-- Still fiercely independent, Notre Dame just wants to get more fierce. More passion. More energy. Faster.
-- The 2010 season will be all about the transition to first-year coach Brian Kelly and his fast-paced no-huddle spread offense that was all the rage during his wildly successful run at Cincinnati ... and at Central Michigan before that ... and at Grand Valley State before that.
-- Kelly has the system. But does he have the players?
-- This season wouldn't appear so difficult to navigate if quarterback Jimmy Clausen and receiver Golden Tate had stayed around for their senior seasons. As it is, improving on the 6-6 mark of coach Charlie Weis' final season won't be easy with the great unknown at quarterback.
-- With the Bearcats last season, Kelly had Tony Pike and Zach Collaros at quarterback, not suffering a drop-off when Pike was injured. This season, Kelly has unproven junior Dayne Crist at quarterback, backed up by Nate Montana and a bunch of freshmen. The coach isn't used to having quarterbacks so inexperienced and unfamiliar with his system.
-- Good news is that Crist, who suffered a torn ACL last October, was deemed nearly 100 percent ready in July. He needs to be. Kelly's keys to the season? "You start with, we gotta keep Dayne healthy," he said.
-- Kelly has led turnarounds wherever he has been the head coach. The question doesn't seem as much "if" as "when" he will get it done at Notre Dame.
-- This season's schedule isn't loaded with elite opposition, but there is a steady diet of quality competition, including Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Utah, Navy and Southern Cal.
-- The Irish have no margin of error. They played an amazing 10 games that were decided by seven points or less last season -- and went 4-6 in those contests. If Notre Dame quickly makes the transition to Kelly's faster style of play on both sides of the ball -- and if Crist stays healthy -- Notre Dame could be a rousing success in Kelly's debut.
--Eight Notre Dame football players were arrested for underage drinking at a party in South Bend in mid-July. They were: LB Steve Filer, WR T.J. Jones, QB Nate Montana, OL Tate Nichols, PK Nick Tausch, WR Roby Toma, OL Chris Watt and CB Lo Wood. "Our players clearly know I'm not happy about reading about Notre Dame in the newspaper when it comes to things like this. They'll have a very short leash," coach Brian Kelly was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune.
--Notre Dame is close to reaching a deal with Texas for a four-game series, beginning in 2015, according to the Chicago Tribune. The teams have not met since 1996.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Notre Dame begins with four games in September -- Purdue, Michigan, at Michigan State, Stanford -- that really could go either way. The Irish played each team last season, going 2-2, and the cumulative point deficit was only minus-3 for Notre Dame. Would going 2-2 in September be good enough for the new-look Irish? Right off the bat, the defense will get a difficult test as Miami transfer quarterback Robert Marve is expected to debut for the Boilermakers.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Outside of the quarterback position, Notre Dame has proven playmakers at the skill positions. Junior Michael Floyd, who had 44 catches for 795 yards and nine touchdowns in only seven games last season, ranks among the top receivers in the nation. Kyle Rudolph (33 catches in 10 games) is certainly among the nation's elite tight ends. Senior running back Armando Allen isn't a breakaway threat, but he upped his per-carry average to 4.9 yards last season. If coach Brian Kelly's scheme creates more space and wears down defenses late in games, these guys have the ability to break tackles and make game-turning plays.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Notre Dame is moving to a 3-4 front on defense and must get better at stopping the run. The Irish last season allowed 195.4 rushing yards per game, ranking 96th in the nation. Whether facing a running quarterback or more of a smashmouth team, Notre Dame had trouble stopping it ... and they will face various challenges again this season. Ten starters are back on defense, and the Irish hope 300-pound DT Ian Williams and sophomore LB Manti Te'o have made the appropriate progress from last season in order to anchor the middle.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Even though he was behind Jimmy, whether it was in the weight room or the classroom or on the practice field, everybody always viewed Dayne as a leader." -- TE Kyle Rudolph, in the Chicago Tribune, on quarterback Dayne Crist.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: Brian Kelly, first year at Notre Dame; 20th year as a head coach, 171-57-2.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: WR Michael Floyd -- He has sensational big-play skills, dangerous down the sideline and on fade passes. Coach Brian Kelly also experimented in the spring with Floyd in the slot; either way, he'll be the point man for the hurry-up passing game. Conditioning will be an issue for Floyd, as it is for all the Notre Dame wideouts. But, mostly, all Floyd needs is a full season of health to be one of the nation's premier touchdown-makers.
BREAKOUT STAR: LB Manti Te'o -- He'll be in the middle of Notre Dame's new 3-4 defense, moving from an outside position in last season's 4-3. Te'o, the prize of Charlie Weis' 2009 recruiting class, had 63 tackles last season to rank fourth on the team. He looked more confident in the spring, taking on the responsibility of calling the defensive signals. Flanked by veterans Brian Smith and Darius Fleming on the outside -- and with DT Ian Williams, and ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson up front -- this looks like a potentially good Irish front.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR T.J. Jones -- The true freshman enrolled early and made a strong case in spring practice, leapfrogging several veterans on the depth chart. He made four receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, putting him in line for a starting spot alongside Michael Floyd and Duval Kamara at receiver.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP:
Offense -- QB Dayne Crist, RB Armando Allen, WR Michael Floyd, WR Duval Kamara, WR T.J. Jones, TE Kyle Rudolph, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Stewart, C Dan Wegner, RG Trevor Robinson, RT Taylor Dever.
Defense -- DE Ethan Johnson, NT Ian Williams, DE Kapron Lewis-Moore, LB Brian Smith, LB Manti Te'o, LB Anthony McDonald, LB Darius Fleming, CB Gary Gray, CB Robert Blanton, S Harrison Smith, S Jamoris Slaughter.
--TE Mike Ragone was charged May 12 with misdemeanor possession of marijuana. But he has been cleared to return to the team, giving the Irish an excellent tandem with Ragone and starter Kyle Rudolph.
--Theo Riddick was moved from running back to a receiver position this spring. The Irish needed more help at that position than running back, where starter Armando Allen returns.
--Steve Paskorz moved from fullback -- which has no role in this spread offense -- to inside linebacker in the spring to help shore up depth at that position.
The Sports Xchange's TSX Report: Notre Dame
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