Second year Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly told the South Bend media at the start of football practice that his goal this season is to get the Irish in a BCS bowl.
The 2011 edition of the Irish certainly has a shot at reaching Kelly's goal as there is enough talent on the team to make a run for a BCS game along with the help of a schedule that looks manageable.
As we begin another season of Irish columns we'll look at the offensive and defensive units which will carry the hopes of a BCS bid this season.
Starting at quarterback the Irish appear to be have the talent in hand. Dayne Crist returns to the team for his senior year and won the starting position back from his replacement, Tommy Rees. Kelly announced last week that Crist won the job back for the Sept. 3 opener.
Rees finished the 2010 season as the number one QB when Crist went down with yet another knee injury. Crist has looked strong so far in the early drills and has been getting the most snaps with the starting unit. But Rees led the Irish to four straight victories to end the season and a bowl victory over Miami.
The difference between the two is not great, so it is a plus to have Crist and Rees as your one-two.
Add to the mix Andrew Hendrix. Like Rees, Hendrix is a sophomore. He has a strong arm and is capable of filling in if needed. If Crist shoud go down again, or if something would happen to Rees, the Irish will have a very good replacement in Hendrix.
In the backfield with the QB spot the Irish have some good returnees in Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray. Wood is a junior and Gray a senior. However, reports out of South Bend indicate that freshmen Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson III are catching the eye of the coaching staff. Another position where the competition can only make things better.
With the return of Michael Floyd to the fold the Irish receiving corps appear to be plus. Along with Floyd the Irish also return Theo Riddick and TJ Jones. Also in the mix are Robby Toma and John Goodman. Floyd returns after being suspended. Right now, Goodman is number two.
The tight end spot will be filled by returnee Tyler Eifert, who will be backed up by veteran Mike Ragone. Keep the name of Alex Welch in your mind at this position.
The offensive line should bring the biggest smile to Kelly because the Irish have plenty of experience up front. Experience players include LT Zack Martin, RG Trevor Robinson, RT Taylor Dever and C Braxston Cave. Also in the mix are linemen Conor Hanratty, Christian Lombard, and Andrew Nuss.
Now the defense. This is the side of the line that might have the biggest question marks. Kelly and his staff went out and recruited some top talent to shore up the unit.
Here is a quick look by position.
DE Kap Lewis-Moore returns along with DE Ethan Johnson, and veteran NG Louis Nix. In the mix are Sean Cwynar and Aaron Lynch. The linebacking corps and corners are going to be the keys because the Irish are strong up front. The Irish coaching staff wants the defense to turn things inside to the strength in the middle.
That responsibility goes to OLB Darius Fleming and Drop LB Prince Shembo, MLB Manti Te'o and Weakside LB Carlo Calabrese. Of the group Te'o is the key and he knows it and has taken a leadership role for the defense.
Safeties include Jamoris Slaughter and Zake Motta, Strong Safeties are Harrison Smith and Dan McCarthy. Smith is the leader in that area. Finally, cornerback position is not short on talent led by Gary Gray, Robert Blanto, Bennet Jackson and Lo Wood.
David Ruffer returns for a fifth year to do the placements and kickoffs. He will be pushed by another strong kicker in Nick Tausch, a junior. Other special team members include Ben Turk punting, Theo Riddick and Bennett Jackson kickoff returns and Riddick and John Goodman punt returns.
That is a quick look at what the depth chart looks like.
The Irish host South Flordia today. The two teams are meeting for the first time. Of course, if you are an Irish fan you known Skip Holtz is the head man of the Bulls, starting his second year. Holtz is the son of former Irish head coach Lou Holtz and was on the ND staff for several years before landing his first head job at UConn. Key players for the Bulls are QB B.J. Daniels, LB DeDe Lattimore and CB Spencer Boyd. The Bulls were 8-5 last year and upset of Miami during the last regular season game.
The game will be teleivsed by NBC-TV with a 3:40 p.m. DST kickoff.
IRISH NOTES:The BCS bid Kelly wants won't come unless the Irish play better defense. The Irish defense did improve last year from the season before. But a fact of life is that seven of the 48 teams who landed a BCS berth in the 2005-09 span, didn't have a rush defense ranked among the top 25 nationally. Two of those were Charles Weiss-coached ND teams that were routed in their games. In 2010 seven of the 10 BCS teams were among the top 27 rush defense teams. That's a short version of the fact that leads to the conclusion, defense wins games, especially BCS games....The Irish improved from 77th to 50th in total defenese nationally during its four-game win streak at the end of 2010 and 62nd to 23rd in scoring defense. So things did improve....ND plays five night games this season. Starting times for all but the Wake Forest game have been set. Home games with South Florida, Michigan State, Air Force and Navy are 3:30 p.m. DST. Boston College is 4 p.m. EST. The Maryland game, a home game in Washington, D.C., is 7:30 p.m. Also, the USC game at home is 7:30 p.m. It was announced at least one home game per year will be moved to night for NBC. The away games has Michigan, Purdue and Stanford at 8 p.m. and Pittsburgh noon....As I stated above, some surprise changes in who starts where will occurr. Some have. Junior Chris Watt will start at left guard over fifth-year senior Andrew Nuss. Also, junior Dan Fox has jumped over veteran Carlo Calabrese as the starting weak side linebacker. And in still another move, senior Jamoris Slaughter will start at free safety ahead of junior Zeke Motta. Freshman Kyle Brindza won the kickoff job...Recent ND recruit Sheldon Day has been selected to play in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl on Jan. 3 in Phoenix. Day, from Warren Central High in Indianapolis, will join future ND players receiver Deontay Greenberry and defensive back Tee Shepard in the game....ND landed another top recruit this week when Jarron Jones of Aquinas Institute in Rochester, N.Y., announced he will join the Irish. Jones is a prize catch at 6-7 and 308 pound defensive lineman and rated a five star prospect. We'll run down all the Irish recruits next week....Here goes my annual prediction for the Irish. Open with win over South Florida (1-0), a loss at Michigan (1-1), rebounds in a close one with Michigan State (2-1), a win at Pitt (3-1), another victory at Purdue (4-1), Air Force trouble at the start but a win (5-1), USC upsets Irish (5-2), finally, a win over Navy (6-2), a win at Wake Forest (7-2), a away home win over Maryland (8-2), Irish handle Boston College (9-2), Stanford's passing too much for ND (9-3)....We're in South Bend for today's opener along with the usual "suspects" from our area. We're picking the Irish today but it won't be easy because Holtz will have his team up for this one as he returns to South Bend.