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July 21, 2010
Perhaps no major program in the nation is undergoing as much transition as Notre Dame.
The Irish have a new coach, a new quarterback and new schemes on both sides of the ball. Will all those changes produce a change in results? Not immediately.
Jimmy Clausen's decision to turn pro after his junior season leaves the Irish with a serious lack of quarterback depth as they install new coach Brian Kelly's spread offense. The Irish also have the same problems on defense that have helped set Notre Dame back for most of the past decade.
But the change in atmosphere could produce at least a few more wins in the short term and ought to pay bigger dividends down the road. Kelly has nearly two decades of coaching experience and has won everywhere he has been. He eventually should have Notre Dame contending for BCS bids.
Just not this season.
THE SCHEME: Notre Dame is switching to a spread offense this season after operating a pro-style attack under former coach Charlie Weis.
STAR POWER: Junior WR Golden Tate earned the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver last season before entering the NFL draft, where he was taken in the second round by the Seattle Seahawks. If junior WR Michael Floyd can stay healthy all season, he has a legitimate shot at giving Notre Dame a second consecutive Biletnikoff winner. He is a matchup nightmare for any defensive back in the country. Floyd missed five games with a separated shoulder last season, yet he still caught 44 passes for 795 yards and nine touchdowns. He has 16 touchdown catches through the first 18 games of his career.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: True freshman WR Tai-ler Jones arrived on campus in time for spring practice and performed well enough to head into the summer atop the depth chart. Notre Dame will have at least three receivers on the field at all times in the spread offense, so the Irish need more receivers to complement Floyd and senior Duval Kamara. Jones has an excellent shot at starting alongside those two guys this season. Jones' father, Andre Jones, was a defensive end on Notre Dame's 1988 national title team.
STRONGEST AREA: New starting QB Dayne Crist will have the benefit of throwing to two potential first-round draft picks in Floyd and TE Kyle Rudolph, one of eight semifinalists last season for the John Mackey Award that goes to the nation's top tight end. Rudolph's fourth-and-goal touchdown catch in the final minute last season gave Notre Dame a
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Notre Dame needs Crist to make a successful recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament because the Irish don't have any experienced quarterbacks behind him. If Crist gets hurt, the Irish would have to turn to walk-on Nate Montana (Joe's son) or a true freshman. That prospect is particularly troublesome because Kelly's spread attack puts so much responsibility on quarterbacks that it often leaves them vulnerable to injury. Kelly had to rely on a backup quarterback to start multiple games each of his three seasons in Cincinnati. Notre Dame fans also have reason to worry about Crist's protection, since the Irish are breaking in new starters at each tackle position.
STAR POWER: LB Manti Te'o barely played in the first four games of the 2009 season, but the former five-star prospect spent the rest of the season justifying all the fanfare that accompanied his surprising decision to sign with the Irish. Te'o made 57 tackles over the final eight games of the season while showcasing the explosiveness Notre Dame had lacked on defense for the past several years. Although he is just a sophomore, Te'o undoubtedly is already Notre Dame's best defensive player.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Notre Dame really isn't expecting any of its freshman defenders to contribute too much this season, but it wouldn't be a major surprise if NT Louis Nix worked his way into the line rotation. Nix was Notre Dame's highest-rated defensive prospect in the 2010 signing class.
STRONGEST AREA: The Irish have enough talent at linebacker to accommodate a move to the 3-4. Te'o could develop into an All-America candidate by the end of his career. Brian Smith heads into his third season as a starter, Darius Fleming led the Irish with 12 tackles for loss last year and Kerry Neal has made 21 career starts.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: This is nothing new for Notre Dame, but the Irish once again have a serious lack of depth on the line. Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore and NT Ian Williams give the Irish a solid starting unit, but Notre Dame is in serious trouble if any of those guys get hurt. The lack of depth at end is particularly troubling.
Notre Dame returns its main kicker (Nick Tausch) and punter (Ben Turk). Tausch made a school-record 14 consecutive field-goal attempts at one point and finished 14-of-17, though he also missed three extra-point tries along with a 28-yarder and a 30-yarder. Turk averaged 38.2 yards per punt, though he posted a 45.5 average on his last eight attempts. Notre Dame ranked just 99th in the nation last year in net punting and 105th in punt return coverage. The Irish also allowed two kickoff returns for touchdowns.
The irony of Notre Dame's late-season collapses each of the past two seasons is that the Irish typically play most of their toughest games in the first two months of the season. This season is no different. Notre Dame plays two of its most difficult games (vs. Utah and at USC) in the last three weeks of the season, but the Irish's second-half schedule also features likely wins over Western Michigan, Tulsa and Army. The Irish's first six games are against schools from the six major conferences (vs. Purdue, vs. Michigan, at Michigan State, vs. Stanford, at Boston College and vs. Pittsburgh). The Irish have seven home games and also should play in front of plenty of their fans against Navy in East Rutherford, N.J., and against Army at Yankee Stadium.
The Irish shouldn't fall apart down the stretch the way they did the past two seasons. Kelly is too good a coach to allow that to happen. This is a guy who led Cincinnati to back-to-back Big East titles, so it shouldn't surprise anyone if he also has Notre Dame earning BCS bids in short order. Just don't expect it to happen this season. With the offense and defense adjusting to new schemes, this figures to be a season of transition. The Irish have too little depth at quarterback and too many issues on defense to make a huge leap this season. The Irish should win eight games this season before showing even greater improvement in future seasons.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.