College Football Preview: No. 16 Notre Dame
(Neon Tommy will be previewing the 2011 College Football Season throughout the summer. You can find links to each of our Top 25 previews here. Today, we preview the team ranked 16th, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.)
Notre Dame's 2010 Season: 8-5, Sun Bowl: Defeated Miami 33-17
-- Nine returning starters
-- Impact Players: QB Dayne Crist, WR Michael Floyd, TE Tyler Eifert
Brian Kelly enters his second year as head coach of the Fighting Irish, and he enters it with a talented offense and high expectations. His offense returns nine starters from group that led the school to just its second bowl win since the 1993 season. At QB Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees both return. Crist was the starter at the beginning of last season but went down with a knee injury, and Rees eventually started the last four games of 2010. Although Rees finished the year going 4-0 as a starter, Crist, now fully recovered from his injury, will reassume the starting job.
At receiver the Irish return preseason All-American candidate Michael Floyd (79 receptions, 1025 yards and 12 TD’s in 2010). Floyd, who could have turned pro following 2010, elected to stay in school but found himself caught up in legal troubles this offseason after a DUI arrest. Consequently Floyd was suspended indefinitely , but it is not believed his punishment from Kelly will include any games missed in 2011. Joining Floyd will be Theo Riddick. Riddick was second on the team in 2010 in all major receiving statistics after moving to WR from RB following his freshman season. TE Tyler Eifert is back after replacing the injured Kyle Rudolph, and is a Mackey Award candidate.
Ceirre Wood takes over as full time starter at running back in 2011. Wood led the Irish in rushing in 2010 totaling 603 yards and scoring 3 TD’s. Wood (and backup Jonas Gray) will benefit from an experienced offensive line in front of him that returns 4 starters from last year. Tackle Zack Martin, center Braxston Cave and guard Trevor Robinson each started all 13 games last season.
-- Eight returning starters
-- Impact Players: LB Manti Te’o, S Harrison Smith, LB Darius Fleming
Just like their offensive counterparts, Notre Dame’s defense returns as an experienced group in 2011. In 2010 the Fighting Irish ranked 23rd in the country in points allowed (arguably, the most important defensive stat of them all). Here’s another scary stat: the top SEVEN tacklers from last year all return in 2011.
The front seven for Notre Dame looks promising. Along the defensive line the Irish will look to returning starters Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore. Lewis-Moore was 4th on the team in tackles last season with a total of 62. At linebacker, Manti Te’o is one of the best in the country. He returns as the team’s leading tackler with 129, and will be once again joined by Darius Fleming and Carlo Calabrese in 2011.
The secondary returns 3 of 4 starters from 2010, losing only cornerback Darin Walls. Gary Gray is back, however, and will play corner opposite Walls' replacement, Robert Blanton. At safety, familiar face Harrison Smith returns , and he is a ball-hawk. Smith led the team in interceptions last year with seven, which was also good enough for 4th in the country. Rounding out the secondary is Zeke Motta, who was also a starter last season.
The Golden Domers have one thing every team desires: experience. They have it on both side of the ball, and they have it calling the plays from the sideline. Experience should carry them in 2011. The veteran starters along the offensive and defensive should prove to be particularly valuable.
The schedule is not as easy at it looks. Road contests against Michigan, Pittsburgh and Stanford won’t be easy and games against Michigan State and USC in South Bend are no cake walks, Also of concern is the QB position. Yes, there is experience, but what happens when Crist struggles? Tommy Rees was 4-0 as a starter, and the slightest sign of a struggling Crist could brew up a quarterback controversy for ages.
This may finally be the year the Fighting Irish become a factor in the national championship picture once again. The schedule has some hurdles, but it’s not the schedule of old where Notre Dame was playing top 25 teams week in and week out, so it’s manageable. If the defense can live up to expectations and if the offense can rely on experience to play consistently, the Irish may once again be the toast of the college football world.