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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”