Notre Dame’s improbable ride to the national championship game ended abruptly on Monday night in Miami. Alabama left no doubt as to who was the better team and sent Notre Dame back home to South Bend with a lot of questions to answer this off-season. Despite a rather disappointing ending to a season far exceeded even the most optimistic expectations for 2012, there is plenty of reason for hope as the Irish begin the long road back to getting back to the title game next season.
Notre Dame brings a lot of talent back next year and there are plenty of reasons to think that the Irish can make another run and end next season looking for some redemption in Pasadena, home of the Rose Bowl and site of 2014 National Championship game and it all starts under center.
1. Everett Golson
Think back to how far Everett Golson has come in just one year as a starting quarterback on the college level. Against Michigan Golson looked lost and overwhelmed prompting Brian Kelly to pull him in favor of Tommy Rees. Last night that wasn’t the case. Golson wasn’t at his absolute best but he didn’t look lost either and actually turned in a solid performance completing 21 of 36 for 270 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception. Golson just missed on a number of other throws early on as well that would have made the game much more interesting – throws that he will most likely make next year after a full off-season of being THE guy at quarterback for Notre Dame.
Golson has a bright, bright future ahead of him and is poised to make some huge strides in the off-season once he has a chance to digest everything that happened this year and work with Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin on taking his game to the next level. Kelly slowly loosened the reigns on Golson as the season progressed, but the training wheels are still on in some respects. Those wheels should come flying off next year as Golson takes charge of the team. As a first year starter with some strong leaders in place already, Golson couldn’t really make this his team. Notre Dame will be looking for leaders next year and Golson will have the opportunity to seize that role. If he is able to do that, we will see an offense that starts to resemble the high scoring units Kelly put on the field at his previous stops.
The Notre Dame offense in 2012 was adequate – it was just good enough for Notre Dame to pull off some too close for comfort victories. That should not be the case in 2013 with Golson leading the way. For the first time in the Kelly Era, we will head into a season with a clear #1 quarterback for spring and fall ball allowing Golson to get more snaps and Kelly and Martin to feed Golson more and more of the offense. In 2012 we saw a young quarterback grow up in front of us. In 2013, we are going to see that same quarterback elevate his game and turn the offense into a much more efficient and explosive unit.
2. Zack Martin and Louis Nix Returning
Notre Dame’s run to last night’s BCS Championship was made possible by the returns of both Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert for their senior seasons this year and the returns of both Zack Martin and Louis Nix for next year could do the same for the 2013 Fighting Irish. If there is one thing that we all learned last night it was that championship football temas are built in the trenches. Alabama controlled both lines of scrimmage and had a clear edge with both of their lines. Notre Dame has done a great job in rebuilding both lines, but clearly there is a lot of work left to be done.
Louis Nix took a big step forward this year and became the disruptive force we all imagined he would be when he signed on to play at Notre Dame and with another off-season he has the ability to be one of the elite defensive linemen in the country. Nix received some All American mention this year and should be on almost everyone’s pre-season All-American lists heading into 2013 as well. His return will also help soften the blow of losing Te’o because his ability to occupy blockers makes the lives of Notre Dame’s inside backers a whole lot easier.
Martin, meanwhile, will anchor the Notre Dame offensive line for a fourth straight year and be called upon to be one of the offensive leaders again next season as a returning captain. Notre Dame’s offensive line made some strides this year, but last night proved that there is still a lot of work for Harry Hiestand with his unit. He and the Irish will have to replace two starters – Mike Golic Jr and Braxston Cave already. If Martin had left for the NFL, his job would have been a heck of a lot harder. Martin is an elite left tackle and if Notre Dame had 5 Zack Martin’s across the line of scrimmage, last night’s result wouldn’t have been as grim for the Irish.
3. An elite incoming freshman class
Alabama is an elite team because they reload every year with elite talent. Notre Dame is getting to that point, but isn’t quite there. The Irish are bringing in the top recruiting class in the country (based on current rankings) and have loaded up along the lines once again. Notre Dame has five offensive linemen – Steve Elmer, John Montelus, Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin, and Mike McGlinchey – in this year’s class.
Those linemen will fuel future BCS drives, but as far as next year is concerned, true freshmen offensive linemen are rarely capable of playing immediately because they need time in the weight room to get physically prepared. One offensive lineman who could possibly push for time though is Anthony Munoz Lineman of the Year Award winner Steve Elmer. Elmer will enroll early which will give him the benefit of a full off-season conditioning program and spring practice under his belt. If he could push for time at right tackle, Christian Lombard could slide inside to guard, and then have Nick Martin potentially replace Braxston Cave. It is never a good thing to bank on freshmen playing along either line though so hopefully some of the other linemen step up in spring and a couple emerge.
Notre Dame does have some other instant impact freshmen coming in though. Guys like Jaylon Smith at linebacker, Max Redfield at safety, and Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant at running back could step right in and compete from day one.
Smith was an animal in the Army All American Bowl and Folston showed his versatility by playing corner in the Under Armor game even though running the football is his trade. Another name to look out for is Alex Anzalone. Anzalone looked big, strong, and fast at linebacker in the Under Armor game as well. He may not be ready to step in an start like Manti Te’o did as a frosh in 2009, but having young guys like him on the roster will push the veterans.
4. The Notre Dame wide receivers
Replacing Michael Floyd was going to be a really tough task this year. You don’t just replace the greatest wide receiver in school history and you certainly don’t replace that kind of production while also easing in a new starting quarterback. As the season progressed though, Golson started to build a rapport with TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels. That rapport was one of the few bright sports in last night’s humbling loss with Jones hauling in 7 passes for 90 yards and Daniels adding 6 for 115.
Daniels has the makings of being a top notch #1 wide receiver on the college level but just isn’t quite there yet. That is to be expected of a true sophomore who didn’t play as a freshman a year ago. Daniels shoulder injury against Boston College also robbed the second year player of some valuable experience just as his season was starting to take off. Look for the Golson to Daniels connection to hook up much more than 31 times in 2013. In fact, don’t be surprised if that number more than doubles next season.
As for Jones, he is right there with Daniels in terms of looking like he is ready to take his game to that next level in 2013. Jones had a slow start to the season as well, but started to develop really nicely as he built some chemistry with Golson. He hauled in 12 more passes in 2012 than he did in 2011 and his yards per catch averaged jumped from 9.6 to 13.0 at the same time. Jones should only improve on those numbers again next season.
Outside of Jones and Daniels, Notre Dame has a group of young wide receivers who have all shown promise and the ability to let Notre Dame field some difficult to defend multiple receiver sets moving forward. Chris Brown has shown he can get open downfield, but needs to bulk up a bit and develop more consistency. Once he does, he is a dangerous weapon for Golson.
Davonte Neal saw the field early, but the Irish coaching staff never found a good role for him in this year’s offense. Neal has elite speed and athleticism and will have to find a role in next year’s offense for this unit to improve.
5. A favorable schedule
It is impossible to accurately project a schedule nine months before the start of the season – just look at this year when Notre Dame’s “brutal schedule” turned out to be much easier than anyone could have imagined – but the 2013 schedule does look like it sets up favorably for Notre Dame at this point.
The toughest road games will be Michigan and Stanford – two teams that Notre Dame beat this past season. An early season trip to Ann Arbor is never easy, but Notre Dame finally got past the Wolverines after three years of heartbreak this past year and won’t have to face Denard Robinson anymore. Still, Notre Dame hasn’t won in Ann Arbor since 2005.
Stanford meanwhile will be a very tough task. The Cardinal will be seeking revenge when the Irish come to town next Thanksgiving weekend and that game could be a BCS eliminator game for either team as both should be in the hunt.
Home games against Oklahoma and USC will be challenges as well although the Irish took care of a Sooners team that was equally as unimpressive in their bowl game as the Irish this past season on the road. USC is a wildcard. If Kiffin gets that team to play up to their talent level they are a very dangerous team. Will he be able to rebound them after the debacle of a season they had or will he lose them? The game comes early in the season while the Trojans will still be in the hunt so that will be be a factor as well.
Right now, however, there isn’t a game on the schedule that you can look at and say the Irish don’t have a chance and in reality, Stanford is the only game that the Irish would not be favored in right now.
6. The Notre Dame defense
Notre Dame’s defense took a big hit on Monday night after Alabama carved up the Irish defense like a Thanksgiving turkey, but let’s not forget that this year’s defense overcame a lot just to get to the title game. Notre Dame started a pair of first time corners who were recruited to play offense, lost a 5th year senior starting safety in week 3, and had little, if any depth at corner. Despite all of that, the Irish defense was one of the best in the country in the regular season before Alabama exposed a lot of the weaknesses Bob Diaco was able to mask over the first 12 games.
In 2013, Notre Dame loses the heart and soul of the defense with Manti Te’o out of eligibility, but outside of Te’o, there isn’t a starter that Notre Dame is losing that appears to be irreplaceable right now.
Kapron Lewis-Moore was a four year starter at defensive end, but with Sheldon Day gaining valuable experience this year he will be the favorite to start in his place. He will also be pushed by sophomore to be Jarron Jones and Kona Schwenke has always played well when called upon. Despite the loss of KLM, Notre Dame should have greater depth up front so that Diaco and co can substitute more freely.
In the secondary, Notre Dame loses Zeke Motta, but could get Jamoris Slaughter back and will benefit from the experience Matthias Farley, Bennett Jackson and Keivarae Russell gained this year. Incoming freshman Max Redfield will also push for a starting spot next from day one. Sophomore to be Elijah Shumate showed plenty of promise as well this year as a nickel back and will only improve because of that experience.
Losing Te’o will be like losing Floyd this past year, but with so many other parts of a great defense returning, the defense as a whole should not miss a beat and if the Irish offense is able to take the step forward that it should, the defense will not be placed in as many tough situations as they were this year.
A lot has to go right for a team to get back to the championship game, but the makings are here for another run in 2013. Can the Irish close the gap with the Alabama’s of the world if they do find themselves back in the title game though? That’s another story that he we have the entire off-season to discuss.