What We (Reasonably) KnowOur first five "known quantities" entering spring ball (linked above) featured the likely greatness of tight end Tyler Eifert and middle linebacker Manti Te'o; the depth of the defensive line; the continued ascent of defensive end phenom Aaron Lynch; and the defense's ability to dominate inferior/average offenses. Below are three more relative truths on which Irish fans can rely:
- Cierre Wood is the (game ready) key: Wood started fast last fall, amassing 584 yards and five scores over the first five games before ceding carries – and his starting spot – to senior Jonas Gray. Wood has put together a very good second half (2010) and a great first half (2011) in two separate seasons, and with a little relief from the team's bevy of backups he should compile his second straight 1,000+ yard season with another healthy 5-yards+ per carry average.
- Stephon Tuitt is the Next Star In: Aaron Lynch was last year's true breakout star, but Tuitt was on his way before succumbing to illness (BC and Stanford) and a prior suspension (at Purdue). Couple that with an ill-conceived seat on the bench (next to Lynch) for the Michigan loss and a Tuitt only played in nine games; one in which he was nowhere near full strength. The 6'7" nearly-300-pound sophomore ranks alongside 5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore as the team's most versatile defensive lineman: the sky's the limit in 2012 and beyond.
- Zack Martin will hold down the fort: Aside from a rough outing in Palo Alto, Notre Dame's left tackle did little wrong in 2011. More important, he was often spectacular, whether leading a bubble screen on boundary passes or getting 15 yards down field to spring ball carriers, Martin was, and has been for a two-year span, the best offensive lineman in the program since at least the 2005 season, and possibly since the days of center Jeff Faine in 2002. If Martin continues to improve, he won't be around for a 5th-year in 2013.
Coming Thursday: Three more things we know regarding the 2012 Irish…
What We Think We KnowThe first five items in this category included Jamoris Slaughter's importance to the defense; a stout LG/C combo on the offensive line; the likely emergence of another top tier kicker in the program, and as with the last 10 football seasons, a freshman starter added to the lineup. We also reviewed Notre Dame's legitimate chance to begin 2-0 for just the third time in the last 10 seasons.
- Louis Nix can be a 13-game rock in the middle: One year after he purportedly had trouble maintaining a proper football stance in practice, redshirt-freshman nose guard Louis Nix shed pounds and fought his way to 11 starting nods last fall. With a natural interior rotation to compliment his power and quickness, the second-year competitor should serve as the unheralded interior compliment to his better-known teammates Lewis-Moore, Lynch, and Tuitt.
- The front seven will greatly aid the new CB tandem: Limiting the run on 1st and 2nd down; a consistent pass rush push, both up the middle and from the edges; passes batted down, pockets collapsed, sacks, etc., etc. That's what Irish fans expect from the defensive front, the CAT LB position, the nickel pass rushing specialists, and All-America candidate Manti Te'o next fall. Its both logical, considering the youthful group's emergence last year, and necessary, because Notre Dame will break in a pair of cornerbacks without a single start to their credit for the first time since 1978 (Dave Waymer and Tom Gibbons).
What We Hope to Be TrueA trio of concerns kicks off our least-enticing set of questions entering spring 2012:
- OL Depth? A whopping eight of Notre Dame's 14 offensive linemen have never played a college down. Two others have played sparingly and rarely in competitive situations. While the starting trio of Martin (above), Chris Watt, and Braxston Cave bring punch, and 5th-year senior center Mike Golic a bit of experience after four starts in Cave's stead, none of the remaining Irish front wall of competitors has proven his wares on football Saturdays. At least three, if not four or five from that green group will get a taste of meaningful action in 2012.
- Searching for Theo Riddick, Part II: Running back. Slot receiver. Triple-threat. None of Riddick's roles officially took hold during his three seasons in an Irish uniform with the latter – last year's 30 minutes as a punt returner, kick returner, and slot threat – the most disappointing. Riddick is expected to return to running back this season and should hit 100+ carries in relief of classmate and lead ‘back Cierre Wood. The Somerville, N.J., native should also see time in the slot and in multiple positions across the perimeter. The next step is to see if such the shifty runner can re-audition for his lost punt return role to aid that woebegone group.
Irish fans – and likely the coaching staff – will be thrilled if he excels at any of the above. (The bet here is Riddick shines out of the backfield next fall.)
- QB Conundrum: No Irish fan should expect 23 turnovers from the quarterback position again in 2012. Which begs the question: Did you expect anything close to that reality entering 2011?
Note: More topics of discussion will follow from each category Thursday morning.