Click here for Part I and a look at the team's strengths at present.
Click here for Part II and a review of expected, though not yet proven producers for next fall.
More Questions than AnswersMyriad questions remain regarding each point highlighted below, though in the case of the cornerbacks, that's due largely to the lack of game time experience at the position more than fresh wounds from recent seasons.
- It's not the spring in their step that counts – Notre Dame found a cornerback tandem this spring with juniors Bennett Jackson and, of late, Lo Wood emerging ahead of sophomores Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown, and Cam McDaniel. The pair –and in today's game, its necessary that a third join the tandem–will be put to the test throughout the fall.
Both are expected to be reliable tacklers with Jackson to the boundary and Wood to the field (wide) side. Jackson has sprinter's speed and won over the coaching staff early this spring. Wood is technically sound, physical, but not as fast as Jackson or Atkinson, (his current backup Atkinson moved from boundary to field during April). Wood finished strong, earning the nod exiting April. But both juniors have the proving ground of September – especially in East Lansing in Game Three – before anyone outside the program can rest easily when an opposing quarterback drops to pass.
- Punt Return Unit – We'll re-hash last year's punt return team debacle during our summer previews (for those not familiar, Notre Dame didn't go, um "forward" very often after catching a punt). The spring game didn't involve opportunities for returns so no one outside the program's walls knows of progress made. Expect deposed 2011 punt returner Theo Riddick, kick return star George Atkinson, USC transfer Amir Carlisle, and yes, incumbent John Goodman to be among the lead candidates when the team reconvenes for August camp with incoming freshman Davonte Neal and C.J. Prosise immediately joining the mix.
Irisheyes.com sleepers for the position include senior Robby Toma and junior Austin Collinsworth, but none of the above is relevant if the return team blockers don't find a way to act as relative speed bumps rather than doorways for opposing tacklers. The unit has been among the nation's worst since the new regime took over in 2010.
- Oh yeah, the Quarterbacks – Incumbent Tommy Rees has started 16 games and helped the team to 12 wins over the last 1 ½ seasons. He's tossed 32 touchdown passes which already ranks sixth in the history of the program. The catch? He's thrown 22 interceptions and lost six fumbles in roughly 34 halves of football.
Catch Part II? Backup Andrew Hendrix threw two picks in just 37 attempts (both of them ill-advised, to be polite) and redshirt-freshman backup Everett Golson's purported issues are attention to detail and ball security. One of the three will likely start 2012. Raise your hand if you think anyone of the quartet (freshman Gunner Kiel included) will start the next 13 games and beyond?
- The Theory of the Dog Linebacker – First Kerry Neal, then Prince Shembo, now either Danny Spond or Ben Councell. The 2012 tandem are both better natural fits for a position that requires extensive coverage responsibilities, but neither is battle tested (Spond was on his way prior to a Week Two hamstring injury in Ann Arbor last year) and there's little doubt safety Jamoris Slaughter isn't the best man for the job anyway.
This point of emphasis is less of a knock on Spond or Councell than on the notion that a 245-pound ‘backer can cover modern tight ends and slot receivers in space with a modicum of success. (At least those that have found their way to South Bend over the last 15 years). Notre Dame's best defense will be it's nickel package next fall; the Spond/Councell trio must still perform on first, and possibly second down, much better than did their predecessors, especially the miscast Shembo (who'll be used far more as a pass-rusher this fall).
- September is on the Staff – One major program weakness Brian Kelly and his staff has rectified is the team's tendency to wilt down the stretch. Though 2011 (3-2 in November/Bowl Game) didn't offer the sterling finish of Kelly's first season (4-0), Irish fans that remember the recent past (0-4 in '09; 2-4 in '08; 2-2 in '07; and a sobering pair of blowouts to conclude the successful Brady Quinn era in '06) can appreciate that Kelly & Co. have the chops to win as the leaves begin to fall in South Bend.
But Irish fans have also grown weary of being out of the national title hunt before summer ends. Notre Dame is 3-5 in two Septembers under Kelly and hasn't won all of its September games since 2002 – the first year of the Tyrone Willingham regime.
A 4-0 start would be a tall task, but the Irish will be heavily favored in their opening pair of games, and no more than a slight favorite or underdog in the Michigan swing that follows (Spartans then Wolverines). For a squad in desperate need of momentum, a 3-1 start is the minimum allowed considering the string of peer, relatively dangerous, and superior teams that follow thereafter.
The squad must simply be better prepared for the speed and pressures of the game entering 2012 than it was in 2010-11.
Next in our spring wrap-up series: A look at new names of note for Irish fans, none of whom have started, a few of whom haven't played a down entering 2012.