We’re two days from kick-off of the 2014 and after another off-season filled with enough drama to script a day-time soap opera, it’s glorious to be able to start watching football again. As the Irish make their final preparations for the season opener against Rice, here’s five things I’d like to see out of the 2014 Fighting Irish.
1. A punt return for a touchdown
At this point, I’m past just wanting to see improvement in the Notre Dame punt return game. It’s time we get a big play or two out of the punt return game. TJ Jones looked at times like he had the ability to break a long return – a few times he even looked like he had an opening only to be tripped up. As a team though, Notre Dame had just 106 yards total in 2013 on punt returns. In 2005 with Tom Zbikowski handling the punt return duties, Notre Dame had 396.
On the first official depth chart of the season Greg Bryant and Cody Riggs were listed as the punt returners. Considering Riggs didn’t return a punt during his three years of live action with Florida before his transfer, it might be a tall order to expect too many big plays from the 5th year senior. Bryant on the other hand is a big play waiting to happen. Notre Dame is loooong over due for a punt return for a touchdown.
2. A high scoring, efficient offense
Remember when Brian Kelly had all of those flying offenses at Cincinnati before he came to Notre Dame and we all thought that defense would be an issue for him not offense? As he enters year five at Notre Dame, Kelly has yet to produce a dynamic offense that has been capable of winning a game when the defense isn’t really at its best. Not only has the offense not been a high scoring machine, the offense has had crippling turnovers time and time again in close losses. Meanwhile two years ago Notre Dame had one of its most dominant defenses in school history.
Notre Dame has all of the components in place to produce a high scoring offense offense this year. Everett Golson is back and in charge of the offense. The running back trio of Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant, and Cam McDaniel gives Notre Dame a loaded backfield. Even with the status of Davaris Daniels up in the air during the academic investigation, Notre Dame still has Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, Chris Brown, Justin Brent, CJ Prosise, Amir Carlisle, Torii Hunter (when healthy), and Corey Holmes. Throw in a Mackey Award cnadidate in Ben Koyack and an offensive line that will be starting 4 upperclassmen and all the ingredients are there for a high scoring offense.
Scoring a lot of points alone isn’t going to cut it this year though. The offense has to protect the ball better. No more momentum draining, tide turning turnovers like we saw against Michigan, Oklahoma, Pitt, and Stanford last year. The offense can’t put the defense in tough spots this year because unlike two years ago the defense isn’t going to be able to walk away from those situations unscathed without a veteran front seven.
3. Jaylon Smith become a star
We all know Jaylon Smith has a world of talent, but to the college football world, the name Jaylon Smith is not yet a household name. In order for Notre Dame’s defense to put the Irish in a position to have a successful season, that will have to happen this year. Brian VanGorder is going to lining up the sophomore all over the place in order to get his best player in a position to make plays so the opportunity is there.
The question will be whether or not the sophomore is ready to take the step forward and become a star in just his second season. All signs point to him being able to do just that. Playing in an inexperienced front seven could impact Smith’s ability to become a star this year though. I already think Smith is Notre Dame’s most indispensable player on the roster so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he becomes a bonafide star in 2014.
4. A couple defensive freshmen exceed expectations
This one might be more of a hope than anything else because if a few freshmen don’t exceed expectations the defense could really struggle. Between Andrew Trumetti, Jonathan Bonner, Daniel Cage, Jhonny Williams, and Nyles Morgan; Notre Dame is going to need a couple of them to play prominent roles this season even if just in backup roles.
It’s never a good thing to have to rely on a lot of true freshmen in the front seven, but that is unfortunately the situation Notre Dame is in right now so they need to make the best of it. In a perfect world, Jarrett Grace is able to come back by the end of September and be a solid contributor in the linebacking corps, but even with Grace coming back Notre Dame needs some freshmen to play above their experience level this year in order for the defense to hold up against the brutal 2014 schedule. Getting Ishaq Williams back would be a huge boost too, but that will be determined by the on-going academic investigation and so far there’s been no indication of when that might be resolved.
5. Playing time for the reserves… in mop up duty
Notre Dame faces the toughest schedule in the country this year so this one might be a little ambitious, but there have been far too many 17-13, 14-10 type games over the last few years. Thankfully Notre Dame has more often than not been on the winning side of those since that wasn’t the case with the previous coaching regime, but it’s time Notre Dame starts winning some games comfortably. It’s great that Notre Dame hasn’t lost to Purdue under Kelly, but the Boilermaker teams he’s faced aren’t exactly the Joe Tiller, Drew Brees led teams. They have been one of the worst teams in the Big Ten the last few years and there’s no reason for those games to be one possession games in the fourth quarter.
Aside from Purdue, it’s time for the close calls with Navy to come to a stop. It looked like we were already there in 2011 and 2012 with blowout victories over the Middies, but then we had last year’s nail-biter in South Bend. Yeah, let’s not have that this year. Line up, run the ball right at them, and win that one running away. With so many quality opponents on the schedule, Notre Dame can’t make things tougher on themselves this year.
There’s a lot other things I’d like to see this year too, but if those five things above all happen, Notre Dame can navigate that nightmare of a schedule to at least 10 wins in 2014. What else would you like to see from the Irish this year? Let us know in the comments.