By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: Another lackluster season in 2009 meant the end of the Charlie Weis era at Notre Dame. Perhaps his fate was sealed as early as a week
two loss at Michigan, when Weis called for two pass plays late in the game
while trying to preserve a three-point lead. Those passes fell incomplete, and
Michigan took over possession and marched down the field for the game-winning
touchdown with 11 seconds remaining.
However, the players responded well from that heartbreaker, notching
consecutive victories over Michigan State, Purdue and Washington before coming
up just short against then sixth-ranked USC. Once again, the Irish bounced
back, knocking off Boston College and Washington State in the following weeks.
However, the season would end on a sour note, as Notre Dame dropped each of
its final four contests, all by seven points or less.
OFFENSE: New head coach Brian Kelly brings the spread offense with him from
Cincinnati. Unfortunately for Kelly, Jimmy Clausen is no longer around to run
it, nor is star wideout Golden Tate. Junior QB Dayne Crist got a taste of
action last year, though he is largely untested. It's one thing to learn the
intricacies of a new offense in spring practices, it's another to execute it
while under fire from a hungry defense. If he falters, rest assured fans will
waste little time calling for his backup, Nate Montana, son of Notre Dame
legend Joe Montana.
In the backfield, it's time for senior Armando Allen to step up his game after
rushing for 697 yards and three scores in an injury-plagued campaign. If not,
there are a stable of backs behind him waiting for their chance. Junior
wideout Michael Floyd (44 rec, 795 yds, nine TDs) and junior tight end Kyle
Rudolph (33-364-3) return from an offense that ranked fifth in the FBS in
Along the offensive line, only one starter from last year is slated to return
to his position, senior left guard Chris Stewart.
DEFENSE: Defensively, Notre Dame will operate primarily in a 3-4 scheme. After
switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 last year, the Irish surrendered 26 points and
nearly 400 yards per game, prompting a move back to the base defense Notre
Dame operated the previous two seasons. It's also the same defense Kelly
oversaw at Cincinnati, where the Bearcats ranked 10th in the FBS in sacks.
Personnel-wise, Notre Dame returns almost every starter from a year ago. Now,
the only question is can their natural progression coincide with a new scheme?
Senior nose guard Ian Williams has played in every game of his career, while
junior Ethan Johnson, who started 11 games at defensive tackle last year,
slides back to his natural position at defensive end.
Inside linebacker Manti Te'o ranked fourth on the team with 63 tackles (5.5
TFL) last year as a freshman, and he'll be counted on to provide leadership
now as a sophomore. He'll team with senior Brian Smith (71 tackles) in the
middle, while junior Darius Fleming could flourish on the outside after
racking up 12 tackles for loss.
The pass defense was a sore spot last year, and it will be largely the same
personnel trying to get the job done this season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Theo Riddick will again handle the kick return duties after
averaging 22.9 yards and setting a school record with 849 return yards a year
ago. Junior wideout John Goodman returned a handful of punts last year, though
he has some big shoes to fill in replacing Golden Tate as the primary option.
Sophomore kicker Nick Tausch is back after setting a school record by making
14 consecutive field goals. Sophomore punter Ben Turk has a big leg, but he
must improve his consistency and directional kicking.
OUTLOOK: Nobody seems quite sure what to expect in year one under Kelly. The
head coach is ready put all the talk aside and get to work.
"We've analyzed, we've looked at the roster, we've talked about the
expectations," Kelly said at the outset of camp. "Now it's about doing. It's
about getting the job done."
The Irish lost some offensive sizzle, and they weren't very stout defensively.
But sometimes all it takes are some fresh ideas to turn the corner. Then
again, it is asking a lot for the players to learn new systems on both sides
of the ball. And given the looming schedule, Kelly and the Irish won't have
any time to dip their toes in the water. Notre Dame kicks off the year with
three straight matchups against Big Ten competition. Following that stretch,
the Irish are home against Stanford, then at Boston College, and home against
Pittsburgh. They'll close out their schedule at USC on Thanksgiving weekend.
Even for a BCS favorite, that's not an easy road to navigate.