Boasting a fan base nearly as rabid as those from rival European soccer teams,
and having been credited with 96 All-Americans, seven Heisman Trophy winners
and 11 [recognized] national titles, the Fighting Irish have pretty much
cornered the market on both tradition and excellence.
The program's heyday was between 1924 and 1949, as Notre Dame won seven
national championships under the tutelage of such legendary mentors as Knute
Rockne and Frank Leahy. Ara Parseghian led the Irish to two crowns (1966 and
1973), while Dan Devine won a national title as well (1977). Another 11 years
would pass before Lou Holtz directed the team to its last championship, meaning
that it's been nearly two and half decades since the Golden Domers have been
declared the undisputed No. 1 team in the land.
Since Holtz, Notre Dame has been coached by the likes of Bob Davie (1997-2001),
Tyrone Willingham (2002-04), Charlie Weiss (2005-09) and most recently, Brian
Kelly (2010-present). Kelly's no-nonsense approach has led to consecutive 8-5
seasons and a split of the team's two bowl appearances, and while both
campaigns wound up in the black, the Irish faithful demand greatness so the
heat is certainly mounting as he embarks on his third year at the helm.
The Irish certainly had some playmakers on offense last season, most notably
WR Michael Floyd (100 receptions, 1,147 yards, nine TDs), TE Tyler Eifert (63
catches, 803 yards, five TDs), and RBs Cierre Wood (217 attempts, 1,102 yards,
nine TDs) and Jonas Gray (114 carries, 791 yards, 12 TDs). And despite some
questionable decisions (both on the field (14 INTs) and off (recent arrest))
and issues with consistency, even QB Tommy Rees put up decent numbers (269-
of-411, 2,871 yards, 20 TDs). The loss of Floyd as an NFL Draft first-rounder
is huge, but Kelly hopes this year's offensive unit will be every bit as potent
with Eifert playing a bigger role, the RBs continuing to pile up the yards, and
even Rees honing his skills. That is of course, if he is the starter when the
Irish open the season against Navy in Dublin, Ireland on September 1.
It appears as if Rees is in a tight battle with the athletically-gifted Everett
Golson, who has all the skills to develop into a top-notch signal-caller, but
needs to improve his decision-making dramatically if he hopes to be the next
great UND quarterback. Additional pressure is expected to come from big-time
recruit Gunner Kiel, although the optimal scenario has him vying for the
starting job a year from now.
Kelly spoke with guarded optimism about the quarterback situation following the
annual Blue-Gold spring game in late April, 'I think there were some strides
made, but clearly we're not there yet. We've got a lot of work to do with all
the quarterbacks to get them to the level that we want. And we have a high bar
set for them.'
Regardless of who lines up under center, the RB tandem of Wood and George
Atkinson III should prove more than capable of carrying their share of the
load. Atkinson was particularly impressive in the spring game, rushing for 124
yards on 15 carries, while Wood finished with 52 yards and a TD on only five
The versatile Theo Riddick (38 receptions, 436 yards, three TDs in 2011) will
surely command more attention now that Floyd is gone, and he led all pass
catchers in the spring game with eight grabs for 63 yards and a TD. But make no
mistake, Eifert is expected to be the guy opposing defenses will need to
account for on just about every snap as the 6-6, 250-pound senior has all the
makings of an NFL first-round draft pick himself after setting the school's
single-season record for receptions and receiving yards for a tight end last
Despite not knowing exactly who will be throwing him the ball this season,
Eifert is excited about the unit's potential, 'We have a lot of playmakers and
a lot of talent in different positions. We just have to put it all together',
He continued, 'When we're all on the same page and communicating and know what
we're doing and executing what we know how to do, we can be a good offense.'
With regard to his defense, Kelly knows the unit as a whole must play better
than it did last season when it allowed nearly 21 ppg and accounted for only 14
turnovers. The Irish really showed signs of wear late in games, yielding a
total of 119 points in the fourth quarter, which was more than they gave up in
the second and third quarters combined (97).
Safety Harrison Smith (90 tackles, 10 PBU) was taken by the Minnesota Vikings
in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, but that still leaves standout LB
Te'O Manti to wreak as much havoc as he did last season when he led the team
with 128 tackles, 13.5 TFL and registered five sacks. Manti, a finalist for the
Butkus Award last season and clearly one of the top defensive players in all of
college football, won't be alone in his pursuit of the ball this year as guys
like DEs Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt, LBs Anthony Rabasa, Jarrett
Grace and Ishaq Williams, CB Lo Wood and S Jamoris Slaughter, most of whom
received high praise from Kelly after the spring game, all have the talent to
help the Notre Dame defense limit the opposition's effectiveness when it has
This should be a very interesting year for the Irish as they will play yet
another challenging schedule, taking on among others, Michigan State, Michigan,
Miami, Stanford, BYU, Oklahoma and USC.
Kelly is optimistic that the work his team puts in now will pay off in the
end, 'It's really the attention to detail. The little things that matter the
most. Our guys are going to have to work at that over the summer. If they do
that, when we get into preseason camp, we should be in a pretty good position.'