There aren't many entities in sports, professional or otherwise, more popular or successful than the football team at Notre Dame.
Boasting a fan base nearly as rabid as those from rival European soccer teams, and having been credited with 96 All-Americans, seven Heisman Trophy winners and 11 [recognized] national titles, the Fighting Irish have pretty much cornered the market on both tradition and excellence.
The program's heyday was between 1924 and 1949, as Notre Dame won seven national championships under the tutelage of such legendary mentors as Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy. Ara Parseghian led the Irish to two crowns (1966 and 1973), while Dan Devine won a national title as well (1977). Another 11 years would pass before Lou Holtz directed the team to its last championship, meaning that it's been nearly two and half decades since the Golden Domers have been declared the undisputed No. 1 team in the land.
Since Holtz, Notre Dame has been coached by the likes of Bob Davie (1997-2001), Tyrone Willingham (2002-04), Charlie Weiss (2005-09) and most recently, Brian Kelly (2010-present). Kelly's no-nonsense approach has led to consecutive 8-5 seasons and a split of the team's two bowl appearances, and while both campaigns wound up in the black, the Irish faithful demand greatness so the heat is certainly mounting as he embarks on his third year at the helm.
The Irish certainly had some playmakers on offense last season, most notably WR Michael Floyd (100 receptions, 1,147 yards, nine TDs), TE Tyler Eifert (63 catches, 803 yards, five TDs), and RBs Cierre Wood (217 attempts, 1,102 yards, nine TDs) and Jonas Gray (114 carries, 791 yards, 12 TDs). And despite some questionable decisions (both on the field (14 INTs) and off (recent arrest)) and issues with consistency, even QB Tommy Rees put up decent numbers (269- of-411, 2,871 yards, 20 TDs). The loss of Floyd as an NFL Draft first-rounder is huge, but Kelly hopes this year's offensive unit will be every bit as potent with Eifert playing a bigger role, the RBs continuing to pile up the yards, and even Rees honing his skills. That is of course, if he is the starter when the Irish open the season against Navy in Dublin, Ireland on September 1.
It appears as if Rees is in a tight battle with the athletically-gifted Everett Golson, who has all the skills to develop into a top-notch signal-caller, but needs to improve his decision-making dramatically if he hopes to be the next great UND quarterback. Additional pressure is expected to come from big-time recruit Gunner Kiel, although the optimal scenario has him vying for the starting job a year from now.
Kelly spoke with guarded optimism about the quarterback situation following the annual Blue-Gold spring game in late April, "I think there were some strides made, but clearly we're not there yet. We've got a lot of work to do with all the quarterbacks to get them to the level that we want. And we have a high bar set for them."
Regardless of who lines up under center, the RB tandem of Wood and George Atkinson III should prove more than capable of carrying their share of the load. Atkinson was particularly impressive in the spring game, rushing for 124 yards on 15 carries, while Wood finished with 52 yards and a TD on only five totes.
The versatile Theo Riddick (38 receptions, 436 yards, three TDs in 2011) will surely command more attention now that Floyd is gone, and he led all pass catchers in the spring game with eight grabs for 63 yards and a TD. But make no mistake, Eifert is expected to be the guy opposing defenses will need to account for on just about every snap as the 6-6, 250-pound senior has all the makings of an NFL first-round draft pick himself after setting the school's single-season record for receptions and receiving yards for a tight end last year.
Despite not knowing exactly who will be throwing him the ball this season, Eifert is excited about the unit's potential, "We have a lot of playmakers and a lot of talent in different positions. We just have to put it all together", He continued, "When we're all on the same page and communicating and know what we're doing and executing what we know how to do, we can be a good offense."
With regard to his defense, Kelly knows the unit as a whole must play better than it did last season when it allowed nearly 21 ppg and accounted for only 14 turnovers. The Irish really showed signs of wear late in games, yielding a total of 119 points in the fourth quarter, which was more than they gave up in the second and third quarters combined (97).
Safety Harrison Smith (90 tackles, 10 PBU) was taken by the Minnesota Vikings in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, but that still leaves standout LB Te'O Manti to wreak as much havoc as he did last season when he led the team with 128 tackles, 13.5 TFL and registered five sacks. Manti, a finalist for the Butkus Award last season and clearly one of the top defensive players in all of college football, won't be alone in his pursuit of the ball this year as guys like DEs Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt, LBs Anthony Rabasa, Jarrett Grace and Ishaq Williams, CB Lo Wood and S Jamoris Slaughter, most of whom received high praise from Kelly after the spring game, all have the talent to help the Notre Dame defense limit the opposition's effectiveness when it has the ball.
This should be a very interesting year for the Irish as they will play yet another challenging schedule, taking on among others, Michigan State, Michigan, Miami, Stanford, BYU, Oklahoma and USC.
Kelly is optimistic that the work his team puts in now will pay off in the end, "It's really the attention to detail. The little things that matter the most. Our guys are going to have to work at that over the summer. If they do that, when we get into preseason camp, we should be in a pretty good position."