It doesn’t take a CSI investigator to know that Irish fans are still smarting from the 18-14 loss to Florida State. Minutes away from a nine win season, the firm grasp the Irish defense had around the throat of the Seminoles loosened, and an offense that moved the ball prolifically earlier this season ground to a halt as both Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix struggled to do much of anything to help win a football game.
Instead of heading to the offseason winning an ugly, defense first football game and making incremental progress with a nine-win season, Kelly’s squad seems stuck in neutral thanks to a quarterbacking conundrum that will make spring practice 15 of the most important sessions this team will ever have.
With the calendar starting anew today, there’s no better time to lay out some New Year’s resolutions for the Fighting Irish as they take some time off before getting back to the grind of getting better and preparing for 2012.
For the secondary… May they learn and develop quickly. For Jamoris Slaughter, may he springboard forward after his coming-out party against the Seminoles, and become the dual-threat player he’s always been capable of as he takes over for Harrison Smith as the heart of the secondary. For Zeke Motta, may he continue to improve in coverage and get better tackling in the open field. After two years of special teams consistency, may Austin Collinsworth take that playmaking knack to a secondary in need of big plays. May Eilar Hardy come back healthy after a knee injury and Chris Badger be a quick study after his two-year mission. At cornerback, may Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson be ready to be thrown into the fire. The same goes for Josh Atkinson, who saw the field this season and will likely see it a lot more next year. With the redshirt off Jalen Brown, the athletic and tall cornerback could also emerge as a contender for playing time, where the defense will likely hinge on the young secondary’s ability to make plays.
For the linebackers… May Manti Te’o stay healthy for his senior season, a year where he’ll likely earn his reputation as one of college football’s best defenders. After going from the bottom of the outside linebacker depth chart to the starting will linebacker, may Dan Fox continue to show the athleticism that had the previous Irish coaching staff see a better prospect than Luke Kuechly. Carlo Calabrese, who lost playing time to Fox, can use 2012 to improve in space, building on the strides he took this year in coverage. Te’o’s return pushed back the emergence of Kendall Moore, but the talented youngster will find a way to make a difference for this defense next year. The same can be said for Justin Utupo and Jarrett Grace, two young and talented inside linebackers that will be contributors sooner than later. May Anthony Rabasa‘s shoulder heal quickly, allowing the freshman to participate in spring drills as he continues his transition to the interior of the defense.
With the outside of the linebacking crew, may the Irish find stability as they try to replace Darius Fleming. For Prince Shembo, may he find stability if he shifts to Fleming’s old position, where he’ll have the opportunity to rush the passer and feel more at home. May the freshman season of Ishaq Williams help the youngster develop after absorbing the transition for New York high schools to major college football. For Troy Niklas, may the talented freshman take his unique size and skill set and apply that at the dog linebacker. For Danny Spond, may he get through a season healthy, and finally be able to utilize the talent that had Kelly and the staff so high on him. For Ben Councell, may his redshirt season be fruitful for a young linebacker that could become a top-line 3-4 drop linebacker.
For the defensive line… May Kapron Lewis-Moore come back healthy after knee surgery. May Sean Cwynar return to help anchor the interior of the defensive line while also continuing his first-class education. May Tyler Stockton work his way into the interior line rotation during his final season. After a promising first season, may Louis Nix continue to improve, turning himself into an All-American. While Kona Schwenke spent a year of eligibility during fill-in duty, may he work his way into the defensive end rotation, taking some of the snaps Ethan Johnson left behind. May Chase Hounshell build on a surprising freshman campaign that found him working his way out of a redshirt and onto the field. With time in the weight room, he could add yet another promising pass rush option to a front line that could be among the best in recent Irish history. After spending 2011 on the sidelines, may Tony Springmann surprise everyone with his athleticism and size, adding another player with the versatility to play inside and out. May Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch continue to evolve into bookends the Irish haven’t seen in years. For Tuitt, may the playing time he lost due to illness be paid back next season, when the already massive freshman has a chance for another 12 months in under Paul Longo. For Lynch, may the talented pass rusher work on the space between his ear pads, cutting down on the mental mistakes and personal fouls that pockmarked a freshman season that showed everyone just how talented he’ll be. (Lynch could also work on drawing the flags he earned for holding.)
For the offensive line… May Braxston Cave return healthy for 2012, anchoring the line from the center position while continuing to add finesse to a game certainly not lacking power. If Mike Golic returns, may he do it stronger at the point of attack and more versatile, giving the Irish another super-sub candidate a la Andrew Nuss. May Chris Watt build on an impressive 2011 season, where the left guard was one of the Irish’s most punishing run blockers. May Zack Martin continue being the technically sound left tackle he’s been for two straight seasons, and continue on his All-American trajectory. May Christian Lombard be ready to take over for Taylor Dever at right tackle, after spending 2011 waiting in the wings. May Tate Nichols come back healthy and ready to challenge for playing time at tackle as well, battling Lombard for the job and showing unnatural athleticism for a player of his size. May 2012 be the year Bruce Heggie isn’t a punch line. For Conor Hanratty, Nick Martin, and Matt Hegarty, may 2012 be the year they battle for Trevor Robinson’s vacant job. For Brad Carrico, may he be ready to see the field. For Jordan Prestwood, may the year used in the weight room translate to the playing field.
For the receivers and tight ends… May Tyler Eifert decide what’s best for him and his family. If it’s Notre Dame, may he stay healthy and continue to build his body physically. For Alex Welch and Ben Koyack, may they be ready for a larger role in the offense, whether or not Eifert decides to return for 2012. For Jake Golic, may back surgery fix whatever ailed the tight end running out of opportunities to make a difference. At wide receiver, if John Goodman comes back, may he dedicated himself to becoming the wide receiver people thought he’d be coming out of high school. For Theo Riddick, if he stays at wide receiver, may 2012 be the year that the lightbulb finally goes on. For Robby Toma, may he find a more permanent spot in the offense. For TJ Jones, may he use the personal tragedy of 2011 as motivation to become the type of receiver the Irish need, while also realizing that he’s halfway done with his career. For Daniel Smith, may he finally find his way onto the field, stay healthy, and give the Irish a big body that’s ready to fill the void left by Michael Floyd. For Davaris Daniels and Matthias Farley, may they learn from the redshirt season and be ready to come out swinging in 2012.
For the running backs… May Cierre Wood pledge to put together one of the best single season’s in Notre Dame rushing history, and give himself a difficult decision on whether or not he should stay in school or head to the NFL. May Cam Roberson finally get healthy after a devastating knee injury suffered last spring. May 2012 be a better year than the last for him. For George Atkinson, may he build on the game breaking skills he showed in the return game, while finding ways to improve as a position player. For Cam McDaniel, may the youngster build on a year where his eligibility was lost, but not all that much experience was gained.
For the quarterbacks… May they find some stability. For Tommy Rees, may he prove the growing mountain of skeptics wrong. Like all quarterbacks, they’re never as good as the good times nor as bad as the bad ones. May this offseason help restore confidence, build more knowledge in the passing game, and take a step forward in his decision making. Rees will never be able to run the ball, but he can move the offense, even if the Irish sputtered down the stretch. For Andrew Hendrix, may he continue learning the offense, giving Kelly and the coaching staff a true look at what he can do come spring practice. With a skill-set that’s never been questioned, he’ll need to cut back on decisions like the throw he made against the Seminoles while also proving to be more than just a battering ram in the running game. The Irish can be the offense Kelly wants with Hendrix behind center, and a quarterback that can run will take some pressure off a receiving corp short potentially two All-Americans. For Everett Golson, may 2012 be a year where he rises to the occasion. There might be no player with great expectations heaped onto him, and if there’s a player that can rescue an offense still stuck in transition, it’s Golson.
For the coaches… May Brian Kelly stick to his guns. Two years in South Bend didn’t erase 20 years of experience, even if the fish bowl is a whole lot bigger. Sometimes seasons like the past year build humility, and for Kelly may he learn from the bizarre circumstances that came to define the 2011 season. For Bob Diaco, may he learn to live dangerously. With a youthful secondary and one of the best front sevens the Irish have ever had, maybe he keep the gas pedal down and his foot on opponents’ throats, as opposed to playing from a base defense. May Mike Elston solve the punt return game, where Michael Floyd bailed the Irish out with his 41-yard return in the bowl game after the worst season in school history. May Tim Hinton be thankful he turned down Urban Meyer and Ohio State to stay with Notre Dame. May Ed Warinner reload the right side of the offensive line and a ground game that slowed down in the season’s final month. May the offensive coordinator, whoever he may be, be ready to put his stamp on the offense. May Tony Alford earn his keep both in recruiting and in preparing this wide receiving corp for life without No. 3.