Football camp for the fall season opens this Saturday, August 4th for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The start of a new year brings some serious questions that will have an enormous effect on how well the Irish will perform in 2012-13. Here are ten questions that are on every fan's mind:
10. Can Braxston Cave stay healthy?
The offensive line figures to be a great strength for the Irish. They return several of last season's starters, including LT Zack "Goblin" Martin, to a group that more than held its own in 2011. Yet, they did struggle a bit down the stretch, giving up nine sacks in the last two games.
Part of that reason was that starting center Braxston Cave was out due to injury and replaced by Mike Golic Jr. on the interior. While Golic Jr. is certainly a serviceable replacement, the Irish need Cave on the field this season to lead the rushing attack that suffers in his absences.
9. Which freshmen will surprise us?
Brian Kelly has done an excellent job, for the most part, in recruiting and establishing depth so that the Irish are not forced to rely on freshmen each year. However, there are breakout freshmen every season and this one will be no different. Here are some names to keep an eye on:
Chris Brown - WR
Davonte Neal - WR
Justin Ferguson - WR
Jarron Jones - DL
Nicky Baratti - S
CJ Prosise - CB
8. How will all of the tight ends fit in?
TE might be Notre Dame's deepest position group this season. They are led by senior Tyler Eifert, who turned down the NFL to come back for one final year. He is an absolute stud, and is unquestionably the best offensive player the Irish have. But while he will get his fair share of balls thrown his way, what will happen with the guys behind him?
Kelly has made it clear that blocking is the number one priority for the backup tight end, which makes many fans salivate for the massive defensive-end-turned-tight-end Troy Niklas to step in. His 6' 7", 252-pound frame is perfect for pancaking defenders, so he is certainly a viable option. Don't sleep on sophomore Ben Koyack or junior Alex Welch however, as both are excellent pass-catchers.
7. Can Nick Tausch return to freshman form?
Tausch has had an interesting career at Notre Dame so far. As a freshman he received ample opportunity as senior Brandon Walker simply couldn't get the job done. He made the most of it, setting the record for most consecutive field goals made by a Notre Dame freshman with fourteen. He then was beaten out by walk-on David Ruffer (who eventually earned a scholarship) the next two years.
After waiting patiently in the wings, Tausch should provide a very reliable kicking option this fall.
6. Can Manti Te'o create more turnovers?
Nobody disputes that Manti is one of the best (if not THE best) inside linebackers in the country. He racked up an incredible 128 tackles and is the respected leader of the defense.
Despite this, any Irish fan who has watched Manti play the last few games has come away wanting more. Would you believe that even in his awesome 2011 season he only forced one fumble and had zero interceptions?
He has all of the talent in the world, is a model student-athlete, and one of the hardest workers on the team. Hopefully that pays dividends this year and he can wreak a little havoc by forcing some more turnovers. We know he's definitely capable of it.
5. Will the Irish stay true to the running game?
One of the most marked improvements during the Brian Kelly era has been the running game. In 2011, the Irish rushed for over 160 yards per game, average 4.8 yards per carry. They were on pace to have two one-thousand yard rushers before Jonas Gray's season ended prematurely with a knee injury.
Good news for Notre Dame fans: the rushing attack should be even better this time around. With Cierre Wood returning, Theo Riddick moving back to RB, and George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle showing immense potential, there are more than enough playmakers in this backfield.
The real question is, will Brian Kelly be patient enough to keep pounding the rock? Despite the running game as an obvious strength last year, the Irish still threw over 36 times per game, compared to just 33 hand-offs. Okay, so that isn't the worst ratio, but with the stellar offensive line and running back talent in South Bend this year, it would be a crime to pass more than run.
4. Can the D-Line generate pressure?
Last year, the Irish showcased a much-improved defensive front seven that showed glimpses of being able to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the best pass-rusher on the team, Aaron Lynch, transferred to South Florida after a spat with teammate Tate Nichols. His loss will surely be felt.
That being said, the rest of the defensive line is super talented. Louis Nix III is an absolute monster in the middle, and is sure to be an early-round selection in the NFL Draft. Sophomore Stephon Tuitt is enormous, and can man the middle or the edge. 5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore is primed to have a breakout year, and DE Kona Schwenke was raved about by the coaching staff in the spring.
Opposing teams are going to be wasting their time trying to run against this front. But that isn't necessarily great for the Irish, because the secondary is unproven. Notre Dame needs the big guys to collapse the pocket and put some pressure on the offense, or else it could be in for a long year.
3. How will the Irish replace Michael Floyd?
Michael Floyd is now an Arizona Cardinal, which leaves the Irish with a massive void to fill on the offensive side of the ball. He was Notre Dame's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yardage, and touchdowns. What receiver can attempt to replace that production?
The simple answer is that none of them can, at least individually. Fifth-year senior John Goodman will have to take his game to an entirely new level, and junior T.J. Jones will have to finally come through on all of the promise he has shown. Robby Toma will play a key role in the slot, and don't sleep on junior Daniel Smith as a deep ball target. The kid sports a monstrous vertical.
While it will have to be a by-committee approach for the receivers to replace Floyd, the tight ends will be a great safety valve, and the running backs should catch a large number of balls out of the backfield as well.
2. Will the secondary hold up?
There won't be many less-experienced cornerback tandems this year than what the Irish will throw out there. Robert Blanton and Gary Gray graduated and left for the NFL, and now it is time for Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood to lead the way.
Neither has played many meaningful snaps, but the coaching staff has voiced confidence in both - particularly Jackson, who has all of the physical tools necessary to play corner at a very high level.
Wood will likely get the starting nod alongside Jackson, but is getting chased by sophomore Josh Atkinson. Regardless of who gets in, they are going to have to play well beyond their years if the Irish are to succeed.
1. Who will be the starting quarterback?
This is by far the biggest question for Notre Dame fans as camp approaches. The quarterback battle will be in full swing, mainly between the three contenders - Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, and Everett Golson.
Earlier this month, I outlined the strengths and weaknesses of each quarterback, and I predicted Tommy Rees will come out of camp as the starter.
With Rees being suspended for the first game of the season, the quarterback situation has been significantly changed. Hendrix or Golson (or maybe even a combination of both) will get the first chance to shine in Dublin and show that they deserve the starting job. However, if neither blows Kelly away, he could very well turn back to Rees when the Irish return to the States versus Purdue. The one game suspension provides an interesting "trial session" that could really throw a wrench in things.
Meanwhile, despite being suspended for the opening, Tommy Rees will still be able to practice and fully participate with the team in camp, so don't expect him to fall to the wayside.
We will have much more information on how the quarterback battle will shake out in just a few short days.