After producing a 2012 defense that ranked among the nation's best at pressuring the quarterback, Notre Dame's 2013 pass rush proved to be an unexpected team weakness. It flashed its projected form briefly near mid-season, keying wins over both Arizona State and USC, two contests in which the Irish defense combined for nearly half (8) of the squad's 17 regular season sacks.
The final tally was 21 thanks to a bowl win over Rutgers, which begs the question: if a sack occurs in a baseball stadium at noon in late-December, does anyone really care?
Regardless of your answer, the mark fell a whopping 15 short of that produced by the 2012 squad and ranks as the second-lowest total of the new millennium, beating only the 2007 squad's 19 set during a 3-9 campaign -- and the latter didn't have the benefit of a bowl game to pad its paltry total.
Entering 2014 it's clear Notre Dame will need to pressure to the passer to allow a new defensive scheme -- one that will rely heavily on man coverage -- to survive, much less thrive. And despite a dearth of proven pass rushers on the roster, head coach Brian Kelly believes he has the personnel -- and scheme -- to take opposing quarterbacks out of their comfort zone.
"We're not going to have one guy who has 14 sacks," said Kelly. "We're not going to have one singular (star) player. But we're going to have a number of personnel groupings that are going to allow us to find pressure. Now, those pressures are not always going to come from the edge. We're going to be a big speed to power group. We don't have speed rushers. We don't have (NFL sack-master) Dwight Freeney coming off the edge. But we have some guys that can go speed to power, maybe knock a (offensive) tackle back, and then maybe get a looper coming inside to get a sack.
"You're going to see them from a number of different players. It could be an inside player. It could be a safety, a linebacker."
Which leads us to Prediction No. 9 in our preview series:
At least 17 players will register a sack for Notre Dame this season.
The current record, in case you're wondering, is 16 during the 1987 season, Lou Holtz's second year in South Bend. The leader of that Sweet 16 was Darrell "Flash" Gordon, with just 3.5, tied as the lowest recorded total to lead a Notre Dame team since the sack was made an official statistic in 1982. (The 2008 squad had three players with 3.5 sacks to pace the squad.)
Since, only four Irish teams have had more than 12 players register a sack: 13 in both 1992 and 1998; and 14 in 1994 and 2003.
Each season of the Kelly era to date has featured either 10 or 11 different players recording at least one sack. That will change this year in a record-setting number.
"Our third-down packages, you'll see from (freshman) Jhonny Williams to (senior) Anthony Rabasa, to (Andrew) Trumbetti, you'll see a lot of different guys that are going to be rushing the quarterback. All of them have a skill set that Brian (VanGorder) will utilize with (defensive line) coach (Mike) Elston to analyze their strengths to get to the quarterback."
Asked specifically about Williams and fellow frosh Kolin Hill, Kelly offered, "They're third-down pass rushers. They're situational players. We're not talking about guys that are going to be on the field for 70 plays. We're talking about 15 plays. If they can give us 12-15 plays a game, really good games, fresh coming off the edge in third-down situations. Go get the quarterback-kind-of-deal -- these guys can do that."
In order (without numbers) are my candidates to register at least a half-sack sack this fall:
Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Romeo Okwara, Jhonny Williams, Andrew Trumbetti, Jonathan Bonner, Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones, Kolin Hill, Elijah Shumate, Joe Schmidt, James Onwualu, Anthony Rabasa, Cody Riggs, Nyles Morgan, Austin Collinsworth, Max Redfield.
Predicted total sacks from these 17+ players? No more than 33, as most from the list above are likely to finish with 0.5 or 1 to their credit. But over the 32 seasons sacks have been tracked, only seven Irish squads have put up 33 sacks or more.
The defense might allow more points than any season of the Kelly Era to date (Prediction No. 6 below), but a pass rush will again be present in South Bend.
Prediction No. 1: TD Scored (Topping the 50 produced in 2011)
No. 2: A Perfect September (Just four in the previous 25 seasons)
No. 3: More than 19 Defensive Starters (19 exactly last fall in an injury-riddled season)
No. 4: Nine Games "Close and Late" (A record 11 last season, Temple and Air Force the lone exceptions)
No. 5: 12 True Freshmen Play (Four previous seasons totaled 11, 9, 10, and 9 in 2010)
No. 6: Most Points Allowed of the Kelly Era (The 291 yielded last fall was the most of his four-season total to date)
No. 7: Most TFL of the Kelly Era 70 is the number to beat, and we're projecting a solid 80.