Notre Dame followed its trip to the BCS championship game last season with a disappointing 2013.
The Irish lost their starting quarterback, Everett Golson, before the season to an academic issue and went 8-4 in the regular season with Tommy Rees as the starter.
Notre Dame did push its win total to nine with a 29-16 victory over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday at Yankee Stadium.
Here’s a look back at this season and what’s to come in 2014:
5 top returning players
Everett Golson, Jr., QB: Golson went 10-1 as a starter in 2012, throwing for 2,405 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions and running for 298 yards with six touchdowns.
His loss to an academic issue this season took away the Irish’s running threat at quarterback, but coach Brian Kelly said he feels he is getting a better player and leader back after Golson spent part of his semester suspension working with quarterbacks coach George Whitfield.
He’s physically more mature, probably over 200 pounds, Kelly said. He looked great, quite frankly. Great physical condition, and I think mentally is really where I saw a young man that understands what he’s coming back to.
Tarean Folston, Fr., RB: The 5-foot-10, 207-pounder didn’t get a carry in three of the first six games he played in this season. But he had double-digit carries in four of the last five games and finished with 470 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
DaVaris Daniels, Jr., WR: The 6-2, 203-pounder will be the Irish’s leading returning receiver after finishing this year with 49 catches for 745 yards and seven touchdowns.
Jarron Jones, So., DL: The 6-5, 305-pounder is set to take over at nose guard next season after proving himself capable in the last two games of the regular season. Jones had 11 tackles in the final two games of the season, making his first start in a four-tackle performance at Stanford in the regular-season finale.
Jaylon Smith, Fr., LB: The former Luers star started every game this season and finished second on the team in tackles for loss with 6 1/2 . The 6-2, 230-pounder’s 61 tackles was third on the team and the fifth most by a freshman at Notre Dame in the regular season, and he added six more tackles in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Smith also had a forced fumble, fumble recovery, an interception and three pass breakups in his first season.
I knew it was going to be a great challenge, and I just had to keep my heart in it, Smith said of his first season.
4 key players leaving
Louis Nix III, NG: The 6-3, 349-pounder was lost for the season with two games to go after having season-ending knee surgery, and he took the option to return off the table by signing with an agent. The senior, who didn’t play as a freshman, had 27 tackles, with two for loss, this season and had 122 tackles, with 14 for loss, in 34 games over three seasons.
Prince Shembo, LB: The 6-2, 258-pounder was second on the team in sacks with five and had 17 quarterback hurries.
He finished this year with 48 tackles and had started the last 26 games. Shembo had 75 tackles with 24 tackles for loss and 19 sacks in four years.
TJ Jones, WR: The 5-11, 195-pounder was named the team MVP after this season. He led the Irish with 70 catches for 1,108 yards and 11 touchdowns. Jones, who was one of the team’s three captains, had 185 receptions for 2,429 yards and 21 touchdowns in the last four seasons.
Zack Martin, LT: The 6-4, 308-pounder started a school record 52 straight games and had been part of 36 victories at Notre Dame. The two-time captain accepted an invitation to participate in the Senior Bowl.
3 positions of strength
Running back: Notre Dame could return all of the running backs it had this season with Folston, George Atkinson III, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle and Greg Bryant, a five-star recruit who missed most of the season after knee surgery, eligible to come back.
Atkinson was suspended for the Pinstripe Bowl because of a violation of team rules, and his future with the team was unclear after the game. The Irish averaged 149 rushing yards during the regular season with McDaniel leading the way with 625 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Atkinson ran for 555 yards and three touchdowns, and Carlisle ran for 201 yards.
Kicking game: Kyle Brindza will return after doing everything for the Irish this season. The 6-1, 236-pound junior made 15 of 20 field goals, averaged 63.8 yards on kickoffs with 33 touchbacks and averaged 41.3 yards on punts in his first season in that role for Notre Dame.
Offensive line: While the Irish lose Zack Martin and left guard Chris Watt to graduation, because of injuries the team will have some experience to build on for next season and two players returning to the mix. Center Nick Martin will be back after missing the final two games because of knee injury. The 6-5, 295-pound junior started 11 games, and in his absence, the 6-5, 300-pound Matt Hegarty stepped in to start two games. Christian Lombard, a 6-5, 315-pound senior guard, who didn’t play as a freshman, missed six games because of back surgery but can return, and in his absence, 6-6, 317-pound freshman Steve Elmer and 6-5, 309-pound Conor Hanratty gained experience. The Irish will also return Ronnie Stanley, a 6-5, 318-pound right tackle.
2 major weaknesses
Middle linebacker: The Irish will lose starters Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox to graduation. Fox led the team in tackles with 90, and Calabrese was second with 84. Notre Dame will get Jarrett Grace, who was lost for the season to a broken leg after six games this year, back, and Joe Schmitt, a former walk-on, played in every game this season and had 15 tackles.
Coordinators: This could turn into a strength quickly, but the Irish enter the offseason needing to replace offensive coordinator Chuck Martin and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. Martin, who was the offensive coordinator for the last two years, left to become the head coach at Miami (Ohio), and Diaco, the defensive coordinator the last four years, left to become head coach at Connecticut.
Kelly said after the Pinstripe Bowl that he had already settled on a defensive coordinator, who will come in from outside the program, and was just waiting for the contract to be finalized to announce it. Media reports have New York Jets linebackers coach Brian Van Gorder as Notre Dame’s next defensive coordinator.
Top question for ’14
Will Stephon Tuitt return? The 6-6, 312-pound junior defensive end will need to decide between returning for his final season or entering the NFL draft. He led the Irish in tackles for loss (7 1/2 ) and sacks (6) this season, despite a slow start to the year after having his conditioning interrupted while recovering from offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia. Tuitt received a second-round grade on his NFL evaluation.
He will now focus on making that decision, Kelly said after the Pinstripe Bowl. We’ve had a couple of conversations. He knows all the information. My job is to provide him with all the information about the decision he’s about to make.
I’m pretty certain he will make his decision here very, very soon.