Notre Dame's players remained largely the same, but improvement was evident across the board, and it began at the top with head coach Brian Kelly and his staff additions Bob Elliott (Safeties) and Harry Hiestand (Offensive Line), and down through the ranks, from tweaks in responsibility (no staff member's overall responsibilities remained static from '11 to '12) to roles on the playing field.
Nowhere was it more apparent than among the roster's upperclassmen, where Theo Riddick, Zeke Motta, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Louis Nix, T.J. Jones, Danny Spond, Prince Shembo, and Bennett Jackson, along with all-star sophomore Stephon Tuitt, would have, in any other year and on any other team, been a prime candidate for a "Most Improved" award.
But the mythical "Most Improved" honor, and nearly every other awarded throughout college football, belonged instead to Manti Te'o, whose leap from very good to all-time Irish great keyed the 12-0 regular season and unlikely spot in the BCS Championship game.
An ascent reminiscent of Te'o's is unlikely for 2013 -- or any season -- but player improvement and development remains the cornerstone of the Kelly era, now in its fourth season and fully implemented in South Bend.
Below is a look at early -- and realistic -- expectations for improvement throughout the roster, beginning with the team's returning senior starters and likely 5th-year competitors:
5th-year Left Tackle Zack Martin: The team's best returning offensive player and captain, and among the roster's 5-6 best over each of his first three seasons, near perfection will be expected of Martin. Continuing to play at an All-America level (this time recognized as such) is the chief goal. There's not much to nit-pick on film, but Martin could improve his draft stock with more power at the point and, relevant to 2013, serving as the line's unquestioned leader on the field with center Braxston Cave no longer in the mix.
5th-year Left Guard Chris Watt: An old-school mauler in the run game, Watt began pulling (left to right) on the team's roll-out pass plays designed to buy time for quarterback Everett Golson outside the pocket. Watt performed well in this task vs. lesser defenses but looked a touch off-balance and beatable vs. the best of the best. Cleaner technique in space and occasionally in pass protection is likely an early goal. Aligned next to a new starting center, Watt might be asked to aide his pivot on double teams more this fall.
5th-year Will Linebacker Carlo Calabrese: Attack, attack, attack -- Calabrese has that down. He's likewise a near superstar in goal-to-go situations when a run between the tackles is imminent, both as a filling 'backer in the hole and, surprisingly, in a four-point stance as an extra defensive lineman. He's also a prime target for every play-action pass variation an offense can run. Calabrese will need to clean up his pass fits to become a complete linebacker in this, his fourth season as a major component of Bob Diaco's defense. Calabrese gave up touchdowns and/or crucial 4th-down pass conversions near the goal vs. Purdue, Brigham Young, and Oklahoma last fall.
5th-year Senior Will Linebacker Dan Fox: At his best (blowing up a screen vs. Stanford in overtime; breaking up a pass early vs. Michigan State and late vs. Oklahoma), Fox looks the part of a modern linebacker -- one capable of playing in space, running, covering, and tackling. He's also occasionally vulnerable to power plays, notably in his ability to take on lead blockers while remaining a tackling threat.
Senior Nose Guard Louis Nix: Nix was a solid starter in 2011; by the end of 2012, he was among the nation's best interior defensive linemen and maybe its most underrated -- a definitive "1B" to Te'o's mantle as the team's top player. In 2013 the goal for Nix is simple: be the best defensive linemen in college football, a level of play that would manifest in a dominant run defense and once again, a unit that does not allow rushing scores to most foes.
Senior Cat Linebacker Prince Shembo: Miscast as a drop 'backer in 2011, Shembo thrived as the team's Cat in '12, leading the team in quarterback hurries and finishing second to Stephon Tuitt in sacks and tackles for loss. Per my film reviews, Shembo ranked among the team's top five players heading into a Week Eight game at Oklahoma. By the end of the Alabama loss he'd been downgraded to No. 10. A top 5-6 finish this fall would be appropriate, with improved (occasional) pass coverage on the boundary but most important, stout play on the edge -- including in a BCS bowl matchup.
Senior Wide Receiver T.J. Jones: Emerged as a go-to chain-mover in 2012 after an uneven, disappointing 2011 marred by family tragedy. Jones' next realistic step is to remain the team's go-to target on third down, but also improve his red zone prowess, a potential missing element from the offense without top dog Tyler Eifert in the fold. Jones excelled after the catch last season, often gaining 5-10 extra yards post contact. He won't be a breakaway threat, but running with that abandon after every grab is mandatory if the Irish offense is to improve its total of big chunk plays.
Senior Dog Linebacker Danny Spond: Along with Te'o, a linebacker that the staff felt belonged on the field at all times last season. Spond can play corner with safety help, excels setting the edge vs. the run, and covers tight ends and 'backs in space as well as any. He appeared to have few technical flaws until the BCS Championship game where he was either sloppy in technique or had met his athletic match in such varied roles. The goal for Spond is simple: start all 13 games as a three-down linebacker, one who excels vs. the run early, then can be used in Bob Diaco's nickel schemes on third-down -- five-star freshman Jaylon Smith brings new competition to the suddenly stacked position.
Senior Cornerback Bennett Jackson: Often aligned to the boundary last season, Jackson excelled for 12 games as a tackler in space while finishing second on the squad in both interceptions (4) and passes defended (8) -- this despite reportedly playing the season with a shoulder that required surgery (since performed). For 2013, Jackson's chief area of improvement is likely man coverage -- the next step in the constant evolution of Bob Diaco's defense, one that relied too heavily on safety help in 2012 and was thus exposed by the Crimson Tide in the game that mattered most.
Like the bulk of his teammates, Jackson tackled poorly vs. Alabama; that's not indicative of his ability.
Senior Right Tackle Christian Lombard: Was definitively either the fourth or fifth most effective offensive linemen in 2012 -- its crucial Lombard ascend to at least the No. 3 spot for 2013. Posing a challenge to Watt as the line's second-best performer should be an attainable goal for the former No. 2 ranked guard prospect per Scout.com. Lombard embarked on an additional role as a pulling tackle (right to left) late in the season; he'll be required to perform those duties throughout 2013, and pass protection vs. top-level edge rushers (see: Stanford) must improve as well.
Note: Next in our "Improvement Files" the remaining members of the senior class..