NCF Nation: Manti Te'o

Jameis Winston, Everett GolsonGetty Images, USA Today SportsThe winner of Saturday's ND-FSU game will have the inside track on the College Football Playoff.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- They weren't supposed to be back like this. Not so soon. Not this powerful.

Notre Dame and Florida State had entered the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl as perennial underachievers, in the second years under their respective head coaches. The running joke was that the winner would automatically be a title contender the next season, for the hype around the Fighting Irish and Seminoles could hardly ever subside. Their performances that night in Orlando were reflective of each's underwhelming regular season: four total turnovers, fewer than 300 total yards apiece, a fourth-quarter Irish collapse and an 18-14 Noles victory to move them to 9-4 and push the losers to 8-5.

"I thought we had a chance to be a very good team in the future, and they played us extremely well, so we thought they would be a very good team," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "That was a heck of a football game. You knew they had good players and guys that went to the draft, and you're expecting to be where they are."

In a scenario that is hardly against all odds -- though certainly a turn from each's recent history -- No. 2 FSU will host No. 5 Notre Dame on Saturday in what is likely the biggest game of both teams' seasons. The Irish recovered from that 2011 season-ending defeat to win 12 straight games in 2012 before falling in the BCS title game. The Noles did even better the following season, going 14-0 and winning it all. This weekend's winner will have the inside track to playing for the top prize for the second time in the three years since that bowl matchup.

"It hasn't been borne out this year with Rutgers and Virginia Tech," Florida Citrus Sports digital media director Matt Repchak quipped in an interview with ESPN.com last year, referring to the Irish's and Noles' successors in that bowl game. "But I'd like to think that maybe we have some kind of magic."

The truth of the matter is that both teams simply needed to get out of their own ways. Notre Dame entered the second year of the Brian Kelly era ranked No. 16 in the preseason AP poll, with BCS-bowl goals in mind. But 10 turnovers over the Irish's first two games portended an undoing that was mostly self-inflicted.

FSU, meanwhile, entered the season at No. 6 but saw a close, early-season loss to then-No. 1 Oklahoma spiral into a three-game slide. By the time they faced Notre Dame, the Noles were starting four true freshmen on the offensive line. Three of those starters -- left guard Josue Matias, right guard Tre' Jackson and right tackle Bobby Hart -- will line up with the first team Saturday. The fourth, center Austin Barron, is sidelined with an arm injury.

"The first half, you can tell, and in the second half we came out and played much better and got their feet on the ground and we were able to move the ball," Fisher said of the unit in that 2011 game. "It was a big point for them for their acceptance to college football."

Notre Dame had two first-round draft picks the following spring: receiver Michael Floyd and safety Harrison Smith. Two more potential ones -- tight end Tyler Eifert and linebacker Manti Te'o -- elected to return for their senior years, the surest validation that the program, despite consecutive 8-5 seasons, was going in the right direction under Kelly.

"When we both played, you could tell that both teams were definitely ascending, and then better things were definitely in front of us," Kelly said. "It was definitely going to be what's next for these programs moving forward in a positive way. That's kind of how I saw it after that game. I remember meeting with Te'o and talking to him about the next step, and of course we played for the national championship a year later, and Florida State won one."

Te'o, a 2013 second-round pick, ended up being the Heisman runner-up. Six days before he and the Irish took the field at Sun Life Stadium to face Alabama, FSU kicked off the 2013 calendar year in the same spot, beating Northern Illinois for an Orange Bowl win to cap a 12-2 season. The Noles then lost 11 draft picks and six assistant coaches, but they had a redshirt freshman quarterback, Jameis Winston, who would end up winning the Heisman the next season and is now 19-0 for his career as a starter.

Though his suspension for the Clemson game last month nearly cost his team dearly in the ACC (and national title) race, a strong showing from Winston against the Irish defense Saturday can get him right back into the Heisman conversation. The same goes for Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson, who himself is 16-1, the lone defeat coming to the Crimson Tide in the title game.

Both teams have new defensive coordinators this year, the third in three years for the Noles. The Irish also said goodbye to their offensive coordinator this past season. They welcomed three new assistants between the 2011 and 2012 campaigns, too.

"I thought we had an awesome team that year, we had a lot of talent," Irish redshirt junior Joe Schmidt said of 2011. "It's extremely hard to win college football games, so that was a very talented team and so is this one, and I think guys are just trying to do everything we can to help Notre Dame win."

For both programs, it has all started at the top, with fifth-year head coaches who found their footings and have their teams on the brink of something special.

"I guess you could say we've always been a work in progress," Irish redshirt senior Christian Lombard said. "We've always come to work, and I think that's the biggest thing. We've always known that we don't have it made. So just that attitude that we've got to come to work every day has helped us, and we're making progress each year."
For three years, Brian Kelly had success like few others in recruiting players back to school. Sure, Kyle Rudolph left after Year 1 of the Kelly era, but since then the Notre Dame coach had successfully gotten Michael Floyd, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Louis Nix and Zack Martin to come back to the Irish for their fourth (and, in Martin's case, fifth) seasons of college ball.

That changed drastically this season. With several highly projected underclassmen on their roster, the Irish figured to say goodbye to one or two underclassmen early. And even when Kelly said in late December that he had submitted paperwork to the NFL advisory board for Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III, few expected all three to leave school early.

Then January came along, and within one week's span, all three players declared for the draft, choosing to avoid the recent trend and skip their final seasons. Each had his reasons, so here's a look at the trio and a look at who on the Irish roster will be tasked with filling the big shoes in 2014.

(Worth noting: Nix, who had a fifth season of eligibility available to him in 2014, is not included in this group, because he graduated in December.)

Leaving: Stephon Tuitt
Replacement: Isaac Rochell
The outlook: It is worth noting that Justin Utupo will return for a fifth year and that veterans Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Chase Hounshell (shoulder) are expected to be back at full health next fall after both missed the 2013 season. Together, all will be counted on to replace the production of Tuitt, who was one of the best pass-rushers in school history. Still, if the Irish are looking for a youngster to step up, they will turn to Rochell, who ended up seeing much more playing time as a true freshman than initially expected this past fall, given the injury bug that affected the Irish in the trenches. ESPN's No. 139 overall player from the class of 2013 played in 11 games, recording 10 total tackles. The 6-foot-3.5, 280-pounder is a far cry from the 6-foot-6.5, 312-pound Tuitt physically, but most typically are. The bottom line is Tuitt will be the hardest of Notre Dame's early departures to replace, but Rochell will probably see his role increase the most in his sophomore season. Junior Sheldon Day, entering his second year as a starter, will be counted on even more this coming fall as well.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Celebration
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCam McDaniel (33) led the Irish with 705 rushing yards in 2013.
Leaving: George Atkinson III
Replacement: Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant
The outlook: Atkinson should be the easiest of the early departures to replace, as his playing time and production took a big dip late during this past season. He was ultimately suspended for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for what Kelly called a violation of team rules, a violation that Atkinson later tweeted (and then deleted) consisted of him texting during a team meal. Still, the Irish have the always-reliable McDaniel back for another year, and the Coppell, Texas, native actually had more carries (152-93) and rushing yards (742-583) than Atkinson in 2013 while helping with kick-return duties as well. The most important developments to keep an eye on, though, are those of Folston and Bryant, both of whom came to Notre Dame as highly touted four-star backs expected to deliver immediate boosts. Bryant had trouble gaining playing time early and ultimately suffered a knee injury that forced him to take a medical redshirt, but Folston came on strong late in the season, finishing with 88 carries for 470 yards and three touchdowns. Things will be tougher next season with a rebuilt offensive line, and all of these backs need to improve as pass-catchers, but there remains plenty of promise in the fold. Let's not rule out redshirt junior Amir Carlisle, either.

Leaving: Troy Niklas
Replacement: Ben Koyack
The outlook: Niklas, who began his career at linebacker, played tight end at Notre Dame for just two years, coming on this past fall after the departure of Eifert, as he hauled in 32 passes for 498 yards and five touchdowns. He was improving as a blocker and was on track to become one of the best tight ends in the country next season. Now Koyack will be tasked with a bigger workload in his senior season. He, too, came on strong late last season, finishing with 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns, though he often played in two-tight-end sets with Niklas and gave the Irish plenty of offensive flexibility.

Buckeyes' Shazier in position for hardware

November, 27, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There is a goal that hasn’t been checked off the list yet, perhaps the only hole on the résumé.

Ryan Shazier is quick to point it out, too, drawing attention to seemingly the only thing the Ohio State junior hasn’t done during one of the most prolific individual seasons in the country.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteRyan Shazier started at Ohio State as a true freshman. Will he impress the Steelers enough this summer to start as a rookie?
He leads the Big Ten in tackles. He spends as much time in opposing backfields as the offenses he has been sabotaging with such regularity. His combination of unnatural speed and fierce hitting has produced four fumbles.

But there’s still that one thing left for Shazier that would put the finishing touches on his personal to-do list and potentially put him over the top in the race to be honored as the nation’s best linebacker, an award that wasn’t on the checklist but he has made well known he’d like to win.

“I just wrote down my seasonal goals, what I wanted the team to do and what I wanted myself to do,” Shazier said. “I’m kind of meeting some of those goals right now, and that’s putting me in position for these awards right now.

“But I haven’t really caught an interception this year, and I planned on catching an interception. Pretty much everything else is going as planned.”

The script wasn’t necessarily designed to win Shazier individual acclaim, but that was certainly in the back of his mind when he wrote it after dealing the minor disappointment of being overlooked a year ago.

Shazier was every bit as effective for the Buckeyes as a sophomore, racking up tackles with ease, blowing up plays behind the line of scrimmage and, of course, nabbing an interception and returning it for a touchdown for a team that went undefeated. His numbers across the board compared favorably with Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, another linebacker for a team that went unbeaten during the regular season, but instead of earning an invitation to the Heisman Trophy celebration, Shazier wasn’t even voted the best player on his unit as John Simon claimed Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

For a team-first, well-respected leader for Ohio State, coming up short to Simon wasn’t exactly an issue for Shazier, but he wasn't even voted a first-team all-conference linebacker by the coaches despite leading the league in total tackles and tackles for loss. And he was aware of how his season stacked up with other linebackers not only in the Big Ten but around the country as well, and in topping it this year with 108 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles so far, he’s made it almost impossible to ignore him now.

“I was a little bit surprised,” Shazier said. “It was like, I saw some of my numbers added up against some of those other good players. But I knew with the circumstances we were going through [with a postseason ban], something like that could happen so I wasn’t all that surprised.

“It’s really important to be up for those types of awards because it’s always been a dream of mine to be one of the best players in the nation and one of the best players at my position.”

Shazier might not be in the Heisman conversation as the top overall player in the country, but he’s built a legitimate case at his position and is already a Butkus Award finalist.

In some ways, he remains in the shadow of other decorated teammates, with quarterback Braxton Miller restarting his Heisman campaign after an early injury and running back Carlos Hyde emerging as a possible conference player of the year option as well. But considering what else is on his preseason checklist, that certainly won’t bother him like the lack of an interception would.

“I’m just doing what I have to do for the team,” Shazier said. “Right now, I’m just happy that our team is one of the best teams in the nation.

“When you’re one of the best teams in the nation, everybody on the team is a good player.”

There aren’t enough trophies, though, to honor everybody. But if Shazier can add one more thing to his resume, there could be one with his name on it.

Irish defense avoids encore talk

August, 27, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Bob Diaco wants to know if you are addicted to his culture. The reigning Broyles Award winner asks this after leading a mad-dash to the middle of Notre Dame's three practice fields once the team breaks for its first preseason session on campus. Over there, he will instruct a defense that returns a majority of its key pieces from a 2012 season that saw it finish second nationally in scoring.
He does all of this, mind you, while wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants in the second week of August.
"I like to get a sweat on out there," he says with a laugh, "and then when you're running around, if you slam into somebody or they slam into you, you've got a little extra cushion."

The 2013 season is now four days away, and Diaco and his players have been peppered with questions about turnover, expectations and encores.
Can Notre Dame function as well without Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o in the middle? Will another strong recruiting haul allow for more flexibility? And what, really, is the personality of this defense as it enters year No. 4 under this regime?

"I think it's going to be just a collective group of guys that enjoy each other, enjoy playing hard, enjoy doing and playing defense the way it should be and not necessarily that person that's going to be out in front, you know?" Diaco said. "I think it's just a group of guys that really love each other and love what they're preparing to do and collectively just want to be the best they can be."

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco
Matt Cashore/US PRESSWIREBob Diaco thinks his Notre Dame defense could keep up its high-level of play this season despite losing Manti Te'o.
The Irish were almost the best last year, running the table and leading the nation in scoring defense until Alabama ran and threw all over them en route to a six-touchdown display that most around here figured to forget rather quickly.

Diaco instead used that as a teaching moment this past spring. Diaco taught his players about Dan Gable, the Iowa State wrestling great whose only prep or collegiate loss came in the finals of his senior year. Gable, Diaco told his players, was able to turn his worst moment into his greatest, as the lone defeat propelled him to gold at the 1972 Olympics.

"Going back to the Alabama game, it wasn't how anyone wanted it to be and you've just got to remember those types of things," noseguard Louis Nix said. "You've got to remember, like, you don't want that to happen again; you want to be competitive, you want to go out and do great things -- 12-0 was all great, but we lost when it counted, and you think about that every day.

"Me? I watch the national championship at least three times a week, honestly, to remind myself I don't want that to happen again. Alabama's a great team, great O-line, great coaches, great quarterback -- you have to emulate a team like that. They work hard, they go out and compete very game. They leave no doubt that they should've been national champs; that's what we've got to do and I feel like if you compete and you go out and practice hard and you do all the things that are right -- because life is a circle, when you do good things you get good things out of it, when you do bad things it comes back to haunt you — so we've just got to keep working and hopefully maybe we'll make it back to the game and probably win."

Notre Dame seems to have the necessary pieces. Nix and fellow defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt could be high first-round draft picks with another year of output similar to that of 2012. The duo, along with sophomore Sheldon Day, form what figures to be among the best defensive lines in the country.

Eight starters were slated to return to the defense until dog linebacker Danny Spond announced his retirement during camp following a series of hemiplegic migraines. But there seems to be enough bodies from a 2013 recruiting haul that ranked No. 4 nationally to create more desirable alternatives than Notre Dame had in the past. (One of the newcomers, five-star linebacker Jaylon Smith, has joined the ever-improving Ben Councell in place of Spond.)

"So I think you have to look at it that we have some other pieces that might be a little bit stronger than they were last year, so I think you have to look at all 11,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We lose a great player in Manti Te'o but we gain some other pieces that I think are stronger this year across the board."

Diaco avoids big-picture talk, instead focusing on individual aspects that can be improved upon.

Where most look back to last year and see a defense that exceeded expectations, he harps on "the myriad, bucketful, bushel basket-full of things we did wrong."

"We're not a flavor-of-the-month, flavor-of-the-year group in terms of tweaking, changing, creating energy propaganda to get the unit going," Diaco said. "We believe in our culture, we believe in our unit culture, we believe in our unit identity and those are based on core principles that we believe create a great defense. And what we're interested in is improving and raising the level -- even if it's .0001 percent, we're interested in raising that level, every player and every coach in that unit."
The man in the middle of it all last year recognizes that culture, and he sees no sign of it slowing down just because he is no longer there among it again.

"They have the potential to be good," Te'o, now with the Chargers, said. "Any year that they line up, they have the potential to be good, and they have a lot of weapons on defense. I'm confident that they'll carry on what they did last year and everything will be good."

Notre Dame season preview

August, 15, 2013
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Today we're looking at Notre Dame, which looks to build off its best season in more than two decades.

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

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
AP Photo/John BazemoreBrian Kelly's Irish should once again be in the hunt for a BCS bowl game.
Key returnees: QB Tommy Rees, WR TJ Jones, WR DaVaris Daniels, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, NG Louis Nix III, LB Dan Fox, LB Prince Shembo, CB Bennett Jackson

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.
Who is this year’s Johnny Manziel in the Pac-12? In other words, which player could come out of nowhere and win the Heisman from the conference? Well, if we knew, he wouldn't be coming out of nowhere in the preseason, now, would he?

Perhaps it is better that the Pac-12’s elite players are coasting below Mr. Heisman's persnickety radar. After all, front-runner status hasn't been kind to the Pac-12 the past couple of years. Two seasons ago it was Andrew Luck -- a shoo-in from the day he announced his return to take home the Heisman. Last year, it was Matt Barkley who had the unpropitious front-runner title pegged on him.

Luck carried the title much longer in his final season. Barkley, however, quickly gave way to Geno Smith, who in turn gave way to Collin Klein, who in turn fell to Johnny Football.

[+] EnlargeMarion Grice
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsArizona State's Marion Grice averaged 6.6 yards per carry and had 11 touchdowns last season.
So how about the Pac-12?

Marcusy Football?

Marqy Football?

DATy Football?

Ka’Deemy Football?

Bretty Football?

Not exactly phonetically pleasing.

Within the Pac-12, there aren't many dark-horse candidates. There are some front-runners who immediately come to mind: Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas, USC’s Marqise Lee, Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. But none of them are considered national front-runners with Manziel (maybe?) back to defend his title, Braxton Miller coming off a perfect season, AJ McCarron and his ridiculous 30-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year and Teddy Bridgewater soaking up his share of hype.

You can make a case for all five in the preseason. Mariota and Thomas will be playing for a top-five team, which always helps garner the necessary attention from the national media, and they should continue to put up video game numbers. Hundley is one of the most exciting players in the league, and with a year of maturity, many are anxious to see just how far he can lead the Bruins. Lee was last year’s Biletnikoff winner and is arguably the top skill player in the country. Carey was last year’s national leader in rushing. Solid credentials for all.

But this is about the sleepers. The guys who are so under the radar they're practically stealth. So who are they?

You have to start with ASU’s Marion Grice, who is going to continue putting up fantastic dual-threat numbers as a runner and receiver. He’s packed on more weight and ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said they've expanded the playbook now that he and quarterback Taylor Kelly are a year into the system. (Probably not a bad idea to keep an eye on Kelly, either).

Stanford’s Kevin Hogan could also be a sleeper. Like the Oregon duo, he’ll be on a high-profile team that is going to get plenty of national exposure with showdowns against Oregon, UCLA, USC and Notre Dame on the 2013 docket. He’s not as flashy as the other players and his numbers might not be as lofty, but he’s asked to do a lot more behind the scenes than a lot of other quarterbacks. That was Luck’s brilliance, as well as his Heisman curse.

The appearance of Manti Te’o in New York last year proved defensive players aren't immune to getting some attention in the spread era. So UCLA’s Anthony Barr and ASU’s Will Sutton certainly deserve to be in the conversation if we’re talking defensive players. Both should be atop the national defensive rankings in sacks and tackles for a loss. But both will have to play well enough to surpass the well-deserved hype of South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and overcome the public perception of the Pac-12 when it comes to defense. As I’ve written previously, the Heisman is all about subjectivity and perception. (Full disclosure, I have Clowney No. 1 on my preseason Heisman ballot).

Finally, a guy who I think is really a long shot -- but should be getting more love than he is -- is Oregon State running back Storm Woods. In the Beavers’ first six games against FBS opponents in 2013, they face only one defense that ranked in the top 20 last year in total rushing yards allowed (Utah), and only one other in the top 50 (San Diego State). The opportunity will be there early in the season for Woods to make a name for himself. He’s got four of five offensive linemen coming back (including an outstanding center), an offense that wants to be more balanced, and a quarterback-to-be-named who is a veteran and knows the offense. He’s also really, really good.

It’s probably best not to put all your hopes into one of these guys winning the Heisman. For now, it’s safer to track the conference front-runners. But don’t sleep on these guys, either.

The next Stormy Football is just waiting to breakout.
Is it Aug. 31 yet?

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.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsNotre Dame coach Brian Kelly is well-versed in steering squads through quarterback issues.
That doesn't mean good things aren't happening in Kelly's fourth year, however. For one, even without Vanderdoes, he has another strong recruiting class that can make an immediate impact this fall. (It was ranked No. 4 nationally by ESPN when Vanderdoes was in the fold.)

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.
1. I thought from the get-go that Florida offensive line coach Tim Davis's reference to Alabama coach Nick Saban as “the devil himself” sounded like a measure of respect wrapped in a throwaway joke. I think that’s how it should have been taken. The way I hear it, when Gator coaches hear that Alabama is looking at a recruit, they watch the recruit’s video very carefully. They don’t afford that level of respect to any other staff, whether the head coach has horns or not.

2. Texas A&M signee Kohl Stewart is supposed to be one of five quarterbacks reporting for summer workouts next month. The question is how long he will stay. ESPN.com insider Keith Law projects the Minnesota Twins will take Stewart with the fourth pick of the Major League Baseball Draft on June 6. That’s why the Aggies also signed quarterback Kenny Hill in February, and why both prospects had no problem signing with the same program. “They understood the whole time,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said.

3. I went to see Brad Paisley in Hartford on Saturday night (if you get the opportunity to see him, go) and in the middle of a very entertaining hour-and-40-minute set, he delivered a quick one-liner about everyone’s favorite former Notre Dame linebacker. From his 2007 album 5th Gear, Paisley played “Online,” a song about assumed identity on the internet. Except that he called it, “Online, or The Ballad of Manti Te'o.”
The NFL does not wait for everyone, and so what was an otherwise 10 a.m. ET call out of Baltimore turned into an early-morning wake-up for the latest former Notre Dame player to take his talents to the next level.

Toma will join fellow Irish player Kapron Lewis-Moore with the Ravens. The often-overlooked 5-foot-9, 185-pound receiver is now the 13th former Irish player who will get a shot at the NFL in one form or another.

The official Notre Dame football page has a nice graphic of most of the players here.

To recap:

Video: Manti Te'o's marketability

April, 23, 2013
4/23/13
7:42
PM ET
video
 
Darren Rovell discuss Manti Te'o's lack of endorsements due to the fallout from his girlfriend hoax and the linebacker's marketability heading into the NFL draft.
Notre Dame returns to the practice field Wednesday morning after a week off for the Easter holiday. Five sessions are in the bag and 10 remain, including the April 20 Blue-Gold spring game.

Like every team every season, the Irish are welcoming new faces in several new places. Among the biggest for the program heading into the 2013 season are at running back, center and Mike linebacker.

Here is a look at how those battles are shaping up as spring practice No. 6 takes place today.

RUNNING BACK
[+] EnlargeGeorge Atkinson III
Matt Cashore/US PresswireIrish coaches have talked up George Atkinson III in the chase for playing time at running back.
This is, frankly, a blanket term for a backfield that will likely feature more than one person at a time throughout much of the coming season. But the Irish did lose their top two rushers in Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, and with (at least) a strong left side of the offensive line returning, it will be interesting to see how the unit shakes out. Rising junior George Atkinson III has the most experience among returners, and head coach Brian Kelly and position coach Tony Alford have been high on him so far this spring, praising his weight training (he's up seven pounds, to 217) and ability to catch the ball in the slot. Can Atkinson be the typical 20-carries-per-game, between-the-tackles back? Will it matter? USC transfer Amir Carlisle also drew plenty of praise in the same role this spring before the rising redshirt sophomore suffered a broken collarbone March 23. Rising junior Cam McDaniel and rising redshirt freshman William Mahone are back there as well, and the program will welcome in talented prospects Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston this summer, at least one of whom may be primed to make an immediate impact.

From Brett Perotta of the ESPN Stats & Information blog, citing seven signees in college football who will make an immediate impact in 2013:
RB Greg Bryant, Notre Dame

Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick are gone, leaving a vacancy in the backfield and over 300 carries to go around. Bryant is the first top-10 running back the Irish have signed since James Aldridge in 2006. Notre Dame posted a respectable 4.9 yards per carry as a team last season and will return three starters on the offensive line. With returning dual-threat quarterback Everett Golson, Bryant should have plenty of room to work.
CENTER
So much of how Notre Dame's offensive line shakes out will depend on this position battle. With fifth-year seniors Zack Martin and Chris Watt back manning the left side of the line, and with redshirt junior Christian Lombard seemingly back for Year 2 as the starting right tackle, the Irish need to identify Braxston Cave's successor in the middle. Redshirt sophomore Nick Martin, Zack's younger brother, was running with the first team during the start of the first spring practice, March 20, and figures to have the inside track there right now. Nick Martin served as something of a utility man on the second-team line throughout last season. Redshirt sophomore Matt Hegarty, cleared following a November mini-stroke that threatened his football career, should give Martin a push here as well. Right guard is the other open position battle, and if Kelly or position coach Harry Hiestand deem tackle sophomore Ronnie Stanley or early enrollee Steve Elmer ready, there is always the chance that Lombard could slide to right guard.

MIKE LINEBACKER
Jarrett Grace was talked about a lot last spring by the coaching staff but, frankly, just was not needed so much in 2012. Not with Manti Te'o having the kind of season he had, recording seven interceptions en route to a Heisman Trophy runner-up campaign that saw him rarely leave the field. Now that position is vacant following three consecutive 100-tackle seasons, and Grace, a redshirt sophomore, has the inside track to take over inside. Fifth-year senior Dan Fox, recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, is capable of playing both inside positions, and fellow fifth-year senior Carlo Calabrese has resumed his role as the Will linebacker after splitting duties there with Fox the past two seasons. No one should expect anything resembling Te'o's All-America-type run from the position so soon, but with starters, and depth, returning at every other linebacker spot, the Mike is the position to keep an eye on during the offseason.
Todd McShay released his latest mock draft Thursday, with this one going two full rounds.

Both Tyler Eifert and Manti Te'o see their names come off the board late in the first round, with Eifert going to the Chicago Bears at No. 20 and Te'o getting scooped up by the Denver Broncos eight picks later, at No. 28.

McShay thinks Eifert can help create mismatches and take the Bears' offense to the next level, despite the fact they just signed tight end Martellus Bennett, while he says Te'o would be a perfect fit for a Denver defense that is strong up front.

Elsewhere, both players remain on Mel Kiper Jr.'s 25-man Big Board, with Eifert moving up one spot to No. 15 and Te'o dropping three spots to No. 20 .

Kiper says Eifert has separated himself among tight ends and is an underrated blocker, while Te'o answered questions about his speed and has enough evidence on game film to show he can be an immediate impact player in the NFL from Day 1. Kiper says the first round seems now like a lock for the former Notre Dame linebacker.

Both players remain atop their position groups in Kiper's top-5 by position rankings , with Stanford's Zach Ertz and Georgia's Alec Ogletree again coming in at No. 2 at tight end and inside linebacker, respectively.
In some ways, Tuesday served as both the end and the beginning for Manti Te'o.

Scouts Inc.'s Todd McShay was on hand for Notre Dame's pro day, as were representatives from 27 of 32 NFL teams. There was just one general manager and no head coaches, but scouts will have more to report back on Te'o after he improved his timing in the 40-yard dash.

To read McShay's thoughts on Te'o and several other Irish draft prospects, click here .
Manti Te'oAP Photo/Joe RaymondManti Te'o said at his pro day on Tuesday that he hoped to put his controversial offseason behind him.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Back at his home away from home, competing beside the same players and facing the same media contingent he had answered to the past four years, Manti Te'o turned to the man to his left and publicly thanked his former Notre Dame teammate and fellow co-captain for helping him get through the past two months.

"It's been amazing. The two places I call home, there's been nothing but support; here in South Bend, the Notre Dame community, and back at home, and they've just been home," Te'o said. "Guys have reached out to me and my family, just been so supportive. And for me, I was just very blessed.

"This guy next to me, I'm eternally indebted to this guy," he continued, pointing to former Fighting Irish tight end Tyler Eifert, "because that was possibly the hardest time of my life, going through that. And I was lucky to have one of my best friends with me. This guy checked up on me every day. Came over when I said I don't want nobody to talk to. He knocked the door down and said, 'Hey, let's play some video games or something.' So to have Eif there, it was a blessing in disguise for me."

Te'o calmed down questions about his speed Tuesday during Notre Dame's pro day, running his 40-yard dashes in 4.75 and 4.71 seconds, respectively, according to ESPN's Todd McShay. Te'o had drawn eyeballs for the wrong reasons at last month's NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, when he was timed at 4.82.

No official times were given Tuesday, though Te'o said he was told by one scout that he clocked in at 4.69.

Both he and Eifert will stay here to train in the month leading up to the April 25 NFL draft, and both said they will watch from home with their families rather than attending in person in New York.

Though Tuesday was the final public hurdle Te'o needed to clear following an offseason in which it was revealed that he was the victim of a catfishing hoax and later failed to meet physical expectations at the combine, the linebacker said he did not approach the opportunity like one last job interview, a philosophy Eifert echoed.

"It seems that way, and it gets hyped up that way with things on TV and the combine, but at the end of the day it is your film that really matters," said Eifert, widely considered the top tight end in the draft. "So people that have been doing this for a while remind us of that, take some of the pressure off it. It's not make or break if you don't do well at the combine or at pro day; you've shown what you can do on tape and that's what really matters."

For Te'o, the Lennay Kekua saga is a thing of the past.

"For me it is," he said. "I'm just glad that I'm out here playing football. I'm back home. I'm with my guys. I'm around this building, and so that stuff is long gone."

Now comes the waiting game, a 30-day process that will likely feature a few fewer nerves following a performance Tuesday that looked fairly familiar to those inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.

"I felt good," Te'o said. "I'm at home now. I'm in a place where I'm comfortable, surrounded by people that I know. And I thought I did pretty good. I was pretty pleased with the way I performed and very pleased with how we all performed as a whole. I think we all represented Notre Dame the way it should be."

Video: Manti Te'o feels good with pro day

March, 26, 2013
3/26/13
2:10
PM ET

Manti Te'o talks to Josina Anderson and Toddy McShay about his performance at Notre Dame's pro day.
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Manti Te'o

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