended 22-man starting lineup on the field for one play. Everett Golson's academics-related absence cleared the way for one final year of Tommy Rees, and the injuries and shuffling added up on both sides of the ball.

But even with the insecure personnel situations, this was a season that saw the Irish beat the No. 6, No. 11 and No. 13 teams (according to the F/+ rankings) and stay within seven points of the No. 3 team on the road. It also saw them lose to the No. 37 and No. 54 teams and beat No. 114 by just seven. You never really knew what you were getting from the Irish from week to week, but as a whole, the team improved over the last half of the year.

Adj. Points Per Game (first 7 games): Notre Dame 30.3, Opponent 26.7 (plus-3.6)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 6 games): Notre Dame 36.4, Opponent 25.8 (plus-8.6)

The defense held steady despite losing Nix to injury, while the offense simply improved. This was a solid team at the end of the year, but with the amount of personnel turnover, both on the field and on the sideline, that probably doesn't mean a lot. More new faces mean less carryover. The Irish are starting fresh this fall.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.22 28 IsoPPP+ 111.4 19
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.2% 56 Succ. Rt. + 112.8 24
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 29.8 62 Def. FP+ 103.4 21
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.0 87 Redzone S&P+ 95.5 82
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 15.8 ACTUAL 17 +1.2
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 68 18 24 26
RUSHING 81 23 18 45
PASSING 39 15 26 30
Standard Downs 8 14 4
Passing Downs 47 44 79
Q1 Rk 16 1st Down Rk 12
Q2 Rk 36 2nd Down Rk 37
Q3 Rk 13 3rd Down Rk 34
Q4 Rk 70

3. Play-calling 101

Of the two ex-coordinators, Bob Diaco probably had the higher profile overall. This shows in the fact that he got a job higher on the totem pole, but it's also reflected in the numbers. Notre Dame had a Def. F/+ ranking of 16th or better in three of Diaco's four seasons and produced a Heisman finalist in Te'o. Martin's two years as offensive coordinator produced what seemed to most to be lesser results.

That's not entirely true, however. Notre Dame's offense graded out better than its defense in each of the past two years; the Irish ranked ninth in Off. F/+ and 13th in Def. F/+ in 2012, then ranked 24th and 33rd, respectively, in 2013.

Despite Tommy Rees' turnover-prone reputation and the fact that three of last year's top five targets had catch rates under 49 percent, Martin managed his personnel well. He called more passes than the national average on standard downs and more rushes than average on passing downs; this is often the play-calling approach when you've got either a mobile quarterback who doesn't handle pressure very well or a young quarterback who doesn't handle pressure very well. Rees was neither, but the approach worked pretty well. Notre Dame ranked eighth in Standard Downs S&P+, and while big plays on passing downs were almost non-existent, the Irish still moved the ball.

Kelly and new coordinator Mike Denbrock, an on-and-off Kelly assistant since their Grand Valley State days 20 years ago, have a pretty high bar to meet in terms of play-calling, but if they can engineer a bit more success when it comes to finishing drives, that wouldn't hurt. Notre Dame had to settle for a lot of field goals in 2013, and field goals are a failing strategy for the most part.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Tommy Rees 224 414 3257 27 13 54.1% 8 1.9% 7.6
Andrew Hendrix 2 14 56 0 0 14.3% 0 0.0% 4.0
Everett Golson
(2012)
6'0, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 187 318 2405 12 6 58.8% 15 4.5% 7.0
Malik Zaire 6'0, 208 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9)
DeShone Kizer 6'2, 176 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

4. Hey, Everett

Getting Everett Golson back certainly won't hurt from a drive-finishing standpoint. He led the team with six rushing touchdowns in 2012, though that might say more about the 2012 running backs than Golson himself. He is an efficient, if not particularly explosive, runner, and he'll add a dynamic that Notre Dame did not have last year. (Granted, Notre Dame did have a rushing quarterback in Andrew Hendrix. But Golson can actually pass, too.)

Golson is the total package, or at least he could be. After a shaky start to his redshirt freshman season in 2012, he survived battles against one great defense after another (Michigan State, Stanford, USC, Alabama), and he improved down the stretch. In the last four games of 2012 (including battles against USC and Alabama), he completed 72 of 116 passes (62 percent) for 1,033 yards, six touchdowns, and two interceptions. Rees led a pretty explosive passing game in 2013, but the efficiency could have been a little better. It should be quite a bit better with Golson.

Golson is the total package, or at least he could be.

From a skill position standpoint, Golson inherits an interesting mix of experience and potential. Leading rusher Cam McDaniel and No. 1 target DaVaris Daniels have plenty of the former; their production was rather shaky in 2013 -- McDaniel because he lacked any semblance of explosiveness (anything below about 4.0 highlight yards per carry is unimpressive, and McDaniel was at 3.5), Daniels because he lacked any semblance of efficiency (a 44-percent catch rate takes the sizzle out of 15.2 yards per catch). Daniels averaged a fantastic 10.7 yards per target as the No. 4 target in 2012, so perhaps Golson's accuracy will help him break out again. (This is assuming Daniels is actually on the team; he was removed from the roster for academics, just like Golson was in 2013. It would be a surprise if he were not back, however.)

The potential improves as you go further down the list of returning talent. Tarean Folston was possibly Notre Dame's most efficient and explosive back (though he still wasn't incredibly explosive) last year, and five-star redshirt freshman Greg Bryant waits his turn. At receiver, Chris Brown (in 2012) and Corey Robinson (in 2013) each showed hints of freshman potential but had to wait their turn in the rotation. With T.J. Jones gone, the Irish need another explosive option, and either of these two, or perhaps Will Fuller or Torii Hunter, Jr., could fit the bill. There is a high volume of potential in the receiving corps, but the proven production is basically limited to Daniels, and tight end Troy Niklas is no longer around as a passing downs bailout option.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Cam McDaniel RB 5'10, 207 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 152 704 3 4.6 3.5 42.1%
George Atkinson III RB 93 555 3 6.0 5.8 43.0%
Tarean Folston RB 5'9, 207 So. 4 stars (5.9) 88 470 3 5.3 4.2 46.6%
Amir Carlisle RB/WR 5'10, 190 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 47 204 0 4.3 3.7 38.3%
Andrew Hendrix QB 16 26 1 1.6 2.1 37.5%
TJ Jones WR 9 67 2 7.4 6.6 55.6%
Greg Bryant RB 5'10, 204 RSFr. 5 stars (6.1)

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
DaVaris Daniels WR 6'1, 203 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 111 49 745 44.1% 27.1% 58.6% 6.7 14 6.7 114.7
TJ Jones WR 109 70 1108 64.2% 26.7% 65.4% 10.2 259 10.3 170.6
Troy Niklas TE 53 32 498 60.4% 13.0% 50.9% 9.4 98 9.3 76.7
Chris Brown WR 6'2, 191 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 31 15 209 48.4% 7.6% 60.0% 6.7 -3 7.1 32.2
Amir Carlisle RB/WR 5'10, 190 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 18 7 30 38.9% 4.4% 62.5% 1.7 -83 1.5 4.6
Corey Robinson WR 6'4, 205 So. 4 stars (5.8) 16 9 157 56.3% 3.9% 37.5% 9.8 40 12.0 24.2
Ben Koyack TE 6'5, 261 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 15 10 171 66.7% 3.7% 46.7% 11.4 52 12.3 26.3
William Fuller WR 6'0, 171 So. 4 stars (5.8) 15 6 160 40.0% 3.7% 84.6% 10.7 65 8.1 24.6
C.J. Prosise WR 6'1, 220 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 12 7 72 58.3% 2.9% 70.0% 6.0 -17 6.1 11.1
Cam McDaniel RB 5'10, 207 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 10 6 34 60.0% 2.4% 40.0% 3.4 -41 3.8 5.2
George Atkinson III RB 10 7 51 70.0% 2.4% 77.8% 5.1 -30 5.0 7.9
Tarean Folston RB 5'9, 207 So. 4 stars (5.9) 6 5 35 83.3% 1.5% 60.0% 5.8 -19 5.6 5.4
Torii Hunter, Jr. WR 6'0, 178 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Mike Heuerman TE 6'3, 225 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Durham Smythe TE 6'4, 235 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Justin Brent WR 6'1, 204 Fr. 4 stars (5.9)
Nic Weishar TE 6'4, 215 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Corey Holmes WR 6'2, 176 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 111.9 2.99 3.01 42.7% 64.9% 19.4% 308.0 1.2% 2.8%
Rank 22 59 88 24 82 69 2 2 8
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Zack Martin LT 52
Chris Watt LG 37
Christian Lombard RG 6'5, 315 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 20
Ronnie Stanley LT 6'5, 318 So. 4 stars (5.8) 13
Nick Martin C 6'4, 295 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 11
Steve Elmer LG 6'5, 317 So. 4 stars (6.0) 4
Conor Hanratty RG 6'4, 309 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 4
Matt Hegarty C 6'4, 300 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 2
Hunter Bivin RT 6'5, 291 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0
Mark Harrell RG 6'4, 305 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0
Colin McGovern LT 6'4, 313 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Mike McGlinchey RT 6'7, 290 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
John Monteus LG 6'4, 320 RSFr. 4 stars (6.0)
Quenton Nelson OL 6'5, 302 Fr. 5 stars (6.1)
Alex Bars OL 6'6, 290 Fr. 4 stars (5.9)
Sam Mustipher OL 6'3, 294 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Jimmy Byrne OL 6'4, 285 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

5. A killer line

Despite quite a bit of shuffling, despite youth, despite Tommy Rees' tendency to look downfield a lot, and despite a lack of explosiveness at the running back position, Notre Dame's offensive line thrived in 2013. The Irish were one of seven offenses to rank in the top 25 for both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate -- the others: Texas A&M, Northern Illinois, Miami, Florida State, Arkansas, and Duke -- and while those ratings reflect on more than just the linemen themselves, that's rather impressive.

Better or Worse?

The Irish do have to replace two longtime starters on the left side; Zack Martin was a four-year starter and Notre Dame's lone first-round pick in last week's draft, and Chris Watt was a three-year starter.

But one has to be enamored with the potential. Sophomores Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer are keepers, the experience level is still solid (six players with starting experience, 54 career starts), and there are plenty of high-ceiling newcomers who could end up on the two-deep: Hunter Bivin, John Monteus, Mike McGlinchey (a projected starter at the end of spring), Quenton Nelson, Alex Bars, etc. Martin and Watt were good, but it still seems the line will be a major strength.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.96 4 IsoPPP+ 117.8 5
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 45.2% 96 Succ. Rt. + 94.9 76
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 29.1 90 Off. FP+ 100.5 55
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.9 31 Redzone S&P+ 108.1 32
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 16.2 ACTUAL 17.0 +0.8
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 31 48 76 37
RUSHING 71 55 80 23
PASSING 15 50 82 75
Standard Downs 59 77 23
Passing Downs 40 65 1
Q1 Rk 65 1st Down Rk 59
Q2 Rk 38 2nd Down Rk 42
Q3 Rk 65 3rd Down Rk 44
Q4 Rk 21

6. Quite an identity change

The Notre Dame offense has been better than perceived over the last couple of years, but the Irish identity has centered around the defense. Diaco's 3-4 combined conservative, bend-don't-break tendencies with extreme play-making ability up front, and the results were solid.

With Diaco gone, Kelly didn't promote from within. He brought in Brian VanGorder, another former Grand Valley State assistant, who has spent most of the last two decades as a defensive coordinator at UCF, Central Michigan, Western Illinois, Georgia, Auburn, and with the Atlanta Falcons. He brings a rather aggressive 4-3 defense to the table, and it will be interesting to see how aggressive he is allowed to be. Bend-don't-break principles weren't quite as effective last year without Te'o and eventually Nix. And with turnover in the front seven, it might be a good time for an identity change. But change isn't automatically great.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 96.9 3.11 3.77 41.5% 62.8% 17.2% 72.2 5.5% 4.5%
Rank 73 88 108 88 37 89 108 41 110
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Stephon Tuitt DE 13 36.5 5.1% 9.0 7.5 1 2 1 0
Sheldon Day DT 6'2, 290 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 11 27.0 3.8% 5.5 0.5 0 1 0 0
Louis Nix III DT 8 19.0 2.6% 2.0 0.0 0 2 0 0
Jarron Jones DT 6'5, 305 So. 4 stars (5.8) 12 15.0 2.1% 1.0 1.0 0 0 1 0
Romeo Okwara DE 6'4, 258 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 13 14.5 2.0% 1.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Kona Schwenke DT 12 14.5 2.0% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Ishaq Williams DE 6'5, 271 Sr. 5 stars (6.1) 11 11.0 1.5% 1.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Isaac Rochell DE 6'3, 280 So. 4 stars (5.9) 11 7.5 1.0% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Justin Utupo DT 6'1, 290 Sr. NR 13 5.5 0.8% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Anthony Rabasa DE 6'2, 243 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 5 5.0 0.7% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Tony Springman DE 6'6, 296 Jr. 3 stars (5.7)
Chase Hounshell DT 6'4, 271 Jr. 3 stars (5.7)
Jacob Matuska DT 6'4, 285 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Jay Hayes DT 6'4, 275 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Andrew Trumbetti DT 6'4, 250 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Dan Fox ILB 13 69.5 9.7% 5.0 1.0 2 2 0 1
Carlo Calabrese ILB 13 67.0 9.3% 5.5 0.5 0 1 0 0
Jaylon Smith OLB 6'2, 230 So. 5 stars (6.1) 13 54.0 7.5% 6.5 0.0 1 3 1 0
Prince Shembo OLB 13 37.0 5.2% 5.5 5.5 0 0 1 0
Jarrett Grace ILB 6'2, 253 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 7 29.0 4.0% 1.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Joe Schmidt ILB 6'0, 230 Sr. NR 13 12.5 1.7% 2.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Ben Councell OLB 6'4, 254 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 9 12.5 1.7% 1.0 0.0 0 1 1 0
Kendall Moore ILB 6'1, 251 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 12.0 1.7% 1.0 0.0 1 0 0 0
John Turner LB 6'1, 217 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 2.5 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
James Onwualu LB 6'1, 215 So. 4 stars (5.8)
Doug Randolph ILB 6'2, 240 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9)
Michael Deeb LB 6'2, 242 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Austin Larkin LB 6'3, 240 RSFr. NR
Nyles Morgan LB 6'2, 223 Fr. 4 stars (5.9)

7. For Notre Dame's sake, stars better matter

Even with some losses, the recruiting pedigree of Notre Dame's front seven is impressive: two former five-star recruits, nine former four-stars.

Five-star sophomore Jaylon Smith was one of Notre Dame's best play-makers as a freshman, and while the losses of Nix and Stephon Tuitt are certainly costly, the Irish do still have tackles Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones. End Romeo Okwara had a lovely spring, and the athleticism of youngsters like Isaac Rochell and James Onwualu is exciting.

But as with the receiving corps, the proven production is minimal. Smith is great, and the tackle position is well-stocked, but new play-makers have to emerge. They probably will, but it's not a guarantee.

Sheldon Day. Jonathan Daniel, Getty

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Bennett Jackson CB 13 52.5 7.3% 5 1 2 3 1 0
KeiVarae Russell CB 5'11, 190 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 45.5 6.3% 1.5 0 1 8 0 0
Cody Riggs
(Florida)
CB 5'9, 190 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 12 40.5 6.5% 6.5 1.5 0 3 0 0
Matthias Farley CB 5'11, 204 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 37.0 5.2% 1 0 2 3 0 0
Austin Collinsworth S 6'1, 205 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 29.5 4.1% 0.5 0 3 0 0 0
Eilar Hardy S 5'11, 201 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 10 20.0 2.8% 1 0 0 0 0 0
Elijah Shumate S 6'0, 213 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 10 18.5 2.6% 1 0 0 1 0 0
Cole Luke CB 5'11, 184 So. 4 stars (5.9) 13 11.5 1.6% 0.5 0 0 2 0 0
Lo Wood CB 11 8.0 1.1% 1 0 0 0 0 0
Max Redfield S 6'1, 194 So. 5 stars (6.1) 12 7.0 1.0% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Devin Butler CB 6'1, 181 So. 3 stars (5.6) 12 4.5 0.6% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Josh Atkinson CB 5'11, 197 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 5 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Connor Cavalaris CB 5'11, 190 Sr. NR 3 1.5 0.2% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jalen Brown CB 6'1, 202 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Nicky Baratti S 6'1, 206 So. 3 stars (5.7)
Nick Watkins DB 6'1, 190 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

8. Not much concern in the secondary

In 2013, safeties Matthias Farley, Austin Collinsworth, Eliar Hardy, and Elijah Shumate combined for one of the best big-play prevention units in the country. Farley's now at cornerback alongside the excellent KeiVarae Russell and Florida transfer Cody Riggs, but that only makes room for five-star sophomore Max Redfield.

I guess corner depth could be better, but it's difficult to find room for worry in the secondary. Russell is a stellar play-maker who could benefit the most if VanGorder is allowed to add a bit more aggression to the defensive recipe, the safeties are a nice mix of steady and explosive, and if the pass rush provides any threat at all up front, this secondary will make a lot of plays.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Kyle Brindza 6'1, 236 Sr. 43 41.1 3 14 7 48.8%
Alex Wulfeck 8 32.6 1 3 7 125.0%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Kyle Brindza 6'1, 236 Sr. 75 62.6 35 0 46.7%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Kyle Brindza 6'1, 236 Sr. 38-38 13-15 86.7% 7-11 63.6%
Nick Tausch 4-4 0-1 0.0% 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
George Atkinson III KR 31 25.2 0
Cam McDaniel KR 5'10, 207 Sr. 8 17.1 0
TJ Jones PR 14 7.6 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 82
Field Goal Efficiency 58
Punt Return Efficiency 63
Kick Return Efficiency 32
Punt Efficiency 105
Kickoff Efficiency 93
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 36

9. Getting help from your coverage unit

Kyle Brindza averaged a decent 41.1 yards per punt with a decent number of fair catches. Almost half of his kickoffs went for touchbacks, too. But Notre Dame still ranked just 93rd in Kickoff Efficiency (122nd in Opponent Kick Returns) and 105th in Punt Efficiency (85th in Opponent Punt Returns).

If you recruit as well as the Irish, you should have plenty of backup athletes on your coverage units, but there was a breakdown somewhere in 2013, and it was costly in the field position battle. The Irish have to shore up that weakness and find a replacement for kick returner George Atkinson III. That's a lot to ask.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
30-Aug Rice 85
6-Sep Michigan 32
13-Sep vs. Purdue 108
27-Sep at Syracuse 67
4-Oct Stanford 6
11-Oct North Carolina 35
18-Oct at Florida State 1
1-Nov vs. Navy 65
8-Nov at Arizona State 21
15-Nov Northwestern 50
22-Nov Louisville 16
29-Nov at USC 9
Five-Year F/+ Rk 20.4% (12)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 6
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 0 / 0.4
TO Luck/Game -0.2
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 11 (6, 5)

10. We always hear about how hard Notre Dame's schedule is...

...and it's not always true. It's part of the general meme about Notre Dame (along with "Admissions standards make it hard to recruit!") that Irish homers sometimes use and anti-Irish homers sometimes use mockingly against them.

But while Notre Dame's schedule isn't always as difficult as some think it is, this year's slate is meaty. Three projected top-10 opponents (two on the road), four more opponents projected between 11th and 35th, and perhaps most importantly, only one opponent projected worse than 67th. Consistency will be huge for the Irish in 2014, because a down week probably means a loss.

(Unless it happens on September 13. Sorry, Purdue.)

Schedule aside, it's pretty easy to talk yourself into Notre Dame being a top-15 or top-20 team in 2014. The offense has perhaps its highest ceiling yet under Brian Kelly -- no pressure, Mike Denbrock -- and while the defense is undergoing quite a bit of transition, there is some amount of proven talent at every level (defensive tackle, Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell, safeties). Both the offense and defense could be top-20 units.

If Notre Dame is able to come up big at home (going, say, 4-1 against Michigan, Stanford, UNC, Northwestern, and Louisville), then the Irish could very well end up with 10 wins after a bowl game. But even if they only finish with eight or nine again, this team is stocked for potential greatness in 2015, and the odds are pretty good that Act II for Kelly in South Bend will be a memorable one.

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