Monday, June 24, 2013
Irish aim to put speed bumps in rearview
By Matt Fortuna
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 Game, the Irish have:
Spent days on their toes and watched four-star linebacker Alex Anzalone flip to Florida as 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.
Notre 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, Kelly 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, 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.
While at Cincinnati, Kelly once used five quarterbacks in a single season, which ended at the Orange Bowl. If anyone can handle the haymakers the position has been thrown, it's him.
Rees' 20 turnovers during an 8-5 campaign in 2011 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 a 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.