Friday, August 17, 2012

Notre Dame Football 2012 Preview

Notre Dame gets a lot of press - both positive and negative - wether it's in-season or in the doldrums of the offseason, but the intensity always seems to rise this time of year.

Joining together to form the 2012 edition of Fighting Irish Football squad are veteran players growing into new roles and a talented group of underclassmen and new players.

It sounds like a lot of change on paper, but in reality not much should change from last season.

Sure, several key players are gone from the 2011 team, such as Michael Floyd, the school's all-time record holder in many wide receiving categories and 1st round NFL draft pick, and Safety Harrison Smith, another 1st round draft pick. Jonas Gray, a late bloomer at running back, graduated and is attempting to create his own NFL destiny. Ethan Johnson, a four-year starter at DE, Trevor Robsinon (OG), and CBs Gary Gray and Robert Blanton moved on to chase their NFL dreams as well.

For as much as those players will be missed, the group of returnees and newcomers should put the Irish on a level playing field talent wise in 2012.
Manti Te'o (ILB) and Tyler Eiffert (TE) were expected to bolt for the NFL, but both return as the superstars and likely captains of their respective sides of the ball.

On offense, RB Cierre Wood looks to build on his 1,000+ yard season behind a veteran offensive line anchored by C Braxston Cave. Michael Floyd's graduation leaves a tremendous hole in the Irish receiving corps but Eiffert's unlikely return and pass-catching dependabilily will help comfort the to-be-determined starting quarterback.

On defense, DE Kapron Lewis-Moore and DTs Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt will anchor a stout defensive front to Notre Dame’s standard 3-4 set. Aaron Lynch, who transferred to South Florida in the off-season due to homesickness, will be sorely missed but for the first time in many years there is considerable depth with veterans Sean Cwynar and Kona Schwenke and can supplement when needed. In all, they will help clear the way for Te'o and his fellow linebackers (Danny Spond, Prince Shembo, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox) to attack opposing quarterbacks.

Nonetheless, two monumental questions (at QB and in the secondary) loom that will determine how good the Irish can be in 2012.

First and foremost, who will be under center for the Irish in Dublin and beyond?

Tommy Rees, last year's starter, won't step foot in Dublin, so the answer to the first part of that question becomes a little easier. Rees was suspended by Coach Kelly as a result of a charges stemming from an off-campus incident in the spring (resisting arrest and punching an officer). While his suspension doesn't mean he's entirely out of the picture for 2012 it does put him at a considerable disadvantage.

Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson, and Blair Kiel will all compete for snaps in Dublin. Golson, whose performance in the spring game was spectacular, seems most likely to earn the first opportunity. Although Hendrix actually saw sparingly meaningful minutes on the playing field last season, Golson is essentially a more athletic, quicker, and younger version of Hendrix.

Regardless of who starts, the inexperience at the position will yield mistakes. Unlike last year and with any bit of luck, though, there will hopefully be fewer than 10 turnovers in the first two games of the season. In building the future of the program it is more likely Kelly will side with someone who has more upside and development potential. That doesn't rule out freshman Blair Kiel, but chances are he will redshirt and preserve a year before being thrown to the wolves.

The second biggest question is who will step up in the defensive secondary? Stout veterans Robert Blanton, Harrison Smith and Gary Gray are all gone, rendering the defensive backfield with inexperienced raw talent.

Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta, who have each seen meaningful minutes and have already made positive contributions at the safety position, will attempt to fill some shoes but their inexperience in pressure situations may leave the Irish vulnerable. Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood are two upperclassmen cornerbacks with blazing speed and minimal experience, and being the only non walk-on upperclassmen makes them the likely starters in the high-pressure position.

David Ruffer, the alk-on turned scholarship sensational kicker, graduated but his roles will be assumed by experienced place kicker and Kyle Brindza and former placekick starter Nick Tausch. Ben Turk, who struggled at the start of last season but recovered by mid-year, returns as the team's punter.

Without a doubt this is the most difficult schedule (on paper) in years. After starting the year overseas against an ever-challenging Navy team, the Irish return home to face Purdue, Michigan State on the road, and Michigan at home all before October.

A bye week preceeds the continuation of the Shamrock Series, Notre Dame's now annual offsite home game, against the Miami (Fl) Hurricanes. Consecutive home games against Stanford and BYU will prep the Irish for arguably their toughest opponent of the year as they head on the road to face Oklahoma. Easier breathing will ensue with a home game against Pittsburgh, road game Boston College, and home game against Wake Forest. All of that leads up to the regular season finale at USC, argubaly the second toughest opponent on this year's schedule.

With all of that in mind, this will certainly be a defining year for Coach Kelly's program. He has publicly stated that this his finally his team as they've begun to reflect his personality. One can only hope that fewer turnovers and more consistent quarterback play will steer the Irish to their third consecutive season of at least eight wins. If so, it would mark the first time since the Lou Holtz era that Notre Dame teams accomplished that pedestrian feat.

Objectively speaking, the translation of the aforementioned challenges and aspects to Notre Dame's 2012 season will likely equate to seven or eight wins and a modest bowl invitation. Given what is probably the nation's toughest schedule, earning more than six wins would surely be a treat. After all, last year's team was a few turnovers away (South Florida, Michigan, Florida State) from finishing 11-2 with at least a New Year's bowl berth.

Double digit wins seem highly unlikely given the magnitude of questions and difficult schedule, but Kelly will go a long way in earning some good faith with AD Jack Swarbrick in guiding the team to eight regular season wins and a bowl win to boot.

Time to get to work, Irish!

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