As the Brian Kelly era begins in South Bend, a remodeled program will be looking to reclaim the top spot in college football. As new offensive and defensive systems are put in place, three factors will be most critical in delivering a successful season in 2010.
First year starter Dayne Crist will be replacing Jimmy Clausen, who opted for the NFL after his junior season. Crist, a junior, is coming off an ACL tear, and after healing much faster than expected, Irish fans everywhere will be looking for him to learn the new system equally as fast. Brian Kelly brings to South Bend a spread offense, one that is much different from the pro style Charlie Weis ran, and better suited to Crist’s mobility and strong arm. Unfortunately, the quarterback position has changed dramatically from strength to a weakness. Last season the Irish had two quality quarterbacks, Clausen and Evan Sharpley, as well Crist. Now, behind the untested Crist is Nate Montana, arriving at the Dome after a stint at a junior college, and two freshmen, Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix. Needless to say, Notre Dame will need consistent play from Crist if the Irish will have the successful season many are hoping for.
After the loss of last year’s Biletnikoff award winner Golden Tate, the Notre Dame receiver corps will be looking to replace his productivity and playmaking ability. While they still have one of the nation’s premiere wide outs in Michael Floyd, the depth behind him is unproven. Senior Duval Kamara, freshmen Tai-ler Jones and others like Shaquelle Evans and Deion Walker will all be fighting for playing time and the chance to prove they can step-up and be the No. 2 wide receiver. After a very successful spring, it seems like Tai-ler Jones will be a starter, assuming the underage drinking charges do not sideline him. Kamara has played heavy minutes since arriving to Notre Dame, but hasn’t been able to top his freshmen year productivity, and will be looking to end his career on a high note. Evans and Walker both saw a bit of playing time, with a combined 8 catches for 76 yards, but both came to Notre Dame as highly touted receivers and both will look to live up to that hype this season. Along with these receivers is junior tight end Kyle Rudolph, who like Floyd is considered one of the best in the nation at his position, and should be a big threat down the field in the new offense.
With an unproven defensive line that isn’t known for sacks, the Notre Dame secondary will need to improve from last season. Luckily Notre Dame is very deep at cornerback, with three experienced starters. Senior Darrin Walls and juniors Robert Blanton and Gary Grey all have the talent and ability to improve the secondary to an elite level. But like quarterback, there is not much experience behind them; so staying healthy will be a necessity here. Behind them are two new safeties, Jamoris Slaughter and Harrison Smith. Slaughter saw a bit of playing time last year, and Smith started a few games at safety but was so dismal, he was switched back to linebacker. The new 3-4 defense should put some more pressure on the quarterback as Cincinnati was ranked 10th in the nation in sacks last year, which would help this secondary immensely.
All in all, as Brian Kelly looks to kick start this program, these three keys will prove essential throughout the season. Along with the home advantage (only three real “away” games this season), the Irish seemed poised to return to glory.