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1. So ... now Act II begins?
In last spring's Notre Dame preview, I spoke of 2014 as the beginning of a second act for Brian Kelly. He had to replace both his offensive and defensive coordinators after Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco were hired away by Miami (Ohio) and UConn. Plus, he basically had to replace half of his starting lineup on both sides of the ball.
The blood transfusion was significant, but there was enough returning talent to talk yourself into this team playing at a top-15 or top-20 level. That's exactly what I did.
A couple of months later, Notre Dame's leading receiver (DaVaris Daniels), best cornerback (KeiVarae Russell), and potential starters at defensive end (former five-star recruit Ishaq Williams) and linebacker (senior Kendall Moore) were suspended. The Irish were welcoming back Everett Golson but were lacking their only proven explosive weapon and perhaps their best defensive player. Suddenly, a top-20 level wasn't looking as likely.
Sure enough, the Irish finished 34th in the F/+ rankings, starting hot but fading as Golson made more mistakes and the defense regressed. Notre Dame allowed at least 5.6 yards per play in each of their last eight games, against offenses good and bad, and Golson was asked to do more than he was capable of doing. Eventually, his confidence eroded amid a wash of awful luck and ridiculous mistakes, and he went from potential Heisman contender to second-stringer.
And the result was a second straight overall stumble -- from 12-1 and sixth in F/+ in 2012, to 9-4 and 29th in 2013, to 8-5 and 34th.
The turnover was drastic, and the two-deep was young. Despite Golson's transfer, last year's roster returns mostly intact. Plus, Kelly added one of the game's most well-regarded young assistants in new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. I can come up with legitimate reasons why the 2014 Irish couldn't keep it together, but if they don't improve in 2015, it might be difficult explaining why.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 34|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|18-Oct||at Florida State||15||27-31||L||50%||-0.3||16%|
|8-Nov||at Arizona State||27||31-55||L||33%||-10.3||2%|
|Points Per Game||32.8||40||29.2||84|
2. Springing leaks
Despite a sketchy performance against Purdue, Notre Dame looked the part of a top-20 team over the first five games. The Irish walloped Michigan and beat a Stanford team that was both strong and snake-bitten. The offense obliterated bad defenses (39.5 points per game, 7.6 yards per play against Rice and Syracuse) and took advantage of opportunities against good ones, and while the defense was glitchy against Syracuse, it completely shut down Michigan and Stanford (7 points per game, 3.7 yards per play).
For a young team asking a lot of new contributors, this was a perfect start. But then cracks began to form. North Carolina scored 43 points and averaged 6.1 yards per play. Navy scored 39 and averaged 5.9. Golson made a series of crippling mistakes in a blowout loss to Arizona State, and the defense couldn't get off the field in an upset loss to Northwestern.
This young team couldn't maintain its level.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 5 games): 87% (record: 5-0)
- Average Percentile Performance (last 8 games): 59% (record: 3-5)
With 128 teams in FBS, a top-30 level of play means playing around the 77th percentile. Notre Dame pulled this off in four of its first five games but only three of its last eight. The Irish had a positive turnover margin in each of their first three games but one of their final 10. They survived a minus-4 margin against Syracuse because Syracuse was terrible, but a minus-4 margin against ASU did the Irish in.
Turnovers killed the offense, which otherwise improved as the season progressed; simple regression did the defense in.
- Yards Per Play (first 5 games): Notre Dame 5.9, Opponent 4.7 (plus-1.2)
- Yards Per Play (last 8 games): Notre Dame 6.2, Opponent 6.1 (plus-0.1)
The defensive front was done in by injuries, and the back seven couldn't find the right mix of personnel. And when better offenses began showing up, the Irish and new coordinator Brian VanGorder had few answers.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||45.4%||30||Succ. Rt. +||114.7||23|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||28.5||40||Def. FP+||105.0||20|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.4||68||Redzone S&P+||112.6||35|
|Q1 Rk||18||1st Down Rk||18|
|Q2 Rk||6||2nd Down Rk||6|
|Q3 Rk||22||3rd Down Rk||37|
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Malik Zaire||6'0, 222||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9268||21||35||266||1||0||60.0%||1||2.8%||7.1|
|DeShone Kizer||6'5, 230||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9073|
|Brandon Wimbush||6'2, 212||Fr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9784|
3. Ballad of Everett Golson
It was tough watching Everett Golson's disintegration from a quarterback in complete control of a young offense to a risk-taker who couldn't hold onto the ball. But as opponents began to score more, Golson tried to raise his game. And it appears he tried too hard.
- First 4 games: 70% completion rate, 12.1 yards per completion, 1.5% interception rate
- Next 4 games: 57% completion rate, 13.0 yards per completion, 3.1% interception rate
- Last 4 games: 54% completion rate, 15.8 yards per completion, 5.7% interception rate
Now, bad luck was part of Golson's eventual struggles. As noted by CSN Chicago's JJ Stankevitz, Golson lost eight of 12 fumbles and saw a higher-than-normal percentage of passes defensed end up as interceptions. But fumbling 12 times is pretty awful -- only two other players fumbled at least 12 times: Washington's Cyler Miles (13 fumbles, six lost) and Navy's option master Keenan Reynolds (12 fumbles, nine lost) -- and the fact that opponents defensed almost 12 percent of Notre Dame's passes suggests a level of unnecessary risk.
The offense got more explosive as the season went on, but there was a price to pay, and a bit more balance could have solved problems.
Notre Dame's high ceiling
Notre Dame's high ceiling
But that's in the past. Golson is on his way to another locale as a graduate transfer, and barring a big surprise from redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer or true freshman Brandon Wimbush in fall camp, Malik Zaire will be Notre Dame's starting quarterback. Zaire is an efficient runner whose explosiveness numbers were boosted by his first college rush (a 56-yarder against Rice), and he demonstrated patience and efficiency in completing 12 of 15 passes (albeit for only 96 yards) in the bowl win over LSU.
Of course, Zaire was also more big play-oriented both in spring ball and in his first major action last year (9-for-20 for 170 yards against USC). And we'll see what kind of balance he brings. As steady as he looked in the bowl game, the first game of 2015 will only be his third as a major contributor. He has a lot to learn, just as we have a lot to learn about him.
|Tarean Folston||RB||5'10, 214||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9497||175||889||6||5.1||3.5||42.9%||1||0|
|Greg Bryant||RB||5'10, 205||So.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9764||54||289||3||5.4||3.3||51.9%||1||1|
|Malik Zaire||QB||6'0, 222||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9268||32||198||2||6.2||6.8||46.9%||0||0|
|C.J. Prosise||WR||6'1, 220||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8887||10||126||1||12.6||18.6||50.0%||0||0|
|Amir Carlisle||WR||5'10, 192||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9589||7||46||0||6.6||3.1||71.4%||1||0|
|Dexter Williams||RB||6'0, 200||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9551|
|Josh Adams||RB||6'2, 210||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8973|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|William Fuller||WR||6'0, 180||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9005||115||76||1094||66.1%||26.6%||53.0%||9.5||180||9.6||170.3|
|Corey Robinson||WR||6'5, 215||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8822||66||41||550||62.1%||15.2%||60.6%||8.3||51||8.4||85.6|
|Chris Brown||WR||6'2, 195||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8787||66||39||548||59.1%||15.2%||71.2%||8.3||69||8.1||85.3|
|C.J. Prosise||WR||6'1, 220||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8887||50||29||516||58.0%||11.5%||52.0%||10.3||158||10.1||80.4|
|Amir Carlisle||WR||5'10, 192||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9589||37||23||309||62.2%||8.5%||64.9%||8.4||29||8.5||48.1|
|Tarean Folston||RB||5'10, 214||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9497||25||18||190||72.0%||5.8%||60.0%||7.6||-23||7.7||29.6|
|Torii Hunter Jr.||WR||6'0, 190||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9156||9||7||65||77.8%||2.1%||66.7%||7.2||-17||7.3||10.1|
|Chase Hounshell||TE||6'5, 255||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8634|
|Justin Brent||WR||6'2, 205||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9537|
|Corey Holmes||WR||6'1, 184||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9233|
|Mike Heuerman||TE||6'4, 225||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9041|
|Durham Smythe||TE||6'5, 245||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9057|
|Tyler Luatua||TE||6'3, 250||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8946|
|Nic Weishar||TE||6'4, 241||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9037|
|Alizé Jones||TE||6'5, 220||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9685|
|Equanimeous St. Brown||WR||6'5, 205||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9287|
|Miles Boykin||WR||6'3, 225||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9177|
|C.J. Sanders||WR||5'10, 185||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8997|
4. Options galore
If Zaire and the offensive line are stable, Notre Dame has a variety of exciting options at the skill positions.
William Fuller's emergence as a big-play dynamo actually might have damaged Golson's efficiency. He had some big games early (six catches for 119 yards against Syracuse, seven for 133 against UNC), but while he averaged 5.8 catches per game and 13 yards per catch through eight games, those numbers rose to 6.3 and 17.5, respectively, over the final four of the regular season. Golson began looking for more downfield connections and lost his best possession receiver.
Obviously Fuller was by far a net positive, but it will be interesting to see how he is used in 2015. He was a strong threat both close to and far from the line of scrimmage, and Sanford's 2014 Boise State offense featured a high-efficiency passing attack, with quarterback Grant Hedrick completing 71 percent at 12.6 yards per completion.
Fuller will have help. Each of the top five returning wideouts (including C.J. Prosise and Amir Carlisle, who could see time either in the backfield or out wide) averaged at least 8.3 yards per target. Prosise is an exciting weapon, and while lacking in big-play ability, running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant provided nice efficiency options. [Update: Bryant will be suspended for the first four games of the season.] And if another weapon is needed, there is a metric ton of four-star freshmen and sophomores at the ready. Sophomore Justin Brent seemed to have a solid spring, and blue-chip freshman tight end Alizé Jones could be a factor.
If his brief résumé is any indication, Sanford should find the buttons to press, but it will still hinge on quality quarterbacking. And a nice line wouldn't hurt.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Ronnie Stanley||LT||6'6, 315||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9431||26|
|Nick Martin||C||6'5, 301||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8610||24|
|Steve Elmer||RG||6'6, 315||Jr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9467||17|
|Mark Harrell||RT||6'4, 308||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8762||0|
|John Montelus||RG||6'4, 310||So.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9330||0|
|Hunter Bivin||LT||6'6, 302||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9531||0|
|Mike McGlinchey||RT||6'8, 310||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9280||0|
|Colin McGovern||LG||6'5, 315||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9188||0|
|Quenton Nelson||LG||6'5, 325||RSFr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9678|
|Alex Bars||LG||6'6, 316||RSFr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9471|
|Jimmy Byrne||RG||6'4, 295||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8927|
|Sam Mustipher||OL||6'2, 305||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9123|
|Tristen Hoge||OL||6'5, 281||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9563|
5. Living up to your recruiting ranking
The Notre Dame offensive line wasn't bad, but it wasn't quite good enough. The line stats lagged behind the overall stats, and while Golson's mistakes and the running backs' iffy explosiveness didn't help, eyeballs did agree with the stats.
The Irish finished the year with six players having amassed at least seven career starts, and while three are gone, Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin, and Steve Elmer all return. They've compiled 67 career starts between them, and experienced reserve Mark Harrell could figure into the lineup as well.
There will be an interesting relationship between the decent upperclassmen and what appears to be a large batch of high-ceiling youngsters. Of the nine freshmen and sophomores listed above, eight were deemed four-star prospects in high school, and four (sophomore Hunter Bivin, redshirt freshmen Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars, and freshman Tristen Hoge) were high-four or five-stars. Of course, the incumbents weren't exactly two-stars.
I don't see the line performing worse, but if a new, high-upside piece can live up to his hype, the line could be even better. With such an inexperienced quarterback, that would be a very positive development.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||43.7%||93||Succ. Rt. +||99.7||64|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||32.4||24||Off. FP+||105.0||20|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.2||52||Redzone S&P+||101.3||58|
|Q1 Rk||109||1st Down Rk||79|
|Q2 Rk||27||2nd Down Rk||58|
|Q3 Rk||74||3rd Down Rk||85|
6. Youth? Check. Injuries? Check. Dreadful starts? Check.
The deck was stacked against VanGorder. The first-year coordinator had to deal with an ultra young two-deep, one that was even younger than expected thanks to the suspensions of Russell, Williams, and Moore.
Plus, he couldn't keep the same front four on the field. Of the eight linemen with at least five tackles, only two played in all 13 games. Plus, linebacker Joe Schmidt missed the final five games. And be it because of uncertain personnel or iffy game plans, the Irish tended to start games terribly before rebounding.
The Irish had some strengths -- they had an invasive presence against the run and made plays on the ball -- but they couldn't consistently overcome their weaknesses. If they didn't make a run stop in the backfield, the runner was getting upfield, and if they didn't break up a pass, it was probably being completed for a decent gain.
Of course, just about everybody's back. That's not necessarily a good thing when your defense was disappointing, but it gives VanGorder options. He now boasts four linemen who recorded at least 5.5 tackles for loss, five linebackers who had at least two, play-making cornerback Cole Luke (four interceptions, 11 break-ups), and four safeties who combined for 10 tackles for loss, seven picks and seven break-ups. And as always with Notre Dame, there is a new batch of high-ceiling youngsters, and the batch is large enough to produce early play-makers.
VanGorder was an interesting hire. He has quite a bit of success and failure on his résumé, and he's not afraid to make unpopular changes (see: bringing a pass-happy attack to Georgia Southern in his one year as head coach). His 2014 defense had a lot going against it. Barring a large swath of injuries, 2015 won't have as many excuses.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Sheldon Day||DT||6'2, 285||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9485||11||32.0||4.5%||7.5||1.0||0||2||0||0|
|Jarron Jones||DT||6'6, 315||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9364||11||31.5||4.4%||7.5||1.5||0||1||1||0|
|Isaac Rochell||DE||6'4, 287||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9459||13||29.0||4.1%||7.5||2.5||0||3||0||0|
|Romeo Okwara||DE||6'4, 260||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8782||13||27.0||3.8%||4.0||3.0||0||1||1||0|
|Andrew Trumbetti||DE||6'4, 255||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9347||12||18.0||2.5%||5.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Grant Blankenship||DE||6'5, 252||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8982||11||10.0||1.4%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jacob Matuska||DT||6'5, 295||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8801||7||5.5||0.8%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Daniel Cage||DT||6'1, 315||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8924||11||2.5||0.3%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jay Hayes||DT||6'3, 285||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9060||3||1.5||0.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Doug Randolph||DE||6'2, 240||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9058|
|Jonathan Bonner||DL||6'3, 275||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8600|
|Jhonny Williams||DE||6'4, 260||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8401|
|Jerry Tillery||DT||6'7, 300||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9293|
|Micah Dew-Treadway||DT||6'4, 295||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8656|
|Elijah Taylor||DT||6'3, 285||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8945|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jaylon Smith||LB||6'3, 235||Jr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9986||13||87.5||12.2%||9.0||3.5||0||2||1||0|
|Joe Schmidt||LB||6'1, 235||Sr.||NR||NR||8||53.5||7.5%||0.5||0.0||2||1||2||0|
|Nyles Morgan||LB||6'1, 237||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9727||12||35.0||4.9%||3.5||0.5||0||1||0||0|
|Greer Martini||LB||6'3, 240||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8833||13||21.5||3.0%||2.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|James Onwualu||LB||6'1, 220||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8950||13||18.5||2.6%||2.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kolin Hill||LB||6'2, 230||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8575||9||5.0||0.7%||2.5||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jarrett Grace||LB||6'3, 253||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8715|
|Michael Deeb||LB||6'2, 255||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8737|
|Te'Von Coney||LB||6'0, 230||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.8960|
|Josh Barajas||LB||6'3, 212||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9381|
|Asmar Bilal||LB||6'3, 210||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9200|
7. No more excuses for the front seven
The defensive line boasts three seniors, three players who logged at least 7.5 tackles for loss in 2014, six former four-star recruits, four reasonably experienced ends, and two strong senior tackles. The linebacking corps returns tackling machine Schmidt (who missed five games and still finished tied for third on the team in tackles), run-stopping missile Jaylon Smith, four youngsters who got their feet wet in 2014, and six former four- or five-star recruits. [Update: Jarron Jones will miss the season with a torn MCL.]
The front seven has quite a bit going for it, in other words. It was also the engine behind a terribly disappointing No. 70 ranking in Rushing S&P+. Opponents knew they could run on Notre Dame when they needed to, and they didn't need LSU's Leonard Fournette to do it (though he had plenty of fun). And while shuffling was part of the reason, one would have hoped the floor was a lot higher than 70th.
The pressure is on VanGorder and experienced players like Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara. Neither the run defense nor the pass rush was good enough, and while scheme, game plans, injuries, and inexperience played a role, the latter two probably won't be issues this year. Time to make plays ... or at least allow fewer of them.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Max Redfield||S||6'1, 198||Jr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9852||13||54.0||7.6%||0.5||0||1||2||0||0|
|Elijah Shumate||S||6'0, 213||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9567||13||53.5||7.5%||2.5||1||1||4||0||1|
|Matthias Farley||S||5'11, 205||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8414||13||46.5||6.5%||6.5||3.5||4||1||0||0|
|CB||5'11, 190||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9373||13||45.5||6.3%||1.5||0||1||8||0||0|
|Cole Luke||CB||5'11, 190||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9325||13||40.5||5.7%||2||1||4||11||2||0|
|Drue Tranquill||S||6'2, 225||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8961||11||24.5||3.4%||1||0.5||1||0||0||1|
|Devin Butler||CB||6'1, 195||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8902||13||22.0||3.1%||0||0||1||4||1||0|
|John Turner||S||6'1, 225||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8629||13||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Nick Watkins||CB||6'0, 200||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9237|
|Connor Cavalaris||CB||5'11, 195||Sr.||NR||NR|
|Nicky Baratti||S||6'1, 205||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8740|
|Shaun Crawford||DB||5'9, 170||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9456|
8. Inexcusably bad
When you look at the individual stats of the players listed above -- Cole Luke with his 15 passes defensed, Matthias Farley with his 6.5 tackles for loss, etc. -- you get the impression of an aggressive Notre Dame secondary. It had potential, but it ranked an inexcusable 96th in Passing S&P+, 88th on passing downs. The complete lack of an effective blitz played a role, but ... 96th!
For perspective, here are the defenses that ranked 91st through 95th: Kentucky, UL-Lafayette, UConn, Kent State, Ohio. Notre Dame, with its four- and five-stars and play-makers, ranked below them. The Irish allowed a 60.3 percent completion rate (86th in the country) and allowed 43 completions of at least 20 yards (85th). Awful.
Now, it bears mentioning that there was quite a bit of turnover. Russell was lost pretty close to the season, and safeties Austin Collinsworth and Eliar Hardy missed eight games each. With a nonexistent pass rush and understudies playing a larger role than expected, Notre Dame wasn't going to post a top-20 or top-30 pass defense. But top-60 shouldn't have been too much to ask.
With what should be an improved run defense, the pass defense should face plenty of favorable down-and-distance situations. Perhaps the experience here becomes a rising tide, and as with the defensive line, perhaps maintaining most of your starting lineup from the start of the season to the end will be worth a few spots in the rankings. But this unit has even more to prove than the front seven. List the individual components, from Sheldon Day to to Jaylon Smith to Cole Luke, and you've got a potentially stout defense. But the whole was far less than the sum of the parts.
|Amir Carlisle||KR||5'10, 192||Sr.||35||21.7||0|
|Greg Bryant||KR||5'10, 205||Jr.||4||21.3||0|
|Greg Bryant||PR||5'10, 205||Jr.||8||11.8||0|
|Special Teams F/+||58|
|Field Goal Efficiency||112|
|Punt Return Efficiency||27|
|Kick Return Efficiency||25|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||26|
9. Coverage units: yuck
When your secondary isn't very good, there's a good possibility that your coverage units aren't either, since backup DBs, linebackers, and receivers tend to make up those units. Well, despite the presence of Kyle Brindza, a fair catch machine on punts and a touchbacks machine on kickoffs, Notre Dame ranked 56th in punt efficiency and 81st in kickoff efficiency (114th in kick return average allowed) last year.
And now Brindza's gone. That leaves defensive backs with even more to prove. But at least returns probably won't be a problem.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||2014 F/+ Rk|
|21-Nov||at Boston College||36|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||33.5% (14)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||11 / 10|
|2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-3 / -3.5|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||+0.2|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||17 (7, 10)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||8.5 (-0.5)|
10. This should be a top-20 team
Take the name off of the jerseys: a team that ranked 34th in F/+ the previous season, returns 17 starters, and boasts strong two-year recruiting rankings will be projected to improve. And with fewer offensive disasters and defensive injuries, it could improve quite a bit.
A team with Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, C.J. Prosise, Tarean Folston, Ronnie Stanley, and Nick Martin on offense and Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Jarron Jones, Joe Schmidt, Cole Luke, Isaac Rochell, and Matthias Farley on defense should be able to play at a top-20 level. All Malik Zaire has to do is limit the crippling mistakes, and the offense will be incredibly difficult to stop. All the defensive starting 11 has to do is remain on the field into November, and the defense should be competent.
That doesn't seem to be too much to ask.
Still, the land mines are plentiful for a team that has so much to prove. Georgia Tech and USC visit South Bend, while Clemson, Stanford, Boston College, and Pitt all welcome the Irish to town. A top-20 team should expect to go about 9-3 against this schedule, but there will be enough close games to put 11-1 and 7-5 on the table (the latter more than the former).
After everything broke right for Notre Dame two years ago, the Irish struggled through two seasons of suspensions, injuries, and iffy breaks. Either the Irish rebound this fall (and I think the odds are in their favor), or we have to start wondering if a rebound is in the cards.