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Notre Dame

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Associated Press
Quarterback Everett Golson returns to Notre Dame after missing last year for academic reasons.

Kelly wants Irish in 1st playoff

Notre Dame remains a football hotbed, even if the results aren’t what they were in, say, the late 1980s.

Coach Brian Kelly is taking the position the Irish must make the four-team playoff to be relevant.

College Football Playoff officials emphasize strength of schedule, and Notre Dame plays a tough one this season.

It remains to be seen if the Irish are good enough to survive the gantlet.

5 key issues

Sorting out the ball carriers: Cam McDaniel rushed for 705 yards last season, and Tarean Folston compiled 494 on only 88 carries.

Without George Atkinson and Amir Carlisle in this year’s backfield, Greg Bryant is the name to watch, and Kelly could ride the hot hand from quarter to quarter or week to week.

If he chooses a primary back, the ultra-talented Bryant is a good bet. A knee injury cost him almost all of his freshman campaign, but he had 12 carries for 105 yards in the spring game.

Adjusting to changes in coordinators: Notre Dame has new voices on both offense and defense, so there are certain to be schematic tweaks.

It doesn’t help that offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock missed the start of camp while recovering from a surgical procedure, but he has been on the staff since 2010.

Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who comes from the NFL, has a lot more work to do because he is instituting big changes. He wants to be aggressive and go for more turnovers.

Welcome back, Everett: Everett Golson doesn’t have to be a 3,000-yard passer like Tommy Rees. But after missing last season because of academic matters, Golson will be expected to lead a potentially explosive attack.

In 2012, Golston started 11 times and threw for 2,405 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also rushed for six scores.

Golson has all the tools necessary to succeed at a high level in Kelly’s offense and against good defenses.

Counting on the defense: Notre Dame looks iffy defensively and might struggle. Most of VanGorder’s charges are young, unproven or both.

On the one hand, that is concerning, but inexperience also allows the Irish to dream big about what these players could become.

Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith, a Bishop Luers graduate, shapes up as the star centerpiece. He had 67 tackles and an interception last year. A breakout year from Sheldon Day is needed for the Irish to get more from the defensive line.

Replacing offensive losses: Tight end is a featured position at Notre Dame, and Troy Niklas is gone, which puts the onus on senior Ben Koyack to live up to the preseason honors that came his way. He averaged 25 yards receiving yards per game over the second half of last season.

On the offensive line, Zack Martin and Chris Watt departed with 89 starts during their time in South Bend. Center Nick Martin will have to make sure the drop-off on the left side isn’t too big.

4 top games

Sept. 6 vs. Michigan, 7:30 p.m.: Notre Dame has a chance to be 4-2 or 5-1 at the midpoint if it can take care of the Wolverines, who are already hearing rumblings about coach Brady Hoke’s job security.

Sept. 13 vs. Purdue, 7:30 p.m. (NBC): This should be an easy win for the Irish but is still a good showcase for their brand at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Oct. 18 at Florida State, TBA: The Irish are 2-5 against the defending national champion Seminoles and face them on the road for the first time since 2002.

Nov. 29 at Southern California, TBA: It’s the Trojans. The history between these two schools speaks for itself. Throw out the records, this is always a fun battle.

3 key returning players

Jarron Jones, Jr., DL: Midway through his career, Jones has plenty of room to grow, and he could be a key variable in Notre Dame’s defense this year.

Corey Robinson, So., WR: A big target, Robinson is generally thought of as the most likely breakout candidate on the outside despite catching only nine passes in his debut season.

Ben Councell, Sr., LB: Coming off a major knee injury, it’s uncertain how Councell fits into the linebacking corps, but he could plug holes on the strong side.

2 new faces to watch

Pete Mokwuah , Fr., DT: Listed at 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, Mokwuah stands to see snaps right away after a career-ending injury to Bishop Dwenger graduate Tony Springmann.

Justin Brent, Fr., WR: Rated a top-100 prospect by many recruiting services, Brent is a strong, athletic pass-catcher who enrolled early in the spring.

1 indispensable player

Jaylon Smith, So., LB: The loss of Smith, a Bishop Luers graduate, is a quality, three-down linebacker. Mobile and quick, Smith can run sideline to sideline and averaged 5.2 tackles per game last year as a freshman and added a fumble recovery and an interception. Also, besides his tangible skills, Smith is becoming a leader. cgoff@jg.net

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