Tag: George Atkinson

Notre Dame v Purdue

How we got here: Running backs


Notre Dame said goodbye to Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, their two most talented and experienced running backs after last season. And while the depth chart entering the season was filled with question marks, it was also a position group Brian Kelly called one of his most talented.

Whether that was to boost the morale of his troops or not is up for debate. But on paper, there’s a ton to like about the running back depth chart, even if we haven’t seen much of it to start the season.

Of course, the first half of the season wasn’t paced by a rushing explosion. While everybody has waited for a leading man to step forward, it’s been an ensemble cast of characters, with each running back almost type cast to a job by the staff. George Atkinson and Amir Carlisle were given the first chances to win the starting job, until Cam McDaniel stole the crunch time carries. Just as it looked like McDaniel would get his shot, Atkinson broke loose. While freshman Greg Bryant looked like the back of the future on paper, it’s Tarean Folston who’s been given the best crack. And Will Mahone’s strong training camp turned him from afterthought into potential slot receiver, though an ankle injury has slowed him down.

There doesn’t look like a No.1 running back is on the current roster — or at least someone that’s ready and developed enough to take that job and run away with it. But as the ground game becomes a more and more important facet of the Irish offense, finding the production — whoever is running the ball — is key.


George Atkinson — 56 attempts for 323 yards (5.8 ypc) 2 TDs
Cam McDaniel — 63 for 259 yards (4.1 ypc) 2 TD
Amir Carlisle — 38 carries for 178 yards (4.7 ypc)
Tarean Folston — 11 carries for 70 yards (6.3 ypc)
Greg Bryant — 3 carries for 14 yards (4.7 ypc)


Find consistency. There’s some quality control that needs doing in the Irish backfield. With five different runners (four, if Bryant is indeed sidelined indefinitely with knee tendinitis), it’s hard enough to find carries for everybody. But if Atkinson, Carlisle, McDaniel and Folston are all going to get touches, they’ll all need to know how to consistently run behind this offensive line.

The Irish ground game is a fairly simple scheme that relies on running backs reading the Irish’s zone blocking scheme and getting up field. After taking some time to understand what they’ve been seeing, Tony Alford’s troops need to make progress.

Figure out roles. Maybe George Atkinson is the lead back. But on some Saturdays its been Amir Carlisle and others its been Cam McDaniel. And just before Atkinson broke loose against Oklahoma it looked like Tarean Folston was taking the inside track.

There are things each guy in this backfield does well, and it’s clear that Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin have their preferences on what they want to see. If that means Carlisle is the back that’s used to catch the ball, let’s see him do it. If McDaniel is the guy that pilots the four-minute, ice the game offense, keep him doing it. But for this depth chart to thrive, clear roles still need to emerge.

Dominate a game. There’s enough talent in this backfield to dominate a football game. Whether that’s Atkinson ready to break off a big run, McDaniel moving the chains or Carlisle getting out in space, there’s enough here. But now it’s time to put it to action.

Tommy Rees isn’t the type of quarterback that’s going to carry this offense by himself. And if the running backs can step up and play up to their own level, he won’t need to do it.

Final thoughts before kickoff

TJ Jones, Julian Wilson

With Notre Dame in need of a rebound against an Arizona State team that looks a lot more dangerous than ever before, let’s run through ten Irish players that need to play well for Notre Dame to win in tonight’s primetime affair.

Tommy Rees. No need to sugarcoat it. (And after reading the comments on recent stories, nobody here has been.) Rees needs to play better to win. Against a Sun Devil defense that might spend 90 percent of its time in man-to-man coverage, the game’s going to be on Rees’s shoulders offensively, even with an emphasis in the running game.

After forgetting about underneath throws against Michigan State, the Irish did have some success on crossing routes against Oklahoma. But Rees will need to be able to connect on some downfield shots to loosen up a Sun Devils defense that isn’t exactly the stingiest group in the country.

Nick Martin. After practicing each week against Louis Nix, Martin will get his chance to face off with an All-American defensive tackle when it actually counts tonight. If Martin can hold up against Will Sutton, the Irish ground game can do some damage both inside and out.

Prince Shembo. Maybe it’s not entirely fair to call Shembo a part of the Witness Protection Program like I did earlier this week, but Shembo has got to start making his presence known in the pass rush department, an area where the Irish are in desperate need of production.

The senior linebacker has been called on to spend more time doing the little things right, like keeping leverage on the edge of the defense. But against a Sun Devil offense that can take big chunks of yardage in a hurry, a few plays made behind the line of scrimmage would do this unit some good.

Shembo is too good of a player to stay off the stat sheet for much longer. On the quick playing surface at Jerry World, I’m expecting the best game of the year for the cat linebacker.

Austin Collinsworth. Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco have a ton of faith in Collinsworth. But it’s time for the senior safety to reward the team with something more than being just consistent. After Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta played outstanding football anchoring the back end of the Irish defense, Collinsworth needs to provide more than just stability in the back end. Making sure the Irish aren’t caught in any broken coverages is mandatory, especially since those looks will surely be exploited by Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly.

The back end of the Irish defense will be under more pressure than they’ve been all season. And while Collinsworth will likely share leadership duties with Matthias Farley, it’s time for the senior to take charge.

George Atkinson. After playing his best game in an Irish uniform, it’s time for Atkinson to do it again, especially against a Sun Devils defense that’s mediocre against the run. After running through arm tackles and making big plays against Oklahoma, the Irish absolutely need Atkinson to do it again, even if there’s a bullseye on his back.


DaVaris Daniels. If you listened to Brian Kelly this week, you start to get the feeling that this coaching staff desperately wants more out of Daniels. That means more Saturdays like the ones against Temple and Purdue than what’s happened the past two weeks, when Daniels has been shut down in man coverage for a combined four catches for 19 yards.

Kelly and Chuck Martin believe that Daniels can be the big play downfield receiver that the Irish count on. But that means Daniels needs to win the one-on-one battles, something he hasn’t done the past two weeks. Cornerback Osahon Irabor is one of the Sun Devils most experienced players. Starting across from him is Robert Nelson, another fifth-year senior. That’s a lot of experience, but it’s time for Daniels to produce against top shelf opponents. He did so against Alabama in the BCS title game, so the talent is there. Now he’s got to show the consistency.

Jarrett Grace. The junior linebacker has made his move into the starting lineup. Now he needs to play better in the pass game, where he’ll be challenging this evening by a speedy fleet of Sun Devil receivers.

Kelly talked about the slant play that got inside Grace on a critical third down that went for 56-yards and a touchdown. That can’t happen tonight if the Irish want to win.

Stephon Tuitt. With Sheldon Day still likely limited, Tuitt’s going to play a lot of minutes tonight. And he’s going to need to play dominant up front in helping to limit the Sun Devil’s run game. Tuitt has slowly improved since a slow start from his hernia surgery recovery. And while his good snaps have been good, his bad snaps haven’t looked the part of a future first rounder.

With all five starters on the Sun Devil offensive line upperclassmen, it’s going to be a good battle up front. And Tuitt is going to have to carry the load, because the drop off after Day and Schwenke is sizable.

Bennett Jackson. It’s been an up and down season for the Irish captain. And he’ll be challenged again tonight, with Arizona State pushing the football down the field and the tempo between plays.

Someone needs to help this defense recapture the swagger and confidence it had last season. Jackson is the one wearing the ‘C’ on his jersey, and that duty ultimately falls on him. But until he can gets his game in order, it’s tough for that moxie to wear off on his teammates.

TJ Jones. The senior receiver has the opportunity to steal the spotlight from the Sun Devil offense with a breakout performance tonight. Whether it’s a big play in the return game, breaking a screen pass for a big gain, or connecting on a long throw down the field, Jones needs to be the best player on the field for the Irish offense.

After 15 catches in the season’s first two games, Jones has only had ten grabs in the last three for just 114 yards. Those are the type of numbers he should put up tonight, especially if the Irish run game gives Jones a chance to be a weapon in the playaction passing game.

Pregame Six Pack: Bring on the Owls


Thirty-three weeks. Two hundred thirty-six days. Five thousand, six hundred sixty-four hours. Three hundred thirty-nine thousand eight hundred forty minutes. Twenty million, three hundred ninety thousand, four hundred seconds. No, those aren’t alternative lyrics to the Rent soundtrack, but rather how long the Irish have had to have the awful taste of defeat in their mouths.

After twelve glorious Saturdays of singing the Fight Song and celebrating sixty minutes (and sometimes more) of victorious football, the Irish laid an egg on the sport’s biggest stage, the clock striking midnight on a season cut from a fairy tale. The proceeding weeks acted as nothing more than piling on, with just about every conceivable headline working as another rimshot for Notre Dame haters sick and tired of another Irish return to glory, with this one carrying Notre Dame all the way to the BCS Championship game.

Weird as it may seem, the Notre Dame team and its coaching staff may have had better luck putting last season in the rearview mirror than the media and football-loving public. As we run out of things to talk about during the offseason abyss, a sort of revisionist history has set in — a recreation of last season that subtly shifted the Irish’s ugly but time-honored formula of ferocious defense and protecting the football into a revolving door of Hail Marys and Divine Intervention.

Twelve victories has started to turn into seven wins, five squeakers, and a public reckoning. Never mind that Notre Dame out-rushed, out-passed, out-first downed, and fumbled the ball away three times (including once in the end zone) against a Stanford team and still beat a team many expect to see play Alabama for the title this year. That victory has become the product of a referee’s overtime blunder. Forget that Ohio State scraped by a Cal team that got its coach fired, one of Mark Dantonio’s worst Spartan squads, a four-win Indiana team that lost to Ball State, needed a furious comeback (and overtime) to beat Purdue, and had close victories over Wisconsin and Michigan. Urban Meyer’s team is a consensus top two team in the country.

But all of that is water under the bridge now, with college football’s silly season all but forgotten with kickoffs happening all across the country on this final weekend of summer. So Irish fans put down your clubs. The battle is over and the games finally count. Now Brian Kelly’s squad gets to forge a new identity as it looks to take out some long festering frustrations against a Temple team that looks overmatched on paper.

With kickoff set for 3:30 p.m. ET in South Bend, and the game broadcast (and livestream) on NBC, let’s dive into the season’s first pregame six pack.

As usual, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the No. 14 Fighting Irish take on the Temple Owls.


How much will the Irish showcase during their season opener? 

Notre Dame enters Saturday’s game better than a four touchdown favorite. And with a visit to Ann Arbor on the books for next weekend, there’s a very real possibility that the Irish show a very vanilla look on both sides of the ball, holding out their best stuff for the Wolverines.

Still, for Notre Dame fans looking to see just what this edition of the Irish have in store for us, even the most basic game plan will supply some long overdue answers.

Consider this a short checklist of things to keep an eye on:

* How does Kelly distribute carries?
* How often does Tommy Rees throw the football?
* Who’s the next man in on the defensive line?
* What’s the rotation like at safety and linebacker?
* How does the right side of the offensive line look?

We’ve already talked about the team approach to special teams, with graduate student Nick Tausch given the first shot at the placekicking job after losing the job to both David Ruffer and Kyle Brindza. But consider Saturday a chance to face live bullets while getting a feel for the game, especially in the above areas.


George Atkinson may be the team’s starting running back, but Amir Carlisle is the X (or Z) factor. 

It’s been a long time since Amir Carlisle has been spotted on a football field when it matters. After starting his Notre Dame career a calendar year later than he hoped, Carlisle will finally don the Blue and Gold this Saturday.

So much has changed since Carlisle was last a difference-maker on a football field. Back in 2011, Carlisle, then a gifted freshman running back for USC, turned a Matt Barkley screen pass into a touchdown, helping the Trojan quarterback set another school record on the afternoon.

After a transfer to Notre Dame and working his way back from a broken ankle and collarbone, Carlisle could be the key towards unlocking the Irish offense, the rare player with the ability to play running back or the slot (Z receiver), something Kelly has looked for since coming to South Bend.

While it appears that George Atkinson has held onto the starting role through a spirited training camp that featured pushes from all six scholarship running backs, Carlisle’s ability to do it all will be counted on by the head coach.

“Versatility is great if you can handle it. You can say, ‘I want you to be versatile and play all these positions,’ but if you can’t handle it, then you can’t be versatile,” Kelly explained. “What makes him the player that he is is that he can handle those dual roles, and you start with the fact that he’s a very smart kid.”

There will continue to be concerns about Carlisle’s durability until he proves its not an issue, but after a long wait, it’ll be fun to see what the Irish’s new #3 can do.


Not that the Irish wanted to use him, but the quarterback depth chart will be without Malik Zaire. 

My how fortunes have changed for a position that was once the envy of college football. Set to enter spring practice with five scholarship quarterbacks, the Irish are down to Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix this Saturday, with freshman Malik Zaire being held out because of a bout with mono.

That’s forced Kelly to turn to Luke Massa as the team’s emergency No. 3 quarterback, with the Ohio native returning to his signal-caller roots after ditching the red jersey for the wide receiver position group early in his Irish career. Kelly’s also turned to fourth-string walk-on Will Cronin, a little known senior who came out of nowhere to help this week.

“This morning our last blood workup for Malik was that he is not going to be able to play on Saturday,” Kelly said Thursday after practice. “Luke Massa took reps this week as our third quarterback. Will Cronin, a walk-on that we brought in as part of our 105 was scout team quarterback along with Rashad Kinlaw. Both of those young men were the scout team quarterbacks this week. But Luke got a lot of reps as our No. 3 this week.”

Massa was part of a three-quarterback class that included Rees and Hendrix and was perhaps best knows as the high school teammate of blue-chip offensive lineman Matt James at St. Xavier, who tragically passed away during a Spring Break accident during his senior year of high school. While Massa has made his way into the Irish’s Saturday plans as the team’s holder this season, seeing him at quarterback would be a sight.

But perhaps an even bigger one would be Cronin working his way onto the field. The 5-foot-11 inch, 180-pound senior walk-on wasn’t on the official roster the last three seasons for the Irish, already one-upping Rudy in the “would you believe it?” category. The 2008 2A Illinois state champion quarterback was an honorable mention Academic All-State competitor at Immaculate Conception high school in Elmurst, Illinois, putting up a career day in September of 2009 when he threw for 422 yards and five touchdowns in a tough 46-38 shootout loss to the St. Edwards Green Wave.

Part of me thinks Cronin having a chance to even contribute this week as a scout team player may turn this Saturday’s game into a new career-best moment.

(Now all he has to do is find his way onto the field in garbage time…)


With all the offseason offensive wrinkles, will Notre Dame finally reveal The Pistol?

Brian Kelly brought former Nevada coach Chris Ault to campus this offseason, inviting the offensive innovator to Notre Dame’s coaching clinic, where Ault talked about the Pistol offense. A formation and offensive package that Ault’s largely credited with inventing, it’s a shotgun formation that features a running back lined up directly behind the quarterback.

Early in fall camp, Kelly did his best to downplay the use of the Pistol. But even in the media’s limited viewing window, it’s been clear that the formation has been a big part of the team’s practice efforts. And with George Atkinson a running back that can do some damage if he gets started running downhill, the Pistol is a great way for a spread team to infuse a few power principles to its offensive attack.

“He ran downhill very well in high school, and we felt like the pistol could fit him very well,” Kelly said of Atkinson. “Not just him, but we felt like it was something that could benefit us moving forward.”

Still, Kelly was quick to downplay any widespread change to the offense, particularly when the best quarterbacks in the formation generally have some dual-threat capabilities.

“It’s just another piece to our offense that gives us the versatility that we’re looking for,” Kelly said earlier this week. “I think week to week you may see it a little bit more than others, and some you may not see it at all.  I just think it’s another piece that helps us complement the players we have.”


It’s finally time to see this freshman class in action.

Last year against Navy, the Irish played 47 different players in the first quarter alone, on the way to getting 17 players their first collegiate action. With a hot and humid day on tap for South Bend on Saturday, expect to see plenty of guys seeing the field.

That includes the freshman class. A group that Brian Kelly has already singled out as one of his most competitive ever, the “IrishMob” that was such a cohesive unit as a recruiting class will now get to strut their stuff on the field for the first time.

Let’s go quickly through the class and give you a quick rundown of what to expect from each player this Saturday:

Hunter Bivin — He’s made the two-deep, but expect him to stay on the sideline this year.
Greg Bryant — One of camp’s big surprises should be revealed this weekend.
Devin Butler — With depth at corner, Butler will likely spend Saturday watching.
Michael Deeb — Expect this mauler to make an impact on special teams immediately.
Steve Elmer — You’ll see him rotate in at right tackle.
Tarean Folston — It’s up in the air if he’ll work his way into the crowded RB rotation.
William Fuller — Just outside the two-deep, he’s a talented young deep threat.
Mike Heuerman — With three veterans in front of him, it might be special teams or bust.
Torii Hunter Jr. — While there’s been progress in his leg’s recovery, a redshirt is likely.
Rashad Kinlaw — Helped out at scout team QB, his athleticism could get him on the field.
Cole Luke — Already one of the team’s best corners. Will wear #36 because of special teams.
Jacob Matuska — One of the team’s best positions isn’t its deepest. But a likely redshirt.
Mike McGlinchey — One of camp’s biggest surprises. Closer to the field than many expected.
Colin McGovern — A high school injury and depth at guard makes a redshirt an easy choice.
John Montelus — Shoulder injury and 340-pounds of bulk means a saved year of eligibility.
James Onwualu — Kelly called him one of camp’s best surprises. Will see the field.
Doug Randolph — Surgery ended his season before it began.
Max Redfield — Just outside the two-deep (for now), he’s too talented to keep off special teams.
Corey Robinson — Get ready to see this red zone match-up wreak havoc.
Isaac Rochelle — Injuries or not, Rochelle is too talented to keep off the field.
Jaylon Smith — His star turns begins Saturday.
Durham Smythe — Silky smooth tight end is a long shot to play this year.
Malik Ziare — Mono or not, he’s better off saving a year of eligibility.


Most Notre Dame coaches find success. But for Brian Kelly, now comes the hard part.

While they didn’t go undefeated, Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis all at one point looked like they’d be the next great Notre Dame head coach. So with Brian Kelly coming off a twelve-win regular season, now comes the hard part: Doing it again.

NBC Sports’ Joe Posnanski headed to South Bend last week to investigate what makes Brian Kelly different. After talking with Dan Fox, Zack Martin, assistant coach Bob Elliott and others, Posnanski believes it’s Kelly’s innate ability to understand and connect to his team.

Take this interesting snippet from Posnanski’s excellent piece:

All of last season, while coaching at Notre Dame, Bob Elliott would administer daily self-dialysis. His kidneys were failing. He said it was more of a pain that painful. This past February, after the season, he had a kidney transplant, with his sister Betsy as the donor. He says he’s doing well.

And he says that going through that last year while coaching a great Notre Dame team taught him a lot about what makes Brian Kelly win. Elliott has been around some of the greatest coaches in college football history. His father, Bump Elliott, was coach at Michigan for 10 years and athletic director at Iowa for more than two decades. Bob himself has coached for 34 years and has worked under Bill Snyder at Kansas State, under Hayden Fry at Iowa, under Dick Crum at North Carolina. He has some connection to just about everybody in college football.

And he says that what amazes him about Kelly is how well he understands the people around him. He said that Kelly seemed to know when to check in and when to butt out. Kelly seemed to know how to revitalize Elliott in low moments without making a big deal out of it. Kelly just understood. This is what everybody keeps coming back to when they talk about Kelly — Elliott says it’s the most remarkable talent of a remarkable coach.

“Oh, he’s a great technical coach too,” Elliott says. “He’s been successful for a long time and he knows the game as well as anybody. But what makes him unique, I think, is that guys like to play for Brian. Coaches like to coach for Brian. He’s one of my favorites. He lets coaches do our jobs without micromanaging unless there is something that needs to be micromanaged. And then he does it in a respectful way. And he is very much in charge — he sets the tone for everything.

“It’s hard to build a family environment. That’s what coaches are always going for, right? You want players who play for each other and push each other and make each other better. That’s a hard thing to accomplish. Brian Kelly is as good as anybody Ive ever seen at building that environment.”

It’s worth noting that in Brian Kelly’s first 39 games at Notre Dame, he’s won 28 of them. In Lou Holtz’s first 39 games, he won 29. Extracting just one more similarity from the two: Both Kelly and Holtz averaged five losses a season in their first two years on the Irish sideline. They each won twelve games their third season.

For the record, Holtz followed up his 1988 National Championship season with a 12-1 campaign only spoiled by a late November loss to Miami. We’ll see what Kelly has in store for an encore.

Five things we’ll learn: The season is finally upon us

Notre Dame team

Within ten minutes of reaching the top of the college football mountain, Notre Dame fans had to feel like Sisyphus. After watching their beloved Irish vanquish a boulder carrying the burdens of tradition, unfulfilled expectations, and the final shouts of irrelevancy at the BCS National Championship game, the honeymoon lasted just minutes before the Crimson Tide knocked a dream season back down to earth.

The greek tragedy didn’t stop after the embarrassing 42-14 pummeling. Brian Kelly nearly knocked the oxygen out of ND Nation when the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him, going radio silent for three days before eventually returning to the fold. That was nothing compared to Manti Te’o’s ordeal, with America learning all about Catfishing and a fictional girlfriend named Lennay Kekua.

Spring practice led to the departure of five-star freshman Gunner Kiel. That was trumped by the academic exile of starting quarterback Everett Golson. Throw in the loss of prized recruits Alex Anzalone and Eddie Vanderdoes, and just making it to training camp was enough of an accomplishment.

A long summer of workouts and four days in a sleepy farm town of Marion, Indiana hopefully put all of that in the past. And just 236 eventful days after last taking the field, the Irish will kickoff the ’13 season against Temple.

Before we focus on that game, let’s take a look at five things we’ll learn during the 2013 season.


1. The final chapter in Tommy Rees’ career will determine his legacy. 

As NBC continues to try and regain the midas touch it once had developing television dramas, it could do worse than looking to its Saturday afternoon autumn time slot for inspiration. That’s where Tommy Rees has entranced Irish fans — with three seasons of football that have been anything but boring.

Defining Rees’ run in South Bend is complicated. It’s also something we’ve tried to do from almost the beginning, when the scrawny freshman that looked like he should’ve been played interhall was thrown into action against Tulsa and lost in spectacularly dramatic fashion. Rees may have lost that game — and a few others — but he’s certainly won his share as well.

After boos from the home crowd welcomed Rees during a late-game relief appearance against Purdue, Rees spent the ’12 season earning back the respect of just about every Notre Dame fan on the planet, proving to be the ultimate teammate while playing a critical role during the team’s undefeated regular season.

With the keys to the offense in Rees’ hands for one final season, even Kelly understands that this year will go a long way towards defining Tommy Rees and his legacy.

“I don’t think the story’s written,” Kelly said. “I think you write the story after he completes his journey here at Notre Dame. You know what, it could be a really interesting story.”


2. Can Brian Kelly’s most talented backfield find a way to turn into his most productive?

Gone are the Irish’s three most prolific rushers from last season, with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood both battling to make NFL rosters while Everett Golson spends his forced sabbatical in San Diego training. Yet even with just 74 returning carries in the Irish backfield, Kelly feels extraordinarily upbeat about the prospects of his running attack — whoever ends up leading the way.

“We’re just really blessed to have such great talent at the running back position,” Kelly said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever had as much depth at the running back position in all my years of coaching. All of them can contribute to our success.”

If finding carries for three backs was difficult last season, thinking Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin can find touches for George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle, Will Mahone, Greg Bryant, and Tarean Folston is all but impossible. While preseason camp went a long way towards getting positive sound bites out of the coaching staff about all the good work that was getting done, it brought us no closer to knowing who’s actually going to carry the load once the games start to count.

George Atkinson may be the best blend of size and speed in the country. Amir Carlisle might be the most dangerous playmaker on the team. Greg Bryant could be a freshman All-American while Cam McDaniel could be the best pure running back on the team. But can this coaching staff find the proper platoon to take advantage of everyone’s skill-sets?

There’s every reason to believe that the offensive line should be even better run blockers than they were last season. Who they’ll be blocking for is the big question.


3. Can the inside linebackers still play productive football without Manti Te’o?

For four seasons, Manti Te’o roamed the middle of the Irish defense, providing the heartbeat for a unit that improved every season. Anchoring the defense and calling the shots from his inside linebacker position, the unit took on his personality, as it became one of the school’s stingiest defenses in the modern era.

After splitting snaps playing next to Te’o, fifth-year seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese will get the first chance to take over the inside, with junior Jarrett Grace working into the rotation as well. When asked about replacing an iconic player like Te’o, all three linebackers were smart enough to know that’s next to impossible.

“We have a bunch of leaders on our defense and instead of looking to one person we can look to several people,” Calabrese said. “It’s more of a team defense. We don’t have just one guy standing out this year. We have a bunch of guys that can play and can lead, which is going to make us successful.”

While replicating Te’o’s interception total might be impossible, his tackle productivity shouldn’t be as difficult. Splitting snaps next to Te’o, Fox and Calabrese combined for 112 tackles. Te’o’s award-winning campaign finished with 113.

Much of what Te’o brought to the defense wasn’t measured on a stat sheet. But with two of the team’s most experienced players anchoring the interior of the defense, Te’o’s legacy might be the pride that he instilled in the unit.

“I think our mentality would carry over more than anything,” Fox said. “The mentality that we don’t want anybody to score on us is something that we take pride in. We hold it close to us.”


4. Can Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix form the most dominant 1-2 punch on the defensive front in the country?

Spend your time worrying about the NFL Draft come December. Otherwise you’ll miss the most talented defensive front Notre Dame has had in a very long time. Anchored by nose tackle Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, the Irish have two All-American caliber defensive linemen that could also be first round NFL draft picks.

Less than five years after the Irish defensive line couldn’t stop a powder puff team, Brian Kelly has turned the Irish front into a must-see group for pro scouts, according to NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks.

Studying Nix’s game tape, I was surprised by his savvy and skills as a pass rusher. Unlike most nose tackles of his stature, Nix is more than a pocket pusher. He effectively uses a “snatch and shed” maneuver to work past interior blockers on pressure attempts. Although his sack numbers are minimal, he reminds me of Vince Wilfork as an interior pass rusher.

Tuitt, who stands 6-foot-6, 322 pounds, is an ultra-talented five technique (defensive lineman who plays on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) with a tremendous combination of size, speed and athleticism. He flashes extraordinary snap-count anticipation and first-step quickness, which makes him difficult to block on the interior on single blocks. Tuitt complements his superior movement skills with terrific hand skills and upper-body strength. His ability to play with strength, power and leverage not only makes him an effective run defender, but it also makes him a problematic pass rusher as a defensive end in a three- or four-man front.

Paired with Sheldon Day, a sophomore defensive end who Kelly raved about earlier in camp, the Irish’s base three-man front should be one of the most stout in the country. They’ll likely improve when they go to four-down as well, dropping All-American candidate Prince Shembo down to the line of scrimmage or hybrid player Ishaq Williams.

Question marks can be solved quickly with a dominant defensive front. And no duo looks to be more dominant than Nix and Tuitt.


5. Can Notre Dame adjust from being the hunter to the hunted?

Ask USC how it felt to start the season with a bullseye on their chest? The Trojans, who started last season as a favorite to win the national championship, ended the year losing five of six and embarrassing themselves in the Sun Bowl to a sub-.500 Georgia Tech squad.

One of the big reasons Brian Kelly shook up training camp was to forge a new identity for this football team. And he made it clear that “you don’t just begin this climb at the top of the mountain.” With fuel easy to find after a one-sided BCS Championship loss and the doubt that comes with losing your starting quarterback, the mission put to the team in January was clear.

“If we do it like we did last year, we’re going to be an 8-5 team because everybody has taken their motivation off what we did last year and have worked harder,” Kelly said. “We supplied motivation for the entire college football world that, if Notre Dame can do it, we can do it.

“So if you do it like you did last year, you’re an 8-5 football team.”

While we won’t know until the games starting counting for real if this team is up for the challenge of getting back to the top, but it appears clear that the group understands that last season’s success is in the rearview mirror.

“We left last year in the past. We are focusing on this year and focusing on today,” Calabrese said.  “We are focusing on this year and this team.”

Special teams duties are (almost) set

Kyle Brindza, Ben Turk

Talk to enough Notre Dame fans and eventually the Irish’s mediocre punt return game with come up. Perhaps I’m mixing this old adage up a bit, but it goes something like, “Run the table with an undefeated regular season and finish 120th in punt returns and nobody remembers you went undefeated.”

So maybe that’s not quite right. But even Brian Kelly was listening this offseason. This spring, he talked about adding starting personnel to his special teams units, citing Alabama’s usage of starters in just about every segment of special teams, helping the Crimson Tide find another (negligible in this case) advantage during the BCS National Championship game. Kelly also had his staff spend time with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick this offseason, with the Hall of Fame coach exchanging a few tips on how to improve the return and coverage units for the upcoming season.

Yesterday, Kelly discussed the plans for the special teams, and as promised he’s holding true to his word about starters anchoring the units. Running back George Atkinson will be the deep man on kick off returns, even as the No. 1 running back on the depth chart heading into Temple. And wide receiver TJ Jones, the team’s No. 1 wide receiver, will add punt returner to his resume, with the senior all but forcing Kelly to give him the job.

“He wants to return punts,” Kelly said yesterday. “It’s important to him. He’s got the skill for it as well. Obviously, it’s going to build his resume. That’s fine with me. But he’s got that passion for wanting to do it. He’s immediately impacted the punt return team.”

Finishing 120th in the country in any category usually speaks to a fundamental flaw of the team. But Kelly talked a little bit about why the return game was so mediocre, acknowledging that 42 percent of the time, the team conceded a fair catch by going into “punt safe,” formation. That won’t likely be the case this season, with the defense (and offense) different beasts.

We saw what enhancing the personnel does to even the Irish’s punt return game when Michael Floyd returned a punt 41 yards in the Champs Sports Bowl, netting three more yards than the team had done all year up until that point.

Where things are still a bit interesting is in the kicking and punting game. Kelly announced that Kyle Brindza will again handle kickoffs and will get the first shot at the punting job in front of Wake Forest transfer Alex Wulfeck. While Brindza was steady in the clutch but far from spectacular last season as a place kicker, fifth-year senior Nick Tausch will get the first shot to kick field goals against Temple.

“Kyle’s been a bit distracted, because we’ve asked him to put all this time and energy in punting,” Kelly explained. “So what we’re going to do is going into the first game, I’m going to give Nick an opportunity to kick.

“Kyle’s going to kick off, because he’s won that clearly. He’s going to punt, and we’re going to use the Temple game to get all three of them some action. And then we’ll make a decision in game two as to where we are.”

That sounds an awful lot like a head coach that feels mighty confident about the season opening game against Temple, but acknowledges that he needs to have his personnel locked up by the team’s visit to Ann Arbor, one of the great litmus tests on the season.

There’s an awful lot of stress on a specialists that needs to handle three duties and Brindza could very well end up being the team’s kickoff man, place kicker and punter. And while a few heads were scratched when the Irish didn’t pursue a punter in the last recruiting cycle, Kelly thinks the sky is the limit for Brindza.

“I really think he can be an All American punter,” Kelly said. “He may not be there yet, and we’re going to have some growing pains there. But we have a guy in Wulfeck that can get us out of some jams. He’s really consistent.”

If there was one scary segment of the spring game, it was the Irish’s mediocre punting. While Ben Turk was nobody’s All-American, he had a somewhat tolerable level of consistency. One place Brindza seems very strong is between the ears, and if he’s able to work through some of the rough spots early in the season, the Irish could have a weapon in every segment of their special teams.