99 to go

We're 99 days from kick-off. I have an Irish-related thought to ponder for each.

Last year's top redshirt-freshman was likely offensive tackle Zack Martin, with running back Cierre Wood, linebacker Carlo Calabrese, and tight end Tyler Eifert in the conversation as well. Your 2011 winner? Due to development of the upper classes, look for nose guard Louis Nix, offensive tackle Christian Lombard, and tight end Alex Welch as the only candidates for the mythical post-season honor…

Pick your top 2011 tandem: DE – Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore; CB – Gary Gray and Robert Blanton; ILB – Manti Te'o and Carlo Calabrese; or the dark horse pair at OT – Zack Martin and Taylor Dever

Senior Steve Filer vs. true freshman Ishaq Williams for the backup CAT role – it's a new era at the program…

I predicted in 2010 that Jamoris Slaughter would be the breakout defender of September, but a high-ankle sprain ended his ascent by the middle of game one – I'll stick with that prediction for the upcoming season's first month…

I think one of Notre Dame's losses this season will occur in October in South Bend, and it won't be against USC…

First freshmen to ascend to special teams starting status: Matthias Farley, George Atkinson III, Eilar Hardy, and Ben Councell. Look for a healthy number of sophomores to retain their roles on the coverage and return units…

One writer's guess: four quarterbacks take meaningful snaps for the Irish in 2011 – only two of those four do so in 2012…

Starter from 2010 most likely to become a backup during 2011? I'll go with safety Zeke Motta, who has the best player in competition among the team's backups in senior Jamoris Slaughter – who actually won the initial starting job last August…

9 – IrishEyes selected the team's tight end unit as the best group from scrimmage in 2010 (Field goal was the obvious #1 with coverage groups #2) – which means in retrospect, tight ends coach Mike Denbrock hasn't received enough credit here (or elsewhere). He lost one of the best tight ends in school history, his #2 (Mike Ragone) struggled as a pass-catcher, yet the group as a whole was better than in 2009 (or 07-08)….

Then again, Mike Elston coached the #1 and #2 units, as well as our #5, the defensive line – so we'll call it a draw between the two for the best assistant effort of 2010….

Notre Dame's three worst statistical categories last season were the punt return unit (#100 out of 120 teams); the rushing offense (#92) and total tackles-for-loss (#77 overall) – look for all three to improve with the punt return group showing the greatest statistical leap in 2011's final listing…

The team's three best statistical categories in 2010 were its scoring defense (#23), its pass efficiency defense (#25) and its passing offense (#34) – look for only the latter to drop a bit in Year 2 of the Brian Kelly regime as the category measures only passing yards – Notre Dame will consider running the ball before November this season…

2007, 2009, and 2010 each featured three-game losing skids while 2008 saw the Irish drop four of five…I'd bet a hefty sum neither will occur in 2011…

Bob Diaco's defense will approach – but not quite top – the program's best scoring defense of the last decade: 16.7 ppg allowed in 2002…

I was one returnee off in my 5th-year predictions for the 2011 season (predicted seven, six of seven returned with Matt Romine the exception), so I'll take a shot at the group for 2012: 5th-year returnees will include Crist, Lewis-Moore, Cwynar, Cave, Slaughter, and Hafis Williams

Is there a Brian Smith in this senior class? A player who blossoms into a legitimate force (whether for a month or longer) after periods of inconsistency? What about Dayne Crist: November 2011?

Statistical head-shaker: senior Jonas Gray has yet to score a collegiate touchdown. Former Irish tailback James Aldridge suffered from a similar dearth from pay dirt (he never scored a touchdown in South Bend during an injury-plagued career) though Aldridge broke a 23-game scoreless drought with three TD over a six-quarter span in 2008…Gray will score by Week Three this year – and it won't be his last en route to a solid final season as a full-time backup to Cierre Wood…

18 – Statistical head-shaker Part II: The Irish haven't won five straight since 2006 – they'll win six straight in 2011…

It's not that I prefer Rees to Crist, but I think I prefer Brian Kelly's adjustment with Rees on the necessary read-option keeper in which Rees rolls 2-3 steps and throws to the near side, rather than Crist's runs designed to keep the defense honest. Everett Golson, on the other hand…

If Crist improves his downfield recognition on the move, he's the easy choice to start Week One…

August battle to watch: Kona Schwenke vs. freshman Stephon Tuitt for the final two-deep spot at defensive end – that's serious developing death among the younger classes…

I think former Irish cornerback and Scout.com 4-star recruit Raeshon McNeil would have benefited greatly from the current coaching staff – namely the tutelage of Kerry Cooks and Chuck Martin…

I wish the program still released the players' 40-yard-dash times from winter conditioning – the numbers made for great off-season fodder for diehard fans back in the 80s and early 90s…

On a related note: reported 40-yard times for high school kids can range from occasionally accurate, to questionable, to outright lies…

I'd like to see incoming DB/WR prospect Matthias Farley remain in the defensive backfield from June through Thanksgiving, even if his future is on the other side of scrimmage – the Irish are one CB injury away from needing serious 2011 help at the position…

There was but one technical player defection for Brian Kelly's program after Year One (Nate Montana), though Spencer Boyd and E.J. Banks were also casualties prior to the first game of 2010 – expect a minimum of three more by this time next spring. It's the natural order of things for both successful and struggling football programs…

27 – I said it last September and I'll say it again: Mike Elston will be the first assistant on the staff to take a head coaching job. He's exceptionally well-versed in the game and would dominate the interview process…

In 2011, defeating Air Force will be a far tougher task for Notre Dame than will snapping Navy's recent hold on the Irish …

If I could go back in time and preserve eligibility for one true freshman from Charlie Weis' final team, it would be Zeke Motta – the versatile safety would have been a heck of a 5th-year player in 2013; then again, Theo Riddick wouldn't hurt, either (Te'o would never need a 5th)…

I believe Darrin Walls has the best chance of ending up on an active NFL roster among Notre Dame's host of undrafted seniors…

The top player from the past four years that I'd like to add to the 2011 squad? Golden Tate, of course. After Tate I'd choose Jimmy Clausen, David Bruton, and Trevor Laws (D-Line depth notwithstanding – there's assumed depth, then there's dominance)…

Same scenario but from the 2005 Irish (Weis' first season): Brady Quinn (#1), Jeff Samardzija (#2), Victor Abiamiri (#3) and Tom Zbikowski at #4 (solves the issues at punt returner, too boot) …

Players I'd like to add to the 2011 roster from the 1998 squad (Bob Davie's best team): Jarious Jackson (#1), Jarious Jackson (#2), Jarious Jackson (#3) – and Autry Denson, of course…

Four players will complete touchdown passes for the Irish in 2011 – three will be quarterbacks…

Look for the 2011 safety trio of Slaughter, Motta, and Harrison Smith to rotate regularly as did the 2010 cornerback threesome of Walls, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton – the Irish defense will be (much) stronger in November if Harrison Smith is at full strength on the back line…

36 – First freshman name to be called in 2011? George Atkinson on the season's opening kick…

Manti Te'o's three-year progression – hitter, confused linebacker, legitimate linebacker, lethal linebacker, force, Butkus Finalist, First-round pick…

Player guaranteed to be "worse" in 2011? David Ruffer, because if not, he's an all-time college football great…

Player I guarantee will be much better in 2011 than 2010? Trevor Robinson

If I could choose one player from both sides of scrimmage to ascend to All-America status in 2011 I'd go with Sean Cwynar and Cierre Wood – Wood has the team's most realistic shot among those not generally mentioned for the honor…

There's been recent chatter about sophomore Danny Spond "returning" to an inside role in the future – I think he's found a natural home at DROP linebacker and his inside listing was a formality last fall. Spond was never a true two-deep inside linebacker…

Has any player fallen further over the last calendar year than senior linebacker Anthony McDonald? Three injuries since last August truncated his brief ascent to starting status opposite Te'o inside – I'd like to see the athletic, affable defender reclaim a two-deep role and work his way into the mix my the season's second half…

I think the Tai-ler Jones/Robby Toma duo in the slot is the most recent example of Brian Kelly's ability to extract the most possible production from multiple players – there's no reason to bury Toma behind Theo Riddick all season, and the still-growing Jones will benefit greatly over the next 13 games from a few less snaps as well – he could become a tough cover inside…

No Irish player averaged more yards after the catch than did Toma last season – if he can repeat that feat with 30 receptions rather than 14, the Irish offense will be a nightmare for opposing zones…

45 – Jones is joined by linebacker Carlo Calabrese as two starters who should be exceptionally hungry to re-establish themselves after missing Notre Dame's triumphant November with injury issues. The pair ranked among the team's top 10 performers over the first five weeks of the season, but few remember a 2-3 squad's consistent contributors…

Ready yourself for a two-year, three-headed monster at nose guard: Sean Cwynar, Louis Nix, and Hafis Williams – Nix will remain to lead the new crop into 2013…

Best hands on the team – I'll weigh one assistant's observations along with my own: Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, T.J. Jones/Theo Riddick – Toma needs to be more consistent catching the ball (and his publicized spring game drop has little to do with that assessment)…

Sophomore tight end Alex Welch will join the quartet above at this point next season…

Not many would have predicted in the summer of 2009 that redshirt-freshmen John Goodman and Deion Walker, and incoming freshman Shaquelle Evans would have produced one collegiate touchdown reception among them entering the 2011 season…

Can Goodman match his career reception total (21) this fall? Walker could increase his by a factor of 10…

Most important (projected) No. 3 in the rotation: Aaron Lynch (DE), Zeke Motta/Jamoris Slaughter (S), Hafis Williams (NG), or Danny Spond (OLB)?

Most important No. 3 in the (offensive) rotation: Christian Lombard (T), Alex Welch (TE), or George Atkinson (RB)?

Don't look for any of the team's incoming freshmen offensive line prospects to letter in 2011 – while Kelly favors playing freshmen, the offensive front is one place he favors a developmental season rather than strict backup duty…

54 – On a related note, the Irish featured eight regulars and ten total offensive line contributors last fall; look for those numbers to remain intact with Mike Golic the 8th – and sophomore Christian Lombard the 7th in 2011…

Note: Thoughts #55 through #99 are forthcoming…


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