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College Football Preview 2014-2015: 13. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

13. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Amir Carlisle

Coach: Brian Kelly (5th year)
2013-2014 Record: 9-4 (Independent, No Conference Record)

August 30th vs. Rice
September 6th vs. Michigan
September 13th vs. Purdue (in Indianapolis)
September 27th vs. Syracuse (in East Rutherford)
October 4th vs. Stanford
October 11th vs. North Carolina
October 18th @ Florida State
November 1st vs. Navy (in Landover, Maryland)
November 8th @ Arizona State
November 15th vs. Northwestern
November 22nd vs. Louisville
November 29th @ USC

After a humiliating 42-14 loss to Alabama in the 2013 National Championship game, the Fighting Irish were hoping to return to a BCS bowl under coach Brian Kelly and improving QB Everett Golson. But, before the season, Golson was suspended for the year and although senior Tommy Rees filled in nicely, Notre Dame was pretty average throughout 2013 and went 9-4. Golson returns from his suspension but will have to grab the starting QB job away from rising Malik Zaire. Along with a strong defense, experienced offensive line and some dangerous running backs, this Fighting Irish team should be much improved.

Malik Zaire
Backfield: Golson was very good in the 2012-2013 season, his first as a starter for Notre Dame. Although he wasn't asked to throw it deep very often, he showed a strong arm and the ability to scramble and make plays. He has looked good this spring, commanding the offense very well and showcasing an arm that has become very accurate. Don't count out Zaire though, a player who was redshirted last year, a lefty with even more speed than Golson and an extremely high ceiling. No lefty has ever started for Notre Dame in the school's history, but that shouldn't hurt Zaire's case. It should be an interesting competition that could last all the way down until Notre Dame's first game, against Rice. There may not be any stars in this backfield, but there is certainly talent and production. Cam McDaniel, who led the Fighting Irish in rushing yards in 2013 (with 705) returns along with sophomore Tarean Folston, a speedster who can change games in the blink of an eye. The loss of George Atkinson III, should give more opportunities to Greg Bryant, who sat out the 2013 season. The former five-star recruit had 95 yards in the spring game and certainly has a ton of potential if he can stay healthy (he has struggled with knee problems his entire football career).

Receivers: The top option for Notre Dame in the passing game should be senior DaVaris Daniels, a tremendous athlete who can beat defenses deep. Daniels is a great player, but he had an interesting off season, earning a suspension then being readmitted to the football team. If he can stay out of trouble he could really have an impressive 2014. Former running back and USC transfer Amir Carlisle could also be a dangerous player this year for the Fighting Irish. Carlisle, who caught 7 passes for 30 yards out of the backfield last year, is extremely quick and fill find openings in the opposing defense. Junior Chris Brown could also add a dangerous piece in the aerial attack and Torii Hunter's son, Torii Hunter Jr. has suffered with leg issues but could be a high potential player who could really grow this year. Notre Dame has come to be known as "Tight End University" as they have produced a ton of talented tight ends over the years including Tyler Eifert, John Carlson and a number of others. This year, senior Ben Koyack should be the next player at the position to grow into a stud. Koyack has excellent size but is still pretty nimble and should be pretty productive, especially in the red zone.

Offensive Line: The offensive line does return three starters but the two they lose are two veteran stars, including Zack Martin, a first-round draft pick. Senior center Nick Martin returns to anchor the interior of the unit. Martin is an experienced player who recognizes defenses very well and is an excellent communicator. Junior Ronnie Stanley, who stepped in for Christian Lombardi at right tackle this past season, could possibly stay at right tackle but also could move and fill Zack Martin's void at left tackle. Stanley is a brick wall at tackle, a 6'5", 320-pounder who is very tough and is a hard-worker. No matter where he starts he will be productive but Brian Kelly and staff might prefer him on the left side, giving them an experienced linemen who can protect Golson or Zaire's blindside. Alex Bars is a massive four-star find from Nashville who will provide valuable depth and be a major piece to the puzzle in the future. Another important addition to this Notre Dame offensive line is going to be guard Quenton Nelson, a pretty good athlete who was a steal from the East Coast (comes over from Red Bank, New Jersey).

Defensive Line: Gone are two of Notre Dame's biggest defensive contributors the past two seasons in defensive end Stephon Tuitt and massive defensive tackle Louis Nix. Although their losses will certainly hurt the front seven, Notre Dame still definitely has some talent on this defensive line. The most notable returnee is junior Sheldon Day, an NFL draft prospect with a super impressive motor. Day proved to be very productive a year ago, recording 33 tackles, with 5.5 of them being for a loss. With Nix and Tuitt gone he is the star on this line, and those numbers may increase rapidly. The other likely starter in the heart of this defensive line will be another junior, Jarron Jones. Jones uses his massive frame to bowl over weaker offensive linemen and plug up openings at the line of scrimmage. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will run an aggressive 4-3 this year which could push hybrid end/outside linebacker Ishaq Williams to full-time snaps at end. Williams is very quick off the edge and with a likely starting role, could record a lot of sacks this year. Expect Andrew Trumbetti, another East Coast steal for the Fighting Irish, to push for action in his first year in South Bend.

Linebackers: There is no denying the absence of Manti Te'o certainly hurt this Notre Dame defense, especially their rush defense, as they fell to 70th in the nation in rush defense. A lot of that responsibility fell to youth in the linebacker corps, and the Fighting Irish will lose yet another important piece to this unit. Dan Fox, who led Notre Dame with 95 tackles in 2013, is now gone. Sophomore Jaylon Smith needs to step up after a productive first year as starter. The outside linebacker had 67 tackles, 6.5 TFL and added an interception. Smith is a fabulous athlete and could be a very versatile player this season. The big question is who will replace Fox at middle linebacker. Jarrett Grace broke his leg last October and it is unknown whether he will be ready for the start of 2014. If he isn't, expect former walk-on Joe Schmidt to get starting snaps. Schmidt has managed to find snaps on this roster because of his hard-working mentality and fabulous instincts. The star of this year's recruiting class is inside linebacker Nyles Morgan, a prospect from Illinois, who is rated as the No. 5 inside linebacker in the 2014 recruiting cycle. Greer Martini was another nice pickup to help boost this linebacker group. Martini is a tough, versatile 'backer who should find ways to contribute on this defense.

Secondary: This appears like it could be the strength of this Notre Dame defense, after the pass defense allowed just under 200 yards per game last year, good for 15th in the nation. Junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell has the chance to be special. Already on NFL scouts radar, Russell ad 51 tackles and 1 interception last year and should continue to grow as a coverage player. Russell is smart and is very quick, he can be shutdown at times. Joining Russell in the defensive backfield will be steady veteran Austin Collinsworth, a safety returning for his senior season, and sophomore Max Redfield. Redfield is a former five-star recruit who should likely start at free safety and is ready to step up in a big way. Collinsworth will prove to be a versatile defensive stopper who can be dangerous in run support or in coverage situations. Collinsworth had three picks in 2013; he is great at reading the quarterback and making plays on balls. The addition of Florida transfer Cody Riggs will further improve this secondary and give the Fighting Irish another experienced playmaker. Riggs, who will be eligible right away for the start of this year, has great range and could compete for starting snaps. The cornerback who will start opposite Russell is a little bit of a question, sophomore Cole Luke impressed in the spring and should get an opportunity to start.

Special Teams: The return of senior Kyle Brindza is a huge boost for ND, as the veteran will handle both kicking and punting duties. Unfortunately, the Fighting Irish lose some great returners including George Atkinson III, ND's all-time leader in kickoff returns. Cam McDaniel and others could compete for kick return opportunities along with punt return duties.

As usual, Notre Dame will face a daunting schedule that includes 10 teams that made bowl appearances in 2013. Even so, don't count out Notre Dame, who has enough talent on both sides of the ball to win double-digit games. Remember, Everett Golson has never lost a game in the regular season of his collegiate career and even if he doesn't start, Zaire has the chance to be special. If Kelly can find new leaders and some pass rush, expect Notre Dame to be very dangerous.

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