by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Did Notre Dame turn into Notre Dame again late last season? Or was the late-season rally that resulted in a Sun Bowl romp past old nemesis Miami just a false alarm?

We’ll find out more as the 2011 campaign progresses. And comparing wins over three capable but distracted foes in various stages of disarray, plus a victory over a service academy, hardly constitutes the second coming of the Four Horsemen, or a return to the glory days of Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, or Ara Parseghian. But down the stretch last season, there were real indicators that the Fighting Irish were finally being turned in the right direction by first-year HC Brian Kelly.

It wasn’t the easiest season in South Bend. Indeed, in ways, it might have been the most disheartening on record. Off-field mishaps hung like a dark cloud over the program. Offensive line recruit Matt Jones died while on spring break in Florida after falling from a hotel balcony. Then, student videographer Declan Sullivan perished on October 27 when the camera tower in which he was filming practice toppled over in a wind storm. Moreover, one of the belles at nearby Saint Mary’s College, Elizabeth Seeberg, committed suicide after an alleged sexual attack by a Notre Dame football player, further tarnishing the Golden Dome.

With those distractions in the background, it is a wonder the Irish finished the season in one piece. Regardless, those tragic events remarkably seemed to galvanize the squad in the final month of the regular season. Ranked Utah, unbeaten until the previous week, was dominated by a 28-3 count in South Bend. Army, a chic upset pick by many, was throttled Notre Dame, 27-3, at Yankee Stadium. Southern Cal, which owned its longest-ever win streak over the Irish, eight straight, was beaten by a 20-16 count at the L.A. Coliseum. And then it was mortal enemy Miami in the Sun Bowl, and the Irish played perhaps their best game of the season in a dominating 33-17 romp. Moreover, Notre Dame won those last four games after starting QB Dayne Crist went down with the second season-ending knee injury of his career. That summoned true frosh Tommy Rees, running a scaled-back version of the offense, but who nonetheless orchestrated that 4-game sweep to conclude the campaign.

So, are the Irish back, or not?

Almost a decade-and-a-half of indifferent results have made Domers everywhere a bit reluctant to buy into the late-season rally. The old notion of an all-powerful Notre Dame, destined to win regardless what players wore the uniform or coaches prowled the sidelines, was effectively trashed in the post-Lou Holtz era. Subsequent mentors Bob Davie, Ty Willingham, and Charlie Weis all proved incapable of the challenge, although in truth they were merely the latest examples of the Irish swinging and missing on several football hires through the decades. For as much as Domers might not like to acknowledge it, the fact is that Notre Dame hasn’t always won big. For every Rockne, Elmer Layden, Leahy, Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Holtz, there were also the disastrous regimes of Joe Kuharich, Hugh Devore, Gerry Faust, plus the last three failed experiments of Davie, Willingham, and Weis. The fact is that Notre Dame has really never been any better than the coaches it has employed. Like any other team, the Fighting Irish need a quality coach to deliver quality results. Whatever mystique the program used to generate had certainly been lost on a new generation that had no memory of Notre Dame as a national contender, save for brief spells in Willingham’s debut campaign season and Weis’ first two years in charge. In the end, even those Irish teams proved to be pretenders. And the fact is that the Irish haven’t fielded a serious contender for national honors since Holtz’s 1993 team, almost twenty years ago.

But there is evidence that could all be changing under Kelly, who arrived in South Bend after stunning successes at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, especially the latter, leading the Bearcats to back-to-back BCS berths. For those who wonder how Cincy fared in 2010 after Kelly left town, the record reads 4-8. Safe to say that Kelly was missed a year ago in the land of Gold Star and Skyline chili. The Bearcats’ loss was Notre Dame’s gain.

The message seemed to finally get through to the players late last season. Mistakes are not to be tolerated in the Kelly regime, and the troops seemed to take heed as the season progressed. It’s worth noting how the Irish cut down on their penalties dramatically a year ago; they were the seventh least-penalized team in the country at a mere 4.46 pg, after routinely ranking poorly in that category under Weis.

The late season uptick, however, indicated that a new direction was being forged. The aforementioned freshman Rees, an old-fashioned gunslinger with a rifle arm, was working from a much-simplified playbook when he was forced into action following Crist’s injury, but executed well enough to get the Irish over the hump. Replacement parts stepped in for other injured key components such as TE Kyle Rudolph (Tyler Eifert stepping in seamlessly), RB Armando Allen (ably replaced by frosh Cierre Wood), and NY Ian Williams (Sean Cwynar effectively stepping into the breach).

Still, 2010 was hardly smooth sailing on the field, as the Irish were 4-5 and in danger of missing another bowl trip until the late-season rally. October losses to Navy and at home vs. Tulsa sandwiched around the camera tower tragedy. Indeed, the moments after the 28-27 loss to the Golden Hurricane, in which Crist was also injured, found Kelly’s squad at a low ebb. That it was able to regroup and change course in November speaks to the sort of intangibles that Kelly’s teams have always demonstrated throughout his coaching career, and the sorts of characteristics noticeably absent in the Weis, Willingham, and Davie regimes.

So compared to a year ago, when no one knew if Notre Dame had one capable QB on the roster, it now has two with Crist and Rees. Crist, recovered from the knee injury, proved better than expected when executing the short-to-medium range passing game, conducted at a high tempo, much as Kelly’s offenses had operated at Cincy. He enters fall camp as the projected starter, but his durability issues, and Rees’ ability to quickly learn on the job late last season, suggest that Kelly at the least has a viable fall-back option. Redshirt frosh Andrew Hendrix, who starred in the spring game and offers change-of-pace possibilities from Crist and Rees in special spread-option looks, and ballyhooed true frosh Everett Golson, are other QB alternatives who possess even better physical tools. That’s especially true for Golson, whom coaches will probably not redshirt simply because they want to get him on to the field in whatever way possible this fall in a variety of potential roles.

The extra dimension Notre Dame needs to distort defenses, however, remains homerun WR Michael Floyd, who caught 79 passes for 12 TDs a year ago and decided to return for his senior season rather than enter the NFL Draft. And now the status of Floyd, arguably the nation’s top big-play threat, has been cleared, as he has been reinstated after his spring suspension resulting from a DUI. Although after so many neghative headlines within the past year, a zero-tolerance policy is likely in effect for Floyd, whose behavior will be closely monitored. His on-field impact cannot be minimized, as opposing defenses must be aware of Floyd’s whereabouts at all times. The Irish have some other potential gamebreakers such as Golson and soph WR Theo Riddick, but none as accomplished and dangerous as Floyd, an established homerun threat.

Four starters also return on a 300-lb.-plus offensive line which made strides a year ago, but whose run-blocking needs some improvement. There were at least some audible sighs of relief from Domers who were pleased that once-touted RB recruit, the aforementioned Cierre Jones, finally emerged last season after Allen’s injury. His ability to run with power and speed (5.1 ypc in 2010) and catch passes (20 of them a year ago) out of the backfield adds another dimension to the attack. Meanwhile, sr. PK David Ruffer filled a longtime need for consistent field goal work by nailing 18 of 19 three-point tries last season.

What many Domers were also excited about last year was the progress of the defense under the watchful eye of respected coordinator Bob Diaco, whose schemes finally began to resonate with the troops later in the season. After the platoon ranked 86th in total defense when utilizing 4-3 looks in Weis’ last season of 2009, Diaco made the switch to the 3-4 (which the Irish had used prior to 2009) with improved results, up to a respectable 50th nationally. The improvements really manifested in those last four games when the Irish’s yard allowances dropped from 165 to 86 ypg on the rush side and 228 to 185 ypg on the passing side, not to mention just 9.8 ppg in the season-closing wins. Eight starters returns, led by jr. A-A candidate OLB Manti Te’o, a Junior Seau-like destroyer who posted a team-high 133 tackles a year ago. Like Seau, whose exuberance often got the best of him, Te’o has the tendency to overrrun plays. But another year of maturity and discipline, plus an apparently improved defensive line in front of him, will increase the likelihood he can make more game-changing plays in the fall. Diaco will also be looking for ways to get 6'5, 242-lb. true frosh Ishaq Willaims onto the field, perhaps as a hybrid who can line up as a speed pass rusher or prove a disruptive force at LB. Soph Prince Shembo, another once-ballyhooed recruit, is expected to make an impact as a new starter at one of the OLB spots.

As for the line, it figures to be augmented by a pair of flashy and speed-based top-line frosh recruits, including 6'6, 260-lb. Aaron Lynch, who projects into a potential prototype NFL DE, and 6'5, 254-lb. Stephon Tuitt, who at the least figures as a valued situational pass rush component. Blending those potentially-impactful frosh with jrs. such as DEs Ethan Johnson & Kapron Lewis Moore, and NTs Hafis Williams and aforementioned Sean Cwynar, give Diaco and Kelly lots of flexibility in their personnel combinations. How they fare against the better run-oriented teams (such as Stanford and Navy) that hurt the Irish a year remains to be seen, and the ability to generate a consistent pass rush should help alleviate pressure on an experienced secondary that Diaco and Kelly hope contribute more game-changing plays in the fall. The returning starters on the corners, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, hinted at becoming a shutdown pair once getting more comfy with Diaco’s schemes a year ago.

Summary...We’re not quite convinced that Notre Dame is ready to contend for national honors in the second year of the Kelly regime, but there’s enough evidence to indicate the Irish turned the corner a year ago and could be back to potential power status before long. Top WR Michael Floyd's reinstatement is significant, and what appears to be a favorable schedule suggests that the Irish could even find themselves in the BCS mix in the right set of circumstances. Moreover, Kelly's track record indicates a charge up the national rankings would not be a complete shock. Such a move would probably have to include some of the touted newcomers (especially on defense) making an immediate impact, but many Domers and other regional sources are expecting as much. Even with Floyd reinstated, the Irish are still probably a notch or two beneath national elite status, but at least the program once again appears on the ascent.

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