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2011 Season Preview: The Notre Dame Fighting Irish Take the Next Step

Manti Te'o with one of his 133 tackles from the 2010 season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Manti Te'o with one of his 133 tackles from the 2010 season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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For some reason this was a difficult season preview to write.

With so much momentum from last year, and so many various going ons to be excited about, you would think that writing this would be easy.

Perhaps because there has been so much positive news coming from Notre Dame that at times it feels a little too good to be true?

I know there are people out there who feel that way, and probably justifiably so given this programs recent history.

Nevertheless, this 2011 season preview of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will still be dripping in optimism.

Like Michael Floyd breaking free into the Miami secondary, the optimism is impossible to contain.

I have a feeling that this is going to be a very good year for Brian Kelly & Co.

Expectations: Reasonably High

"Don’t expect the underachieving to continue" was my motto for the team last year, and this year it is "Take the next step."

I have no illusions about the landscape of college football today and how difficult it is to win every single week, but this is a very talented and prepared Notre Dame team that is going to be favored in a ton of games in 2011.

There’s a lot of talk about going to a BCS game already in Brian Kelly’s second year. While there could be a few scenarios in which the team not finding themselves in a primetime bowl game could be acceptable, the truth is not making a BCS would probably be a disappointment.

Expectations are reasonably high because a lot of starters are returning, the defense finally looks to be the strong point of the team, the lines on both sides of the ball look very impressive, and Brian Kelly’s coaching is firmly taking root with the program.

First off, the amount of returning starters is a great indicator that this 2011 Notre Dame team will be very good and not prone to the stupid mistakes young and inexperienced teams make. You don’t often see a team replacing double-digit starters make a whole lot of waves, but a team that is bringing back a lot of starters on both offense and defense typically improves quite a bit.

The defense---and the team overall---is buoyed by the No. 1 ranked recruiting class of 2008 now being battle-tested seniors. That class, with starters Robert Blanton, Darius Fleming, Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Sean Cwynar is also backed up by fellow seniors Steve Filer, Anthony McDonald, and Jamoris Slaughter.

In addition, these talented players are joined by outstanding fifth-year seniors Harrison Smith and Gary Gray, as well as veteran juniors Manti Te’o and Zeke Motta. Youngsters like Prince Shembo, Danny Spond, and Louis Nix will also play an integral role in the performance of the Irish defense in 2011.

The best part may be the incoming freshman class, and not so much that they are as talented as any to come to South Bend in a very long time, but that the depth in front of them means they will be used appropriately. A couple years ago numerous defenders from this 2011 class probably would have been thrust into starting roles, but now they will learn the system and make an impact as backups.

This is precisely what the best defenses in the country do, and Notre Dame simply has never had the luxury of doing it in this century. Naturally, it is exciting to see what could happen when they finally have the depth to do so.

The offensive line looks like it could be the most consistent and steady unit on the team, if not the best overall. Even better, the defensive line looks as strong as it’s ever been in God knows how many years. Add that up and Notre Dame should be a very physical team that will control the line of scrimmage in the vast majority of its games.

It says something about the shape of the program when a proven coach like Brian Kelly and his staff are merely the fourth reason why the team should play at a high level in 2011. In most years, a winner like Kelly would likely be the first reason, especially in only his second season at a new school.

Nevertheless, Kelly’s skills as a program builder and coach are going to pay off big time in year two. The team probably won’t blow the general public away with their dominance, but I expect significant improvement in certain areas.

I like to envision all of those behind the scenes aspects that give a program power--- focusing on fundamentals, eating right, top notch strength and conditioning, familiarity with the systems---and because of Brian Kelly and his staff I believe we’ll see a boost in all of these categories.

In years past there was very little boost in these behind the scenes aspects, and very little familiarity with the systems the players were trying to learn. Now, everyone is on the same page, the upperclassmen know what to do and can be teachers in addition to the coaches, and because of that Notre Dame fans have a reason to be excited.

Schedule: Some Ole, Same Ole

As usual, the thing that automatically jumps out at you with Notre Dame’s schedule is the lack of really bad opponents. No one is going to confuse WakeForest and Purdue for a perennial power, but it’s a bit unsettling when a team’s worst opponents are BCS conference foes with a history of being at least decent from time to time.

At the same time, the schedule isn’t swarming with big time powerhouses with Stanford, USC, and MichiganState being the likely ranked opponents the Irish will face at the top. The ceiling isn’t very high, but the basement is and as we know that usually makes for a very challenging and tough schedule in college football.

At first glance this doesn’t appear to be very tough for Notre Dame’s standards, yet with teams like South Florida, Air Force, and Michigan being underrated by many people, it should be another top 25 schedule yet again for the Irish.

Quarterbacks: 8.1 (out of 10)

The depth and talent are outstanding with a lot of toys for Brian Kelly to work with. Durability, turnovers, and a lack of truly explosive play are still concerns. The potential is there for a much higher grade, and I think we’ll see that this year, but they have to prove it first.

Running Backs: 7.8

The lowest grade for the team comes here mainly due to inexperience and lack of depth. However, Cierre Wood has enormous ability and might boost this grade big time if he can stay healthy. Behind Wood is nothing scary, but the combination of Jonas Gray and a couple freshman should mean decent backup play. With Wood’s big play ability, this group might surprise a lot of people.

Offensive Line: 8.8

This line is creeping toward one of the better units in the country. They proved last year that they can be dominant in pass protection, so this year they have to be able to establish the run game when necessary. Great talent across the board and a good mixture of youth and experience equals one of the better offensive lines in recent memory for the Irish. They should all play much better in the second year of the system under Kelly’s fast-paced no-huddle attack as well.

Tight Ends: 9.2

As deep or deeper than any unit in the country are the Fighting Irish at tight end. There might be a lack of an All-American at the starting spot (although Tyler Eifert has that potential), but very rarely can a team employ three highly talented and multi-faceted tight ends like Notre Dame can do with Eifert, Mike Ragone, and Alex Welch. Prep sensation Ben Koyack just adds to the abundance of riches for the Irish.

Wide Receivers: 8.4

This unit still has Michael Floyd (who should play this year), but they need to prove they can be dangerous without him. Theo Riddick is one of the better No. 2 receivers in the country, but needs to stay healthy, become more consistent, and continue to be explosive. After the first two options the Irish are solid but far from intimidating. TJ Jones, John Goodman, and Robby Toma all have their strengths, but someone is going to have to step up in this pass-friendly offense. Freshman Davaris Daniels could be a nice surprise.

Defensive Line: 8.5

With a lot of depth and experience, this is probably the best defensive line in many years for Notre Dame. Two senior ends will be backed up by two sensational freshmen (with more help as well from Kona Schwenke), while there are 3 upperclassmen ready to fight for time at tackle or nose guard. Massive true sophomore nose tackle Louis Nix might be the missing ingredient that propels this unit to a very high level of play.

Linebackers: 8.6

The linebackers used to be a major liability for Notre Dame, but they are perhaps the team’s strength now thanks in large part to budding superstar Manti Te’o. The talent and athleticism next to Te’o in the middle leaves something to be desired, but the Irish have a very nice collection of outside linebackers with Darius Fleming, Prince Shembo, and Danny Spond. If someone like Steve Filer or Kendall Moore has a breakout season, or if highly touted freshmen Ishaq Williams or Ben Councell prove to be too good to not play a lot of minutes, this could be a scary good linebacker corps in South Bend.

Corners: 8.4

At the top of the depth chart the starting corners Gary Gray and Robert Blanton are as fundamentally sound and athletic as Notre Dame has seen in a while. Both will give opposing receivers fits all year long. Behind them the depth is extremely poor with sophomore Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson having very little experience. If this unit can stay healthy there will be no problems. If there any long term injuries the defense could come unraveled a little bit. Odds are at least one or two freshmen will be in the mix for minutes in 2011.

Safety: 8.1

There are three veteran guys in this unit led by Harrison Smith, a player who made an enormous turn around last season. We will see if Smith makes takes the next step from improved player to a true game changer. Both Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter are solid but everyone would like a little bit more out of them. The depth is decent behind these three with Dan McCarthy and Austin Collinsworth fighting for a two-deep spot. In recent years, safety play really killed Notre Dame. By the end of last year we saw what could happen when Smith and Motta started playing a lot better within the system.

Special Teams: 8.2

With one of the best place-kicking games in the country, this grade should be higher if not for wickedly inconsistent punting and a pretty abysmal return game. Punter Ben Turk is another year older, but will be pushed by big-legged freshman Kyle Brindza. For the most part, the kick and punt coverage teams were very good last year, but that was negated by a lack of explosiveness when the Irish took possession of the pigskin during special teams. The team will have to rely on Theo Riddick and likely some freshmen to improve in 2011.

Season Prediction

This 2011 Notre Dame team isn’t without its flaws and question marks, but I don’t believe there has been this well-rounded of a club to put on the gold helmets in a very, very long time.

Sure I’m almost always in the optimist camp but there are a lot of other people outside of the program who normally are quite skeptical, yet who feel things are changing in a very real way in South Bend.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Irish will be in the national title hunt---although that really shouldn’t surprise anyone who looks at the talent up and down the Notre Dame roster---even still, this is going to be a tough team to beat week in and week out.

As always, the early portion of the schedule will be a formidable test that will challenge the team’s wherewithal and determination. If the Irish can take care of business in the home opener against a feisty South Florida team, and then come back and beat both Michigan schools, there might be something special brewing.

A quick 3-0 start could be enormous for the team as their confidence will shoot through the roof and the team will face three decent opponents before a bye week brings some respite in front of the nighttime showdown with USC.

Every year I ask myself how many losses I think would make the season acceptable, and this is usually a good way of putting things into perspective and making a solid prediction.

This year the limit is three losses.

The likeliest losses are MichiganState, USC, and Stanford…the most talented and well-balanced teams on the schedule.

That would mean two home losses and a crushing end of the year loss with a possible BCS bowl on the line, yet it would be decent progress for the program. Also, each one of those games is spread out and would mean Notre Dame is winning most weeks without falling into any bad losing streaks.

I have a sneaking feeling we will beat USC at home under the lights of Notre Dame Stadium. It’s time for the Fighting Irish do go on a little winning streak of their own in the series, and back-to-back wins against the Trojans could do wonders for the program.

If the players are buying what Brian Kelly is selling, and every indication is that they are, this Irish team could be special. There is tremendous leadership on the field, and the program might start getting some breaks with a defense that is shaping up to punish whoever steps in front of them.

The team is no longer living and dying off the arm of a quarterback and instead is being led by an improving defense and a fearsome linebacker with skills that are so very special. And a team that is led by Manti Te’o is going to be a good one.

The program is ready to take the next step.

Although the team is now built to support the offense and the quarterback, that does not mean that the quarterback is still not important---because it definitely is.

It is expected that Dayne Crist will be the starter, and I still believe that he can be a very good quarterback for the Fighting Irish. If he is injured or doesn't play up to par, the team has a capable backup in Tommy Rees, or possibly a more explosive option in Andrew Hendrix.

Whoever starts, the offense will be better and more productive because there will be a sounder connection with the receivers (quietly a bit of a problem last year) and Cierre Wood's explosiveness will keep defenses on their toes.

The program might still be a year away from being the explosive offense that Brian Kelly ultimately desires, but that doesn't mean they can't be very good in 2011.

All of the pieces are in place for Notre Dame to be a really good football team that dominates the weaker opponents, plays for four quarters, and thrives against the top opponents.

A lot of people are scared and wary because of the letdowns the program suffered during and after the 2005 and 2006 seasons, but this feels different.

I know many folks don’t want to admit it, even die-hard members of the Irish fan base, but this team is really talented. You won’t find many other teams around the country with a better selection of skill than at Notre Dame.

Now that this skill is experienced, has great depth, to go along with great coaching, we should expect to see a team that is obviously much better than the Irish teams that recently went to BCS bowl games.

There just aren’t that many holes in this team’s armor.

The biggest concern will be running the ball with a high level of productivity and that is a legitimate worry. Other than that, Notre Dame is asking fewer questions about their team than nearly every program in the country.

Lastly, it is exciting to see what a Notre Dame team can do when it is anchored by its defense like we think they will be this year. For that reason alone, 2011 should be different (and better) than anything we’ve seen in over a decade at Notre Dame.

You’ll notice that a lot of other opponent previews from teams we will play this year are echoing the same sentiments, mainly: "Notre Dame is loaded this year."

And they’re right.

Now all the team has to do is take the next step and prove it on the field.

2011 Record: 10-3

Be sure to check back here at One Foot Down for the 2nd Annual Shamrock Awards, another less conventional season preview coming soon!