Dec 24, 2012, 11:48 AM EDT
The Irish have taken a long and winding road to Miami. The trail they’ve forged — crossing the Atlantic to open the season and playing their season finale just miles from the Pacific — gives you an idea of the literal distance this team had to travel to fight their way into college football’s finale. Yet the emotional journey might have been far more harrowing, starting the season as a team that was left for dead, and only after nobody else was left standing, finally, almost begrudgingly, accepted as one of the nation’s elite teams.
With apologies to The Hobbit, this was an unexpected journey that every Irish fan found entrancing. As we enter a holiday week that gives each of us an opportunity to look back at 2012, we’re spending the week looking back at the games and players that made this memorable 12-0 season possible.
Let’s get started with Notre Dame’s trip to Dublin.
For those in need of a trip down memory lane to remember August, it wasn’t exactly rainbows and lollipops for Notre Dame or its fans. Entering week one, the Irish were dealing with a number of off-the-field headaches, and quite a bit of white noise that came from the media.
Rick Reilly, the ESPN writer/personality paid like an NBA first round draft pick, had just put down the shovel after digging a grave for the Irish football program. Brian Kelly had his own minor misstep blown out of proportion, when his quote, “I’m not a big fan of playing football games in Ireland,” was turned into referendum on the Irish coach who many saw as a dictatorial kill joy. And then add in Allen Pinkett’s silly “a few bad citizens” radio interview, and you start to remember that this season started out like far too many recently.
On the field, Notre Dame was dealing with its own issues. Would the loss of Aaron Lynch doom a front-seven that was in desperate need of pass rushers? In the days leading up to the game, we broke the news that Cierre Wood wouldn’t be traveling to Dublin, leaving the Irish’s leading rusher home to watch the game with Tommy Rees, Carlo Calabrese, and Justin Utupo. If you were looking for a safety net for newly named starting quarterback Everett Golson, keep looking.
Entering the season opener, here were a few key questions we were asking:
How ready was Everett Golson?
The debut of Golson was one of the few energizing offseason developments. The young quarterback showed flashes during the Blue-Gold game, but beating Navy was another thing.
“He’s going to make some mistakes and we know that we’re going to have to overcome those,” Kelly said of Golson back in August. “But if he’s not out of character on Saturday, I will safely say, he will do a very good job of taking care of the football. But that’s why they play the game.”
Will Bob Diaco’s untested secondary hold up?
Even with a full deck, Irish fans were concerned about the status of Notre Dame’s secondary. The loss of Austin Collinsworth to a season-ending shoulder surgery was a critical blow to the Irish’s ability to play nickel coverage. An Achilles tendon tear to Lo Wood cost the Irish their starting cornerback in preseason camp. While Irish fans felt comfortable about Bennett Jackson taking over the boundary cornerback position, freshman KeiVarae Russell, who started camp with a different number on his back and playing a different position, had a bunch of responsibility heaped on him as the team’s starting field cornerback.
Seniors Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter were two rocks that the Irish could depend on (not for long as it turned out), but this was a huge question mark heading into the Navy game, and all eyes were on Diaco, co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks and new safeties coach Bob Elliott.
What would the Irish offense look like with Chuck Martin running it?
The faith of Notre Dame fans in Chuck Martin was almost universal, a pretty bizarre occurrence for a group that’s known to be skeptical on just about everything. Yet Kelly’s unusual move of turning his safeties coach and recruiting coordinator into the offensive coordinator seemed solid from the start.
Yet Martin was given no small task. Transition to a redshirt freshman quarterback that had yet to see live game action. Replace Michael Floyd, the school’s record-setting wide receiver. Rebuild a running game with an offensive line that had a new position coach, solid talent, but little depth.
More importantly, Martin was tasked with finding a way to stop the Irish from getting in their own way, as the 2011 edition was plenty prolific, but often its own worse enemy. That objective on its own was tough enough. But doing that while breaking in a young quarterback, finding some dependable receivers, and starting the year without Cierre Wood? Well, maybe the faith in Martin was more a leap than anything.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
Notre Dame 50, Navy 10.
The benefit of the early kickoff — a 9 a.m. EST start — meant most hard core college football fans were spending breakfast watching Notre Dame. And as the Irish went out and pummeled Navy, it sure seemed like Notre Dame was taking out a lot of their offseason frustrations on the outclassed Midshipmen.
Forget about Golson (for a minute), the Irish ground game was new and improved. Running early and often, Theo Riddick looked at home at tailback, pacing the Irish with 107 yards and two touchdowns. George Atkinson looked like the home run threat many had hoped he’d become, and his 56-yard sprint for the end zone was a dazzling display of speed. Harry Hiestand’s offensive line dominated the point of attack, and Martin and Kelly seemed happy putting Golson under center, running a throw-back offensive attack that took the pressure off a young quarterback getting his feet wet.
Golson played a solid game, completing 12 of 18 passes for 145 yards, finding Tyler Eifert for an easy red zone touchdown pass, but also forcing a ball into coverage for an interception. Yet the young quarterback looked calm, and while Andrew Hendrix saw the field, it was as a mop-up quarterback.
“We knew what we were going to get with Everett,” Kelly said after the game. “This wasn’t something where we didn’t know what was going to happen. There is always going to be some learning and he’s going to continue to learn all year. We would not have put him out there unless he had a good grasp of the offense. This was really just getting live snaps and experiencing the flow of the game. He’s going to be a much better player each and every week, today was just the start.”
Any concerns about the front seven seemed more than a little premature. Stephon Tuitt played relentlessly, and returned a fumble for 77 yards and a touchdown. Manti Te’o recovered a fumble and had an interception. And Prince Shembo played fast off the edge.
Still, no worries were allayed in the secondary. Navy quarterback Trey Miller completed 14 of 19 passes with freshman Russell getting beat over the top for a touchdown. Matthias Farley, at the time one of the true unknowns on the team, got a surprise start at outside linebacker, passing fifth-year senior Danny McCarthy with an excellent camp. While Irish fans expected the coaches to game plan a way into protecting their secondary as the season moved forward, Kelly seemed legitimately unconcerned about Navy’s ability to make plays through the air.
“I thought they did some great things,” Kelly said of his secondary. “I’m really excited about their ability to go out there and compete. The learning experience that we got today is something invaluable.”
Perhaps just as important, the easy 50-10 victory got Kelly and his staff the opportunity to get young players on the field. Seventeen players saw their first action of their Notre Dame career, many of whom would be important contributors this season.
“We all know this is going to be a long season,” Kelly said after the game. “We need all those players to play certain roles for us.”
Aug 31, 2015, 11:37 AM EDT
Let’s get the rest of the mailbag finished off so we can concentrate on game week. (Feels really good to type that sentence.) Thanks again for some great questions.
Aug 30, 2015, 3:34 PM EDT
There are a ton of good questions to get to so this will roll out in multiple parts. Many thanks for the thoughtful work. (And some nice examples of brevity.)
Aug 29, 2015, 3:19 PM EDT
After a long line of starters with plenty of experience, Notre Dame’s tight ends all but start over in 2015. Scott Booker’s position group comes in with all sorts of intriguing traits. Unfortunately, none of those are experience.
Aug 28, 2015, 2:50 PM EDT
Brian Kelly was on the Dan Patrick Show this morning and the Irish head coach got his last weekend without a game started by chatting it up with the popular radio host. While Kelly didn’t make any headlines in the interview, he did conduct it from his desk with a Showtime crew hanging a boom mic over his head, part of life with a documentary film crew following him around.
Aug 28, 2015, 1:04 PM EDT
Just about everybody expects Harry Hiestand’s offensive line to be a dominant unit. But after months of preseason hype, they now need to prove they can do it.
Aug 27, 2015, 8:48 PM EDT
Ishaq Williams’ college football career is over. Notre Dame’s exiled defensive end, who sat out last season as part of a two-semester suspension for his role in the “frozen five” academic dishonesty investigation, has lost his NCAA appeal for reinstatement. Brian Kelly shared the news on Thursday after practice
Aug 27, 2015, 8:25 PM EDT
The votes are in and Notre Dame’s football team will be captained by five players. Graduate students Matthias Farley, Nick Martin and Joe Schmidt will be joined by senior Sheldon Day and junior Jaylon Smith as the captains of the 2015 Irish.
Aug 27, 2015, 12:34 PM EDT
It appears that the Greg Bryant era at Notre Dame is over. The junior running back, who was declared academically ineligible to play for the Irish this fall, has enrolled at ASA Miami, a junior college with a new football program run by former Irish assistant Ernest Jones.
Aug 27, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
After two seasons of trying to find carries for a handful of emerging running backs, Notre Dame has the opposite problem: Trying to spread out a growing workload among a smaller, highly-differentiated position group.
Aug 26, 2015, 1:56 PM EDT
With the season right around the corner and preseason camp finished, it’s time to get our final preparations done before the games start counting and the journey begins. We spent the summer pumping out tens of thousands of words on Notre Dame’s evolving roster, so if you’re looking for 50 hours of easy reading, check out the Irish A-to-Z series.
Aug 26, 2015, 12:42 PM EDT
Have a final question before we have actual football to talk about? Today’s the day. Drop them below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Aug 25, 2015, 5:06 PM EDT
Notre Dame announced a number of enhancements to Notre Dame Stadium on Tuesday. Most notable among them, a video board that’ll go atop the south end zone.
Aug 25, 2015, 12:45 PM EDT
Our final installment of the A-to-Z series is perhaps our most important one. Because Notre Dame’s fate is in the hands of quarterback Malik Zaire.
Aug 24, 2015, 2:18 PM EDT
With the injury to freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford, an unlikely candidate has emerged as the frontrunner for the No. 3 cornerback job: Devin Butler. The junior, who struggled mightily at times last season after he was forced into action, looked to have lost his grip on that spot this spring after strong work by sophomore Nick Watkins.
Aug 24, 2015, 12:27 PM EDT
No freshman will be tossed into the deep end quicker than kicker Justin Yoon. Essentially Notre Dame’s sole option to kick field goals in 2015, Brian Kelly and the Irish coaching staff are putting a ton of the shoulders of a true freshman, who’ll be asked to fix a three-point operation that went haywire down the stretch after the Irish’s all-time field goal leader Kyle Brindza lost his mojo.
Aug 23, 2015, 10:45 AM EDT
When Brandon Wimbush enrolled in school this summer, he became the latest blue-chip quarterback to join the Notre Dame football program with the burden of great expectations. The New Jersey state player of the year, Wimbush would be wise to forget about the prep accolades, instead focusing his efforts on learning the playbook, with the third-string quarterback closer to the field than you’d ideally want.
Aug 21, 2015, 12:12 PM EDT
Keith Gilmore’s move to Notre Dame reunites him with Brian VanGorder, two football lifers who have known each other since they shared a huddle as players. After a long coaching career, Gilmore also reunites with Brian Kelly, a coach he’s worked for at Grand Valley, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and now Notre Dame.
Aug 21, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
Notre Dame landed another Indianapolis product when safety Mykelti Williams joined the Irish this summer, the freshman lending some much needed depth to the secondary. Hailing from Warren Central, the same program that brought Notre Dame Sheldon Day, Williams’ might not contribute as quickly as Day did, but he’ll have a chance to compete for a spot in the two deep behind Max Redfield at free safety.
Aug 20, 2015, 12:54 PM EDT
With Notre Dame’s running back depth chart down Greg Bryant, freshman Dexter Williams has a clear line to the football field this fall. While wide receiver Justin Brent has converted to the backfield and Tarean Folston returns as a starter, Williams and fellow freshman Josh Adams couldn’t ask for a more advantageous situation, especially with C.J. Prosise taking time to heal an ailing hip flexor.
Aug 20, 2015, 12:17 PM EDT
Don’t talk to KeiVarae Russell anymore about his suspension. He’s not all that interested. He discussed it with Sports Illustrated, he discussed it at the opening of training camp and he continued to answer questions about it on Media Day.