CFN Preview 2013 - Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame WR T.J. Jones
Notre Dame WR T.J. Jones
Posted Jul 5, 2013 2013 Preview - Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Preview 2013

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Brian Kelly
4th year: 28-11
15th year overall: 199-68-2
Returning Lettermen: 37
Off. 13, Def. 22, ST 1
Lettermen Lost: 18
Ten Best Notre Dame Players
1. DE Stephon Tuitt, Jr.
2. DT Louis Nix, Sr.
3. OT Zack Martin, Sr.
4. OG Chris Watt, Sr.
5. OT Christian Lombard, Sr.
6. LB Prince Shembo, Sr.
7. LB Dan Fox, Sr.
8. CB Bennett Jackson, Sr.
9. LB Jaylon Smith, Fr.
10. QB Tommy Rees, Sr.
2013 Schedule
8/31 Temple
9/7 at Michigan
9/14 at Purdue
9/21 Michigan State
9/28 Oklahoma
10/5 Arizona St (in Arlington)
10/19 USC
10/26 at Air Force
11/2 Navy
11/9 at Pitt
11/23 BYU
11/30 at Stanford
Yeah, that was super. Now do it again, and do it on a yearly basis because you're Notre Dame and playing in BCS championships is what you're supposed to do.

It's a shame that all of Alabama's NFL talent decided to show up at once on January 7th in Miami, and it's even more disappointing that the Manti Te'o embarrassment took away from what should be remembered as a truly magical regular season, but cockamamie stories aside, the whole thing was a lot of fun because each week was a big story that mattered. This is what Notre Dame football should be doing on a regular basis, and this is what the fan base is going to be expecting going forward.

Was Notre Dame the best team in college football? Far, far from it.

In hindsight, the Irish were worse than Alabama, Texas A&M, Georgia, Florida and LSU, would've gotten their doors blown off by Oregon in a BCS championship setting, and probably would've lost to Ohio State and Florida State if those two had their stuff together on the right day, but that didn't matter. Against a nasty schedule, Notre Dame did what it had to do and became national title relevant again. But as the cliché goes, it might be harder to sustain this high level than it was to get there in the first place, even if everything is in place to keep on improving.

Brian Kelly might be counting the minutes before he gets his Chip Kelly-like NFL deal, but in the meantime he has upgraded the talent level in a big way by ramping up the infrastructure on the lines and improving the overall team speed and athleticism. This isn't just Charlie Weis bringing in one or two five-star types in a limo; this is signing real, live football players across the board to actually compete with Oklahoma at Oklahoma, beat USC at USC – remember, Barkley or no Barkley, the Trojans were the preseason No. 1 in a lot of places – and get by dangerous teams like Miami, Michigan, BYU and Michigan State. This was a team that might have been able to beat just about anyone in the nation but Alabama last January, and this is a program that's building for sustained success.

This year will be an interesting test case, though.

The Irish might have caught several nice breaks – they should've lost to Pitt and Stanford's Stepfan Taylor actually scored – but it's not fair to call them lucky. They didn't turn the ball over on a regular basis, they outscored teams 90-39 in the second half, and they always came up big in the clutch. Basically, they really were good because they really were talented. Now they're even more talented with a phenomenal recruiting class bringing in even more skill for the near future.

The defensive front seven should be just as nasty despite the loss of Te'o, and the secondary should be even stronger with Lo Wood (Achilles heel) and Austin Collinsworth (shoulder) returning from injury to join an already experienced group of defensive backs. The offense might need help at running back and might need to come up with a gamebreaking receiver, but the line is going to be great and Tommy Rees is a better quarterback than you think.

And the schedule is easier with Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC having to come to South Bend this year.

So yeah, Notre Dame. Go 12-0 again, or at least come really, really close. At last year proved, you're good enough.

What to watch for on offense: Do the Irish have any skill players left? Tight end Tyler Eifert is off getting ready to be on Hard Knocks as a Cincinnati Bengal. Running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood are done, and quarterback Everett Golson was given a swift kick aside after using "poor academic judgment." It's not like the Irish offense was a juggernaut, but it was effective when it had to be. The line will be good and should help the transition, but the skill guys have to do their part. Tommy Rees needs to prove he can produce on a consistent basis as the starter after turning into a good option off the bench. George Atkinson has never shown the ability to carry the ball on a regular basis, and USC transfer Amir Carlisle can't stay healthy. T.J. Jones is a nice receiver, but he's nothing special, and there isn't a superstar ready to blow away secondaries. Quarterback Malik Zaire, running backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, receivers Will Fuller, James Onwualu, Torii Hunter and Corey Robinson, and tight ends Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman are all superstar prospects that most teams would use immediately, but they're all true freshmen.

What to watch for on defense: Shhhhhh, but the Notre Dame defense could be even better. The Irish finished second in the nation in scoring D and seventh in run defense, and despite the loss of Captain Catfish, there's no sign of slowing down with Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt anchoring the front three and three great linebackers in Prince Shembo and Dan Fox ready to pick up Te'o's slack. After looking like a possible disaster going into last season, the secondary has options to play around with and lots of veteran talent. While he might be a punchline now, Te'o really was a special player, but this is a total team defense that should be terrific.

The team will be far better if … the offense is ultra-focused and doesn't turn the ball over. That's not a given with Tommy Rees at quarterback, but the giveaways have to be kept to a bare minimum. Last year, the Irish seemed to be locked in when they needed to be against the Big Ten's best defense (Michigan State) and was solid in an interesting matchup against Miami and in pivotal games against Oklahoma and USC on the road. How many turnovers were there in those four showdowns? Zip. The three lost fumbles against Stanford were a problem and the three giveaways against Pitt didn't help in the close call.

The schedule: It's far, far easier than it was last year, but it's still going to be difficult. Oklahoma, Michigan State and USC are still going to be good, but at least those three games are in South Bend instead of on the road. Going to Michigan and Purdue in back-to-back weeks will set the tone after starting out the year against Temple, and going to Jerry World in Arlington to face Arizona State is going to be difficult, but there are two weeks off before facing the Trojans and another two week break in late November before dealing with a good BYU team at home again. Instead of playing USC in the finale, this year the curtain will come down at Stanford.

Best offensive player: Senior OT Zack Martin. The NFL scouts are a little bit split on his pro future. He's not massive at 6-4 and 304 pounds, and he's not going to be a left tackle at the next level, but he could get a long look at right tackle and will likely end up as an athletic guard. For now, he'll be an anchor for a good-looking line protecting Tommy Rees and being one of the main men the ground game works behind. At the college level, he's an elite pass protector and should be on everyone's All-America short list.

Best defensive player: Junior DE Stephon Tuitt. However, senior nose tackle Louis Nix might be more valuable as the massive anchor for the great run defense. Tuitt has it all with size, pass rushing ability and toughness against the run, and it showed with a brilliant 2012 season. Considered a possible top ten overall draft pick if he chooses to come out early, he's has dream NFL tools in any system as a 3-4 end or a 4-3 tackle. A superstar recruit a few years ago, he's living up to his billing.

Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Tommy Rees. Around the program for years, and a big part of several memorable games, it's not like he's starting from scratch, but he can't have a meltdown game with too many big mistakes. Can Brian Kelly work wonders with his veteran like he did with Tony Pike at Cincinnati? It's not a stretch to think Rees can make the jump from good to fantastic, and if Notre Dame wants to be in the national title hunt, he needs to do just that.

The season will be a success if … the Irish get back to a BCS game. They're not going to get the same breaks twice and they'll be on the wrong side of a close game here and there, but the defense and offensive line are too good, and there's too much potential on offense, to hope for anything worse than 10-2, which would likely get it done for a BCS bid. Considering the program doesn't have a set bowl tie-in, either it makes it to a big money game, or some bowl will have to break a contract to make it happen.

Key game: Sept. 7 at Michigan. Last season's showdown was a brutal turnover fest and one of the year's most disappointing games. This season, the trip to Ann Arbor is the only true road game of note – the game against Arizona State is at a neutral site – before finishing up at Stanford. Beat the Wolverines, hold serve at home, and don't gack as the favorite, and 11-0 or 10-1 is possible before making the trip to Palo Alto.

2012 Fun Stats:
- Second Half Scoring: Notre Dame 161 – Opponents 53
- Rushing Touchdowns: Notre Dame 23 – Opponents 4 (Alabama scored two of them)
- Time of Possession: Notre Dame 31:44 – Opponents 28:16
- 2013 Notre Dame Preview | 2013 Notre Dame Offense
- 2013 Notre Dame Defense | 2013 Notre Dame Depth Chart