Rick Bouch looks at Notre Dame Football and the factors that could land them back in the National Championship race.
Apr 18, 2015; Notre Dame, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly leads his players into the LaBar Practice Complex for the Blue-Gold Game. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
(C+P) — It’s year six of the Brian Kelly regime in South Bend, and it is time for the Irish to get back to 2012. Kelly took the Golden Domers to the national title game that year, falling to Alabama and finishing 12-1 overall. The past two seasons, Notre Dame has taken a step back going 9-4 in 2013 and 8-5 a year ago. With 19 returning starters and a roster full of 4 and 5-star recruits, 2015 could be the year the Fighting Irish get back into the College Football Playoff picture.
It appeared 2014 would be the season where Kelly and company would rebound, but a series of suspensions and injuries decimated the Irish roster leaving a young and inexperienced roster to tread through one of the nation’s tougher schedules. Still, Notre Dame started the season 7-1 with its only loss to a then top-ranked Florida State squad.
Then, the Irish defense fell apart as they dropped their final four regular season games giving up an average of 44.5 points per game. The young Irish defense was manhandled by rival USC in the season finale, a 49-14 loss. That young defense is now a year older and returns 10 of 11 starters.
Linebacker Jaylon Smith (6-3, 235) leads the front seven which returns intact. Smith had 112 total tackles, including nine for loss and three sacks. There are three seniors on the defensive line, and the secondary is deep and experienced. The Irish should be much improved against the run which will allow defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to dial up the pressure in passing situations. That was something that lacked in 2014.
On offense, Kelly will rely on Malik Zaire to take over the quarterback reins from Everett Golson, who transferred to Florida State. Golson struggled last season throwing 14 interceptions and losing eight of 12 fumbles. Zaire started in place of Golson in Notre Dame’s bowl victory over LSU last season.
Zaire will have a capable unit around him starting with junior Tarean Folston at running back. Folston rushed 175 times for 889 yards and six touchdowns last season. There is plenty of talent at wide receiver including junior Will Fuller, who led Notre Dame in 2014 with 76 receptions for 1,094 yards. Seniors Amir Carlisle and Chris Brown, who combined for 62 catches, also return.
With four of five offensive linemen back, Kelly and his new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford are looking for big things. While the Irish averaged 32.8 points a game last year, Kelly believes that number will be higher this season.
It will have to be as the Irish begin a schedule that will include six ACC opponents. Notre Dame will face the powerful rushing attack of Georgia Tech in week three and travel to Clemson in week five. They will also face traditional rival Pitt in Pittsburgh late in the season. The season opener will be interesting as the Irish tangle with Texas and the big rivalry game with USC is at midseason Oct. 17.
Even with the tough schedule, there is just too much talent and experience for this year’s Notre Dame squad not to be a Top 20 football program. The 2015 season could be the one that helps Kelly redefine Notre Dame football.