Notre Dame Football: ND bye grades 2012

Bye week grades: Coaching staff

October, 5, 2012
10/05/12
2:00
PM ET
The 10th and final report card of Notre Dame's bye week.

COACHING STAFF

Grade: A-

Summary: One could hardly go five minutes during last year's training camp without hearing BCS talk out of players' and coaches' mouths. Reality hit everyone cold and fast with an 0-2 start, and despite some bright spots, the 2011 season ended up being a disappointment. With quarterback uncertainty, secondary youth and more off-field issues heading into 2012 — not to mention a schedule perceived to be as daunting as any in recent memory — there seemed to be a huge lack of optimism from the fan base entering this season. Brian Kelly was harder to read, much more reserved when talking about his team and its expectations, with reporters wondering if it was all smoke or if he truly didn't know what he had in his team. The naming of Everett Golson as starter seemed to signal a shift in the offensive direction, with the Irish offense looking to open up the way many thought it would.

That hasn't happened yet, but something else has. The defense has absorbed the loss of Aaron Lynch and has been dominant up front. The secondary — despite losing two more first-teamers — has jelled together solidly through four weeks. The offense — while struggling at times under Golson, who still has a long way to go — has stopped turning the ball over. The team seems to have bought in fully with Kelly's system. And that daunting schedule looks a lot less daunting, as the No. 9 Irish are currently ranked higher than anyone they play this season.

It's early, and though Notre Dame is the only team in the nation yet to trail at any point this season, its offense is still not very good so far, meaning there is little room for error. But the team has far exceeded any and all expectations prior to the bye week, winning its first four games for the first time in 10 years. At the end of the day — or, in this case, the bye — someone needs to take a bow. And that's Kelly. His decision to put Tommy Rees in for Golson during a tied Purdue game in Week 2 could've ignited a storm like no other had the Irish lost. Instead, his faith was rewarded, Rees has responded as the best possible No. 2 option under center and the Irish have a lot less to worry about if their experiment with Golson does not produce results.

The next step for Notre Dame is to build on its success and avoid a letdown. But so far, so good.

Previous report cards:

Quarterbacks

Defensive line

Offensive line

Linebackers

Running backs

Wide receivers

Tight ends

Secondary

Special teams

Bye week grades: Special teams

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
5:00
PM ET
SPECIAL TEAMS

Grade: B

Summary: Notre Dame is averaging four punt return yards per game. This qualifies as massive progress after last season, when the Irish netted three punt return yards on the year through 12 regular-season games before Michael Floyd brought one back 38 yards in the bowl game. Davonte' Neal's best days are ahead of him, and he has shown shiftiness and confidence you don't see too often from true freshmen. The punting game, meanwhile, has been strong, especially when needed most. Ben Turk had a standout performance at Michigan State, a game in which the field position battle was crucial in the second half. George Atkinson III, like most prominent kick return men, has been limited by the new kickoff rules. The kick-coverage unit has room for improvement after surrendering more than 26 yards per return through four games (109th in the nation). Kyle Brindza, meanwhile, has filled in nicely for the injured Nick Tausch, kicking the game-winner against Purdue. Overall a good, not great, showing from the Irish's special teams units.

Previous report cards:

Quarterbacks

Defensive line

Offensive line

Linebackers

Running backs

Wide receivers

Tight ends

Secondary

Bye week grades: Secondary

October, 3, 2012
10/03/12
10:30
AM ET
SECONDARY

Grade: B+

Summary: Notre Dame has the nation's No. 19 pass defense. Think about that. Last season it started all seniors in the defensive backfield. This year? It returned two senior safeties and two first-year starting cornerbacks. One of those cornerbacks (Lo Wood) tore his Achilles tendon in camp, leading to a freshman starter who had arrived on campus as a running back three months earlier and had never played the position in high school (KeiVarae Russell). Three weeks into the season, one of those starting safeties (Jamoris Slaughter) tore his Achilles tendon, leading to a redshirt freshman starter who played receiver a year ago and who hadn't played football at all five years ago (Matthias Farley). Five of the team's eight interceptions have come from defensive backs, and they are responsible for two of the Irish's five fumble recoveries. Yes, the front-seven is to credit for making life much easier for the secondary, and yes, Notre Dame has yet to face a lethal passing attack, but you can't ask for much more out of the secondary through the first-third of the season. Zeke Motta has grown into the kind of leader few saw him becoming, and Bennett Jackson is quickly doing the same, just two years after moving from receiver himself.

The backups: Nicky Baratti recorded his first career interception against Michigan. Former walk-on Chris Salvi is a veteran presence who now finds himself on the second team after injuries, and the Irish possess a number of talented young defensive backs among the reserves, many of whom are being thrown into the fire early due to circumstance.

Previous report cards:

Quarterbacks

Defensive line

Offensive line

Linebackers

Running backs

Wide receivers

Tight ends

Bye week grades: Tight ends

October, 2, 2012
10/02/12
9:00
AM ET
TIGHT ENDS

Grade: B

Summary: No tight end in the country received as much attention entering the season as Tyler Eifert did. And, consequently, no tight end in the country has received as much attention on the field as Eifert through four games. He has just one catch in his last two games, and has just nine catches for 158 yards and a touchdown this season, a far cry from his 63-catch, 803-yard season from a year ago. This is not exactly his fault, as defenses have keyed in on him and the Irish haven't taken advantage yet with other options. But you can't underestimate his value to the passing game. Just look at the second half of the Purdue game, as Notre Dame netted just 42 yards over its first five drives without Eifert, who left with a mild concussion. (Tommy Rees came in for the sixth and final drive without Eifert to lead the Irish to victory.)

The backups: Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas haven't put up much numbers-wise yet, and Alex Welch tore an ACL in camp to end his season before it started. Niklas has the highest upside of the group and figures to be a big-time player later in his career, after working out all of the kinks of the switch from linebacker. Blocking from this group as a whole has room for improvement.

Previous report cards:

Quarterbacks

Defensive line

Offensive line

Linebackers

Running backs

Wide receivers

Bye week grades: Wide receivers

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
5:00
PM ET
WIDE RECEIVERS

Grade: B-

Summary: Notre Dame's wide receivers haven't been bad. Frankly, they haven't had too many chances to make huge plays. Nor have the Irish really needed them to. But someone has to step up. Tyler Eifert has been the focus of opposing defenses, and when that happens, someone must get open. Notre Dame's leading receiver is DaVaris Daniels, who probably has the most upside of any receiver on the roster but also left the Purdue game with an ankle sprain and barely played the next weekend at Michigan State. Daniels has 159 receiving yards for the season. Robby Toma, T.J. Jones and John Goodman have all been solid. The group is just lacking that extra little something it had in the past with Michael Floyd. And much of that falls on the quarterback position, too. No one is expecting any of these players to emerge as a first-round draft pick the way that Floyd did, but having a true No. 1 threat could make life much easier for whoever is under center.

The backups: Chris Brown has great speed and is a capable deep threat -- the quarterback just has to hit him with the ball. Davonte Neal is going to be a very good player but has too many older guys with similar body types in front of him.

Previous report cards:

Quarterbacks

Defensive line

Offensive line

Linebackers

Running backs

Bye week grades: Running backs

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
10:30
AM ET
RUNNING BACKS

Grade: B+

Summary: The running backs, along with the offensive line, have been the backbone of this offense through the first-third of the season. From rushing for 293 yards in a rout of Navy to coming up with big plays when needed most in wins against Michigan State and Michigan, the Irish ground game has been effective. We can't forget that the first two contests came without the suspended Cierre Wood, who rushed for 1,102 yards last season. Wood has been solid, but Theo Riddick has been the star in his return to the backfield. Individual numbers outside of Week 1 have not been eye-opening, but Notre Dame's depth in the backfield has been crucial in a season that the running game has been counted upon so much while the passing game works out its issues. The Irish have also faced two of the better defensive fronts in the nation through four weeks in Michigan State and Purdue.

The backups: George Atkinson III rushed for 99 yards in the opener and is probably the fastest player on the team. Becoming a better slot receiver will add another threat to his arsenal and help him get on the field more. Cam McDaniel had a strong opening performance against Navy. USC transfer Amir Carlisle has yet to play and might redshirt this season.

Previous report cards:

Quarterbacks

Defensive line

Offensive line

Linebackers

Bye week grades: Linebackers

September, 27, 2012
9/27/12
10:30
AM ET
LINEBACKERS

Grade: A

Summary: Rumor has it that Manti Te'o kid at Mike is pretty good. The rest? Not too shabby. Notre Dame as a whole has not surrendered a rushing touchdown this season. Only three other schools have done that. The Irish have not gone four consecutive games without allowing a rushing score since 1992. Prince Shembo has played consecutive outstanding games at the Cat, especially at Michigan State. Dan Fox has been solid at the Will, and Danny Spond has bounced back from a terrifying migraine and had the game of his career this past Saturday. You can't ask for much more out of Bob Diaco's group, which has been led by Te'o, the best inside linebacker in the country and a guy who has drawn national attention from all over, including Heisman buzz.

The backups: Carlo Calabrese started in his return against Purdue and has been strong against the run. Ishaq Williams is seeing more and more of the field as well and has been a force outside. Ben Councell and Jarrett Grace continue to gain valuable experience. No one can replace a Te'o, but the Irish have plenty of bodies capable of stepping in when needed.

Previous report cards:

Quarterbacks

Defensive line

Offensive line

Bye week grades: Offensive line

September, 26, 2012
9/26/12
10:30
AM ET
OFFENSIVE LINE

Grade: A-minus

Summary: When asked before the season what he knows and likes about his team, coach Brian Kelly said that it's a good feeling knowing you will probably win the battle in the trenches every time out. The Purdue game, in which Notre Dame surrendered five sacks to a standout defensive line, drew some cause for concern, but the Irish offensive line has been top-notch in three other contests, helping to break in a new quarterback while opening crucial holes late in contests to help the Irish run their way to victory. Notre Dame rushed for 293 yards in a season-opening win against Navy, paved the way for a 12-play, 84-yard game-sealing drive at Michigan State and allowed Theo Riddick to rush for 40 yards on 12 carries over the game's final two drives in a win over Michigan. The numbers, outside of Week 1, do not jump off the page, but the line has been instrumental in lifting the Irish to victory in three of their four wins.

Backups: Tackle Tate Nichols has been inactive so far after dealing with a preseason right knee subluxation, forcing true freshman Ronnie Stanley into the fold late against Navy. Redshirt freshman Nick Martin is a valuable and versatile second-team piece. But the Irish have not had to call upon their reserves much through the first-third of the season.

Previous report cards:

Quarterbacks

Defensive line

Bye week grades: Defensive line

September, 25, 2012
9/25/12
9:00
AM ET
DEFENSIVE LINE

Grade: A

Summary: Mel Kiper's Week 1 comments about Stephon Tuitt -- that the sophomore might be the best defensive lineman in the country -- went viral, and Tuitt responded by doing his best to live up to the claim. Tuitt has six sacks through four games and has been a key piece to an Irish defense that did not allow touchdowns to Michigan State and Michigan in consecutive games and is giving up just nine points per game (No. 4 nationally). Louis Nix has shaken off his spring rust and appears to be refocused, becoming a force inside. And fifth-year senior and captain Kapron Lewis-Moore has provided veteran leadership through four games, grinding through a calf injury and reeling in the two young studs he plays beside. This unit was supposed to suffer a drop-off after Aaron Lynch transferred to USF in the spring, but right now it is hard to imagine the Irish's front playing much better, as it has made life miserable each quarterback it has faced. Of the Irish's 14 sacks -- which is tied for 10th in the nation -- 11.5 have come from defensive linemen.

Backups: Sheldon Day, frankly, has not played like a true freshman. The Indianapolis native has a pair of sacks on the season and has proved to be a very valuable second-teamer, filling in capably for the hobbled Lewis-Moore. He has very bright days ahead of him. Tony Springmann has played better than most expected thus far as well, and Kona Schwenke has gotten one start and been a capable No. 2 man in the middle behind Nix.

Previous report cards:

Quarterbacks

Bye week grades: Quarterbacks

September, 24, 2012
9/24/12
9:00
AM ET
Throughout the bye week, we will take a look at Notre Dame by position and see how each stacks up one-third of the way through the regular season.

QUARTERBACKS

Grade: B-minus

Summary: The starting quarterback has been pulled from two games. That is not a good sign. But the backup quarterback has come in and committed a grand total of zero turnovers in leading the Irish to victories. It is a very odd situation -- the starting quarterback may not be the best quarterback; the most knowledgeable quarterback is not the starting quarterback, etc. But the Irish are 4-0, and Everett Golson has certainly shown some flashes of great play, especially in the win at Michigan State. He needs to get everything under control better and avoid careless turnovers, especially in the red zone. But this system -- in which it is Golson's job to lose … until he loses it -- may just work with a guy as comfortable in his odd role as Tommy Rees is. The offense needs to get better, sure, but more than anything it needs to avoid killer mistakes that can put the standout defense in bad situations. Of course, there is always the risk of Golson's confidence being shattered, but he responded to his first benching -- a much bigger head-scratcher than the second one -- just fine the following week in East Lansing.

Backups: Do we put Rees here? If so, great job. He may be more than a backup at this point, though. Andrew Hendrix has game experience from a year ago but lost the battle for the top job to Golson in camp. He has loads of potential but will have a hard time getting on the field at this point. Blue-chip freshman Gunner Kiel seems all but destined to redshirt given the crowd above him at the position.

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