Last fall, the Notre Dame team burst back onto the national scene, running the table through the likes of a schedule that included Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma, and the University of Southern California.
It wasn’t always pretty, but the Irish did it with defense, giving up the second-fewest points in the country. Middle linebacker Manti T’eo, who was ultimately drafted by the San Diego Chargers, made a push for the Heisman Trophy by leading the team in tackles and picking off seven passes in pass coverage.
Things didn’t exactly work out as planned in the national title game against Alabama, but there was still plenty of reason for optimism for those looking at the big picture. Brian Kelly showed that he could win at Notre Dame, and his dual-threat quarterback Everett Golson would be back and a year better after his redshirt-freshman campaign.
But everything changed in late May with the announcement that Golson had been suspended for the fall semester for an academic violation. Suddenly, the Irish would have to rely on the experienced but significantly-less-electric Tommy Rees at the most important position on the field.
The Irish return offensive talent at receiver with junior Davaris Daniels and senior T.J. Jones, but it certainly doesn’t help that they lost their top two running backs from last season and Tyler Eiffert at tight end.
But it would be a mistake to write the Irish off just because their offense may be less than stellar. Don’t be surprised to see Notre Dame rely a lot on its defense again in 2013-2014. During his three-year tenure with the Irish, head coach Brian Kelly has already shown that he’s plenty willing to grind out wins in ugly, low-scoring fashion. And after flirting with the head-coaching circuit in the off-season, Kelly’s talented defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco, returns to lead the unit again.
It also doesn’t hurt that the Irish return eight out of eleven starters on that side of the ball. They’ll have to replace T’eo at middle linebacker, but redshirt sophomore Jarrett Grace may be less of a drop-off than people expect. Next man in, as Kelly likes to say.
The real studs, though, of Notre Dame’s defensive unit are junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt and nose guard Louis Nix. Both have a future in the National Football League, and the two combined for 97 tackles and 14 sacks during the 2012-2013 season.
Tuitt, Nix, and company will get their first test of the upcoming season on August 31 at home against Temple.