With the season set to begin in just over 24 hours, here is a quick list of five things we saw entirely too much of in 2011 that Notre Dame will need to eliminate or at least cut back in order to take a step towards reestablishing itself as a force in college football.
5. Slow Starts
In loses to South Florida, USC, and Stanford, Notre Dame spotted their opponents a combined 64 points before getting on the scoreboard. USF and USC were both winnable games without the sluggish starts while Notre Dame was just simply overmatched against Stanford. Still, despite being overmatched, there was no reason to fall behind 21-0 to the Cardinal over Thanksgiving weekend.
Slow, sluggish starts have been a problem for Notre Dame for the better part of the last 15 years now – a problem no Notre Dame head coach has been able to completely solve. Opponents simply seem to always come out of the tunnel more pumped up and ready to play than Notre Dame does. Whatever the reason, no head coach for the Irish has been able to come up with a solution. If Brian Kelly wants to have a long tenure in South Bend, he will need to find one in a hurry.
4. Cornerbacks Not Turning Around
There might not have been a single more frustrating aspect of the 2012 season than Notre Dame’s inability to cover the jump balls that were continually tossed around by Denard Robinson in the Irish’s last second loss to Michigan. Notre Dame corners just did not turn around and make plays on the ball and Michigan was able to storm back when it looked like Notre Dame actually had a chance to run away with the game in the second half.
Cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks is going to have his work cut out for him in this department with the lack of experience Notre Dame has at cornerback in 2012, but early returns suggest that Kei’Varae Russell might be a natural for the position and Bennett Jackson showed signs of being a quality corner in a reserve role. Still, this will be one thing to watch for this season and unfortunately might be one of the things on this list we still see given the lack of depth and experience at corner.
3. A Quarterback Carousel
I have not been shy in expressing my approval of Everett Golson being named the starting quarterback for Notre Dame this year. Last year, however, I was pretty happy when Dayne Crist won the starting job in the pre-season so hopefully I go one for two here. Anyway, what I really hope for here is that Kelly has finally found his starting quarterback. After two seasons in South Bend, Kelly has yet to end a season with the same quarterback who started the year either due to injury or ineffectiveness and he has yet to enter a fall camp in which he has a firmly entrenched starter.
If Kelly is to progress the Irish this year and start the ascent back to the nation’s elite we had all hoped would be well along the way by now, he has to find a starter at quarterback and stick with him. There just isn’t anyway around it. If Kelly is subbing quarterbacks in and out again this year, it will be a long year for Notre Dame fans and Kelly’s long term prognosis in South Bend won’t be looking too good.
2. Fair Catches and 1 Yard Punt Returns
Ok, I might have lied about the corners not turning around being the most frustrating aspect of the 2011 season, because the complete lack of any semblance of a punt return game might take the cake here. Notre Dame had just 13 punt returns in 2011 that averaged a paltry 3.7 yards. Take away Michael Floyd’s 41 yarder in the Champs Bowl and the other 10 punt returns averaged less than a yard per return. How that happens at the college level, I just don’t know.
To help solve the problem of an anemic punt return game, Brian Kelly has tabbed dynamic freshman wide receiver/running back Davonte Neal to be his punt returner this season. Neal is a gamebreaker in the making and has the potential to be be the answer that Notre Dame has been lacking in the punt return department since the graduation of Tommy Zbikowski.
1. Red Zone Turnovers
This one should be pretty obvious, but red zone turnovers were more of an issue last year than any other year in recent memory. The 99 yard punt return for a touchdown by USF completely changed the momentum of last year’s season opener and the 80 yarder that actually was fumbled inside the 5 against USC killed Notre Dame’s comeback bid when it looked like the Irish were poised to tie the game in the 3rd quarter.
In order for Everett Golson to lock down the starting quarterback position for the entire season and prevent us from seeing that quarterback carousel I mentioned in #3, he will need to do a better job protecting the football all over the field but especially in the red zone. If he doesn’t, we will likely see that qb carousel and we’ll be talking about a lot of what if’s again next off-season.