FORT WAYNE – Notre Dame will try to improve by one game this season after going 12-0 in the regular season and falling 42-14 to Alabama in the BCS championship game last year.
The Irish will have to address some issues, get past some big games and get contributions from key returning players and maybe some newcomers to repeat last year’s success.
5 key issues
Can the defense repeat? Notre Dame finished last season second in points allowed (12.8), seventh in total defense (305.5 yards per game), 11th in run defense (105.7) and 25th in pass defense (199.8). The Irish lose starting linebacker Manti Te’o, who had a team-high 113 tackles and seven interceptions; safety Zeke Motta, who was second on the team with 77 tackles; and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, who had 40 tackles. Backups Jarrett Grace at linebacker, Sheldon Day at defensive end and Elijah Shumate at safety are expected to start alongside the returning eight defensive players.
Sorting out the secondary: The Irish had to use KeiVare Russell as an emergency starting cornerback when Lo Wood was lost before the season to an Achilles injury. Russell, a converted running back, and first-year starter Bennett Jackson combined for 123 tackles and six interceptions. The cornerback spot should be stronger with Wood back in the mix. At safety, Matthias Farley had to become a starter last season when Jamoris Slaughter was lost to an injury in week three. Farley had 49 tackles and an interception and gives the Irish stability at safety as they break in a new starter.
Finding new go-to receiver: Michael Floyd and former Bishop Dwenger standout Tyler Eifert were the top receiving threats the last two years. The Irish will turn to numerous options to replace the two first-round draft picks. TJ Jones, who matched Eifert’s 50 receptions and four touchdowns last year, is the top returning receiver with 649 yards. DaVaris Daniels, who missed three games last season, had 31 catches for 490 yards. The Irish will also need receivers Daniel Smith and Chris Brown and tight ends Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack and Alex Welch to contribute.
Can the offensive line continue to improve: Left tackle Zack Martin, left guard Chris Watt and right tackle Christian Lombard return to a line that helped the Irish average 189.4 rushing yards, their best output since 2000. Nick Martin, Zack’s younger brother, appears to be ready to step into the starting center position, and right side of the line could be a combination of Connor Hanratty at guard next to Lombard or Lombard at guard with Ronnie Stanley at tackle. If the line is Zack Martin, Watt, Nick Martin, Lombard and Stanley, the Irish’s line will average 311.4 pounds with the 295-pound Nick Martin being the only lineman weighing less than 300 pounds.
Finding a return game: Notre Dame averaged 2.2 yards on punt returns and 19.6 on kickoff returns. The departure of Davonte’ Neal, who gained 46 yards on 21 punt returns, leaves Notre Dame looking for a new return man. George Atkinson III, who returned 35 kickoffs for 915 yards and two TDs as a freshman, gained only 441 yards on 22 returns last year, and he could be taken out of the mix with a larger role as the lead running back on offense.
4 top games
Sept. 7 at Michigan, 8 p.m. (ABC/ESPN): This will be Notre Dame’s last trip to Ann Arbor for the foreseeable future. The series will take a hiatus after next season’s game at Notre Dame.
Sept. 28: vs. Oklahoma, 3:30 p.m. (NBC): The Sooners were manhandled by the Irish last season in Norman, falling 30-13, as Notre Dame improved to 9-1 against Oklahoma.
Oct. 19: vs. USC, 7:30 p.m. (NBC): The Trojans’ visit to Notre Dame Stadium will be a night game for the second time in a row. USC embarrassed Notre Dame in 2011, 31-17, but the Irish did win last season’s matchup in Los Angeles, 22-13.
Nov. 30 at Stanford, TBA (Fox): The Irish’s goal-line stand to preserve a 20-13 overtime victory framed Notre Dame’s undefeated regular season. This year’s game is in California, and it could play a role in which teams play for the national title.
3 key returning players
Stephon Tuitt, Jr., DE: The 6-foot-6, 322-pounder led the Irish with 13 tackles for loss and 12 sacks last year. The projected first-round NFL draft pick could be playing his final season with Notre Dame.
Louis Nix III, Sr., NG: The 6-2, 357-pounder had 50 tackles and 7 1/2 tackles for loss last season, and he said he will try to stay on the field for the entire game.
George Atkinson III, Jr. RB: The 6-1, 220-pounder ran for 361 yards with five touchdowns and averaged 7.1 yards per carry. He will be moved to the front of the line with the departure of Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood.
2 new faces to watch
Jaylon Smith, Fr., LB: The 6-2, 230-pound former Bishop Luers star won the 2012 Butkus Award as the best linebacker in high school, but he will be competing for playing time at one of the Irish’s deepest positions.
Greg Bryant, Fr., RB: The 5-9, 204-pounder joins a talented group, but he may be the most ready to play from this year’s recruiting class.
1 indispensable player
Tommy Rees, Sr., QB: The 6-1, 215-pounder is entering a season as the declared starter for the first time in his career. He is 14-4 as a starter and has thrown from 4,413 yards with 34 touchdowns and 24 interceptions in 34 games. Behind Rees, the Irish have senior Andrew Hendrix, who has thrown for 304 yards in eight games, and freshman Malik Zaire.