NCF Nation: Davonte Neal
But for Arizona receiver Austin Hill, spring practice feels like he's standing in front of a spectacular buffet dinner. And he's really, really hungry.
Hill was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection following the 2012 season after ranking second in the conference in receiving yards. The sophomore looked like a potential All-American in 2013 after catching 81 passes for 1,364 yards -- 16.8 yards per reception -- with 11 touchdowns.
But his 2013 season ended before it began on April 10 after he tore his ACL during the second-to-last session of spring practice.
Poof -- just like that, football was taken away, replaced by uncertainty and the daily burden -- and boredom -- of rehabilitation. That's why even a no-pads practice to start spring drills this week was invigorating.
Hill practiced with the Wildcats in a limited fashion during the final weeks of the 2013 season, but he's still not 100 percent healthy. While he's officially full-speed this spring, he's still wearing a knee brace and his explosiveness and speed are not fully back.
"That's basically the last step of ACL recovery," he said. "I'm still in those processes."
Neal and Jones both sat out last season, so Hill knows they share his hunger, while the returning starters and contributors don't want to yield repetitions. While it's a collegial atmosphere among the receivers at practice, it's also a competition for touches and position in the pecking order.
"Everyone is helping each other out on the field," Hill said. "It's fun to see athletes compete. It's always fun."
Of course, the competition at receiver figures to yield certainty -- an outstanding and deep crew of four or five guys in a regular rotation with one or two leading the way. The bigger issue is who is going to deliver the ball.
Hill laughs at the inevitable quarterback competition question, for an answer behind center probably won't be delivered until fall camp. Perhaps even late in fall camp, as it was last year.
Hill, for one, admits he'd prefer to get some clarity much sooner.
"Right now ... who knows? I just hope it doesn't end up like it was last year, where even in the first couple of games we really didn't know who the quarterback was," he said. "I want it to be a QB we know is going to start. That's the most important thing for your passing game, that receiver-QB sync. It's hard to get that sync when you don't know who your quarterback is and it's getting switched up every day."
“Of course, that's up to the QBs -- senior Jesse Scroggins, sophomore Connor Brewer, junior Jerrard Randall and redshirt freshman Anu Solomon -- and coach Rich Rodriguez, who has said repeatedly about QB competitions that he would prefer that one guy quickly and decisively wins the job.
I just hope it doesn't end up like it was last year, where even in the first couple of games we really didn't know who the quarterback was. I want it to be a QB we know is going to start. That's the most important thing for your passing game, that receiver-QB sync. It's hard to get that sync when you don't know who your quarterback is and it's getting switched up every day.” Arizona receiver Austin Hill on the Wildcats' quarterback competition.
Just don't expect it to happen this spring.
As for Hill's take, he often doesn't even know who's delivering the ball.
"The quarterbacks are getting switched around so much, sometimes it's even hard to tell which quarterback even went with my group when I went," he said. "We move so fast, I don't get to pay attention to what quarterback is throwing me the ball."
While the QBs work through their competition, Hill will be a veteran leader for the offense, back in action after a year of observing the team from the outside. When he looks around at practice at the improved personnel on both sides of the ball, he senses that the Wildcats are going to surprise some folks this season.
"I'm ready to help this team to a BCS bowl," he said. "I feel like that's where we're headed."
As Hill missed last season and is still not 100 percent, he, of course, can be forgiven for forgetting 2013 was the last season of the BCS era. His point is clear. He believes Arizona is going to be a threat in the Pac-12's South Division in 2014.
Greg Bryant, RB: Bryant will not officially enroll at Notre Dame until June 17, but he has the potential to become an immediate contributor to the Irish offense. The ESPN150 prospect form Delray Beach, Fla., was ranked second nationally among running backs, making him one of the top running back recruits Notre Dame has landed in recent memory. The 5-foot-11, 197-pound Oklahoma de-commit should get a chance to compete in a deep but untested backfield after the departures of Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood.
Malik Zaire, QB: The early enrollee drew rave reviews from the staff this spring and figures to have a shot to play this fall after the suspension of Everett Golson. The southpaw is a dual-threat signal caller from Archbishop Alter in Kettering, Ohio. ESPN rated Zaire No. 6 among quarterbacks from the Class of 2013, and coach Brian Kelly said that he will get an opportunity to compete like everyone else in camp for the starting spot.
Corey Robinson/James Onwualu, WR: Both players enrolled this spring and found themselves getting plenty of time all over the field after Neal and Ferguson left the program. The 6-foot-4.5, 197-pound Robinson, the son of hoops Hall of Famer David, has the size and speed to go up and get anything in sight on the outside, as evidenced by a deep, diving, juggling catch he made during an open scrimmage. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Onwualu should also get a chance to contribute inside immediately after displaying flashes of athleticism early.
But no teams are perfect (seriously, it hasn't been done since Auburn in 2010-11). So, with 100 days standing between us and the college football season -- and 102 standing between the Irish and their Aug. 31 opener against Temple -- we will take a look at three things the program needs to cross off its checklist this summer.
1. Find offensive playmakers: George Atkinson III bulked up this offseason and did not run for the track team to focus on adding to his workload. He is the most experienced man in an Irish backfield that lost its top two rushers from a season ago, but he will be pushed by redshirt sophomore Amir Carlisle, redshirt freshman William Mahone, junior Cam McDaniel and incoming freshman Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, both of whom are four-star prospects. The three-man battle to replace Tyler Eifert at tight end, meanwhile, will be waged among Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack and Alex Welch.
2. Integrate incoming freshmen: Bryant and Folston are two of the incoming freshmen who appear ready-made for the college level. Linebacker Jaylon Smith and safety Max Redfield figure to see time as freshmen, too. Early enrollee receivers such as Corey Robinson and James Onwualu, both of whom saw added time following the spring departures of Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson, also may see playing time.
3. Stay levelheaded. This really shouldn't be much of a problem for a program and players who seemingly always have the bull's-eye on their back, regardless of the win-loss record. Still, a renaissance 2012 campaign and a return to college football's elite will only up the ante for this group to do similar things this fall, especially with so many pointing to Alabama's title-game rout as a sign that 2012 may have been a fluke.
But now Hill is likely lost for the season with a torn ACL. What does that mean for the Wildcats?
It ain't good.
At the beginning of spring practices, you could say that the Wildcats were deep at receiver. Seven of the eight receivers on the bowl game depth chart were slated to return. But, really, a lot of that was Hill, second-team All-Pac-12, leading a group of promising young players.
Not to be Debbie Downer on this, but consider the situation now.
Hill and his 81 receptions for 1,364 yards and school-record-tying 11 TDs are gone, as are the 61 catches for 773 yards and five TDs from departed senior Dan Buckner.
Carey was the Wildcats' third-leading receiver. No. 4 was David Richards, with just 29 receptions for 298 yards and three TDs. No other returning receiver had more than two TDs in 2012.
Now, the situation isn't desperate. Far from it. There are a number of Pac-12 teams that would switch receivers with the Wildcats, even without Hill. And if Notre Dame transfer Davonte' Neal wins his appeal with the NCAA and is ruled immediately eligible, he could become a premier playmaker.
Further, there's plenty of intriguing talent with a mixture of size, speed and experience, a list topped by 6-foot-4 Terrence Miller, who won a year back due to a medical waiver from the NCAA, junior Tyler Slavin and junior Garic Wharton. The redshirt freshmen had solid springs, including Trey Griffey, Clive Georges and Jarrell Bennett. Further, as many as six incoming signees could end up as receivers.
Again, not desperate.
But Hill was a game-changer. He wasn't a burner, but his hands were as good as any player in the conference. He bailed out quarterback Matt Scott many times last year, and any ball he could get a finger on was likely to be caught.
Hill, a redshirt junior, could rush through his rehab and return sometime next fall. His plan likely was to enter the 2014 NFL draft. Now he has the option of coming back in 2014 as a senior, perhaps to buoy his NFL stock and overcome injury concerns.
But that's a future issue for Hill and the Wildcats.
The present problem for Arizona is a perceived strength now has become a question mark. The Wildcats have now become a team looking for a go-to target in the passing game.
Of course, a present Arizona receiver might see that as an opportunity, not a problem.
The former five-star prospect is heading to Arizona, his father, Luke, told ESPN's Joe Schad, citing family reasons for the departure.
Neal, who was the Irish's primary punt returner last season, was the school's highest-rated prospect from the recruiting class of 2012, ranking as ESPN's No. 1 overall athlete in his class.
The 5-foot-9, 178-pound Scottsdale, Ariz., native returned 21 punts for 46 yards last season, averaging 2.2 yards per return. He added one carry for 7 yards and one catch for minus-5 yards.
The destination of the Irish's other spring sophomore transfers, Gunner Kiel and Justin Ferguson, is yet to be determined.
The Notre Dame outside receivers coach has found himself with a smaller pool of talent to work with this spring following the transfers of sophomores Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson, forcing him to mix and match faces all over the place in hopes of finding the best solution for the Irish passing game.
"We're kind of trying to find a way to incorporate everybody that we've got available to us right now kind of in the mix, and kind of put them in some different places and give some other guys some opportunities," Denbrock said. "Anytime that you're a little bit short numbers-wise, you've got to find them somewhere. So we're not going to practice any shorter, we're not going to take any fewer reps, so we've got to find bodies to do it."
Eight scholarship receivers remain on the roster, with two more, Torii Hunter Jr. and William Fuller, on the way this summer.
Denbrock likes the two freshmen he has right now, saying that Onwualu and Corey Robinson have impressed in their short time on campus.
"Corey Robinson, everything he does that comes near him -- his catch radius reminds me a lot of Tyler Eifert in that even if the ball's somewhere on the perimeter, he's going to find a way," Denbrock said. "Great ball skills, good knowledge of the game of football, surprisingly, even though he's from a small school in Texas and is basketball-oriented maybe family-wise, but has done a really nice job.
"James Onwualu is a tough guy, physical, loves the game, plays with tremendous passion. Good skill-set. Those guys are a pleasant surprise. And when you sit down and you think -- and we talk about this sometimes when we're watching practice film -- and you go, 'This guy's supposed to be getting dressed for the prom, and here he is out here competing,' and those guys are doing a great job."
The Irish lose four of their top-six pass-catchers from a year ago, but even the returnees could see themselves spread to different spots of the field.
Senior TJ Jones, whose 50 grabs last year tied for the team lead, is a candidate to play in the slot after the loss of Neal and the graduation of Robby Toma. So, too, is converted safety C.J. Prosise.
"I'd say the jobs open for anybody, all comers," Denbrock said. "Anybody who proves they've got the ability to go in there and do something positive for our offense is going play in there. We don't obviously have as much depth as we'd like to have, so that's a great opportunity for a lot of guys to do a lot of different things and not pigeonhole themselves into one specific position, but get out there and perform and earn your reps."
"I would say probably 98 percent, something like that," the rising fourth-year junior said. "But I'll be 100 percent by the end of the spring."
The safety underwent surgery following last year's spring season to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, an injury that figured to sideline him for the 2012 campaign. That year-long wait became official when back pain that flared up in October eventually resulted in another operation, leaving him to watch the entirety of Notre Dame's run to the Discover BCS National Championship from the sideline.
"It's hard," said Collinsworth, the son of former NFL player and current analyst Cris Collinsworth. "It was a really exciting season. It was pretty terrible not being a part of it, but I liked watching my friends do well out on the field and it was a really fun season just to be a part of."
Collinsworth said that he began feeling great physically three weeks ago, and he impressed the staff in the weeks leading up to the start of spring practices.
"We had seven workouts where the coaches were involved in the conditioning elements," coach Brian Kelly said at the start of spring. "Our defensive staff feels really good. I had a chance to observe him because I wanted to see the guys that are coming back. I was really pleased with what I saw."
Collinsworth has been seen working with the second-team defense this spring upon his return, alongside Eilar Hardy. (Rising sophomore Nick Baratti has been sidelined following his own shoulder surgery.) After recording 25 tackles and forcing one fumble while playing in all 26 games throughout his first two seasons with the Irish, Collinsworth is hoping to crack the rotation of a secondary that finally finds itself with a good numbers problem, this after the unit suffered three season-ending injuries by Week 3 of last season.
The departure of Davonte' Neal has led to more opportunities for Collinsworth to field punts, too, something the Fort Thomas, Ky., native did for three years in high school.
"We lost some really good guys," Collinsworth said of the secondary. "Jamoris [Slaughter] last year only got to play a couple games when he was back at safety. And Zeke [Motta] -- that kid's an animal back there. But we've got a lot of good players that are returning, and I don't think our defensive backfield is going to take a step back at all."
As the spring departures of sophomore receivers Davonte' Neal and Justin Ferguson present another test, Kelly could have the very guy to fill at least the dual roles formerly occupied by Neal in both the slot and as a punt returner.
And yes, like unsung starters KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley before him, former safety C.J. Prosise is a convert to the other side of the ball as well, this after redshirting during his first year this past fall.
"C.J. Prosise is doing a great job," Kelly said when asked about his receiving options inside. "Really excited about C.J. You’ll see a lot of him in the spring, you’ll see what I mean. He’s been a very pleasant surprise -- that’s probably the wrong word. He’s been what we thought he could be; he’s just done it a lot quicker than we thought. And again, you’re talking about a slot receiver who's 210 pounds. Nice hands, got deceptive speed, can pull away. And then in terms of the run game, we’ve got a big guy that can do some nice things."
Amir Carslisle, who is expected to miss the next four weeks following a broken collarbone, will be another option upon his return as well.
Kelly mentioned Prosise and TJ Jones as possible punt returners as he looks to re-tool a unit that has finished 100th or worse nationally in each of his first three seasons coaching the Irish.
With another shoulder injury forcing Chase Hounshell to miss a second consecutive season, Kelly said promising Cat linebacker Ishaq Williams has started cross-training at defensive end.
"We can get him 15-20 more reps, and he's all for that," Kelly said. "So he’ll still get his Cat work and he’ll play some defensive end as well. Was really impressed with him. We put him in there on Saturday for the first time without any coaching, and he did some really nice things for us. Had another very good day today, and I promised him a visor if he continues to do that."
2. Notre Dame returned to national prominence when it got bigger and faster. It was no coincidence, as I pointed out last season, that the Irish defensive linemen came from Texas (Kapron Lewis-Moore), Georgia (Stephon Tuitt) and Florida (Louis Nix). Here’s the other side of the geographic coin: Top punt returner Davonte' Neal (Arizona) and receiver Justin Ferguson (Florida) have left the program. A year ago, defensive lineman Aaron Lynch (Florida) left. Perhaps the margin of error on national recruits is thinner.
3. For as long as I can remember, athletic administrators have sprained their wrists wringing their hands over the rising cost of college football. And yet with the announcement that FCS powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are moving to the Sun Belt Conference, the number of FBS schools will increase 127, up from 119 five years ago. That means schools are choosing to spend more money. Perhaps because they are chasing more money, too, not to mention the glue that college football can provide a campus.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Rising Notre Dame sophomore wide receivers Davonte' Neal and Justin Ferguson have decided to transfer, coach Brian Kelly said Wednesday, meaning the Fighting Irish will have lost their top-four signees from a 2012 recruiting class that was ranked No. 9 nationally.
Neal, who was the Irish's primary punt returner last season, was the school's highest-rated prospect from the recruiting class of 2012, receiving five stars from ESPN and ranking as the No. 1 overall athlete in his class. Ferguson was a four-star prospect and the school's third-highest rated signee in the 2012 class.
Kelly announced at the beginning of the spring that quarterback Gunner Kiel, the second-highest rated player from Notre Dame's 2012 class, had left the program and would transfer at semester's end.
Cornerback Tee Shepard, the fourth-highest rated class of 2012 prospect to commit to Notre Dame, had left school for undisclosed reasons just two months after enrolling, before the last spring season even began.
To read the full story, click here.
MIAMI -- The "Rudy" theme is playing over the loudspeakers. And when the Rudy theme is playing over the loudspeakers, it is usually playing late in a tight game to inspire Notre Dame to pull out one more thriller in a season full of them.
This was the case two months ago against Pittsburgh. The Fighting Irish defied everyone by winning at Oklahoma a week earlier, got off to a lethargic start against Pitt and fell behind 14. But this was Notre Dame and this was the Irish's year, and so the Notre Dame Stadium speakers blared that famous tune less than a minute into the fourth quarter. Notre Dame scored 23 of the game's final 29 points, won in triple overtime, extended its perfect campaign and marched onward.
Now the song is playing inside Sun Life Stadium, Notre Dame again needing another miracle. The Irish have just failed to convert on fourth down. Alabama has gotten the ball back. The Crimson Tide have had the ball plenty already, and they have scored every single time they have had it.
This is with 13 minutes, 20 seconds left in the second quarter.
This is with Alabama boasting a three-touchdown lead, well on its way to a 42-14 victory in the Discover BCS National Championship.
This is reality crashing down hard on a team amid a renaissance campaign, no history nor luck nor year-three magic on its way to the rescue.
"Maybe Alabama doesn't come back in the second half," an almost-resigned coach Brian Kelly says at halftime. "It's all Alabama. I mean, we can't tackle them right now, and, you know, who knows why? You know, they're big and physical; I guess I do know why. It's just that our guys have not tackled the way they have all year. We've got to go in there and we've got to get after it and play with some pride in the second half and try to get this thing closer so we can try to find a way to win."
Notre Dame gets the ball back first, and its offense finally gets something going. A 6-yard run here, a 21-yard pass there, nine more yards on a completion and here the Irish are at the Alabama 36-yard line, the closest that they have come to the end zone all night.
Everett Golson takes a shot deep down the right sideline to DaVaris Daniels, and Dee Milliner is ready to pick it off, except he doesn't. No matter, because Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix is close enough to dive and catch the tip while falling out of bounds, one more blow to a Notre Dame team that has already taken all it can handle.
Breaks? There was Davonte Neal's fumble of a second-quarter punt return bouncing out of bounds, allowing the Irish to keep the ball. Or AJ McCarron's inches-too-long throw to Amari Cooper, who had outrushed two Irish defenders and fell just shy of a ball that would have accounted for a 59-yard score and a 28-0 Tide lead.
Instead, the Tide simply scored on their next possession to make it 28-0. They rushed for 265 yards against a defense that had allowed 92 per game. They had scoring drives of 82, 80, 97 and 86 yards; Notre Dame had not allowed one longer than 75 yards entering Monday night.
"I think Coach Kelly told us before the game that there are eight minutes that are very important in the game," said Te'o, whose legendary career came to a close. "The first two minutes of the game, the last two minutes in the second quarter, the first two minutes of the third quarter and the last two minutes of the game."
Alabama scored on the first drive of the game and on the last drive of the second quarter. The Tide picked off Notre Dame in the first two minutes of the third quarter, and by the last two minutes of the game the "S-E-C" chants were making their final appearance of the night.
Just before then, a pin drop could be heard on the Irish sideline, players staring everywhere and nowhere at once, the hopes and dreams of capping this magical season with a crystal football all but officially dead for three hours now.
"Pretty darned good football team," Kelly would say, "but not good enough."
Robby Toma walked off the field first, helmet on, a stoic stride into the tunnel. Everyone soon followed, and when the locker room opened Theo Riddick was crying all by himself in front of his stall. Roommate and backfield mate Cierre Wood eventually appeared, tapping his left hand on Riddick's head every now and then for comfort during interviews. Eventually the emotions of this season and a four-year, whirlwind career gave in, and soon a towel was covering Riddick's face in its entirety.
Kelly was the last to emerge from the locker room, his mission to fulfill the third-year destiny of great Notre Dame leaders falling short, the coach stopping to thank a couple of men in orange jackets for their hospitality while a fan's cry of "Get 'em next year, Coach" faded in the background.
There were 25 teams ranked ahead of his in the Associated Press preseason poll, and there were 23 mostly unfulfilling seasons preceding this year's outfit.
Loss No. 1 came four months later than anyone had expected, and it was on to 2013 and finishing the gap-closing that the 125th team in the history of Notre Dame football thought it was so close to completing.
"There are 121 FBS schools," Kelly's boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, would say, "and we're in pretty good shape relative to all but one of them."
Then Michael Floyd returned the first punt of the Champs Sports Bowl for 41 yards, or for three more yards than Notre Dame had netted on punt returns in the 12 games prior.
Any new wrinkle to a unit that has almost exclusively featured true freshman Davonte' Neal remains to be seen -- Notre Dame has not allowed media to view bowl practices -- but Brian Kelly is not averse to throwing caution to the wind if he thinks it will help the Irish this Monday against Alabama.
"We think it’s all hands on deck for our special teams, first of all," Kelly said. "It’s a one-game deal, so certainly we could add to the personnel on our ST and we’ll probably look to do that. We have not been spectacular, but we haven’t stunk the joint up either. We just need to continue to hold serve in ST and maybe we can catch lightning in a bottle on a return or get a block, something to that effect. Our concerns are making sure we just take great care of the football and flip the field when we need to flip it."
"I’m not going to get into the specifics," he later added, when asked about personnel. "All I can tell you is that we’re going to put all guys on deck in terms of trying to get the best players on the field because it's a one-shot deal. I don’t have to worry about the next week or the week after or them getting too many reps, including ST."
Alabama, by comparison, averages 10.18 yards per punt return, good for 40th nationally. The Tide surrender 7.67 yards per return, 57th nationally.
Notre Dame is ranked 10 spots higher, giving up 7.3 yards per return.
Where do we begin? The spring, when a freshman All-America transferred to South Florida? Right after the Blue and Gold game, when the incumbent starting quarterback and a starting linebacker were arrested at an off-campus party?
How about fall camp, when one of two inexperienced starting corners ruptured his Achilles, months after a contributing safety underwent shoulder surgery that ended up sidelining him this season?
Notre Dame entered the 2012 season with questions under center, with very little experience in the secondary -- and even less when Jamoris Slaughter went down for the season Week 3 at Michigan State -- and with a schedule on deck that, on the surface, seemed as challenging as any in recent memory.
Twelve games later, the Irish stand undefeated and No. 1 in the country, awaiting their Jan. 7 date with defending champion Alabama in the Discover BCS National Championship Game. Brian Kelly has already worked his best job to date in a 22-year career that features championships at every level at which he has been a head coach.
The offense is led by a redshirt freshman quarterback who is only just beginning to realize his potential. The defense is led by a Heisman Trophy finalist who is as strong of a leader this program has had in decades, and its coordinator is one of the hottest names in coaching circles after the Irish led the nation in scoring defense.
That third-year coaching stigma around Notre Dame, the idea that something special happens in every strong leader's third year, from Frank Leahy to Dan Devine to Ara Parseghian to Lou Holtz? Maybe there is something to that, as Kelly has the Irish on the doorstep of a national title after consecutive 8-5 seasons.
Notre Dame entered the season unranked. It had dates with three top-10 teams, and five top-25 teams, with three coming on the road.
The Irish dealt No. 10 Michigan State its first blow of many this season. They turned the tables on Denard Robinson and No. 18 Michigan, a reversal of recent years. They beat No. 17 Stanford with a goal-line stand, a stark contrast in physicality between the two teams from past meetings. They won at No. 8 Oklahoma, and they won three games after that, setting up a showdown with their archrival.
USC entered the season as the No. 1 team in the country, with many of us viewing the teams' regular-season finale as a chance for the Irish to maybe play spoiler against the Trojans.
The Irish instead entered that finale as the nation's No. 1 team, with the Trojans unranked. Notre Dame won, delivering USC its fifth loss of the season.
How wrong we all were.
Offensive MVP: Tough choice, but I'll go with Theo Riddick. The senior has played all over the field during his career before finally settling into the hybrid role of running back and slot receiver. He established himself as the Irish's No. 1 back while Cierre Wood was suspended during the season's first two games, and he leads the team with 880 rushing yards and five touchdowns, while adding 35 catches for 364 yards and a touchdown. Tyler Eifert is the bigger name and will be a high-round draft pick, but his numbers became a casualty of an offense that was still developing early in the season.
Newcomer of the year: KeiVarae Russell was recruited as a running back, and he didn't get to campus until June. Then projected starting cornerback Lo Wood ruptured his Achilles tendon in camp, and Russell surged to the top of the depth chart at corner, before making an impact in his first season. He played outstanding on a big stage at Oklahoma and has made many forget that he is a first-year player.
Biggest surprise: Raise your hand if you thought, after four weeks and two yankings, that Everett Golson would be leading an undefeated Irish team at USC in the regular-season finale. The redshirt freshman quarterback's rise has been perhaps the biggest development for this Irish offense, as he has steadily grown while the playbook has steadily opened. He has become a bigger threat with his legs, has handled the bright lights well and, best of all for Notre Dame, has upward of 40 remaining college starts.
Biggest disappointment: We're getting picky here with a 12-0 team that is ranked first in the country, but there is room for improvement. How about the punt-return game, which, while not losing Irish yards the way it often did last year, has never really gotten going under true freshman Davonte' Neal, with the Irish ranking 115th nationally in punt returns, averaging 2.44 yards per return. Red zone offense, ranked 75th nationally, has room for improvement as well.
Best game: The end of the Stanford game, on Oct. 13 in Notre Dame Stadium, was out of a movie scene. Heavy rain, power against power, deafening roars from the home fans. Football at its purest element was on display, with the Irish winning their sixth game with a goal-line stand against a Cardinal team that had simply outmuscled Notre Dame in recent matchups.
1. Everett Golson withstands test: The young quarterback passed a different kind of test Saturday. Yes, one week earlier in Norman, Okla., might have been his coming-out party, but his ability to bounce back from getting curiously pulled, then recover from a potential game-changing interception shows the poise the Irish need under center. The redshirt freshman climbed another big step.
2. Louis Nix, Matthias Farley rise to occasion: Nix did not start after spending two nights in the infirmary, but he played plenty and finished with four tackles and half a sack. Farley suffered a right hand injury in last week's win and, according to coach Brian Kelly, had two plates and six screws inserted into his hand Tuesday. He practiced the next two days with a cast, which he played with Saturday.
3. Defense, for once, was not perfect: Ray Graham broke free for a 55-yard run on Pitt's first offensive play and set the tone early. Graham finished with 197 total yards and a rushing touchdown, the first the Irish have surrendered to a running back this season and just the second rushing touchdown they have given up in 2012. The Panthers took advantage of good field position and did not turn the ball over, giving themselves a good chance to win. The Irish's defense did not have its best performance, although it stepped up late and finished the day with five sacks.
4. Special teams, anyone? Kudos to Kyle Brindza for tying the game in double overtime with a 37-yard field goal. But he missed one earlier, and an extra point, though not all of it was his fault. The coverage unit gave up 25.6 yards per kick return and 19 yards per punt return, and Davonte Neal fumbled one punt and misplayed two others.