NCF Nation: Everett Golson
But with Golson back -- 15 pounds heavier and seemingly much more mature after spending two months with well-known quarterback coach George Whitfield Jr. in San Diego -- it is finally all in for Notre Dame. Its fan base has been anxiously awaiting the offensive theatrics that a Kelly team last displayed five years ago at Cincinnati, and the most important component to that is Golson.
"Absolutely," Kelly said, speaking about the quarterback position, specifically. "Your offensive line has to play well; it has to protect the quarterback. We've got to run the ball effectively, take care of it. But I think we all know college football and where it is: The quarterback is really going to be the centerpiece of this offense and the way we run it. It's going to fall on him.
"We all live in the same world when it comes to the Notre Dame quarterback. We're going to heap a lot on this kid's shoulders. And he knows that. That's why he came back to Notre Dame, because he wants that. Clearly, he's going to be the one that drives this for us."
Replacing the top protectors of Golson (and every other QB of the Kelly era) is paramount, as stalwarts Zack Martin and Chris Watt are gone after manning the left side of the line so well together for more than three years.
Finding reliable weapons in a passing game down its top three pass-catchers from last season is important, too. (One of those targets, DaVaris Daniels, is expected back this summer after making a Golson-like academic gaffe.)
Defensively, potential first-round picks Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix are gone, as are three of the four starting linebackers. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco -- along with offensive playcaller Chuck Martin -- are gone, and longtime college and NFL veteran Brian VanGorder brings aboard the potential for a more aggressive defense, which should complement a much more aggressive offense.
A running game that lacked punch at times last year will be greatly strengthened by the dimension presented by Golson's legs, which he says got quicker despite the added weight.
It is weight his body and mind are ready to carry as he looks to bring Notre Dame's offense to a place it has longed for.
"I think if leadership ability is in you, it'll show eventually when you're called on," Golson said. "I think only being a freshman, I was still leading to a certain extent. I think now it's more heightened, I would say, because our team is so young this year. But it's been great. That's the spot that I want to be at and I was kind of born to be at, I would say, in a sense. So when it happens, leadership steps to the front."
For the first time in what felt like a long time, the fifth-year Irish coach enjoyed a relatively drama-free signing day. His 22 verbal commitments going into the day all delivered on their word without any extracurriculars, and he even added an early-morning surprise from four-star defensive tackle Daniel Cage, giving the Irish their second win over Michigan State since September and further beefing up a class that finished with more linemen (12) than every other position combined (11).
"When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a national championship," he said. "If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players because I don't want guys to come here and not finish their degree. I want guys to come to Notre Dame, get their degree, help us win a national championship and be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. That's what I want, if that's what they want."
No, this is likely not a coincidence in light of the early NFL departures of Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III, the first Irish underclassmen in the Kelly era to leave school without their degrees since Kyle Rudolph back in Year 1. And this does not exactly vibe smoothly with the program's "Pot of Gold" initiative that made headlines recently when Notre Dame sent packages to recruits containing 477 letters -- one for every draft pick to come out of Notre Dame.
But Kelly was deliberate from the get-go. He was cocksure. His was a seasoned voice speaking after four years at one place, having weathered the sleeplessness that accompanies a national title game appearance, four underclassman departures, and a number of defections and suspensions in what is quickly turning into a long Irish tenure.
And on a day when positivity and hyperbole reigned across the college football world, Kelly allowed for some genuine self-evaluation. He said he had to do a better job of educating his players on the NFL. He conceded that he had not initially cast a wide enough net when evaluating prospects on the defensive line, the unit that took the biggest hit after the 2013 season. He might have cut the sales job short for the sake of simply coaching his football team, comfortable and confident in what he wants and what it takes to win big at Notre Dame.
This Irish recruiting class, ranked 11th by ESPN RecruitingNation, is not his best. It's not nearly as good as last year's, which was ranked fourth before losing a top-10 player in the country. Nor is it as good as consecutive ninth-ranked classes in 2012 and 2011, which ended up seeing five of its top players move on to different schools.
The ranking mattered little to Kelly or his staff. They had already taken their third Irish team to a perfect regular season two years ago with somewhat of a hodgepodge cast of characters still finding their way on their respective sides of the ball. They likely believe that, if not for a gross academic oversight by Everett Golson, they could have been bound for potentially bigger and better things this past fall.
So what if this year's haul lacks a five-star phenom. So what if it features eight three-star prospects.
"I just was a little bit too narrow-focused on where we were with our defensive line, and I needed to just be a little bit more -- I needed to change my view of how we recruited defensive linemen and open it up a little bit more," Kelly said. "It was strictly a decision that I needed to make. We did it a little late, and we were fortunate that we were able to get two very quality defensive linemen late in the cycle here, but we've made that adjustment in our profile."
The adjustment paid dividends through the signing day fax from Cage and through a trio of three-star newcomers who committed in the previous three months: Jhonathon Williams (November), Kolin Hill (December) and Peter Mokwuah (January).
These were hardly highly sought-after prospects, at least by Notre Dame's usual standards. There probably isn't a Tuitt walking through that door. But Kelly has learned better than to allow a departure like that one change a season's outlook, showing enough faith in his player-development process -- and in an oh-so-close-to-being-filled roster, now at 84 scholarships -- to secure a foundation for years to come.
"I think if you really boil it down, it's about the front seven and the offensive line," he said. "Yeah, there's some great skill players that I'll talk about, but you're winning up front, and building that depth in the front seven and the offensive line really stands out in this class, and then having some really good players across the board for us."
If that's not going to jump out on brochures, so be it. Notre Dame has an identity, and its leaders show enough resolve to push the envelope with a class that's smaller in stars but tailored in fit.
2. What strikes me about Carroll’s double is how few men who won a national championship even tried to coach in the NFL. Beginning in 1936, when the Associated Press began its poll, I counted 15: in addition to the four coaches above, add Dan Devine, Dennis Erickson, Lou Holtz, John McKay, John Robinson, Bobby Ross, Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Gene Stallings, Jock Sutherland and Bud Wilkinson.
3. It’s early, I know, but Notre Dame is already shaping up as one of the most interesting stories going into the 2014 season. Quarterback Everett Golson is back, but the anchor of the defensive line, nose tackle Louis Nix III left early for the NFL, and coach Brian Kelly has new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Not to mention slipping from 12-1 in 2012 to 9-4 last season. This will be Kelly’s fifth season in South Bend. The last coach employed at Notre Dame for more than five seasons? Lou Holtz (1986-96).
Notre Dame finally pulled away from Rutgers to escape Yankee Stadium with a 29-16 win Saturday in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Here's how it went down:
It was over when: Tarean Folston punched it in from three yards out with 3:38 remaining to make it 26-16 and give Notre Dame some much-needed breathing room. Redshirt senior Dan Fox picked off Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd on the ensuing drive to effectively seal the game. Kyle Brindza added a 49-yard field goal to make it 29-16.
Game ball goes to: Folston was named the starter by coach Brian Kelly earlier this week. Before the game, Kelly issued a statement saying that George Atkinson III (and cornerback Jalen Brown) would not play due to a violation of team rules, which Atkinson tweeted (and then deleted) was him texting during a team meal. In any event, Folston took advantage of Atkinson's absence and might have gained the front-runner status for the starting running back job heading into next season. He capped his rookie year with 73 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, adding three catches for 21 yards. Kudos to Cam McDaniel for being his reliable self, as he had 17 carries for 80 yards and added three catches for 29 yards. The duo did this behind an offensive line missing its three regular interior starters.
Stat of the game: Pick your poison: Notre Dame completely outdid Rutgers in first downs (31-16), total yards (494-236), takeaways (4-1) and time of possession (38:16-21:44). It is hard to imagine how the Scarlet Knights managed to stay in this game for so long (19-16 with four minutes left).
Unsung hero: Brindza connected on 5 of 6 field goal attempts on what was an uneven surface, helping Notre Dame put up points whenever its offense could not punch it in. That was two field goals clear of the Irish's bowl game record. Credit to TJ Jones for catching five balls for 66 yards and carrying it four times for 16 yards and a touchdown in his college finale as well. (Oh, and let's not overlook Louis Nix, who is injured and has signed with an agent, meaning he could not travel with the team. That did not stop him from providing terrific Twitter commentary throughout the afternoon.)
What it means for Notre Dame: Let's just say the Irish had a lot more to lose in this one than they had to gain. But they can exit 2013 with a 9-4 record, their second-best mark since 2006. From an optimist's perspective, this is probably what was expected outside of the program when starting quarterback Everett Golson got suspended from school in May and once the injuries kept mounting as the season progressed. Stephon Tuitt's NFL decision will play a huge role in determining preseason expectations for this team, but getting Golson and many offensive weapons back will be huge for a program that has yet to really turn the corner offensively in four years under Kelly.
What it means for Rutgers: Goodbye American Athletic Conference, hello Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights had some opportunities to make this game a lot more interesting, but a number of questionable calls prevented them from gaining some much-needed momentum in this game, which in turn prevented them from gaining some positive momentum going into their new conference. First, coach Kyle Flood elected to decline an offside penalty on an 18-yard field goal by Kyle Federico, passing on an opportunity to go for a short touchdown in a game with little to lose and few touchdown opportunities to be gained. Later, the Scarlet Knights ran a halfback pass from the Irish 20 with Justin Goodwin, who tossed an interception to KeiVarae Russell. Michigan State made a similar mistake against the Irish earlier this year, and that one also was picked, a game-turning play in what turned out to be the Spartans' lone loss this season.
To watch the trophy presentation of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, click here.
At this rate, it would be easy to say that the concerns now fall on Kelly, who lost his second coordinator to a head-coaching job in an eight-day span Wednesday when Bob Diaco accepted the UConn post. That came in the wake of Chuck Martin packing his bags for Miami (Ohio). The moves hamstring the Irish staff as it readies for Rutgers on Dec. 28's New Era Pinstripe Bowl, and as it gears up for the mad dash to national signing day in the 39 days following the 2013 finale.
The initial reaction across players and fans, per routine, was overreaction. Tweets decrying Diaco for looking out for himself were soon deleted, eventually giving way to more and more congratulatory remarks for a man whose next career step was only a matter of time.
Make no mistake, this is far from the situation that is taking place in Piscataway, N.J., where Flood, the second-year head coach, let go of three assistants after an underwhelming 6-6 campaign. The Scarlet Knights step into the Big Ten next season. And this is far from the case that Kelly was referencing in that bowl press conference, as he had just taken the Cincinnati job and had only three of his Central Michigan assistants with him by the time the Bearcats faced, and defeated, Western Michigan in the International Bowl nearly seven years ago.
"It certainly creates a little bit of a challenge," Flood said of Rutgers' situation, "but I'm confident that people are put in positions where they can be successful, and that's really my job as the head football coach, to make sure we got a coach assigned at every position and in all three phases and the coordinator role."
Kelly's challenge is considerably smaller. This is Notre Dame, after all. Initial reaction among recruits speaks to that, with most youngsters recognizing that much of what they were promised remains in place so long as Kelly is at the forefront. If Diaco does not bring along other Irish assistants with him to Storrs, Conn., Kelly will have a much easier time filling the holes on his staff. Kerry Cooks, let's not forget, has also been the co-defensive coordinator these past two years, and he will probably take on Diaco's responsibilities for (at least) the rest of the month.
The fact this Notre Dame team went 8-4 and had its top two assistants get hired to run their own shows speaks volumes about where the program is now. Jimbo Fisher lost seven assistants in a season that ended with Florida State winning the Orange Bowl, and the Seminoles have turned out oh-so fine in the year since. This is a good problem to have, and as IrishIllustrated's Pete Sampson said, one coordinator leaving right after the other could trigger an eventful race back to South Bend to occupy Kelly's office whenever he should depart.
That's down the road. For now, the calendar has 19 days remaining in a year that began with a letdown against Alabama in the national title game and will likely end with a win against Rutgers -- with plenty of embarrassment (Manti Te'o, Everett Golson) and departures (Gunner Kiel, two receivers) sandwiched in-between.
As they did in this past year, the Irish will enter 2014 hoping to close whatever gap remains toward a national title. And while Jameis Winston isn't walking through that door, the two most important elements of that chase, Kelly and Golson, still are.
"I think he's a winner," Danny Rees told ESPN.com. "Obviously there's been some tough losses, but if you look at his overall record I think he's won a lot of games, and I'm not sure where Notre Dame would be without him over the last four years, and I think he would probably say the same thing. I think he wants to be remembered as a guy who came in and won some big games."
Just where Notre Dame would be without Tommy Rees is hard to fathom, especially in light of last month's win over USC, when a neck strain forced him to the sideline for most of the second half, giving way to an offense that totaled 30 yards and one first down.
Or in light of his freshman year of 2010, when he filled in for an injured Dayne Crist and led the Irish to four straight wins, including their first over the rival Trojans in nine years.
Yes, it is hard to imagine Notre Dame without Rees. But life after him is approaching fast, as the senior will take the Notre Dame Stadium field for the final time Saturday against BYU, a home send-off to a career that has made him part-hero, part-goat and seemingly everything in-between.
Brian Kelly had some trouble gripping with the idea of a Rees-less Notre Dame when asked Tuesday to think about impending days without the one constant of his four-year Irish coaching tenure.
"Look, we want to win football games -- you're hired and fired for winning football games here; I get that," Kelly said. "But he really loves Notre Dame and understands Notre Dame and understands the distinctions of Notre Dame."
It was just a decade ago that Lake Forest (Ill.) High coach Chuck Spagnoli met an 11-year-old Rees, then visiting a practice of older brother Danny, who went on to punt at UCLA. Rees did not immediately pass the eye test then, nor does he now at a hardly-imposing 6-foot-2, 215 pounds. But within three years, Spagnoli knew he had himself a three-year starter at quarterback who would eventually turn into one of the best captains his program has ever had.
"I don't think it's an accident that he's there and in the position he's in right now," Spagnoli told ESPN.com. "He's a fighter and he's a survivor, and he isn't going to just assume that things are going to be given to him by any stretch. He's going to work for everything he gets."
Rees remembers his father Bill, now a scout for the Buccaneers, telling him at an early age that he had three options with football: Liking it, loving it or living it.
"For me it's been about living it," said Rees, who has not ruled out a coaching career.
Added Kelly: "You'd never think of Tommy Rees being two seconds late for a meeting or not at a workout. He's always the first one in and the last one to leave. That's living it."
That means understanding what he signed up for, too.
Rees has not always gotten a fair deal from segments of the fan base, some of which booed him when he replaced Golson in the home opener last year before he led a game-winning drive against Purdue. Three losses this year have led to his name on social media getting linked with words that would not be uttered within earshot of the Basilica, though a #ThankTommy movement has been growing on Twitter this week with his home finale approaching.
He has tuned it all out, though, insisting that the sport has never become a burden.
"You've got to commit yourself fully to the game, and at times people get down on it after losses, but you think about not sharing those moments with your teammates, you think about not putting on that helmet," Rees said. "There are people that would give a lot to feel that bad after a game, to even play the game. You've got to be grateful, and you've got to look at it in perspective."
Others bolted at the first sight of adversity, or failed to understand those Notre Dame distinctions that Kelly referred to.
But through nearly 7,000 yards, 58 touchdowns, 21 wins and yes, those seven losses and 34 interceptions, too, Tommy Rees' resolve has persisted. And he still has one last stand left at Notre Dame.
"I mean, shoot, at the end of the day he's the quarterback at Notre Dame and that's a really special thing to be," Danny Rees said. "There's going to be criticism that comes along with it, but I bet you there are thousands of kids out there who would love to put up with that criticism and do what he does, so I don't think at the end of the day it's a big deal."
Maybe, with his hoodie on and his night done after a vicious third-quarter hit, he would have looked out to the field and watched a Notre Dame offense that had been forced to run six meaningful drives without him. Maybe he would have struggled to contain an I-know-something-you-don't smirk as the Fighting Irish, accounting for penalties, netted 30 total yards and gained one first down in his absence. Maybe he would have offered a hearty chuckle when seeing his backup and friend, Andrew Hendrix, misfire on all four of his pass attempts.
But a glimpse at life without Rees left everybody outside the program eating their words for most of the second half. Notre Dame wasn't just bad offensively; it was downright brutal, with even the sure-handed Cam McDaniel coughing up the ball late and not a soul among the raucous sellout crowd exhaling until the final zeroes were on the clock after Hendrix's two kneel-downs on his seventh and final drive.
And as it turns out, Rees had been one step ahead of everyone. His biggest play had actually come at halftime, two drives before he would be on the receiving end of a big knock from USC linebacker Lamar Dawson with just more than nine minutes to play in the third quarter. Rees was slow to even sit up, then walked gingerly off the field under his own power. He was standing up on the sidelines being interrogated by team medical personnel before heading to the locker room for further evaluation. Coach Brian Kelly said afterward that Rees had suffered a neck strain and was all there mentally, and that the team should know more in the next 24 hours.
But when the teams had gone to their locker rooms for halftime Saturday, Rees had taken it upon himself to deliver a speech that proved to be prescient in a game that featured no scoring during the final 30 minutes.
"It was a passionate speech, one of the more passionate things I've ever heard Tommy say," captain TJ Jones said. "It was really, 'Just keep your head in the game, don't give up. We've got this, 30 minutes wasn't enough. We need another 30 to win this game.' He had a lot of the guys almost in tears. It's the first time Tommy spoke out like that, and it was definitely emotional."
It had come after one of Rees' better performances to date. The senior finished the game 14-of-21 passing for 166 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers over the course of one half and one more series. He had run the offense at a much quicker pace, and the unit even left some points on the board on the game's first drive after McDaniel failed to reach the end zone on four consecutive runs.
Rees had also passed Rick Mirer on the school's all-time passing yards list, becoming the fifth Notre Dame quarterback to eclipse the 6,000-yard mark for his career.
"I think it does say a lot about the kid and his perseverance," Kelly said of the milestone. "He's just a tough kid, and he just keeps battling. I'm sure he'll look back on that a little bit later and be able to point out, 'Hey, I did play at Notre Dame and I wasn't that bad.' "
No kidding. From stepping up for an injured Dayne Crist and leading Notre Dame to four straight wins as a freshman, to surviving a turnover-plagued 2011; from getting arrested and then being relegated to a glorified graduate assistant role as Everett Golson took control, to then bailing Golson out late throughout last year's 12-0 run, Rees has nearly seen it all.
He has taken plenty of heat, too, whether it was getting booed by his home fans in his 2012 debut or withstanding a recent social-media firestorm that is coming his way only because of the poor academic judgment that the man initially in front of him displayed this past spring.
Golson, by the way, does not have to worry about schoolwork or bad weather the way Rees does, as he is training with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield out in sunny San Diego.
From there, Golson could see what the rest of us saw once his old teammate was no longer an option against the Trojans.
"As you could tell, our performance in the second half was a little difficult to adjust," tight end Troy Niklas said. "But I think we were able to make do with what we could."
Rees might have provided that extra lift just moments earlier, the son of an NFL scout always worrying about what's next.
"He was just kind of reiterating what the coaches had said, and probably a little something else," team captain Zack Martin said of Rees' halftime speech. "But we had an opportunity to beat SC at home and we hadn't done that in a long time. But to be able to win three out of four years for this class is pretty special."
Whatever checks Notre Dame had written to the devil before last season had been cashed since the calendar turned to 2013 -- Manti Te'o's girlfriend hoax, four notable transfers and Golson's suspension getting sandwiched between the Alabama beatdown and the two losses the Irish had suffered through six games this season.
Then came Saturday night against USC, and everyone got a look at just how much worse it could get if the starter everyone wanted gone could no longer return.
The Irish coach looked around the locker room after a three-point win over BYU and saw a group that was far from ecstatic about improving to 7-0. He told players to ease up on themselves, reminding them that they would have to pull out tough games like that from time to time, that surviving and advancing was what it would sometimes take.
"Look," Kelly said during his Sunday teleconference, "any time you start the season like we do, with being on the road back-to-back weeks against Michigan and Purdue, you're going to be in for tough games."
Just maybe tougher than expected.
Few could express complete shock at the Irish losing to the Wolverines. A similar result against the Boilermakers would have been far less forgiving.
Notre Dame knew after the BCS title game that it needed to replace three starters from an elite defense. Then Danny Spond was forced into retirement during camp, adding one more obstacle for the unit to navigate.
The Irish knew they needed to develop fresh playmakers on offense. Then their most important piece, Everett Golson, got himself suspended from school for the fall -- and only after a spring season in which he was the center of attention.
"I'm looking at how our guys compete, how hard they compete," Kelly said. "We know there's going to be an evolution of getting those players in the right position, developing them. That's going to take a little time. We don't get those opportunities to be in easy contests early on. We're getting tested right away."
Three games into the 2013 season have yielded little clarity for all. That can all change this weekend, when a Michigan State team that seems to finally know what it has enters Notre Dame Stadium for the fourth game of the season. It took three games for the Spartans to find offensive answers, but Connor Cook just broke out for the undefeated squad, throwing four first-half touchdown passes Saturday in a rout of FCS Youngstown State.
"Another great rivalry game," Kelly said. "It's a game that we've played for a number of years. It's always a great physical contest. That's how Coach (Mark) Dantonio prides himself on how they play. They play great defense. It should be another physical game."
Defensive dominance in the Irish's win at East Lansing last year proved to be the first national statement of many in a 2012 season for the ages. An uneven, three-turnover performance in an emotionally-charged win over Sparty two years ago encapsulated a 2011 campaign that had gotten off on the wrong foot in the two previous weeks.
On an upcoming Saturday slate that can generously be described as underwhelming, Michigan State-Notre Dame is the marquee event.
"Third week in a row for us in terms of playing a Big Ten opponent, back-to-back-to-back right out of the gates," Kelly said. "We ask our guys to do a lot here at Notre Dame."
And soon everyone may know just how up to the test this season's group really is.
"He was a backup quarterback, he was an assistant coach and kind of made everything go," Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said. "If he would've taken a different stance, the whole season's probably completely different. I mean, he could've easily ruined the whole deal for everybody."
How things have played out since then illustrates just how beneficial it has been for the Irish to have a signal caller like Rees, whose contingent got its wish when he replaced Dayne Crist in the 2011 home opener, only to turn on him when he replaced Golson late in the 2012 home opener.
"When you win 12, they don't remember what happened the second game of the year," Martin said. "You guys do, we do, but a lot of the fans don't. They forgot that they were booing him. They forgot that it's hard to lead a two-minute drive at home when you're getting booed off the field."
Rest assured, Rees will be a major factor in another Notre Dame Stadium opener this Saturday against Temple, after Golson was hit with a semester suspension from school in May for academic misconduct.
And Notre Dame hopes the lessons Rees learned from a 12-month period that began with a suspension of his own and culminated with the senior in command of the offense once more can help serve a program looking to turn last year's meteoric rise into something resembling the norm.
"I probably should give a lot of credit to my parents, the way I was raised," Rees said of the way he's handled his career. "I love my teammates. I love the guys that I'm out there with every day, so for me there's not really another option. You've just got to stay prepared, and when the moment comes for you, you've got to be ready for those guys, because you count on them, they count on you, and that's really what our team's been built on. People say it's a family all the time, but until you're a part of it and until you feel how close this group is, it's kind of hard to explain."
Perhaps tellingly enough, not a single question among the 42 asked during head coach Brian Kelly's 42-minute Tuesday press conference was about Rees.
Interestingly enough, Reilly's father, Lt. Col. Neil Reilly, grew up in Rees' hometown of Lake Bluff, Ill. The connection between the two quarterbacks has led some in the 5,000-person community to label Saturday's tilt as the "Lake Bluff Bowl."
More importantly, Neil Reilly recently served with the Army in Afghanistan, and he flew a Temple flag over his battalion while deployed.
Connor Reilly repays the gesture by running onto the field before each game waving the same U.S. flag that his father flew as a squadron commander in the Army on several missions in Afghanistan.
"It's a really cool honor to do that for my dad, because I know he does that and serves and honors and protects my country," Connor Reilly said.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Coach: Brian Kelly (199-68-2 overall, 28-11 at Notre Dame)
2012 record: 12-1
Key losses: RB Theo Riddick, RB Cierre Wood, TE Tyler Eifert, C Braxston Cave, DE Kapron Lewis-Moore, LB Manti Te'o, S Zeke Motta
Newcomer to watch: RB Greg Bryant. The Delray Beach, Fla., native was ESPN's No. 2 running back prospect for the Class of 2013 and walks into a crowded but opportune situation. Bryant, an Oklahoma de-commit, is one of six backs vying for extensive playing time after the Irish said goodbye to their top-two rushers from a year ago. Coach Brian Kelly has already gone on record as saying that his young running backs are guys who will help the Irish win some games this fall, and Bryant may turn out to be the best of the bunch.
Biggest games in 2013: Sept. 7 at Michigan, Sept. 21 vs. Michigan State, Sept. 28 vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 5 vs. Arizona State (in Arlington, Texas), Oct. 19 vs. USC, Nov. 30 at Stanford
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The most pressing question may be how Notre Dame adjusts on the fly after learning after the spring that it would be without quarterback Everett Golson for at least the fall (academic misconduct). Luckily for the Irish, senior Tommy Rees and his 18 starts are back, though he will need some new playmakers to emerge around him after the Irish lost their top two running backs and first-round pick Tyler Eifert at tight end. Six men are vying for carries in the backfield, while TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels anchor the receiving corps.
Forecast: Kelly made it clear that 2012 was in the past by taking his team to Camp Shiloh in Marion, Ind., for the first week of fall camp. No social media or television and, more specifically, no more talk about the Alabama game, Manti Te'o or the other headlines that followed the program during a wild offseason. In helping to get that message across, Kelly has the perfect quarterback in Rees, who has overcome negative headlines of his own and, last year, overcame losing his starting job. He went on to save the Irish in three of their first six games last season and proved to be as valuable as anyone on the roster. Never will that be more evident than this season, as he steps up again in Golson's absence. A stronger Rees took control of the offense during the offseason, and better decision-making should pay dividends for the Irish this fall.
They finished second nationally in scoring defense last season and return eight starters from that unit, including potential 2014 first-round draft picks Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. They are also much deeper, with a plethora of linebackers and defensive backs ready to spare the starters at a moment's notice, a far cry from last season, when the team broke in three new starters in the secondary -- with all three having been on the offensive side of the ball earlier in their careers.
Kelly returns all of his assistants after a renaissance 2012 campaign that saw the team notch a perfect regular season before meeting Alabama in the BCS National Championship. He brought in ESPN's No. 4 recruiting class for 2013. And he brings back more than enough talent to prove that last season was not a one-year wonder, and that the Irish are, in fact, here to stay. Another BCS bowl game -- despite the late loss of its starting quarterback -- should be well within reach for Notre Dame in 2013.
"There's a clear pecking order here, 1-2-3. Andrew is clearly the number-two quarterback and ready to play," Kelly said. "I think I made it pretty clear that if I believe Andrew can help in winning football games, I am not a guy that's going to be hesitant to put him in at any time to help us win. The evaluation is always about, for me, Can you help us win football games?
"Andrew can help us win. And we'll see if there's a time and place necessary for him to come in and help us win games. Right now Tommy is the guy."
The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Cincinnati native's blend of size and speed has always made him an intriguing prospect at the position, where he could be useful as a complementary piece in packages like the read-option.
"He does things differently," Kelly said. "Obviously he would be a guy that we would feature some more in Q-runs like we did with Everett Golson. He could still throw it. He could still run the offense. We're not going to change into an entirely different offense. But we would certainly feature some more quarterback-inspired runs and reads, which are already within our system. But I think you've already seen that from him.
"He's got enough of a resume that you know, and everybody else that is watching Andrew play knows, kind of what his background is. He's got a strong arm, he's athletic, he can run. He's just more comfortable in our system of offense and running our offense."
What that means for spring enrollee Malik Zaire remains to be seen, though Kelly has said that he wants the southpaw working with the regulars and not with the scout team.
That would put Zaire at No. 3 in the pecking order, though he's on an accelerated learning curve after the offseason departure of Golson.
This year, however, is a bit different. Eighteen career starts have prepared the senior to take control on a moment's notice, but he has never had the benefit of entering a season as the No. 1 quarterback.
The response was all the validation that he needed.
"It's important to have a similar atmosphere of practice," Rees said. "I was never too mean to them, but I would yell and get them back when I needed to. I think that's a personality you guys probably haven't seen. I have a lot more fire to me than most people would think. Showing that when the time is right, and guys responded great. It was just me trying to coach them, to make sure we were doing things the right way, that our offense wasn't going to take a step back."
Such is the balance Rees has struck since being named the Irish's starter after Everett Golson's academic misconduct forced last year's signal caller out of school for at least the fall semester.
A two-time winner of the program's "Next Man In" award can save the Irish one last time -- if, in fact, they even need to be saved.
This is where the importance of these past two months and the next 21 camp practices comes into play.
"I think it's going to help just confidence a lot," receiver T.J. Jones said. "He knows his place now. He can go into camp being that leader, knowing he's the starter and knowing that we're going to look to him in times of need and for whatever. He knows that he's the guy that we're looking up to and he's the guy that leads this offense, so it kind of puts him in a different spot, whereas before he was competing for a spot.
"Until you're a defined starter, at least in my opinion, you can't feel like you can lead the team because the team doesn't know that you're going to be there when that first game comes."
Added left tackle Zack Martin: "His leadership's going to be a big part of our success this year."
Rees was there for four starts when Dayne Crist tore his patellar tendon in 2010, and he was there for 12 more the following season after a lackluster opening half from Crist. He saved Notre Dame in its first three home games last season -- starting two others when Golson was disciplined and hurt -- and now he's one of the driving forces behind a team coming off a national title game appearance.
With a collegiate career not short on drama -- 19 turnovers in 2011, an arrest and ensuing one-game suspension in 2012 -- entering its final chapter, Rees is confident that the head-start the summer months have provided him can validate coach Brian Kelly's claim that Notre Dame is "going to see the very best in Tommy Rees" this fall.
"I'm a way different person, I'm a way different player, I've grown up a lot, I'm not 19 anymore," Rees said. "I've learned a lot from all the different experiences I've gone through, learned a lot about football, how to be a leader, aspects of the game. I'm really excited to put all those things out there this season."
The fourth-year Notre Dame coach revealed as much Friday during his camp-opening news conference, saying he agreed to terms in December and that legal language is all that has gotten in the way of anything becoming official.
The topic of Kelly's long-term future with the Irish gained steamed following his meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles in the days after his team's 42-14 loss to Alabama in the Discover BCS National Championship. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick has said since that both parties have been working on a decision.
Though no true time frame was given, Swarbrick has mentioned the last extension given to men's basketball coach Mike Brey, who turned down overtures in the spring of 2011, but had no official announcement from the school about a new deal until June of 2012.
Kelly admitted Friday that the process does not always go as quickly as he likes, but that he has never used leverage in contract talks to get the school to do something.
"If I had to do that, I would not be here," Kelly said.
Kelly's last extension came following the 2011 season, a two-year deal that locked him up at Notre Dame through 2016.
He re-iterated Friday that his goal is to get Notre Dame back to where it was during its renaissance 2012 campaign, and finish the deal this time.
"Everything we worked on since that next day -- and I mean the next day -- is about getting back to the national championship game and winning it," Kelly said Friday.
Notes: Former basketball player Joey Brooks is no longer with the team after working in the spring as a tight end. … Louis Nix is up to 357 pounds, 10 pounds heavier than he was listed in the spring. … Kelly said he expects Everett Golson back at Notre Dame in January, and that the suspended quarterback talks with offensive coordinator Chuck Martin almost daily. … Kelly wants freshman Malik Zaire to work with the regular quarterbacks and not the scout team.
In May, the Irish suspended Golson for the 2013 season for "poor academic judgment."
"I will be returning in the spring, that's pretty much it," Golson told television station WPDE in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he was attending a charity basketball tournament.
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Jan. 7 must feel like it was a lot more than six measly months ago for those in South Bend, Ind., as an offseason out of left field threatened to dissipate all of the goodwill built up during Notre Dame's renaissance 2012 campaign.
To recap, since losing to Alabama by 28 in the Discover BCS National Championship, the Irish have:
- Spent days on their toes and watched four-star linebacker Alex Anzalone flip to Florida as head coach Brian Kelly flirted with the Philadelphia Eagles in the days following the national title game.
- Suffered through the humiliation of the revelation of the Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax, which tainted much of the remarkable story behind the Heisman Trophy runner-up.
- Watched three second-year players -- including quarterback Gunner Kiel -- leave for other destinations before or early in spring ball, leaving the Irish without their top four players from the class of 2012, according to ESPN. (Cornerback Tee Shepard left shortly after enrolling in the spring of 2012.)
- Withstood a long battle with five-star defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, a saga that ended with ESPN's No. 10 prospect going to UCLA after signing with Notre Dame, costing him a year of eligibility.
- Lost quarterback Everett Golson, who had upward of 40 starts remaining in an Irish uniform, for at least this season because of what he called "poor academic judgment."
So yes, the 2013 season opener against Temple at Notre Dame Stadium probably cannot come soon enough for many who are tired of the negative headlines and stream of bad news.
Kelly also has experience navigating an uncertain quarterback field, though the position for the Irish is not as dire as it would be for most programs when losing a starter from a perfect regular season.
Just look at senior Tommy Rees, who saved Notre Dame in three of its first six games last season, who is 14-4 as a starter, knows the offense inside and out, and has the respect of the locker room.
Redshirt junior Andrew Hendrix has some experience and plenty of potential as well, and the promise of early-enrollee southpaw Malik Zaire, ESPN's No. 6 signal-caller from the class of 2013, impressed the staff this spring.
On the other side of the ball, there are eight starters back from a unit that finished second nationally in scoring defense last season, with a secondary that is much more experienced and should give coordinator Bob Diaco some flexibility with the unit as a whole.
Kelly once used five quarterbacks in a single season in Cincinnati during a season that ended in the Orange Bowl. If anyone can handle the haymakers the position has been thrown, it is he.
Rees' 20 turnovers during an 8-5 2011 campaign soured him on many fans, but if he can be more judicious, and if the defense can put forth a comparable performance to last season's, there is no reason this team cannot go BCS-bowling for the second consecutive year.
If it doesn't? Things may get complicated, but this is the last year Notre Dame will have to worry about a fallback plan.
Whether Golson returns and is back in form moving forward remains to be seen, but the program can feel the comfort of having a place at the table for the college football playoff from 2014 on, as the Irish will play five ACC teams each year and have much, much better bowl access.
No program is perfect, however picturesque Alabama might look from the outside.
Oregon? Hello, NCAA. TCU? Where do we even begin?
Notre Dame proved in 2012 that it is once again a big-boy program. Stuff happens to big-boy programs. That doesn't make the future any less bright for the Irish -- something they can't wait to prove come Week 1.