Spring Football: Irish no longer fighting for respect

Brian Kelly
The Fighting Irish didn't give Brian Kelly much reason to lose his cool last year.

First Practice: March 20
Spring Game: April 20

Relevant. And then some.

Last August ESPN’s Rick Reilly unleashed a screed attacking Notre Dame football, declaring the program “irrelevant.” The Fighting Irish devoted the next four months to proving Reilly wrong as they put together their first undefeated regular season since 1988.

Sure, at times luck was involved (Pitt’s missed game-winning field goal comes to mind), but so was a defense that led the nation in points against and was virtually impenetrable inside the five-yard line.

The new year began with a 28-point defeat to Alabama in the national championship game and the Manti Te’o-Lennay Kekua Nomance scandal, but the former should only motivate the Irish to see how far they have come while the latter is, as it pertains to the 2013 squad…what is that word?…irrelevant.

Stability Factor (1= Chaos, 5 = Rock Solid): 4.4

The Philadelphia Eagles hired a BCS bowl coach named Kelly, but it was Oregon’s Chip and not Notre Dame’s Brian. The return of Brian Kelly to South Bend after a brief flirtation with the NFL – that began just hours after Notre Dame’s 42-14 title game loss to Bama – translates to a solid foundation.

Now entering his fourth season under the watchful eyes of Touchdown Jesus, Kelly has the program at fully operational level. As he likes to point out, he inherited a team whose roster did not have a single player that had beaten a top 25 opponent. Last year’s squad had four such victories.

Also worth noting: Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who won the Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach last season, remains on staff.

Notre Dame must soldier on without its top defensive (Te’o) and offensive (tight end Tyler Eifert) players from last season, as well as its two leading rushers. But as long as Kelly remains on campus, the Irish will be a fixture in the top 25.

Everett Golson
All eyes in South Bend on Everett Golson this spring. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Under the Microscope: Everett Golson, Quarterback

Gunner Kiel, the top-rated prep quarterback in the country a year ago, is transferring because he sees little opportunity to supplant Golson, a redshirt sophomore, as the starter. That speaks volumes for Kelly’s belief in Golson.

The question becomes, How good is he? Notre Dame reached the national championship game last season by virtue of its defense and a tight end, Tyler Eifert, who is arguably the greatest in school history – at a school that regularly turns out Pro Bowl tight ends.

Golson, whose preternatural poise was perhaps his greatest asset, must shoulder more of the load in 2012. Eifert is gone, as are leading rushers Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood and stalwart center Braxston Cave.

Locked and Loaded: Defensive Line

Linebacker Manti Te’o won just about every award imaginable last season (Bednarik, Butkus, Lombardi, etc.) while finishing as the runner-up for the Heisman, but two members of the 2012 defense may eventually be higher NFL draft picks. Nose tackle Louis Nix III was the bedrock of all those vital goal-line stands. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who had 12 sacks last season as a sophomore, is the best player the Irish have had at that position since Justin Tuck. He should break Tuck’s school record of 24.5 career sacks this year.

Jockeying for Position: Running Backs

In his third carry of the 2012 season, George Atkinson III ripped off a 56-yard cutback run versus Navy that went for six. It was early in the first quarter of Notre Dame’s season opener, but by that point (3 carries, 73 yards) Atkinson had already accrued 20 percent of his season rushing total.

It was a somewhat disappointing season for Atkinson (51 carries, 361 yards), who is the de facto No. 1 back now that Riddick has graduated and Wood exited early for the NFL. However, the Irish have USC transfer Amir Carlisle, a redshirt sophomore who sat out last season after breaking his ankle in the summer, and incoming five-star stud Greg Bryant. Expect all three of them to get carries.

Name to Know: Davaris Daniels, Wide Receiver

The six-foot-two Daniels saved his best game of the season for Notre Dame’s worst game of the season. Daniels caught six passes for a team-high 115 yards in the BCS blowout. The Irish have gone from Jeff Samardzija to Golden Tate to Michael Floyd, but last season, when they achieved their greatest success in decades, they lacked a go-to split end.

Daniels, who will only be a red-shirt sophomore, may be that dude in 2013.

Spring will be a Success if…: Golson steps up.

Everett Golson must make significant progress towards becoming the leader that this offense, if not this team, needs. Players such as tight end Troy Niklas, who has the physical attributes, if not the raw talent, to replace Eifert, and Atkinson must play greater roles this season. It is incumbent upon Golson to prepare them to become marquee performers.

Defensively, the Irish must put safety first. Matthias Farley has just one season of experience, while Zeke Motta, who was second on the team in tackles to Te’o last season, has graduated.