Saturday, August 31, 2013

2013 Notre Dame Football Preview: Maintaining Excellence

It's that time of year again. The start of any sports season is a time of new beginnings and fresh starts, but nowhere is this more true than college football. The return of college football sparks that memory for all of us whose glorious college years have come and gone of the feeling a new year of college brings. The possibilities are endless, and the sense of excitement and hope permeates throughout. This is especially true for Fighting Irish football fans, who've just been through an offseason none will soon forget.

Kicking off the offseason with a pummeling by Alabama in the National Championship game - and forgive me if I leave anything out - there was Brian Kelly's flirtation with the NFL, the loss of 5 star recruit Alex Anzalone to Florida on the eve of his early enrollment, the Manti Te'o ordeal, the transfer of 5 star freshman QB Gunner Kiel followed quickly by the transfers of Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson, the loss of incumbent starting QB Everett Golson to academic suspension for the season, the loss of incoming 5 star recruit Eddie Vanderdoes as he reneged on his signed letter of intent to enroll at UCLA, and finally, the injury to Tony Springmann (expected to play serious minutes on the defensive line) and the retirement of starting DOG linebacker Danny Spond. And yet, even with all that drama, the compass is still pointing north for this program and I expect 2013 to be a great season.

Why? Well, there's several reasons. Chief among them is the 4 year talent that Kelly has amassed even with all the defections. We could sit around and play the woulda, coulda, shoulda game all day with the elite recruits lost in his tenure, but the fact remains that he's brought in supreme BCS talent the past four years. Finally, he has a full program's worth of (warning, cliché coming) his right kind of guys. He has a defense, especially his defensive line, that nearly every team in D1 would trade for. Returning starters Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix anchor a line that was disruptive last year and could potentially get better as the emergence of Sheldon Day opposite Tuitt blossoms. Kelly raved about this unit in camp, and with two potential 2014 NFL Draft first round selections, it's easy to see why.

Then you have the back end of his defense, where players brought in under Kelly now have the opportunity to seize roles as upperclassmen. His linebacking corps is especially deep; with Prince Shembo at the CAT linebacker position (think rush end), he adds another burst to the pass rush that is already strong under Tuitt and Day. Shembo is backed up by Ishaq Williams, a former 5 star recruit who will split time at DE and the CAT position this year and seems primed to explode onto the scene as his mental acuity catches up to his physical talent. In the middle Kelly has two reliable veterans in Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese, players who have played in this system for 4 years now and compensate for any deficiencies with their experience. They will be supported by Jarrett Grace, a player dubbed as a "werewolf" by Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco before last season.

Smith is a future star
On the other side, the DOG linebacker (think drop, or coverage, linebacker) is perhaps more interesting than the rest. This was the position that Danny Spond occupied last year with a great degree of instincts and skill. With his retirement due to lingering medical issues, Ben Councell had all the opportunity of the world. Instead, he's been supplanted as the starter (or in Kelly's words, as the 1B to the 1A starter) by freshman wunderkind Jaylon Smith. Smith, the consensus top prep linebacker in the country, is a freak. He enters the program with a BCS body and instincts, illustrating the freakish athleticism to compete in coverage with slot receivers and tight ends, and a speed/strength combination to confuse defenses with his pass rush ability as well. I can't recall a time I've been more excited about a freshman.

The secondary has become an area of strength. Remember the days of Gary Gray being burned time and time again? Well, those appear to be over. Incumbent starters Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell have the top two spots locked down. The nickel corner's job appears to be an ongoing competition between Lo Wood and incoming freshman Cole Luke. You'll notice the growing trend here of how strong and capable the 2013 recruiting class is already turning out to be. Regardless of who wins the job there, you can certainly expect to see competent production overall. At safety, there was a bit of a mix-up towards the end of camp as Kelly named Austin Collinsworth a starter over Elijah Shumate. He did so with the caveat that this is yet another 1A, 1B situation. With Shumate, his physical skill is certainly there, it is just a matter of getting the mental part down. He played a lot of last year as the nickel corner so taking time to adjust makes sense. Collinsworth (yes, the son of Cris) missed last season because of injury but is the sort of smart veteran Kelly likes in these spots. The other safety is Matthias Farley, the starter last year as well. Look for even Farley to ramp up his production, as the former wide receiver learned the position last year on the job. I don't doubt that Max Redfield, another freshman stud who was plucked from USC late in the recruiting cycle, will get significant reps as well.

The Rise of Reesus
Even with the loss of Everett Golson, who was poised to take a leap this year coming off a 12-0 season in his first as the starter, the offense could be much improved over last year. Tommy Rees is the unquestioned starter and has drawn rave reviews all camp. Like Kelly said, perhaps the final chapter in the book is yet to be written by Tommy, who could surprise many and have a great year. I feel like he's been rejuvenated, and for all the consternation directed towards him (myself included), he was clutch for the Irish last year. I expect Rees to accelerate production in the offense, not hold it back.

It doesn't hurt that he's flanked by the most offensive talent this program has had in some time. His offensive line is loaded, with two-time captain Zack Martin at left tackle, senior Chris Watt at left guard, Nick Martin at center, Christian Lombard at right guard, and Ronnie Stanley at right tackle. Stanley is a true sophomore but from many accounts is a redshirt freshman, his ceiling is enormous and has held his own in practice, which is impressive considering the competition. He's backed up by true freshman Steve Elmer, who Kelly says already plays like a veteran. I wouldn't be shocked to see Elmer get serious time this year as it appears he is being groomed to take over at left tackle next year. Regardless, the offensive line, much like last year, is a major strength of the team. It'll help compensate for the loss of mobility of Golson, and help prop up the running game like it did last year.

Ah, the running backs. There may not be a more loaded position group on the roster. Production here could skyrocket, even though the team loses Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick from last season. George Atkinson has world class speed and size to go with it, so if he can put the complete package together look out. A healthy Amir Carlisle is a matchup nightmare, with the ability to flex out into the slot and expand the scope of the offense every time he's in the game. Cam McDaniel is a workhorse, complete running back who can get the gritty yards if needed. And yet none of these are potentially as talented as true freshman Greg Bryant, a kid who arrived on campus looking like he was ready for the NFL combine. Bryant could force his way into the action right away. Expect true freshman Tarean Folston to get time as well in a role similar to Carlisle's, and if Will Mahone heals from his ankle sprain he could potentially see more time at WR than RB but still make an impact.

With the talent the Irish have at TE, the trend of upper level talent contributing at the position seems to continue. Troy "Hercules" Niklas is the presumed starter, and all 6'7, 260 pounds should be able to stay on the field for both inline blocking and pass catching responsibilities. He's backed up by Ben Koyack, a former highly touted recruit, who has seen playing time in the past but finally has the opportunity to show his skill without a glut of TE's above him on the depth chart. The team also gets Alex Welch, who missed last season with injury, back and adds incoming freshmen Mike Heuerman and Dylan Smythe. Both were heavily recruited, and even if they don't see the field will do well to learn from the upper classmen to continue the tradition of excellence at the position when their time comes.

The wide receiver scenario is similar to the one with the running backs. It hurts to lose a player with dynamic talent like Davonte Neal, but I feel comfortable with where this team is going forward. There is a healthy mix of veterans and young talent. The three starters will be Davaris Daniels, T.J. Jones, and Chris Brown. No shock with Daniels, who has loads of talent but needs to stay healthy and illustrate some consistency, but did have an enormous game against Alabama. Jones is one of three Irish captains and seems to have the adoration of Kelly, who called him the finest route runner in the country. Brown is the biggest surprise. The sophomore has always been known for his athleticism and speed, but came into camp with his frame filled out. If he can put it together consistently, he's going to be a big time producer this year. His size and speed combination is one that cannot be taught. Converted DB CJ Prosise will get significant time in the slot, and I would be shocked if Kelly didn't find catches for freshmen James Onwualu, Corey Robinson, and Will Fuller. Kelly seems to love the talent at WR and has talked several times in camp about how much he expects from the offense this year.

I don't know why the Irish had such a drama-filled offseason. Detractors will tell you that this is just yet another example of the modern "luck" of the Irish. Supporters will claim that this sort of activity happens at every major football program, even if not to the degree we saw this offseason. Hell, if you're coach is looking at the NFL and you're in the position to have incumbent starters go down, 5 star recruits defect the program and still have a very strong team, that has to mean that the program is doing something right and is headed in the right direction. And regardless, the time for that drama is nearly over. Once the game starts, the season is underway and all the drama can slip away. Football season is here again.