Last week, the college football world recalibrated its expectations for Notre Dame after the indefinite suspensions of starters DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams. While their losses rob the Irish of their best wide receiver, cornerback and defensive end (and reserve linebacker Kendall Moore), head coach Brian Kelly was adamant it won't change anything.
"Expectations haven’t changed," Kelly said earlier this week. "They can’t change."
So the Irish move forward, picking themselves off the mat after another off-field academic incident significantly alters their plans. But that's life in the fishbowl of one of college football's most high-profile programs.
Tasked with a schedule Kelly called the toughest in the country last week, the Irish have good reason to hope for the best, even with an ongoing academic investigation.
That's because Notre Dame will field the most dynamic offense of the Kelly era. While the defense is filled with unproven talent and questions, there's still plenty of hope under the Golden Dome as the 2014 season begins.
|2014 Notre Dame Coaching Staff|
|Title||Name||Years with Team|
|Head Coach||Brian Kelly||5|
|Offensive Coordinator/Wide Receivers||Mike Denbrock||8|
|Director of Football Strength and Conditioning||Paul Longo||5|
|Defensive Coordinator/Inside Linebackers||Brian VanGorder||1|
|Recruiting Coordinator/Running Backs||Tony Alford||6|
|Special Teams Coordinator/Tight Ends||Scott Booker||5|
|Defensive Backs||Kerry Cooks||5|
|Outside Linebackers||Bob Elliott||3|
|Defensive Line||Mike Elston||5|
|Offensive Line||Harry Hiestand||3|
After losing both his offensive and defensive coordinator, Kelly reached out to the NFL to fill his two staff vacancies. Brian VanGorder returns to college football after spending the better part of the last decade coaching between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons.
Spending last season coaching linebackers for Rex Ryan, VanGorder and Kelly have a long relationship, with the duo reunited long after VanGorder served as Kelly's first defensive coordinator at Grand Valley State.
While Kelly gave longtime lieutenant Mike Denbrock the offensive coordinator job, he brought in Matt LaFleur to coach the quarterbacks after LaFleur worked with the Washington Redskins in the same position. Again, Kelly had a connection to LaFleur, first coaching against him as a quarterback at Saginaw Valley State and then hiring him as an offensive assistant at Central Michigan.
The rest of Kelly's staff stuck around, with neither Chuck Martin nor Bob Diaco taking any full-time assistants with them to their new spots. There have been some shifts under VanGorder: Kerry Cooks will handle the entire secondary, and veteran Bob Elliott will coach outside linebackers.
The offseason challenges weren't limited to the roster. Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock only recently rejoined the coaching staff, unable to attend the opening of training camp at Culver Academies after being diagnosed with prostate cancer and having surgery in July.
Graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy, a former Irish captain who had earned rave reviews working with the secondary, is currently undergoing chemotherapy for cancer as well, though he's still working with the team through treatments.
What to Watch For on Offense
|Notre Dame Offensive Depth Chart|
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|QB||Everett Golson||Malik Zaire||DeShone Kizer|
|RB||Tarean Folston||or Greg Bryant||or Cam McDaniel|
|WR||Corey Robinson||Will Fuller||Justin Brent|
|WR||Chris Brown||Corey Holmes||Torii Hunter Jr.|
|WR||Amir Carlisle||C.J. Prosise||Corey Holmes|
|TE||Ben Koyack||Durham Smythe||Tyler Luatua|
|LT||Ronnie Stanley||Mike McGlinchey||Quenton Nelson|
|LG||Matt Hegarty||Conor Hanratty||Collin McGovern|
|C||Nick Martin||Matt Hegarty||Mark Harrell|
|RG||Christian Lombard||Conor Hanratty||Hunter Bivin|
|RT||Steve Elmer||Mike McGlinchey||Quenton Nelson|
|K||Kyle Brindza||Tyler Newsome|
|PR||Greg Bryant||or Cody Riggs|
|KR||Amir Carlisle||Greg Bryant|
|Source: Keith Arnold|
After four seasons of talking about it, expect Notre Dame's offense to move quickly and play the type of uptempo offense Irish fans expected to see from the start of the Kelly era. That's because quarterback Everett Golson has returned, allowing the Irish to break out the spread offense that Kelly ran to great success at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
With Tommy Rees at quarterback, there was no threat of a running quarterback neutralizing the zone read before ever taking a snap. But with Golson, the Irish have a quarterback with incredible athleticism and quickness, a former North Carolina point guard recruit who led the Irish in rushing touchdowns in 2012.
Of course, the 2012 offense was more of a complementary role with Notre Dame playing in the BCS title game, thanks to a stingy defense leading the way. But Golson's ability to win while learning makes the 2014 season truly exciting—he's finally back on the field after an academic indiscretion forced him off campus for last year's fall semester.
Helping Golson will be a slew of skill position players who run two and three deep. There's no better example of that than tailback, where sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant team with senior Cam McDaniel to give the Irish one of the deepest depth charts in the country.
McDaniel led the Irish in rushing in 2013. But Folston and Bryant are stars in the making, with Folston taking charge of a crowded position group down the stretch last year and Bryant returning from a medical redshirt to serve as the Irish's designated home run threat.
Finding carries for the three backs will be key. Expect Folston and Bryant to show some explosiveness in the passing game as well, with Bryant also likely serving as the team's punt returner, another way to get the ball into the sophomore's hands.
If Daniels is lost for a significant amount of time because of academic issues, Golson will have completed exactly one catch to his entire wide receiving corps, a 50-yarder to Chris Brown.
If there's been a surprise during spring and fall practice, it's been the emergence of Brown, who looked in danger of falling behind a younger and more talented depth chart. Brown has all the talent in the world, and his chemistry with Golson during camp has him primed for a breakout season.
Sophomores Corey Robinson and Will Fuller are also counted on to do big things. Robinson is a lanky target, who at 6'4.5" is a walking mismatch with Velcro hands. Fuller was the Irish's deep threat last year, though he'll get the opportunity to be more well-rounded this season.
At slot receiver, former running back Amir Carlisle has found a home. He'll be joined by C.J. Prosise to add two more dynamic weapons to the passing game. Youngsters Torii Hunter Jr., Justin Brent and Corey Holmes all expect to see their first action this season as well.
After producing top NFL talent at tight end, with Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas all first- or second-round picks, Ben Koyack also has the ability to play on Sundays. He'll lead a position group that's had nobody else see the field, though it has plenty of promise.
Sophomore Durham Smythe is an early candidate for playing time, as is jumbo-sized freshman Tyler Luatua. Smythe will serve as a traditional tight end, while Luatua has H-back and fullback abilities. Sophomore Mike Heuerman could chip in too.
Along the offensive line, Harry Hiestand lost two-time captain and four-time Offensive Lineman of the Year Zack Martin and three-year starter Chris Watt. But a strong starting five is expected, with Ronnie Stanley sliding into Martin's left tackle job and senior Matt Hegarty getting the first chance of his career to start at left guard.
Returning at center is Nick Martin, a dark-horse All-American candidate. Fifth-year senior Christian Lombard returns healthy at right guard, while sophomore Steve Elmer moves to right tackle after filling in at guard during his freshman season.
What to Watch For on Defense
|2014 Notre Dame Defensive Depth Chart|
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|DE||Isaac Rochell||Grant Blankenship||Chase Hounshell|
|DT||Sheldon Day||Justin Utupo||Jonathan Bonner|
|DT||Jarron Jones||Daniel Cage||Jacob Matuska|
|DE||Andrew Trumbetti||Romeo Okwara||Jhonny Williams|
|OLB||Jaylon Smith||Greer Martini||Doug Randolph|
|MLB||Joe Schmidt||Nyles Morgan||Jarrett Grace|
|OLB||James Onwualu||Ben Councell||John Turner|
|CB||Cody Riggs||Devin Butler||Nick Watkins|
|SS||Austin Collinsworth||Elijah Shumate||Drue Tranquill|
|FS||Max Redfield||Nicky Baratti||Eilar Hardy|
|CB||Cole Luke||Josh Atkinson||Jalen Brown|
|P||Kyle Brindza||Tyler Newsome|
|Source: Keith Arnold|
Notre Dame's defense is a mystery. And that element of surprise will serve VanGorder's untested troops well during the season's opening weeks. Needing to replace multiple starters at just about every layer, the Irish will be forced to count on youth and inexperience while needing to stay healthy as well.
That's not to say Notre Dame's defense isn't talented. Former 4-star recruits and Top 150 prospects man just about every position in the two-deep. They are also led by two stars-in-the-making: linebacker Jaylon Smith and defensive lineman Sheldon Day.
Another star-in-the-making waits. Junior KeiVarae Russell, the Irish's most experienced defender with 26 straight starts, was primed for a big season. But he needs to hear from the university's honor code committee, which is investigating if he committed an academic crime that could cost him the season.
If there's one big area of concern for the Irish defense, it's along the front line. Assistant coach Mike Elston just produced NFL draft picks Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix but will need to pull a few rabbits out of his hat to get that type of production from anybody but Day.
Freshman Andrew Trumbetti beat out junior Romeo Okwara for a starting defensive end job. And sophomore Isaac Rochell moved into the starting lineup, with Ishaq Williams tied up in the same academic mess as Russell.
Joining Day at tackle is junior Jarron Jones. The closest thing the Irish have to a nose guard, Jones played in Nix's place down the stretch last season and is a contender for a breakout season.
The depth behind this group is a whole lot of inexperience. Freshman Grant Blankenship is the next man in at strong-side defensive end. Fellow freshman Daniel Cage backs up Jones. Freshmen Jhonny Williams and Jonathan Bonner will be asked to play key snaps as well.
Senior linebacker Joe Schmidt will be the man in the middle of VanGorder's defense, anchoring the unit. He's an unlikely starter, a former walk-on who turned down scholarship offers to pay his own way to Notre Dame.
That gamble was rewarded with a scholarship before the 2013 season, and now Schmidt's in the starting lineup as Jarrett Grace recovers from a horrific broken leg suffered against Arizona State last Halloween and freshman Nyles Morgan learns the job.
Starting next to Schmidt is converted wide receiver James Onwualu, a quick study who adds speed and athleticism as the Irish try and counter the spread teams that outflanked a rugged but less-than-speedy linebacking corps last year. When the Irish do face opponents like Stanford, senior Ben Councell, a 254-pounder capable of battling in the trenches, will get the call.
The star of the linebacking corps is sophomore Jaylon Smith. Playing the Will linebacker, Smith will see his impressive freshman statistics explode, positioned in the middle of the defense and asked to search and destroy.
There are few physical specimens in college football like Smith. Arguably the team's best cover man at 235 pounds, Smith measured in at 3.1 percent body fat, according to Sports Illustrated's Brian Hamilton, just one of the ridiculous preseason testing numbers Smith produced this August. Smith looks like a first-round draft pick whenever he decides to leave Notre Dame.
Even without Russell, the secondary is talented. But there is a lot hoisted onto some young shoulders, as sophomore Jaylon Smith will ascend into the starting lineup.
They'll be joined by a pair of fifth-year seniors, Austin Collinsworth and Cody Riggs. Collinsworth will be asked to direct the young group, while Riggs comes to South Bend after starting 26 games for Florida. The graduate transfer was a key pickup, serving as a safety net at No. 1 cornerback while Russell awaits his fate.
|Notre Dame Injuries|
|Player Name||Injury||Expected Return Date|
|Torii Hunter Jr.||Groin||October|
|Durham Smythe||Hamstring||Opening Day|
|Source: Brian Kelly|
Fall camp has been good to the Irish. Only Torii Hunter Jr. is expected to be out against Rice, with Jarrett Grace also slowly returning from his broken leg. Otherwise camp has been mostly about assorted bumps and bruises.
Tight end Durham Smythe should be ready to go after a balky hamstring, while reserve linebacker Doug Randolph is on the mend as well. The medical staff has been careful with sophomore receiver Will Fuller, limiting his reps after some leg soreness during camp.
There is no more important player for the Irish than Everett Golson. And if there's been a benefit to this recent academic brouhaha, it's that it has allowed Golson to head into the start of the season somewhat under the radar, a difficult proposition to believe a week ago.
Armed with the weapons to efficiently run the Irish offense, the kid gloves are off. After game-managing Notre Dame as a first-year player in 2012, Golson's a senior now, and this is his team. He'll be asked to run the football, throw downfield and score points by the bushel—every touchdown possible is needed as a young defense finds its stride.
After producing quarterbacks at Central Michigan and Cincinnati who put up impressive stat lines, Kelly hasn't gotten that kind of production from his Irish quarterbacks. That should change now that he's reunited with Golson.
|Notre Dame 2014 Schedule|
|Aug. 30||Rice||Notre Dame|
|Sept. 6||Michigan||Notre Dame|
|Sept. 13||Purdue||Indianapolis (Lucas Oil Stadium)|
|Sept. 27||Syracuse||East Rutherford, NJ (MetLife Stadium)|
|Oct. 4||Stanford||Notre Dame|
|Oct. 11||North Carolina||Notre Dame|
|Oct. 18||Florida State||Talahassee, Fla.|
|Nov. 1||Navy||Landover, MD (FedEx Field)|
|Nov. 8||Arizona State||Tempe, Ariz.|
|Nov. 15||Northwestern||Notre Dame|
|Nov. 22||Louisville||Notre Dame|
|Nov. 29||USC||Los Angeles|
Notre Dame's season could hinge on Michigan's visit to South Bend. Brady Hoke has beaten Brian Kelly in three of their four meetings, one of the lone feathers in the cap of the Wolverine's beleaguered head coach. The Irish have a better football team but need to end up on the right side of a rivalry that's been filled with upsets and will now go on hiatus until the two schools can find time to kiss and make up.
The annual battle with Stanford serves as another big date. David Shaw's defense may have lost some key players, but the Cardinal are expected to be a top-10 team. After their last visit to South Bend ended in a stunning overtime defeat, the early October game will likely have the Irish playing home underdogs.
Of course, no game is more daunting than Notre Dame's visit to Tallahassee, where the Irish will take on the defending national champs. Finding a way to stop Jameis Winston will be a job fit for Touchdown Jesus with the luck of the Irish—and every other good break—needing to go Notre Dame's way.
Lastly, the annual battle with USC could have serious late-season implications. First-year head coach Steve Sarkisian takes over a program filled with elite talent, but the Irish have had the Trojans' number lately, winning three of four during Kelly's tenure in South Bend after the Trojans owned Notre Dame all the way back to the Davie era.
The Irish revealed their newest Under Armour threads last week, with the traditional home and away uniforms mostly unchanged.
But the annual Shamrock Series uniforms caught the eye of many, with the Irish paying homage to the Golden Dome, a fresh take on an annual exercise that's seen the Irish wear some pretty hideous garb.
A difficult schedule and unknown defense already made predicting Notre Dame's season difficult. Throw in the potential loss of three key starters, and it's even more up in the air.
But without clarity on the situation, I'm not inclined to go doomsday just yet. So while the loss of Daniels, Russell and Williams could be as much as a one- or two-game swing, let's keep with original plans, stay calm and carry on.
The recipe is there to win 10 games:
- Handle their business. That means victories in games the Irish have to win. Namely Rice, Purdue, Syracuse, Navy and Northwestern.
- Win most of the ones they should. The Irish are going to beat North Carolina and Louisville at home but lose to Arizona State on the road.
- Get lucky and steal a couple. The Irish don't have what it takes to beat Florida State. But they're going to beat Michigan and USC—though Stanford will once again prove better, just too tough of a matchup for the Irish defense.
Ultimately that gives Brian Kelly a 9-3 regular season and a date in one of the ACC's better bowls. But if the Irish can squeak out a win against either Stanford or Arizona State, that's a 10-2 season and a date in the former BCS bowls, a successful season even if it isn't good enough for a playoff berth.
Leading the way will be All-American Jaylon Smith. Greg Bryant will be named to the Freshman All-American team for his exploits as a tailback and punt returner.
Combined with just about the entire two-deep returning, the 2014 season will put the Irish near the top of the national radar.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.