Notre Dame out to prove last year was no fluke

ASSOCIATED PRESS Coach Brian Kelly talks to his Notre Dame team during a break in practice, as the Fighting Irish prepare to host Temple in their opener on Saturday.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Coach Brian Kelly talks to his Notre Dame team during a break in practice, as the Fighting Irish prepare to host Temple in their opener on Saturday.
Posted: August 29, 2013

MAYBE the whole season was a hoax.

Maybe those razor-thin margins of victory in Notre Dame's run to 12-0 were too close to validate the school's apparent resurgence.

Maybe beating an undermanned USC team was more serendipitous than indicative.

Perhaps some blessed combination of good health and good luck and good execution led the Irish back to the higher atmosphere of college football . . . or, perhaps, they were just good.

This weekend, when Temple visits for the teams' opener, No. 14 Notre Dame will begin its quest to prove that 2012 was no fluke; that fourth-year coach Brian Kelly, who spurned the Eagles' pursuit, can, in fact, build champions, as he did at Division II Grand Valley State, MAC power Central Michigan and Big East standout Cincinnati.

"Everything," Kelly said, "is built on expectations."

Those expectations begin with preparation, for the players, but, for Notre Dame's international fan base, those expectations include national title contention. Every year.

Those expectations lately have been bolstered by 2 years of recruiting coups, long a bugaboo for a program so demanding in its criteria for student-athletes.

"We've got a lot more depth than we've had at any time" in his tenure, Kelly said.

It is a quest hindered by personnel losses, a cataclysmic defeat in the BCS championship game and the school's ham-handed handling of the Manti Te'o debacle.

As for the last matter: The school, by its own admission, knew well before Alabama dismantled Notre Dame in the BCS game that the story of the star linebacker and his dead girlfriend might be false. The school did nothing to discredit the story, thereby making it as culpable in the hoax as Te'o and anyone else connected with it. What had been a season of redemption dissolved into an offseason of punch lines.

As for the BCS title game: The Tide neutralized Te'o, casting doubts about his capacity to play in the NFL (he went in the second round to San Diego, where he will start) and manhandled the rest of the Irish in a 42-14 win. That demolition cast doubts on the legitimacy of Notre Dame's season. Kelly yesterday underscored the importance of getting his program back on the field after that bitter disappointment.

As for the first issue: First-round tight end Tyler Eifert is gone, as is Te'o, a Heisman candidate and one of the most decorated defenders in college football history. So is fellow linebacker Danny Spond, who succumbed to chronic migraines. Their running-back tandem is gone, too, but the Irish are five deep there, Kelly said.

However, the biggest loss to the team - even bigger than Te'o - might be quarterback Everett Golson. A redshirt freshman last season, Golson took the starting job from incumbent Tommy Rees and appeared to have the position headed toward competence, if not stardom. Golson threw for 12 touchdowns, six interceptions and 2,405 passing yards with 298 rushing yards and six rushing TDs.

Then, Golson was suspended for this season for academic issues.

Now, the good news for Notre Dame.

Senior defensive end Stephon Tuitt had 12 sacks in 2012, and he's not even the most valuable lineman. That could be nose tackle Louis Nix III, a 6-3, 357-pound optimist. Both should be first-round picks in the NFL draft next year (Nix might have been a first-round pick in 2013), and sophomore end Sheldon Day likely will join them in the league.

They could be the best line in college football. They will, almost certainly, disassemble Temple.

Where the line begins, the secondary will finish. It returns three starters, including enticing sophomore cornerback KeiVarae Russell, and it is the deepest veteran unit on the team.

Once again, the success of the Irish will hinge on their defense, which surrendered 12.8 points per game last season, second in the country, led by Bob Diaco, recognized last year as the nation's top assistant.

Once again, it will hope for competence from the offense; once again, run by Rees. He's thrown for 34 touchdowns as a part-timer in 2011 and as the starter in 2012, but he also gave away 24 interceptions. Rees, finally, has been anointed the clear-cut starter; as such, said Kelly, Rees this spring and summer was able to develop a better connection with his receivers; develop a better pocket presence; and, despite limited mobility, develop a capacity to extend plays.

Kelly said yesterday that Rees needs to be sharp Saturday, but, really, Rees might be able to afford a stumble or two this weekend.

He, and this team, cannot afford those types of mistakes at, say, No. 17 Michigan next weekend, the first of four games against Top 25 teams this season.

They can make mistakes, but not too many, against the likes of Temple; a rash of mistakes leads to missteps.

"The watchword for us will be to play the game clean," Kelly said. "We need to play a clean opener against a team that is coming into Notre Dame Stadium with nothing to lose."

To that end, Kelly finds himself in a slippery situation.

He has a lot of non-starters he would like to see in game action.

He consulted Pistol offense guru Chris Ault (now a consultant with the Chiefs and Andy Reid) and installed a few of that scheme's plays - plays he would like to see incorporated against Temple.

"It's another piece we can use to get some downhill runs," said Kelly, who will remain true to his predominantly shotgun offense.

But having new players running new plays inevitably leads to mistakes.

The absence of such mistakes - along with discipline, and talent - nearly earned the Irish a national title.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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