The drama surrounding Brian Kelly’s future is over and settled. The disappointment and bitter taste from the BCS National Championship game has begun to fade, allowing for the Notre Dame program and its fan base to focus on more important matters. The 2012 campaign, as great as it was, is now in the books and the road to 2013 begins with a simple question: What areas does Notre Dame need to improve to top last year’s performance?
No matter how many annoyed glances or sighs Brian Kelly provides when asked by the media about Notre Dame’s special teams play, it has simply been an ignored facet of the team since his arrival, which is perplexing considering Cincinnati possessed one of the best special teams units in the country under Kelly’s watch. The coaching staff has yet to provide a coherent explanation as to why the Fighting Irish line up for every punt in the Punt Safe formation, or why a year of eligibility was spent on freshman Davonte Neal, an electrifying punt returner in high school, to simply fair catch everything booted his
Regardless of the coaching staff’s reasons, special teams stands as a large area of untapped improvement. Notre Dame ranked as one of the worst punt return units in the nation, coming in at 116th. The Irish did little better at kickoff returns, finishing 93rd. With the potential emergence of Notre Dame’s offense in 2013 under the leadership of a matured quarterback in Everett Golson, a more aggressive approach to special teams could result in better field position and more points on the board.
The old football cliché holds games are won in the trenches. If the 265 yards Alabama gained on the ground against Notre Dame wasn’t enough evidence of this wisdom, a similar example could be found in the NFL in San Francisco’s victory over the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional round of the NFC playoffs, where the 49ers, led by three 1st round draft picks along the offensive line, bruised their way to 323 rushing yards.
Though the Crimson Tide proved with ease Notre Dame is not where it needs to be along the offensive and defensive line if it wishes to dethrone the SEC, the correlation between ND’s improved line play and its first undefeated regular season in 24 years is easy to see. The offensive line had a terrific season, finish 28th in sacks allowed (1.38 per game) and 38th in rushing. The defensive line had an even better year, finishing 11th in rush defense (even after the 265 yards given up against Alabama) and tied for 22nd in sacks. And while Irish fans may look at the result of the national championship match and see large disparity, the truth is Brian Kelly has been chipping away at the line talent gap since arriving in South Bend.
While Charlie Weis was an excellent recruiter, an argument could be made his downfall came courtesy of poor recruiting along the defensive line. Kelly immediately recognized the issue and made it a top priority. In 2010, Kelly’s first recruiting class, he managed to hang on to the commitment of Louis Nix, an elite defensive prospect. The following year Kelly added another player the likes of which ND hadn’t seen since the Holtz era in Rivals 5-star Stephon Tuitt, a sophomore talent several NFL analysts have said would be a 1st round selection this year if he were eligible for the NFL Draft. While Nix and Tuitt are well-known by Irish fans and played a large part in Notre Dame’s resurgence this season, it’s the players ND fans have yet to get to know well that could finally get ND over the hump.
Having elite defenders like Nix and Tuitt helped put Notre Dame on the map, but depth is what will make Notre Dame a consistently successful program. And defensive line depth is accumulating in South Bend at an exciting rate. In Brian Kelly’s third recruiting cycle he was able to sign Rivals 4-star Sheldon Day, an impact player from this season, and Jarron Jones, a Rivals 4-star who preserved a year of eligibility but has been singled out by players and coaches as a potential star in the making. The good fortune and depth has continued in this recruiting season as well, with the commitment of Rivals 4-star defensive lineman and Georgia native Isaac Rochell, a player coveted by every SEC program, including Alabama. Also a boon for Notre Dame, one of Rochell’s closet friends and teammates is Andrew Williams, a class of 2014 Rivals 4-star defensive lineman considered to be one of the best in the country. Williams has visited South Bend twice with Rochell, and Notre Dame will be a player in his recruitment.
In addition to this good news, even better news is still in the making. Eddie Vanderdoes, a 4-star defensive lineman – though on the verge of becoming a 5-star – and one-time USC commitment, is visiting Notre Dame on January 25th. Vanderdoes was considered by many to be the best defensive lineman at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and has developed a relationship with current Irish star Louis Nix. Defensive line recruiting is going so well, in fact, that ND already possesses a Rivals 4-star defensive line commitment in Jay Hayes, a Brooklyn, New York, native who has already established himself as a campus personality-in-waiting given the recent news he made by taking a picture of himself eating a Michigan recruiting letter and posting it to his Twitter page.
Possessing elite defensive linemen played a central role in Notre Dame’s appearance in the national championship game. Hopefully a depth of such players is what finally gets Notre Dame to the top of college football.