2015 season preview: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Malik Zaire's progression as a passer will be crucial to Notre Dame's success in 2015. Richard Mackson/USA TODAY Sports

There is plenty of excitement this summer in South Bend, and why not? Brian Kelly's sixth Notre Dame team might just be his best. It is certainly his deepest and most experienced, as the Fighting Irish bring back 19 starters from last season's bowl win over LSU. They likely return potential All-American corner KeiVarae Russell too, after his season-long academic suspension in 2014. The defense may have struggled last season after a rash of injuries, but plenty of young players got needed experience as a result, giving coordinator Brian VanGorder plenty to work with on that side of the ball in 2015.

Best-case scenario: Malik Zaire is the answer at quarterback that Notre Dame has lacked the past five years, easing his way into the fold and slowly taking command of the huddle while evolving as a passer. The defense stays healthy and, led by a deep and talented linebacking corps, emerges as one of the best units in the country. Notre Dame wins 11 or 12 games and makes the College Football Playoff, marking the second time in four years that the Irish play for the national title.

Worst-case scenario: Zaire fails to develop as the kind of passer Notre Dame needs, making the offense predictable and, like last year, turnover-prone. The defense, save for Joe Schmidt, again struggles to execute VanGorder's attack, becoming vulnerable to big plays. The lack of a proven pass rush, along with new faces across the kicking and punting game, ends up hurting big time, especially against a schedule that leaves little room for error. Notre Dame turns in a second straight 7-5 season, and, given all that it says goodbye to after 2015, is left wondering when it will again consistently compete among college football's elite.

Most important player: Zaire. His development as a passer is absolutely key for an Irish program that has lacked elite QB play for much of the Kelly era, and his work with new position coach Mike Sanford will be crucial. With Everett Golson having departed for Florida State, there is no proven depth at the position. Zaire has shown he can run, but he needs to keep defenses honest and adjust to defensive coordinators who will have more and more film to pick apart of him. It should help that Zaire has a veteran offensive line and lots of talented skill players around him, so he shouldn't feel the need to do too much early on.

Breakout player: Max Redfield. The junior has been one of the more perplexing players on the Irish roster the past two years, having arrived in South Bend in 2013 as an ESPN four-star prospect, and its No. 2 overall athlete. But the safety struggled to adapt early on and didn't really make an impact until the Music City Bowl win over LSU, when he notched a career-best 14 tackles. If the Irish defense hopes to take the next step, it will need Redfield to continue the growth he showed in December, especially with safety depth being so thin this year.

Most important game: Oct. 3 at Clemson. Sure, there are other big games -- Sept. 19 against Georgia Tech and Oct. 17 against USC among them -- but a clash in Death Valley should prove to be the most telling for both teams, considering the playoff hopes each has. If Zaire can take a 3-1 or 4-0 Irish team into Clemson and win in one of the toughest environments in the nation, who's to say that Notre Dame can't run the table the rest of the way? If the Irish lose, well, we all saw what happened last year after an October road loss to an elite ACC team.

Class of 2015 signee to watch: This is supposed to be one name, but the offensive haul for Notre Dame in the 2015 class is worth noting for Irish fans. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush might just be the total package that coach Brian Kelly is looking for to lead the offense in the future, so it was a big deal when Notre Dame flipped him from Penn State during his recruitment. Wimbush has some big offensive weapons in this class, as well, including tight end Alize Jones, receivers Equanimeous St. Brown and Miles Boykin and running backs Dexter Williams and Josh Adams. There is a good chance most of those names will be mentioned as big contributors down the road. -- Tom VanHaaren

Class of 2016 storyline: Notre Dame has landed at least three offensive linemen ranked as four stars in each class going back to 2012 and that continues in the 2016 class as well. All three linemen in this class are ESPN 300 prospects and led by the No. 6-ranked offensive tackle, Liam Eichenberg. Notre Dame is currently sitting with the No. 21-ranked recruiting class overall, but some bigger prospects yet to make a decision could push that higher up the list. The Irish are targeting a few California prospects, as usual, including linebacker Caleb Kelly. The coaches also are waiting on a few prospects from the Southeast and Texas, so this class very well could end up as another loaded class for Notre Dame if things swing in its favor. -- VanHaaren