#1 -- Secure TuittCan Irish head coach Brian Kelly make it four out of five?
In 2010, junior tight end Kyle Rudolph left South Bend with a season of eligibility on the table following Kelly's first season at the helm.
Juniors Michael Floyd (2011), Tyler Eifert and Manti Te'o (both 2012), chose instead to stay. Each member of the quartet was eventually selected among the first 34 picks of their respective NFL drafts.
Rudolph's loss was mitigated by the presence of Eifert (though imagine THAT two-tight end set!). The return of Floyd did not technically improve the 2011 Irish -- they finished 8-5 as did their predecessors. And to be frank, it was a less-inspiring 8-5, to boot.
One year later, Eifert and Te'o proved to be the two best players on Notre Dame's title-contending team. Their respective returns provided the program with the modern-boost it desperately needed.
Current junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt is Kelly's 2013 version of a "six-star recruit," the massive playmaker's eventual choice to stay or go likely impacting the 2014 defensive front, defense as a whole, and it can be argued the team's final record and prospects for title contention.
Like Rudolph, Floyd, Eifert and Te'o before him, Tuitt's name has been submitted by Kelly for draft evaluation, a fair process that allows student-athletes to make an informed decision regarding early NFL entry.
Blessed with unique athleticism, the 6'6" 300-plus pound Tuitt will doubtless receive a first-round grade evaluation.
What could keep him in South Bend? Three semesters remaining in pursuit of his college degree and the likelihood that he could be a top five overall pick should he remain at Notre Dame and play up to his expected level next fall -- this after a 2013 season that was, inarguably, below his previous standard set as a sophomore in 2012.
If Tuitt returns, Notre Dame's 2014 defensive front evolves from a collection of young hopefuls to impact unit.
#2 -- Next Men InThe loss of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was a blow to the defense. The loss one week prior of offensive coordinator Chuck Martin was as well.
Martin is a well-rounded, veteran football coach. Outside of the quarterback position, Martin is equipped to handle any role asked from his head coach. And 2014 defensive coordinator likely would have been next on his docket. Defense is Martin's bread-and-butter (former Irish safety and NFL first-round draft pick Harrison Smith notes Martin as the key to his development from college *Jag to NFL starter.)
Instead, Martin will take over a reclamation project in Oxford as the head coach at Miami (Ohio).
Diaco's lead role at Connecticut will be equally challenging. So too will be replacing a coordinator in South Bend that guided Irish defenses ranked #23, #24, #2, and #31 during his four seasons. (Notre Dame had the #63-ranked scoring defense prior to his arrival.)
Five of Brian Kelly's nine initial hires are no longer in the fold (three are head coaches elsewhere, another a co-coordinator), including his most decorated in Diaco and most versatile piece in Martin.
Kelly's next two hires are crucial to the second phase of his Irish tenure. Challenges to that end include managing the expectations of co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks and 10-season Kelly assistant coach Mike Elston.
The same challenge exists on the offensive side of scrimmage where three assistants, passing game coordinator and long-time Kelly aid Mike Denbrock, running backs coach (and recruiting coordinator) Tony Alford, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand (a former coordinator) have each earned the right to interview for the job.
Two new hires are essential, but Kelly's decision to position the new blood as coordinators in leadership roles, or as position coaches will have to be handled with a deft hand -- and with the program's well-being paramount to the process.
(*Jag: 'Just Another Guy' -- The term Smith offered on his status prior to Martin's tutelage that began in 2010.)
#3 -- Next Kids InTwenty-three high school seniors are currently pledged to the Irish. Twenty-two have -- at least as reported -- qualified for admission to date.
That leaves three, potentially four, and according to Kelly, as many as five more prospects as possibilities to help fill out the 2014 roster.
"We're capable of taking 27. Whether we get to 27, I don't think we're going to get to that number," said Kelly when asked specifically about the numbers game that awaits (including medical casualties and transfers from the current team as well as fifth-year students).
A 25-player class that includes two (or if the recruiting gods are on Notre Dame's side, three) from yet-to-decide prospects such as linebacker Nyles Morgan (Crete, Ill.), wide receiver/safety Juju Smith (Long Beach, Calif.), wide receiver Michiah Quick (Fresno, Calif.), slot/receiver/athlete Charles Nelson (Daytona Beach, Fla.), and/or tight end Dallas Schultz (South Jordan, Utah) would position the Irish well, both for impact players in 2014 and into the aforementioned "Second Phase" of the Kelly era.
#4 -- Don't Lose to RutgersYou want an unnecessary New Year's headache as a head coach? Lose as a two-touchdown favorite to bowl fodder Rutgers.
You want fan base consternation and angst? Post final records of 8-5, 8-5, 12-1, and 8-5. Not hard to discern the outlier in that pattern.
You want heat? Play in a bowl similar to the Sun Bowl or Pinstripe Bowl again in the near future.
(But that's a story for another season…)
Beat Rutgers, preferably with little cause for pause in the final quarter, and the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl will be considered a success -- then never talked about again.