Coach: Brian Kelly
What went wrong: Decision-making and injuries hurt Notre Dame this season. The Irishs season was nearly derailed at an Oct. 27 practice when high winds blew over a scissor lift, killing 20-year-old videographer Declan Sullivan. The tragedy drew national attention, focusing on why a lift was being used in such windy conditions, and the accident is still being investigated by the university and the state.
Sullivans death came between a humiliating loss to Navy, in which Notre Dame had no answer for the Midshipmens triple-option offense, and a home loss to Tulsa when coach Brian Kelly called for a pass from Tulsas 19-yard line with 36 seconds remaining that was intercepted. So instead of holding for a game-winning field goal, Notre Dame lost 28-27 and fell to 4-5 with three games to play.
The Irish also dealt with losing quarterback Dayne Crist (knee), tight end Kyle Rudolph (hamstring) and running back Armando Allen (hip) for the season, and slot receiver Theo Riddick (foot) and nose guard Ian Williams (knee) for a combined eight games late in the year.
What went right: Notre Dame was able to overcome the tragedy of Sullivans death and found players to step in for injured starters to close the season 4-0, capping the finish with a dominating 33-17 victory over Miami in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. Quarterback Tommy Rees went 4-0 as a starter after taking over for Crist and finished with 1,106 passing yards and 12 touchdowns. Running backs Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes combined to run for 609 yards and three touchdowns in Allens absence. And former Bishop Dwenger star Tyler Eifert took over for Rudolph, catching 26 passes for 335 yards with two touchdowns.
The defense also had a massive turnaround, giving up three touchdowns in the final 19 quarters. Notre Dame closed the regular season as the 55th-best rushing defense (147.3 yards per game) after being 89th last season (170.3), and the overall defense jumped from 86th (397.8 yards) at the end of 2009 to 47th (353.2) this season.
Outlook: Notre Dame could have to deal with receiver Michael Floyd (79 catches for 1,025 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns) and Rudolph (28 catches for 328 yards and three touchdowns) leaving early for the NFL. The juniors will review their NFL evaluations and must declare for the draft by the underclassmen deadline Jan. 15.
The Irishs quarterback situation is brighter but also murkier going into next season. After entering this year with only Crist – who will be returning from his second knee surgery in as many years next season – with playing experience, Notre Dame will have Rees and fellow freshmen Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa in the mix along with Nate Montana and 2011 oral commitment Everett Golson.
The defense will have to replace Williams, which the Irish did well with Sean Cwynar and Hafis Williams for the final four games of the regular season, and linebacker Brian Smith and cornerback Darrin Walls.
The line returns ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, who combined for 96 tackles and 8 1/2 tackles for loss. Manti Teo returns to solidify the linebacking corps with his team-high 133 tackles, and outside linebacker Darius Fleming became a force late in the year finishing with 49 tackles and a team-high 11 tackles for loss. Safety Harrison Smith, who has said he will apply for a fifth year, could return with his team-high seven interceptions and 96 tackles, and corners Robert Blanton and Gary Gray – who would also need to be granted a fifth year – combined for three interceptions and 12 pass breakups.