What We Know vs. Think vs. Hope

Notre Dame starts spring practice in 16 days. Instead of posting a convenient 16 thoughts on the squad entering spring 2012, I figured we'd all benefit from somewhere closer to 100. Inside is the first installment of a week-long series.

What We (Reasonably) Know

To be honest, if recent Irish football history has taught us much, we technically know nothing. But Irish fans, pundits, and media can posit each of the following with a fairly high degree of confidence entering spring ball, the off-season, and August camp:

  1. Tyler Eifert and Manti Te'o are among the nation's best – The latter is destined for team captain status; the former to repeat as a first-team All America selection. The pair's return for their senior seasons brings toughness, production, heart, and most important, rare ability to both sides of scrimmage.

  2. Aaron Lynch's best is yet to come – Fans and media alike tend to anoint greatness (far) too early, but it seems appropriate in the case of Lynch, whose only surprise development over the next three seasons would be if he's not mentioned among the nation's best at his position on a consistent basis during his final 39 games in an Irish uniform.

  3. Mike Elston's defensive line is the team's top position group – A 5th-year senior leader (Kapron Lewis-Moore); a promising redshirt sophomore rock in the middle (Louis Nix); two bona fide studs entering their second seasons (Lynch and Stephon Tuitt); a classmate of the aforementioned sophomore tandem who's already fought his way on the field (Chase Hounshell), a pass-rushing specialist (Prince Shembo); a potential star (Ishaq Williams) and depth through the ranks (Kona Schwenke, Tony Springmann) make this unit the unquestioned top dog among Notre Dame's major position groups entering the spring.

  4. The Irish have a weapon in George Atkinson III – The punt return unit ranks as a two-season weakness of the Kelly regime, but the team's kick return group should again offer a spark, with the sophomore Atkinson returning as one of the nation's best.

    Little-used subs such as Justin Utupo, Chris Salvi, and Dan McCarthy (a potential 5th-year senior) return to block for GA3, as do up-and-coming competitors Troy Niklas, Bennett Jackson, Ben Koyack, and George's brother, Josh, who joined the fray at mid-season. Replacing departed seniors Steve Filer and Jonas Gray from the group that so successfully blocked for Atkinson is Job 1 for the unit heading into spring ball.

  5. Notre Dame's Defense will handle the second-tier-or-below opposing offenses – The Irish faced eight such attacks last season, the five exceptions being Michigan, Michigan State, Air Force, USC, and Stanford. Against programs that brought second tier (such as Wake Forest) or average (Florida State) offensive units to the table last season, Bob Diaco's group shined, allowing just nine total touchdowns in competitive game situations: one each vs. USF, Pittsburgh, and Maryland; two vs. FSU, Boston College, and Wake Forest.

    To the defense's credit, they performed similarly vs. one top tier attack (Michigan State), yielding one score and 13 points. In other words, gone are the days of yielding 33 to the likes of Connecticut. The next step is to remove the qualifier from this point, because three of the five top tier offenses referenced above had their way with the Irish D, be it for a quarter or a half, en route to victory last fall.

Coming tomorrow: More things we know regarding the 2012 Irish…

What We Think We Know

To be honest, if recent Irish football history has taught us much, we technically know nothing. But Irish fans, pundits, and media can posit each of the following with a fairly high degree of confidence entering spring ball, the off-season, and August camp:

  1. Jamoris Slaughter will be a Household Name – Irish fans that paid close attention last season's final seven games already know this, but Slaughter ranked among the team's top 10 overall players last fall. Beginning with an MVP effort vs. Air Force in Game Five and a standout, inspired Game Six performance against USC in which he was the team's best defensive player (Kapron Lewis-Moore was No. 2 and no one comes to mind for No. 3), Slaughter began to reinvent his role on Diaco's defense, serving as a hybrid OLB/S, the team's nickel back, and a starting safety. He has to be great for Notre Dame's defense to be the same next season.

  2. The Left Side is Set – Senior left guard Chris Watt and 5th-year senior center Braxston Cave are two of the team's three known commodities on the offensive front (more on the third, LT Zack Martin, later). Both should progress from solid starters to "Is he nationally-known?" status at some point next season. The line deteriorated without Cave as its pivot in the season's final four contests last fall.

  3. The Irish won't miss David Ruffer – This has less to do with Ruffer's surprisingly human 10 for 16 field goal kicking performance last season and more to do with replacing a kicker who drilled 33 of 40 in his career – among the best numbers in program history. Sophomore boomer Kyle Brindza and former record holder turned senior afterthought Nick Tausch will do battle this spring for place-kicking honors. One of the two should produce a standout season behind the tee next fall (Brindza will likely win the kick-off specialist job with Tausch a capable backup).

  4. A True Freshman Will EmergeMaurice Stovall in 2002; Brady Quinn in 2003; Darius Walker in 2004; *Asaph Schwapp in 2005; Sam Young in 2006; half the offense in 2007; Michael Floyd in 2008; Manti Te'o in 2009; Tai-ler Jones in 2010; Aaron Lynch in 2011…The last 10 seasons have ushered in a new era in college football, one in which freshmen are expected to start or must compete at a high level. Notre Dame will enjoy starting contributions from at least one freshman again in 2012. To be continued…

    (*Apologies for the technicality…)

  5. Notre Dame can start 2-0 – For the first time since 2008 (San Diego State and way-down Michigan at home), Irish fans aren't looking through blue-and-gold colored glasses when they suggest a 2-0 start for Notre Dame. In fact, in my estimation, just two seasons since Lou Holtz left campus have offered a similarly navigable opening slate: 1997 (they started 1-1 en route to 7-6) 2006 (started 2-0 on the way to 10-3) and 2008 in which Charlie Weis' Irish started 2-0, hit 4-1, and finished 7-6. (You could argue 2009 with Nevada then a game at unknown Michigan…but since Notre Dame has won just once at the Big House since 1993, your argument would be off base.)

    2012 doesn't offer a potential 2-0 start; it's a must.

Note: We'll have more, "What we think we know" topics for discussion tomorrow, as well as the addition of the less-enticing, far-more-sobering, "What we hope to be true" category to the mix.

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