Last week Her Loyal Sons gave us a strong start to the 2011 Irish Blogger Gathering with the pre-season edition. This week we here at UHND host the season opener edition and with now less than five days remaining until the Irish kick-off the 2011 season, it’s safe to say everybody is ready for a little football.
Before we get started, I’ll link to all of the other Notre Dame blogger responses to these questions at the end of the post. Remember to check back as more Notre Dame bloggers post their answers.
1. The big news of last week was Dayne Crist winning the starting QB spot. Are you happy with the outcome and how comfortable are you with Crist as the starting quarterback for the 2011 season?
Ever since last season ended, I have written that I felt that for Notre Dame to have a legit chance at a BCS run this year, Crist needed to be the quarterback and I still feel that way today so I was pretty happy with the results of the quarterback race for a few reasons. First off, no matter what Brian Kelly says, I think Dayne Crist lets you do things that Tommy Rees doesn’t. Kelly bucketed Crist and Rees as the same kind of quarterback while saying Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson were the more mobile quarterbacks all off-season; but I think it’s clear Crist is much more mobile than Rees and Kelly’s play calling last year backs that up.
With Crist under center last year, Kelly called many more designed quarterback runs and I think we’ll see more of that this year even though Crist is coming off another major knee injury. Rees experience last year gives Kelly enough insurance that he can let Crist run more because if something happens to him, he knows he has another quarterback who can go in an win games for him – he didn’t know that a year ago at this time.
Running skills aside, Crist just has the edge athletically over Rees and should allow the Notre Dame passing attack to stretch defenses more than it would with Rees under center. Crist has an NFL arm. That much cannot be argued. Now, he doesn’t have NFL accuracy right now so he will have to improve in that department – especially in the short passing game.
I’m also happy with how this competition played out because we all saw what Rees was capable of last year. The fact that Crist was able to come back from injury again this year and beat out Rees, a quarterback who went 4-0 last year as a starter, speaks volumes as to what Crist was able to accomplish this off-season.
2. A lot of people say you see the biggest improvement between year 1 and 2 after a coaching change. What area do you hope to see the biggest improvement in 2011?
I am hoping to see much more consistency on the offensive side of the ball. There were times last year when the offense really looked like it was on the verge of being explosion. Go back and watch the first half of the Pitt and Boston College games. Notre Dame moved the ball at will at times, only to slow down in the second half and in the case of the Pitt game, it allowed a game that could have been an easy victory to get to be a little too close for comfort.
The same can be said about the Michigan game. Even once Crist came back in that game, the offense stalled after those first few impressive second half drives.
For Notre Dame to make the BCS run everyone, myself included, keeps talking about the offense has to move the ball much more consistently this year and keep pressure on opposing offenses to score points. With the talent Notre Dame has on defense – especially along the line and in the secondary – this defense could be downright scary to face if they have a lead and can go into attack mode against a one dimensional offense.
Being in year two of the offense should give the offense a better comfort level which should naturally allow for some more consistency, but the play calling from Brian Kelly can help here as well. Once Crist went down with his injury last year, Kelly relied much more on the running game than he did prior to Crist’s injury. If Kelly mixes in that commitment to the running game with Crist’s ability to stretch defenses, I think we’ll see a much better offense this season.
3. I think we’ve all covered this year’s highly touted freshman class quite a bit this off-season already so instead, who do you see as this year’s Corey Mays? Mays played primarily special teams for 3 seasons before a breakout season as a 5th year senior in 2005. Who on the Irish roster can pull off a similar performance this season?
Did Bob Diaco slip up last week when he said that he considers Steve Filer another starter at outside linebacker? We hadn’t heard much about Filer prior to that in camp until that so it would be easy to use Filer here – especially since he hails from the same hometown as Mays. That being said, I am going to switch to the offensive side of the ball and go with Jonas Gray. Talent has never been an issue for Gray. The Michigan native has the size and speed to be a very good college back but ball security and injury issues have limited his on field contributions his first three seasons. With one final year of eligibility left, I expect Gray to live up to his potential even if it is in a reserve role to Cierre Wood who is clearly entrenched as the starter.
4. Theo Riddick is a player I’ve been touting all off-season and think the is ready to become a big name in college football. What player on Notre Dame’s roster who hasn’t yet broken out are you expecting to put up big numbers in 2011?
I am obviously going to stick with Riddick this year. I’ve watched a number of highlight reels from last season over the weekend and Riddick’s athleticism and play making skills in the open field just jumped out to me again. Riddick is a the perfect player on this roster to line up as the slot receiver and if he stays healthy, he will make enough plays to have a highlight reel of his own this year. Riddick won’t outshine Michael Floyd at wide receiver but he will make a name for himself this season and will head into the 2012 season with plenty of hype and will find himself on next season’s Biletnikoff watch list.
5. Notre Dame plays a legit opponent in South Florida unlike a lot of teams around the country. How do you see this game playing out and does it help or hurt Notre Dame that they play a BCS conference opponent this weekend while Michigan plays Western Michigan?
This year I think it’s a little bit of an advantage for Notre Dame to open up the season with a stronger opponent because Notre Dame is a very veteran laden team. Notre Dame returns 17 starters this year and that doesn’t include two starters who will be starting the season in reserve roles so the Irish will not be short on experience. For that reason, starting with a stronger opponent should give Notre Dame a better preparation for the Michigan showdown in Ann Arbor on September 10.
On the flip side, starting with a weaker opponent also helps Michigan out quite a bit this year because they have a new coaching staff with a new offense and defense and will be breaking in a number of new starters. So in essence, the schedules for both teams work out this year as Notre Dame can afford the stronger opponent and Michigan needs the warm-up game.
In terms of how this game plays out, I think the game will be pretty hard fought for the first half because of the athleticism South Florida has on the defensive side of the ball. In the second half, however, the Irish defense will take over and Notre Dame will pull away for a reasonably comfortable two score victory.
6. Stealing this one from my IBG pre-season questions from last year – who is the Notre Dame player the Irish can least afford to lose this season? For the sake of getting some different response, you can’t use Michael Floyd or Manti Te’o here.
The early responses from my fellow Irish bloggers have included Harrison Smith, but I am going to go in a different direction in the secondary and list both Gary Gray and Robert Blanton as equally the two most irreplaceable players for the Irish this year because the depth at corner is so young and unproven. After Gray and Blanton, Notre Dame has just sophomores Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson (who played receiver last year) and freshmen Jalen Brown and Josh Attkinson. That little bit of proven depth should be scary to think about should either Gray or Blanton missed any bit of extended time this year.
7. Obligatory pre-season prediction question:
- Notre Dame’s final record (noting the losses): 10-3 – losses to Stanford, either Michigan State or Air Force (trap game), and then a BCS bowl loss (If I am being really honest here, I might say 11-1 in the regular season since it’s the pre-season and I’ve drank a ton of the kool-aid this off-season).
- Notre Dame’s bowl game and opponent: Sugar Bowl vs. LSU
- Final ranking for Notre Dame: 10
- Best opposing offensive and defensive player ND will face in ’11: Andrew Luck, Stanford QB; Luke Kuechly, Boston College LB
- Best opposing coach ND will face: Ken Niumatalolo (until Notre Dame proves otherwise)
- Notre Dame game you won’t miss for anything: USC
- Notre Dame game you could watch on DVR: None this year. Last year there were some games that looked like duds in the preseason, but this year most games have some interesting angle.
- National Champion: Alabama
- Heisman Trophy Winner: LaMichael James, Oregon RB
- Inside the Irish – Keith says a lot of smart things about why Crist is the right choice at QB
- Subway Domer – Subway Domer really doesn’t like Michigan.
- ND Tex – Ryan at NDTex thinks Jonas Gray will be this year’s Corey Mays as well… he is obviously very smart.
- Let’s Go Irish – A new comer to the IBG, Let’s Go Irish jumped on the Harrison Smith bandwagon for question #6 as well.
- Domer Law Blog – Domer Law is the first of the IBG to go offense for the player Notre Dame can least afford to lose.
- One Foot Down – Another very wise Irish blogger thinks Jonas Gray will live up to his potential this year.
- Irish Round Table – First off, is any other Notre Dame blog more perfect for this year’s IBG header image? Anyway, IRT sees big things from Cierre Wood this season.
- We Never Graduate – WNG agrees that the Irish can least afford an injury at cornerback this year.
- Notre Dame Football 2011 – Nick over at ND Football 2011 only had time to answer the first two questions, but we’ll give him a pass this week.