Note: This preview was written before Everett Golson's dismissal. A video update:
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1. Nailed it (sort of)
Just as the folks whose opinions tend to create conventional wisdom give up on the Irish, the numbers conspire to prop them up. And the reason should be obvious for anybody who watched Notre Dame in 2011: turnovers. Surely they cannot go against the Irish to the same degree in 2012, right? Surely, if Tommy Rees is even the starting quarterback, he won't have quite the same red zone interception tendencies, right? Surely Notre Dame opponents won't do quite as much damage with the turnovers they receive, right? […]
It is difficult to ignore just how well Notre Dame has recruited recently, just how much the stats like them, and just how much turnovers -- a notoriously fickle statistic from year to year -- conspired against what might have otherwise been a 10- or 11-win season last year. However, it is almost good, in my case, that the schedule is so difficult because it allows me to hedge my bets.
That's from last year's Notre Dame preview. That last-second hedge ruined it.
Last year, I talked myself into Notre Dame to what I figured was a dangerous degree. The Irish were so unlucky in 2011 and so close to something greater, with a No. 13 F/+ ranking and a potentially outstanding defense. They returned so many interesting players, and the depth chart was going to be further plumped up by young blue-chippers. I was ready to go all-in on Notre Dame at the same time that everybody else was cashing out, but I was cowed a bit by the schedule. I figured that even a top-10 performance would still result in a couple of losses along the way. I wasn't really counting on the Irish going 5-0 in one-possession games after losing three heart-breakers the year before.
Really, Notre Dame in 2011 was more like a nine- or 10-win team, and Notre Dame in 2012 was more like a 10- or 11-win team. Regardless, last year's trip to the BCS title game wasn't much of a fluke. This was an elite team, one that simply took one more step in its blue-blood reclamation and got a few of the lucky breaks it very much did not get the year before.
2. This is how it's supposed to go
When you hire a new coach, what you're hoping for is a guy who can make the most of the talent on hand and build onto the foundation, brick by brick, with each passing year. It rarely actually works out that way. There are surges and setbacks, senior classes that cannot be immediately replaced, lulls in development, et cetera. It rarely works out as smoothly as you hope. And to be sure, with some of the turnovers luck and other factors, it wasn't an incredibly smooth first couple of seasons for Brian Kelly in South Bend.
But on paper, the growth has been clear and steady. The defense surged to 16th in Def. F/+, and the offense regressed to 37th in Off. F/+ in Kelly's first season, then both units improved in 2011 (14th and 22nd, respectively) and did so again in 2012 (13th and ninth). An incredible front seven masked deficiencies in the defensive backfield, and a new quarterback helped to create an underrated, efficient offense after a rough first month.
So can Notre Dame improve again in Kelly's fourth year? Don't rule it out. The defense will have to craft a new personality without last year's senior leader, but the front seven is still terrifying, and some blue-chippers (recruiting has just been so damn strong) could help fill out a deeper, more confident secondary. And while sophomore quarterback Everett Golson's go-tos (tight end Tyler Eifert, running back Theo Riddick) have been taken away, the offensive upside might be quite a bit higher this year overall.
We'll see if schedule and bad luck interfere with another run at the national title, but on paper there is a good chance that Kelly's fourth year sees a fourth straight year of improvement.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 12-1 | Adj. Record: 13-0 | Final F/+ Rk: 7|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||vs. Navy||50-10||W||38.7 - 25.5||W|
|8-Sep||Purdue||20-17||W||24.1 - 18.6||W|
|15-Sep||at Michigan State||20-3||W||29.3 - 12.8||W|
|22-Sep||Michigan||13-6||W||25.0 - 19.5||W|
|6-Oct||vs. Miami||41-3||W||41.2 - 18.3||W|
|13-Oct||Stanford||20-13||W||34.4 - 22.0||W|
|20-Oct||BYU||17-14||W||50.6 - 18.8||W|
|27-Oct||at Oklahoma||30-13||W||34.2 - 19.6||W|
|3-Nov||Pittsburgh||29-26||W||35.1 - 18.0||W|
|10-Nov||at Boston College||21-6||W||35.4 - 24.3||W|
|17-Nov||Wake Forest||38-0||W||44.3 - 17.1||W|
|24-Nov||at USC||22-13||W||37.3 - 26.0||W|
|7-Jan||vs. Alabama||14-42||L||42.2 - 32.7||W|
|Points Per Game||25.8||80||12.8||2|
|Adj. Points Per Game||36.3||12||21.0||13|
3. Blast off
That Notre Dame got through September undefeated was a minor miracle. The Irish won three straight games while never scoring more than 20 points; and despite starting Golson, then a redshirt freshman, behind center, they brought in closer Tommy Rees off the bench to save the day, first against Purdue (a Golson fumble set up a tying score for Purdue, but Rees drove the Irish 55 yards for the game-winning field goal), then against Michigan (Rees inherited a 3-0 lead late in the second quarter and engineered a couple of scores). But Kelly stuck with Golson, and over the long haul, that proved to be the right decision.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): Notre Dame 29.3, Opponent 19.1 (plus-10.2)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 8 games): Notre Dame 39.1, Opponent 20.5 (plus-18.6)
Over the first four games, Golson completed 50 of 89 passes (56 percent) for 641 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions. But in the week off between Michigan and Miami, things began to click. Against Miami and Stanford, he completed 29 of 46 passes (63 percent) for 327 yards and a score, and after missing the BYU game with a concussion, he would go on to finish the regular season by completing 87 of 147 (59 percent) for 1,167 yards, seven touchdowns, and two picks.
Golson's raw stats (59 percent completion rate, 7.0 yards per attempt) were not incredible to the naked eye, but taking into account how many good defenses he faced -- Alabama ranked first in Def. F/+, Michigan State ranked third, Stanford ranked eighth, Oklahoma ranked 23rd, and Michigan ranked 28th (and he missed out on No. 10 BYU) -- his efficiency numbers were actually quite strong. Notre Dame did rank third in Success Rate+, after all (see below). That Kelly stuck with him after his 3-for-8-with-two-picks performance against Michigan was rather incredible. But it paid off.
|Q1 Rk||5||1st Down Rk||3|
|Q2 Rk||9||2nd Down Rk||1|
|Q3 Rk||3||3rd Down Rk||14|
4. A few more big plays wouldn't hurt
In Tyler Eifert, T.J. Jones, Theo Riddick, and Robby Toma, Golson had four rather reliable efficiency guys. Eifert even found some nice gains up the seam from time to time. But if Notre Dame was lacking in one area, it was in the big-play department. The Irish still ranked 11th in PPP+, so clearly this wasn't an extreme weakness, but with Riddick carrying more than the explosive Cierre Wood and DaVaris Daniels missing part of the season with injury, the fast cars in the garage didn't get driven too often.
In 2013, Golson loses his security blanket; Riddick, Eifert, and Toma are all gone. So is Wood, for that matter. But it does appear that explosive players like Daniels and George Atkinson III will get more touches. The question is whether increased explosiveness comes at the cost of decreased efficiency.
George Atkinson III. Matt Cashore, US Presswire.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Everett Golson||6'0, 185||So.||*** (5.7)||187||318||2,405||58.8%||12||6||15||4.5%||7.0|
|Tommy Rees||6'2, 213||Sr.||*** (5.7)||34||59||436||57.6%||2||2||1||1.7%||7.1|
|Andrew Hendrix||6'2, 226||Jr.||**** (5.8)||5||7||55||71.4%||0||0||1||12.5%||6.8|
|Malik Zaire||6'0, 196||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
5. Removing the training wheels
Golson passed the tests he needed to pass.
Owen Field is one of the loudest venues in the country, and when Oklahoma came back to tie Notre Dame on October 27 and OU's Memorial Stadium hit fifth gear, Golson immediately made a series of big plays, including a bomb to Chris Brown, and won the game for Notre Dame. He helped to avert disaster against Pittsburgh, and in general, he improved decidedly as the season progressed.
He was stocked with reliable, experienced possession guys, and Notre Dame called a lot of runs on passing downs. It behooves you to keep a young quarterback out of must-pass situations as much as possible (especially when you have a great defense), and Notre Dame did that.
But without Eifert and company, without last year's top two running backs, and without a couple of key cogs from a great run-blocking line, there's a chance that Golson has to take on more responsibility to make plays when the Irish fall behind schedule. He might continue to meet the challenges he needs to meet, but he will certainly face a few more as he attempts to avert a sophomore slump of sorts.
|Everett Golson||QB||6'0, 185||So.||*** (5.7)||79||388||4.9||4.1||6||+1.7|
|George Atkinson III||RB||6'2, 217||Jr.||**** (5.8)||51||361||7.1||8.5||5||+10.6|
|Cam McDaniel||RB||5'10, 199||Jr.||*** (5.6)||23||125||5.4||2.7||1||+0.9|
|Andrew Hendrix||QB||6'2, 226||Jr.||**** (5.8)||7||42||6.0||3.5||0||+0.9|
|Will Mahone||RB||5'11, 214||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Greg Bryant||RB||5'11, 197||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Tarean Folston||RB||5'10, 195||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|William Fuller||WR||6'1, 168||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|T.J. Jones||WR||5'11, 192||Sr.||**** (5.8)||82||50||649||61.0%||7.9||22.5%||69.5%||8.1||109.5|
|DaVaris Daniels||WR||6'2, 192||So.||**** (5.8)||46||31||490||67.4%||10.7||12.6%||65.2%||10.6||82.7|
|Troy Niklas||TE||6'7, 259||Jr.||**** (5.8)||11||5||75||45.5%||6.8||3.0%||63.6%||6.9||12.7|
|Daniel Smith||WR||6'4, 213||Sr.||*** (5.6)||11||7||47||63.6%||4.3||3.0%||18.2%||5.2||7.9|
|Chris Brown||WR||6'2, 191||So.||*** (5.7)||10||2||56||20.0%||5.6||2.7%||80.0%||4.2||9.4|
|Ben Koyack||TE||6'5, 261||Jr.||**** (5.9)||6||3||39||50.0%||6.5||1.6%||50.0%||5.9||6.6|
|George Atkinson III||RB||6'2, 217||Jr.||**** (5.8)||3||2||4||66.7%||1.3||0.8%||100.0%||0.8||0.7|
|Cam McDaniel||RB||5'10, 199||Jr.||*** (5.6)||2||2||41||100.0%||20.5||0.5%||100.0%||12.4||6.9|
|Corey Robinson||WR||6'4, 195||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Mike Heuerman||TE||6'4, 220||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Torii Hunter, Jr.||WR||6'0, 172||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
6. Potential vs. production
The Irish have just so damn many blue-chippers at this point. Of the five returning or incoming running backs above, three are former four-star recruits and one is a former five-star. Of the nine returning or incoming receivers and tight ends above, five are former four-star recruits.
The problem is, few have either proven their potential or gotten a chance to do so yet. George Atkinson looked incredible in the open field but got fewer than four carries per game. DaVaris Daniels looked the part of a big-time No. 1 receiver against Purdue, Pitt, and Alabama but disappeared in other games and got hurt late in the year. Blue-chip tight ends Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack combined for 17 targets. And incoming star freshmen like Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston, and Corey Robinson are, indeed, freshmen.
The potential here is ridiculous, but really, only T.J. Jones is a proven commodity at this point. Until you prove your potential, there's a chance you won't.
|Zack Martin||LT||6'4, 308||Sr.||**** (5.8)||39 career starts|
|Braxston Cave||C||37 career starts|
|Chris Watt||LG||6'3, 321||Sr.||**** (6.0)||26 career starts|
|Mike Golic, Jr.||RG||15 career starts|
|Christian Lombard||RT||6'5, 322||Jr.||**** (5.8)||13 career starts|
|Bruce Heggie||RG||6'5, 286||Jr.||** (5.2)|
|Conor Hanratty||LG||6'5, 309||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Nick Martin||RT||6'5, 284||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Ronnie Stanley||LT||6'6, 318||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Steve Elmer||OL||6'6, 305||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|John Montelus||OL||6'5, 295||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Hunter Bivin||OL||6'7, 288||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Mike McGlinchey||OL||6'9, 280||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Q1 Rk||28||1st Down Rk||15|
|Q2 Rk||12||2nd Down Rk||16|
|Q3 Rk||27||3rd Down Rk||12|
7. Time for a new identity
I'll say this: I'm not really worried about the loss of Manti Te'o. He was the quarterback of the Notre Dame defense, and while I didn't really think he should have been a Heisman finalist, that Notre Dame was able to build its entire defense around him quite obviously says something. As I wrote many times last year, the Irish were basically able to form an umbrella with their young, ridiculously thin secondary, allow Te'o to patrol the middle of the field, and rely on a four-man pass rush (the absurdly talented line and OLB Prince Shembo) to generate pressure without much risk.
And it worked. Notre Dame didn't have a Top 5 defense in 2012, but it was an excellent one; the Irish were elite in preventing big plays, seemingly always made stops in the red zone, and played a unique version of the bend-don't-break defense with a high level of success.
Te'o and Kapron Lewis-Moore are the only two losses from the front seven, and with depth and star power, the Irish should be able to absorb those departures without a drop-off. But the personality will change without Te'o, and it will be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Bob Diaco re-calibrates. Will he blitz more? Will he utilize a more experienced secondary more aggressively? He hasn't done much of that in South Bend, but he also hasn't ever coached an Irish defense without Te'o yet.
Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III. Mike Carter, US Presswire.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Stephon Tuitt||DE||6'6, 322||Jr.||***** (6.1)||13||35.5||5.4%||13||12||0||1||3||1|
|Louis Nix III||NG||6'3, 347||Jr.||**** (5.9)||13||35.0||5.3%||7.5||2||0||5||1||0|
|Sheldon Day||DE||6'2, 286||So.||**** (5.8)||13||18.0||2.7%||3.5||2||0||1||0||0|
|Tony Springman||DE||6'6, 284||So.||*** (5.7)||13||7.5||1.1%||2||1||0||0||0||0|
|Kona Schwenke||NG||6'4, 297||Sr.||*** (5.7)||11||3.0||0.5%||1||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Jarron Jones||NG||6'5, 295||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Isaac Rochell||DE||6'5, 260||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Eddie Vanderdoes||NG||6'3, 310||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Dan Fox||ILB||6'3, 242||Sr.||**** (5.8)||13||46.5||7.1%||2||1||0||2||0||0|
|Prince Shembo||OLB||6'2, 258||Sr.||**** (5.8)||13||36.5||5.6%||10.5||7.5||0||1||0||1|
|Carlo Calabrese||ILB||6'1, 244||Sr.||*** (5.7)||12||34.0||5.2%||3||0||0||0||1||0|
|Danny Spond||OLB||6'2, 248||Sr.||**** (5.8)||11||28.0||4.3%||1||0||1||3||0||0|
|Ishaq Williams||OLB||6'5, 261||Jr.||***** (6.1)||13||16.5||2.5%||3.5||0||0||1||1||0|
|Jarrett Grace||ILB||6'3, 248||So.||*** (5.7)||13||9.5||1.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ben Councell||OLB||6'4, 248||So.||**** (5.8)||13||7.5||1.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kendall Moore||ILB||6'1, 244||Jr.||**** (5.8)||13||6.0||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Romeo Okwara||OLB||6'4, 258||So.||*** (5.7)||13||5.5||0.8%||1.5||0||0||0||1||0|
|Joe Schmidt||ILB||6'0, 226||Jr.||NR||10||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Anthony Rabasa||OLB||6'3, 243||So.||*** (5.7)||2||0.5||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jaylon Smith||LB||6'3, 212||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Doug Randolph||LB||6'3, 237||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
8. Goodness, gracious
Notre Dame's front seven this year: 4 former 5-star recruits, 10 former 4-star recruits. Lordy. Thin at DB, but … lordy.— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) May 15, 2013
And by "thin at DB," I mean only one former 5-star and three 4-stars. Poor guys.— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) May 15, 2013
Te'o may have been the rock, but man oh man, does this unit have talent. And unlike the skill positions on offense, the front seven has guys who have already proven, or begun to prove, that their recruiting rankings were spot-on. There is nothing I enjoy more on defense than big, athletic linemen with big guts and straight-line speed. There was an abundance of them in 2012 -- Ziggy Ansah at BYU, Sheldon Richardson at Missouri, Sharrif Floyd at Florida -- but two of the most enjoyable will once again be lining up on the Notre Dame line: Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III. Nix, nearly 350 pounds, is both quick and a really fun quote (#MeatChicken); Tuitt, meanwhile, does things like this...
...at 322 pounds.
And now a pair of five-star freshmen (tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, linebacker Jaylon Smith), among other blue-chippers, join the rotation. The depth up wasn't spectacular in 2012 -- only about four linemen actually played; but a) that probably isn't a problem anymore, and b) the depth at linebacker was, and remains fantastic.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Bennett Jackson||CB||6'0, 183||Sr.||*** (5.7)||13||55.0||8.4%||1.5||0||4||4||0||1|
|KeiVarae Russell||CB||5'11, 190||So.||**** (5.8)||13||47.5||7.2%||2||0.5||2||2||0||0|
|Matthias Farley||S||5'11, 204||So.||*** (5.5)||13||36.0||5.5%||2||0||1||0||0||0|
|Elijah Shumate||S||6'0, 213||So.||**** (5.8)||13||8.0||1.2%||0||0||0||3||0||0|
|Nicky Baratti||S||6'1, 201||So.||*** (5.7)||13||6.5||1.0%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|Conor Cavalaris||S||5'11, 190||Jr.||NR||11||3.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jalen Brown||CB||6'1, 207||So.||*** (5.5)||7||2.5||0.4%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Max Redfield||DB||6'2, 195||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Cole Luke||DB||6'0, 165||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
9. Wanted: Corner depth
The play of Te'o and the front seven was good enough to distract from the fact that the secondary, while certainly decent, was paper thin. The safety ranks took a hit when Jamoris Slaughter tore his Achilles in the third game of the year; then-freshman Matthias Farley was thrust into the limelight. Meanwhile, there were almost no corners deemed trustworthy. Bennett Jackson and then-freshman KeiVarae Russell played nearly every down, with converted receivers Josh Atkinson and Cam McDaniel forced to fill in at times.
The top four defensive backs made a total of 196.5 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss and defensed 13 passes. All other defensive backs combined for 37.0 tackles, none for loss, and defensed six passes.
Elijah Shumate showed some promise -- anytime you have almost half as many passes defensed (three) as tackles (8.0), it's a pretty good sign that you're making plays on the ball instead of on the player who has already caught the ball (of course, there's also a chance that you're just missing tackles altogether) -- but there is almost no proven depth here. There could be ample playing time waiting for blue-chip freshmen Max Redfield and Cole Luke if they're ready to claim some.
|Kyle Brindza||6'1, 236||Jr.||71||62.6||26||36.6%|
|Kyle Brindza||6'1, 236||Jr.||28-29||19-23||82.6%||4-8||50.0%|
|Nick Tausch||6'0, 195||Sr.||5-6||1-1||100.0%||0-0||0.0%|
|George Atkinson III||KR||6'1, 217||Jr.||22||20.0||0|
|Cam McDaniel||KR||5'10, 199||Jr.||7||19.3||0|
|Special Teams F/+||90|
|Field Goal Pct||45|
|Kick Returns Avg||95|
|Punt Returns Avg||120|
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|5-Oct||vs. Arizona State||34|
|26-Oct||at Air Force||91|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||18|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||11|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+8 / +5.5|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||14 (6, 8)|
10. Great team, meet great schedule
One fun way to figure out where a team stands is to play the "How many ifs?" game. How many "Ifs" does it take to put a team at a certain level?
Top 15: If Golson avoids a serious slump, and if a young running back can provide some level of reliability, this should be a Top 15 team based solely on defensive potential and some decent big-play ability on offense.
Top 10: If Golson avoids a serious slump, if a young running back can provide some level of reliability, and if one of the freshman or sophomore DBs breaks through, this is likely a Top 10 team.
Top 5: If Golson avoids a serious slump, if a young running back can provide some level of reliability, if one of the freshman or sophomore DBs breaks through, and if one more receiver breaks through alongside Jones and Daniels, this is likely a Top 5 team.
This isn't an overt number of "ifs." Notre Dame broke into the Top 15 in 2011, then played like it in 2012. I think slight improvement is likely again, though another undefeated record in close games probably isn't. Against a slate the features seven teams projected in the Top 31 (four at home), the Irish will need a couple more breaks to again make the title game, but at this point one cannot question the program's trajectory: It's strong.
Really strong. Whether people saw it 12 months ago doesn't really matter; they see it now.
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