FORT WAYNE – Notre Dame begins preparations for the season Monday with four days of practices in Marion. The team returns to campus for the rest of camp Friday, and the Irish open the season at home against Temple on Aug. 31.
Here are five big story lines and five other things to track as Notre Dame prepares to follow up its 12-0 regular season and appearance in the BCS national championship game:
Tommy Rees gets a second chance to start at quarterback: The 6-foot-1, 215-pound senior started every game except the opener in 2011 and backed up Everett Golson last season, making two starts. With Golson suspended for the fall semester because of an academic violation, coach Brian Kelly named Rees the starter for the opener. Rees will need to cut down on turnovers that plagued his first season as the starter when he threw 14 interceptions. If Rees can’t keep turnovers low, Notre Dame could have to turn to either senior Andrew Hendrix or freshman Malik Zaire.
Replacing Tyler Eifert: The former Bishop Dwenger standout, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by Cincinnati, left Notre Dame as the program’s all-time leader in receptions (140) and receiving yards (1,840) by a tight end. The Irish will turn to Troy Niklas, a converted linebacker who had five receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown last year; Ben Koyack, with three receptions for 39 yards last year; Alex Welch, Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe to replace Eifert.
Sorting out the running backs: George Atkinson III ran for 361 yards on 51 carries behind the departed Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood last season. Amir Carlisle, who can also be used as a slot receiver, returns from a broken ankle that kept him sidelined last season and a broken collar bone that limited him in spring practice this year. Cam McDaniel ran for 125 yards on 23 carries with a TD last season, and the Irish bring in two highly rated recruits in Greg Bryant and Tarean Foster. Kelly said he will need to find ways to use his running backs in more positions than just the backfield.
Replacing Manti Te’o: The second-round draft pick for San Diego led Notre Dame in tackles (113) and interceptions (7) last season and was the clear leader of the defense. Jarrett Grace, a 6-2, 253-pound junior, will likely move into Te’o’s starting spot at inside linebacker. Grace had 12 tackles in 13 games last season.
Sorting out the cornerbacks: After scrambling to put together a secondary last season, the Irish have options heading into this season as players return from injury. KeiVarae Russell was thrust into a starting cornerback role when Lo Wood was lost to an Achilles injury during last season’s fall camp. Russell and first-time starter Bennett Jackson combined for 135 tackles and six interceptions last season. Notre Dame will need to figure out a way to use Wood, who returns from his injury, along with Jackson and Russell this year.
5 things to keep an eye on
Filling out the offensive line: The Irish need to find a new center and right guard. Nick Martin, the brother of starting left tackle Zack Martin, appeared to have the edge at center, and Conor Hanratty took most of the first-team reps at right guard during spring drills.
Finding a go-to receiver: TJ Jones could emerge as the Irish’s top target with Eifert gone. Jones matched Eifert with 50 receptions, gaining 649 yards with four touchdowns last season.
Replacing Kapron Lewis-Moore: The defensive end provided leadership along with his 40 tackles, with 8 1/2 tackles for a loss, last year. Sophomore Sheldon Day, who had 23 tackles with 3 1/2 tackles for loss last season, is expected to move into Lewis-Moore’s vacated starting spot.
Relying on Kyle Brindza for punting duties: The junior was limited on improving in the spring with most practices indoors, but Notre Dame will need a lot out of him as the team looks for him to handle place-kicking and kickoff duties as well.
Finding where former Bishop Luers star Jaylon Smith fits in: Smith was one of the highest-rated players to sign with the Irish in February, but he will be competing for playing time at one of Notre Dame’s deepest positions – linebacker.