(C+P) — After making it to the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, Notre Dame’s 9-4 record last season was a disappointment. Following a very successful off-season, the Irish look to return to its former glory days in 2014 by improving in these areas.
After losing defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, Notre Dame brought in Brian VanGorder to take over the job. With five teams that finished ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 in 2013 on the Irish’s schedule, VanGorder will need to improve a defense that surrendered more than 34 points per game and 439 yards per game against AP Top 25 teams.
The addition of Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator should be crucial for the Irish to improve defensively. His résumé includes a number of recent years in the NFL. From 2008 to 2011, VanGorder was defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons. Twice during this period, his defense ranked top 12 in the league for average yards allowed per game. As the New York Jets’ linebacker coach in 2013, he helped develop a defense that ranked third in rushing yards allowed per game. Translating this success to the college game will be indispensable for rebuilding the Irish defense.
VanGorder will need to replace some key players as the Irish lost star defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III to the NFL. After Nix was sidelined by a knee injury last season, junior defensive lineman Jarron Jones saw much more playing time and recorded 13 tackles in the last three games. He should be a top candidate to replace Nix.
The plethora of young talent the Irish are bringing in on the defensive line should help them reload up front. Incoming freshman Andrew Trumbetti, ranked the eighth best defensive end in the class of 2014 by 247sports.com, showed his promise in the spring game recording five tackles and one sack.
Also, look for defensive lineman Isaac Rochell to play a much larger role this season. The sophomore played in 11 games last season, and had a solid spring game recording four tackles and one sack.
The Irish also lost leading tacklers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese to professional football. Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith finished third in tackles for the Irish last season with 41 and will need a big season to help replace Fox and Calabrese. Freshman linebacker Nyles Morgan, who was designated as the third best linebacker in the class of 2014 by 247sports.com, could be a key contributor for the Irish this season. Junior linebacker Romeo Okwara had a good spring headlined by a four tackle, three-sack spring game performance and should help fill the hole at linebacker.
A number of starters return in the secondary for the Irish. Senior safety Austin Collinsworth and senior cornerback Mathias Farley led the team in interceptions and will be back this season. Also, junior cornerback Keivarae Russell, who started last season for the Irish, is back. Florida transfer Cody Riggs will bring SEC experience to the Notre Dame secondary as well.
The Irish struggled with turning the ball over last season. Quarterback Tommy Rees threw 13 interceptions, more than twice as many as Everett Golson threw in 2012. Fortunately for the Irish, Everett Golson, the man who led them tothe BCS National Championship game in 2012, has returned from academic suspension
However, the starter has yet to be determined as sophomore Malik Zaire established himself as a legitimate contender for the job. The signal calling southpaw outperformed Golsonin in the annual Blue-Gold game completing18 of 27 passes for 292 yards and two touchdowns to cap off a great spring.
Golson’s experience as a starter may give him an edge to win the starting job. Also, after a year training under renowned quarterback coach George Whitfield, the battle-tested senior should be a much more effective passer this season.
Both Golson and Zaire pose a threat to opposing defenses with their feet and playmaking abilities. Regardless of who earns the starting job, the Irish should be much stronger at quarterback this season.
The Irish need to fill some holes at the receiver position after losing tight end Troy Niklas and wide receiver T.J. Jones. The top returning target is senior Davaris Daniels who finished last season with 49 catches for 745 yards and seven touchdowns. Junior receiver Chris Brown looks to play a much bigger role this season after finishing fourth on the team in receptions last season with 15 for 209 yards and one touchdown. Sophomore Corey Robinson, son of former Spurs star David Robinson, should become one of the primary receivers for the Irish. Senior Ben Koyack will try and fill Niklas’s shoes. Koyack finished last season with 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns.
In recent years, Notre Dame has struggled against ranked opponents. They are 7-6 in the Brian Kelly era against top 25 teams. A tough road lies ahead, considering the Irish face Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State, Louisville and USC, who all finished ranked in the top 25 last season.
Before heading down the road, the Irish should be able to build some momentum. Their first four opponents had a combined record of 25-27 last season.
They will need all the help they can get as they head into Tallahassee to play the reigning national champion Florida State Seminoles October 18. If the Irish want to see themselves in any conversation for the college football playoff, this is a game they must win.
2014 Projection: 10-2
The Irish have a number of tough games on their schedule highlighted by a game on the road against Florida State. Also, they face rival USC on the road in the last game of the season. The Irish will also see tough matchups against Stanford, Louisville and Arizona State. Michigan will be a difficult game for Notre Dame, as they have defeated the Irish four out of the last five times. With such a grueling schedule, I think the Irish will lose two games and finish the season 10-2.
Acquiring VanGorder as defensive coordinator, a wide array of young talent and two promising quarterback candidates in Golson and Zaire, the Irish have the pieces to be a very good team this season. VanGorder’s track record indicates he should be able to make do with a number of inexperienced players on defense. Combined with more efficient quarterback play, the Irish have the potential to be legitimate contenders for a spot in the college football playoff.