NCF Nation: Stephon Tuitt
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.
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.
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.
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.
Who to watch: TJ Jones is playing in his final college game. Notre Dame's team MVP from this season has caught 65 balls for 1,042 yards with nine touchdowns, becoming Tommy Rees' most reliable target. And he is facing a Rutgers defense that has been susceptible to the big play, as the Scarlet Knights have allowed an FBS-high 153 pass plays of 10 or more yards, an average of 13 per game. Look for Rees and Jones to connect early and often.
What to watch: This could also be Stephon Tuitt's final game. The 6-foot-6, 312-pound end is a nightmare for offensive linemen, tallying 18 sacks over the past two seasons. Seeing how much he -- along with a now-healthy Sheldon Day opposite him and what is likely to be a revolving door in the middle at nose guard -- can pressure Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd into mistakes will probably dictate the flow of this game. The Scarlet Knights are tied for 98th nationally in sacks allowed, surrendering 2.58 per game, and Saturday could provide a nice opportunity for Tuitt to leave a final impression on NFL scouts, as the draft advisory board gave the junior a second-round grade, according to Brian Kelly.
Why to watch: This is the finale for a group of Notre Dame seniors who have, in large part, turned the program around. Many committed to the Charlie Weis regime -- or, in some cases, to no coach at all before Kelly was hired. They have gotten the Irish to a point where Pinstripe Bowl berths and eight- or nine-win seasons are disappointments, and they are a big reason why Kelly, the fourth-year coach, gave them such a strong say in where they would go bowling once a BCS bid was off the table. This could, in theory, be an audition for the Irish's two interim coordinators as well, as Mike Denbrock (offense) and Kerry Cooks (defense) will run their units after Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco left for head-coaching jobs at Miami (Ohio) and UConn, respectively.
Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Rutgers 14. The Irish offense will have its way with an uncharacteristically bad Scarlet Knight defense (one that is also with an interim coordinator, in Joe Rossi).
But Lynch could not avoid the talk last season of what he was missing out on roughly 1,000 miles to the North -- be it from classmates on his new campus in Tampa, Fla., or from teammates inside the Bulls' locker room, where the televisions were always tuned to ESPN, inevitably serving as a talking point about what could have been.
"If I was feeling a certain way about that then, I should have never left. People would be like, 'Why are you so mad?' That's all you guys talk about: 'Oh, you could've done this and done that.' I don't want to hear that, because if that's what I wanted, I would've stayed there."
A precocious pass-rusher who was out of his comfort zone two years ago at Notre Dame finds himself more at home now as a junior, some two hours away from his mother, Alice, who is now in Fort Myers. He had his long-awaited breakout for the Bulls in his last game, returning a fumble 44 yards for his team's only touchdown in a 13-10 win over UConn. He recorded his first sack in a USF uniform as well. Teddy Bridgewater and a Louisville team that -- for now, at least -- sports a worse league record than the 2-0 Bulls come to town this Saturday, a rare American Athletic Conference matchup that features two potential high first-round draft picks.
It is another contest that Lynch is just happy to be playing in after a frustrating year as a transfer. The sting of knowing he would not play in 2012 became too much to bear as the season approached, so he sat down with his fellow defensive linemen and then-coach Skip Holtz and asked if they would mind if he did not join them on the sideline for home games.
They granted his wish, with plenty of homework assignments accompanying his home viewings of the games.
"I was never like, 'Awww man, I can't believe this' -- I was more of a coach because that's what the D-line wanted," Lynch said of watching games from home. "They said if you're not going to be at the game, then we want to see how we're doing on TV so you can tell us what we need to do, or things that we don't see on the field that you do see that's off the field. You can pause and rewind and stuff like that.
"So that's what I did. That was really my job as a D-line brother and as a teammate. When I watched the game, I wasn't watching the game as if I was watching the Patriots and the Ravens go at it. I was watching it as if I was watching game film."
For a former freshman All-American who had 5.5 sacks in 2011 while causing as many headaches for his own team as he did his opponents, this was a different kind of challenge. Weight disappeared from what was a 6-foot-6, 270-pound frame at Notre Dame, with Lynch entering this season officially listed at 244 pounds. (He says he is currently around 250, with the hope of that number rising.) Adjusting socially, meanwhile, presented obstacles of its own on a campus with an undergraduate enrollment more than four times the size of Notre Dame's 8,000-plus student body.
That atmosphere, however, also allowed him to grow at his own leisure.
"I would say I matured more since I've left there, because when I got here I had to do a lot of things, I'd say, on my own in a way, because things were smaller there at Notre Dame; it was a smaller university, there wasn't a lot for me to get into," Lynch said. "When I got here, I feel like I matured more because there's so much more out there for me to get into and I kept myself from getting myself into those types of things.
"In other words, my freshman year I probably would've gotten into a lot more things than I do now."
Lynch cut his nearly out-of-control hair going into spring practice, a sign his new coach, Willie Taggart, has pointed to as a sign of his growth.
"To me when a guy does something like that, it's a sign of maturity, and a guy that's willing to change and make himself better," Taggart told ESPN.com this spring. "I know nowadays it's hard to do that when a lot of your peers are doing it and look at those guys. But for a guy like that to cut his hair off and get himself sharp and think about the way people look at him and want to represent himself the right way, it's really impressive."
A one-time aspiring poetry and literature major, Lynch has left those desires behind in South Bend. He still talks regularly with former Irish defensive line teammates Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III -- all three players could be first-round picks come May -- and he often utilizes the "Snapchat" application on his phone to exchange funny messages with running back Cierre Wood, who has since joined the Houston Texans.
Lynch now majors in interdisciplinary social science. As for social media, he has kept his distance from a world that ballooned his reputation as a can't-miss prospect before turning him into a virtual pinata once he decided Notre Dame was not for him.
He says he cannot even remember his Twitter password. His Facebook account received the ax after he left the Midwest.
"The way I blocked that out was really just being with my family, because that's what I was worried about most, because my mom had gotten threats from Notre Dame fans and things like that," Lynch said. "So having my family close to me, that's how I got through it. Just my mom -- she always had my back on everything, and if I knew I was with them and there was nothing wrong with them, then I never had nothing to worry about. The reason why I made the move from Notre Dame was, one, the environment, it wasn't me; and then two, I needed to be with my family, because my family is my everything."
1. House party: If the second night game at Michigan Stadium is anything like the first, we'll all be thrilled (well, except for those Notre Dame folks). Michigan and Notre Dame delivered the drama two years ago under the lights, and the spectacle Saturday night in Ann Arbor should once again be incredible. The teams' past four meetings have all been decided by seven points or fewer (19 points total). The series sadly disappears after the 2014 meeting in South Bend, so enjoy it while it lasts.
2. Rees vs. Gardner: Notre Dame-Michigan features another appetizing quarterback matchup. While Tommy Rees remains a polarizing figure for some Notre Dame fans, it's hard to argue with what he has done against Michigan. Before last Saturday's opener against Temple, Rees' only 300-yard passing performance came against Michigan two years ago, and he led Notre Dame to victory last fall. Rees can stretch the field, as he had more passes of 20 yards or longer against Temple (7) than Everett Golson had in any game last season. Devin Gardner was Michigan's leading receiver last year against Notre Dame, but he's firmly entrenched as a quarterback. Gardner has been deadly in the red zone for the Wolverines, converting 19 touchdowns in 22 red zone trips as the starter.
3. Spartans looking for a spark: Michigan State basically has two more weeks to get its offense right before facing one of the nation's top defenses on the road at Notre Dame. The unit's opening act was highly disappointing, as Michigan State averaged just 3.8 yards per play against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 61st nationally in 2012. Head coach Mark Dantonio has kept mostly quiet about his quarterback situation this week as four players continue to get reps in practice. The Spartans need a solution there and at other offensive spots against South Florida, which allowed 56 points to McNeese State in its opening loss.
4. Illini aim to continue big-play ways: One of the nation's most feeble offenses in 2012 broke out last week against Southern Illinois, as Illinois recorded six plays of 30 yards or longer -- matching its total from all of last season! Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase recorded a career-high 416 pass yards and featured weapons like Josh Ferguson and Ryan Lankford. The question is whether the Illini can come close to that type of production against a much, much tougher opponent in Cincinnati, which held Purdue to one short scoring drive and only 226 yards last week. We'll get a much better gauge about Illinois' offensive progress against Tommy Tuberville's defense.
5. Northwestern's health: After a mostly injury-free season in 2012, Northwestern already has been bitten by that pesky bug early this fall. The Wildcats will be without starting cornerback Daniel Jones (knee) for the rest of the season, putting redshirt freshman Dwight White in the spotlight against Syracuse. Top quarterback Kain Colter (head) and running back Venric Mark (leg) both are questionable for the game. If Northwestern can survive again like it did last week against Cal, it has a chance to get healthy in the next two weeks against weaker opponents before a two-week prep for Ohio State.
7. Indiana's offensive efficiency: Kevin Wilson's Hoosiers scored touchdowns on five of their first six offensive possessions in last week's opener against Indiana State, en route to a Memorial Stadium-record 73 points. If Indiana can come close to that type of efficiency Saturday against Navy, it will improve to 2-0. Possessions likely will be limited against the Midshipmen, as Indiana found out last year when it had only 10 offensive drives in a 31-30 loss. The Hoosiers had to settle for three field goals of 30 yards or less and need to be better about punching it in against Navy. "You don't get as many at-bats," Wilson said.
8. Second chances: Purdue and Iowa didn't get off to the starts they wanted in Week 1, and neither did Nebraska's defense, which surrendered 35 first downs and 602 yards to Wyoming in the opener. Fortunately, all three teams should redeem themselves against weaker competition on Saturday. The Boilermakers need to boost quarterback Rob Henry's confidence and fix their communication problems on offense against Indiana State. Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock must rebound from his late interception against Missouri State. The Huskers defense, meanwhile, aims to clean things up against a Southern Miss team that has lost 13 straight and scored just 15 points against Texas State last week.
9. Wolverines' youth put to test: Don't be surprised if Michigan-Notre Dame comes down to how well the Wolverines' young interior offensive line performs against an elite Fighting Irish defensive front led by nose guard Louis Nix III and end Stephon Tuitt, two potential first-round picks in next April's NFL draft. Michigan will start redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis at right guard, true sophomore Jack Miller at center and redshirt sophomore Graham Glasgow at left guard. They'll be challenged all night long (especially Miller) as they try to create running room for Fitzgerald Toussaint and protect Gardner.
10. Hack's home debut: Penn State fans have been waiting more than a year and a half to watch quarterback Christian Hackenberg take snaps at Beaver Stadium. They'll finally get their chance Saturday as the Lions face Eastern Michigan in their home opener. Hackenberg had a few expected hiccups in his collegiate debut against Syracuse but also showed why he can be such a special player for Penn State's offense. Head coach Bill O'Brien vows to put Hackenberg in better positions to succeed this week. Hackenberg also will have top weapon Allen Robinson at his disposal from the start, which should make a big difference.
Under the lights ... and two of college football’s oldest rivals in one of their last scheduled meetings … and College GameDay. Does it get any better than this? Only when Big Ten reporter Brian Bennett, Dame reporter Matt Fortuna and Michigan reporter Chantel Jennings get together to talk about it. Today, they discuss a few topics surrounding the highly anticipated matchup.
1. Over the past few years, this rivalry has seen its fair share of big stars excel during this game -- Denard Robinson's 502 yards in 2010, Roy Roundtree's game-winning catch in 2011, Manti Teo's defensive performance in 2012. Which player could you see having a mega game on Saturday?
Bennett: How about Jeremy Gallon? The Michigan receiver had the huge 64-yard catch that set up Roundtree's game-winner in 2011. While he wasn't as active in last year's game, that's primarily because the Wolverines were busy throwing the ball to Notre Dame. Gallon has been more effective ever since Devin Gardner started running the show, and I could see him burning the Irish secondary for some big plays.
Jennings: The heroes this game has helped create have kind of come out of nowhere in some instances. So I’m going to pick a guy who has been flying under the radar statistically, who I think has the ability to show up in big games, and that’s Michigan tight end Devin Funchess. He had a fine freshman year and a better offseason. I think we could see him be a big difference maker on Saturday.
Fortuna: If I'm Notre Dame, I'm gearing up for Gardner, since Michigan quarterback play has essentially decided these contests in one form or another in each of the past four years. From the Irish side, though, I think wide receiver DaVaris Daniels could break out. He was Notre Dame's best offensive player in the national title game loss to Alabama, hauling in six catches for 115 yards. On Saturday against Temple, the redshirt sophomore had three catches for 69 yards, including a pair of 32-yard touchdown receptions on the Irish's first two drives.
2. Which mismatch between these two teams are you most intrigued to watch?
Bennett: On paper at least, it's the Michigan interior offensive line vs. Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix III. Center Jack Miller and guards Kyle Kalis and Graham Glasgow are talented and played well together last week, but they have very little experience. Nix, meanwhile, is a 357-pound man-mountain who helped anchor a championship-level defense last season. He commands double teams, and it will be up to Michigan's young inside guys to keep him in check so Stephon Tuitt and others can't wreak even more havoc.
Fortuna: I'll say Notre Dame's offensive line against Michigan's defensive line. The Irish have three starters back from last season, along with a very talented center in Nick Martin. One of the reasons they were able to jump out to a 17-point lead in Ann Arbor two years ago was because of their ability to run up the middle, as the Irish averaged six yards per rush on the night. Notre Dame is now in its third straight year of starting Zack Martin and Chris Watt together on the left side, and it has started using pistol packages in 2013 to tailor to the strengths of some of its young backs in hopes of establishing a downhill run game. This is far from a "mismatch," but with Michigan returning just three starters from last season's front seven, and with the teams so evenly matched across the board, I'd say this is where Notre Dame probably has the biggest edge. Conversely, I can't wait to see Tuitt and Lewan go head-to-head. Both will be a lot richer eight months from now.
3. Is there any way this game could one-up the last time these two teams met in the Big House?
Bennett: It's possible that this could be an even better overall game than the one in 2011, just not as flashy. People remember the Michigan comeback and the crazy fourth quarter, but it was a pretty lopsided affair until then. That wild finish was made possible by major defensive breakdowns on both sides, and both teams are much more sound defensively now. I believe these are two legitimate top-15 teams, so we should expect a tight game. The atmosphere won't be quite as special because it won't be the first time under the lights at the Big House. But Notre Dame-Michigan usually finds a way to amaze us.
Jennings: I was on the sideline for the final minutes of that matchup two years ago, and to call the atmosphere electric would still be selling it short. I don’t know if the Wolverines have had a game as exciting since, so I’m going to go with no. I think it’ll be a great game and the fact that it’s the last in Michigan Stadium for the foreseeable future adds a lot. But as far as the plays themselves, jam packed into that short amount of time, I just don’t see that being topped.
Fortuna: I said no to this same question two years ago and was sadly mistaken, so I'll try not to be as definitive in my answer this time around. Whether it was Denard Robinson or Tate Forcier before him, magic seems to always happen in the late moments of this game. I'll just go ahead and make the bold prediction that if Notre Dame takes the lead with 30 seconds remaining this time, its secondary will hold up and secure an Irish win. Like I said, bold.
Tommy Rees, QB: Rees had a career-high 346 passing yards, completing 16 of 23 passes with three touchdowns and no picks. This was just the kind of start Notre Dame needed to see from Rees, who has endured a barrage of questions throughout his college career but has managed to keep an even keel throughout it all.
TJ Jones, WR: Jones also turned in a career-best effort in recording 138 receiving yards. He caught six passes, made several shifty maneuvers after the catch and looked very much like the go-to threat Brian Kelly kept calling him throughout camp. He also netted 23 yards on three punt returns, something worth noting on a Fighting Irish return unit that has struggled mightily the past three years.
DaVaris Daniels, WR: Like Jones, Daniels also picked up right where he left off. The Irish's two best receivers from the Discover BCS National Championship loss had strong outings Saturday. Daniels notched his first two career touchdowns, both 32 yards, and finished with three catches for 69 yards despite sitting out the second half for precautionary measures because of a groin problem.
Stephon Tuitt, DE: So much for all that weight talk. Tuitt, who put on 19 pounds this offseason after undergoing a hernia operation, picked up right where he left off, notching four total tackles and a sack. Don't be surprised if he makes another run at Justin Tuck's single-season school record of 13.5 sacks.
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."
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 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.
Well, not really. But those positions are notable considering the Irish did not land anyone on the watch lists for the Davey O'Brien, Doak Walker, Rimington, Jim Thorpe or Ray Guy awards.
(Never mind that cornerback Bennett Jackson made the watch list for the Bednarik Award, given to the nation's top defensive player.)
Still, it was quite a run for the Irish, and particularly for Louis Nix, who made six different watch lists. (Stephon Tuitt wasn't too shabby himself, making five.)
Below is a roundup of the dozen different Irish players who made watch lists in the past two weeks. Notre Dame is the only school with multiple defensive players on the watch list for the Maxwell Award and the only school with multiple defensive players on the watch list for the Walter Camp player of the year award. The Irish's four Bednarik watch listers are the most in the nation, and their three players on the Butkus watch list are tied for the most in the nation.
Maxwell (best player): Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt
Bednarik (defensive player): Bennett Jackson, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo, Stephon Tuitt
Mackey (tight end): Ben Koyack, Troy Niklas
Lou Groza (kicker): Kyle Brindza
Nagurski (defensive): Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt
Outland (interior lineman): Zack Martin, Louis Nix
Butkus (linebacker): Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox, Prince Shembo
Rotary Lombardi (offensive/defensive lineman, linebacker): Zack Martin, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo, Stephon Tuitt
Biletnikoff (receiver): DaVaris Daniels, T.J. Jones
Walter Camp (best player): Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt
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.
Everett Golson, QB. Despite first-year growing pains as a redshirt freshman, Golson made plenty of progress and became seasoned in a way few others have at his age. If he is to take the next step, fend off his quarterback challengers and become a consistent dual-threat QB who leads Notre Dame to another promising campaign, he will be in the spotlight more than anyone else on the Irish roster. Some already see him as a dark horse candidate.
Louis Nix, NG. Nix may be the best player returning to the Irish. And after passing up early entry to the draft, one more year of similar production to his 2012 output will make pro scouts fall in love with him even more. The only problem is his position, which is not conducive to the kind of big numbers that voters and everyone else have become accustomed to using in measuring one's impact. Still, look no further than the Nov. 3 Pitt game -- when Ray Graham rushed for 172 yards, the most against the Irish all season -- to see Nix's impact, as the redshirt sophomore was clearly not himself after being hampered by a virus that had kept him in the infirmary for two nights earlier in the week.
1. Everett Golson will be the Week 1 starter ... but his leash may be even shorter than it was this past season. Tommy Rees is there waiting for the two-minute drill when called upon, but with Andrew Hendrix seasoned another year and with Gunner Kiel's redshirt season now out of the way, coach Brian Kelly is quick to insert a new guy whenever the opportunity presents itself. Nonetheless, Golson will enter spring and fall camp as the No. 1 guy and will emerge from both as the winner.
3. Stephon Tuitt will break Justin Tuck's sack record and have a very tough decision to make at season's end. The defensive end and his mother have said in published reports that they aren't thinking about an NFL future just yet, but that will become harder to avoid after Tuitt takes yet another step in 2013. Following a 12-sack sophomore campaign that Tuitt deemed a "learning year," the 6-foot-6, 303-pounder will add a couple of more, breaking Tuck's single-season Irish record of 13.5 and becoming a universally accepted first-round pick should he choose to enter the draft after his junior year.
4. Greg Bryant will be the No. 1 RB by midseason. There is a logjam in Notre Dame's backfield, but none are all that proven. George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel have performed well in complementary roles, but neither have handled anything close to the workload that a No. 1 back requires. While the carries will likely be divvied up among those two, USC transfer Amir Carlisle and redshirt freshman William Mahone, Bryant's size and speed fit the mold of an every-down guy, and his first year will go a long way in proving that he is the future answer in the Notre Dame backfield.
5. Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese will be the returning fifth-year guys. I suppose this would be a bold prediction if I gave you an announcement date. But considering we didn't officially hear about last year's fifth-year guys until the spring, I won't be holding my breath.