SOUTH BEND – The 2013 version of Notre Dame football opens camp today at Shiloh Park Retreat and Conference Center outside of Marion and this year's team would be hard-pressed to top the level of surprise of a year ago, when the Fighting Irish finished 12-1 and played for the BCS National Championship.
“We're like everybody else in college football,” fourth-year coach Brian Kelly said on Friday, “extremely excited about starting the season. For us here at Notre Dame, we've worked hard to put ourselves in a position to be back in the national spotlight. We have no intention of giving that up.”
If indeed Notre Dame remains near the top of college football will depend on a lot of factors. Here are the keys to a memorable 2013 season for the Irish.
1. The play of Tommy Rees
You could list the senior quarterback's level of play as the top 100 reasons as to what will determine the level of success this season, because if Rees performs poorly, everything else may be moot.
“We talked ad nauseam about turnovers (and) taking care of the football,” Kelly said. “I think he's got to continue to make good decisions, as any quarterback needs to do that.”
Rees got the starting job in May by default, as returning starter Everett Golson was kicked out of school for an academic-related matter.
Rees does have a lot of experience, but he also has the propensity for throwing interceptions. If he can take care of the ball, for an offense that lost All-American tight end Tyler Eifert and its top two running backs, then that will go a long way toward this team winning games.
2. Running the ball
Nothing could help Rees more than the Irish offense being able to effectively run the football.
Notre Dame doesn't lack for candidates, as six players will vie for playing time. But none have ever been a featured back at the college level. Heck, a couple of the candidates (Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston) have never even played at the college level.
“We've got two guys that have done it and we've seen,” Kelly said. “The rest becomes 'Let's go see in practice and see how they compete.' That's where it's going to be. It's going to be fun.
“We know we have really talented young men with great résumés, but we're going to have to see how they play when it comes to college football.”
3. Rees' targets
Notre Dame fans – as well as the quarterbacks – have been spoiled for several years, as this program has always managed to have an All-American pass-catcher available on its roster (Eifert, Michael Floyd, Golden Tate, Jeff Samardzija, etc.). This year doesn't seemingly have that “go-to guy.” However, Kelly disagrees.
“… when you have a Michael Floyd and a Tyler Eifert, get them the ball, it's that simple,” Kelly said. “We don't have those two guys. But we do have a T.J. Jones, who I think is one of the best route runners in the June. “Wouldn't surprise me if he's a first round draft pick, he's that good. Sometimes he doesn't get enough of the accolades. I think he's a great receiver.”
Jones' play will be critical, but also will the continued development of sophomore DaVaris Daniels, as well as sophomore Chris Brown.
It will also be intriguing to see what true freshmen C.J. Prosise, James Onawualu, and Corey Robinson can do.
4. It all starts up front
Notre Dame coaches have done a fantastic job of recruiting and developing a talented and deep defensive front. How good? Aaron Lynch and Eddie Vanderdoes both chose to leave the program and the Irish are still awesome along the defensive line.
Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III each have another year of eligibility remaining after this season, but neither are expected to play for Notre Dame past this season, as they have the ability to be NFL first round draft picks next spring.
Sheldon Day gained valuable experience a year ago and guys like Tony Springmann, Chase Hounshell, Jarron Jones, and Kona Schwenke will provide depth.
5. Can special teams be just that? Special?
There hasn't been anything “special” about the Irish in the third aspect of a football program really since Kelly has been in South Bend.
The punt return game has been a mere punt catch game. However, this season may be different.
Freshman C.J. Prosise and sophomore Amir Carlisle will both get an opportunity to win the punt return job in training camp. However, one guy has never played college football before and the other seemingly cannot stay healthy. So just how good this unit is remains to be seen.
In addition, junior Kyle Brindza will initially be relied upon to handle all kicking duties, from kickoffs, to field goals to punts.
"He's a hard worker,” Kelly said of Brindza. “He's extremely conscientious. He's a very good competitor. He's got the skill set. This is really going to be something that we'll continue to look at each and every day. But our expectations are that he's got the makeup to do it.”
6. Moving on
The last time Notre Dame took the field, they got embarrassed by Alabama 42-14. Within 48 hours, Kelly was interviewing for another job, then Manti Te'o was being sought by the media for nothing to do with football, then the Irish lost their quarterback and their most heralded recruits (of 2013 and 2012).
In short, the off-season has been a disaster. Can this team regain its swagger from a 12-0 record last December?
“It was in the rearview mirror the next day,” Kelly said of the Alabama loss. “I mean, we don't even think about it, don't even talk about it. It's history.
“As I mentioned, our guys were focused the very next day on winter workouts, early morning conditioning, and building into our spring and into our summer. It's not even something that's discussed.”