Bowl games have not yet been played and national signing day for recruits is far off in February (okay not that far, but it will feel like forever once the season is over), but here are some VERY early expectations/predictions/thoughts about the upcoming season for Notre Dame under new Head Coach Brian Kelly:
· Wins are most important to Irish nation, and winning right away is a must for a new head coach in South Bend’s spotlight, but what is realistic to expect next season? Realistically, 8 wins would be a very respectable accomplishment with a new quarterback and head coach, with 7 wins being acceptable and expected. But what does my biased and yet not-so-delusional mind think? I think Notre Dame has 7 winnable games (Purdue, Michigan State, Boston College, Western Michigan, Tulsa, Utah, Army), 2 borderline games (Michigan and Navy), and 3 games that would be upset specials (Stanford, Pittsburgh, USC). Without knowing who is returning for which teams and which young players may step up, I believe Notre Dame will win 8 games. They will lose a game to a team they should not, but they will find victory against Michigan or Navy. My heart tells me that Brian Kelly may even find a way to best Pete Carrol in his first year with the Irish to make a statement, but I must keep from becoming delusional as well.
· I firmly believe that Notre Dame has a much better level of talent amongst young players than UC, and Brian Kelly will find success with them that makes this team competitive in every game.
· Dayne Crist will flourish under Brian Kelly… once he returns from his torn ACL. He has the potential to be a better passer than Tony Pike at Cincinnati, but he must overcome a mental hurdle when he returns to the field in August to get started in the right direction. He has a better arm than Pike and will have a deeper set of targets as well, but missing spring practice will not help the cause. If he can put the mental block that is the Torn ACL out of his mind early on and find a rhythm with his receivers, expect 2500+ yards and 32+ touchdowns.
· If you saw flashes of brilliance from Isaiah Pead playing for Cincinnati, then you can expect similar results from Armando Allen and Theo Riddick. Kelly was able to use Pead very effectively both in the run game and the pass game, and he is a similar athlete to Allen and Riddick in that he is shifty and quick. Expect Allen and Riddick to both be used effectively in the offense, giving defenses more than just one explosive back to worry about.
· Aside from explosive backs, look for Robert Hughes to give Brian Kelly play calling options near the goal line that he did not have in Cincinnati. If Kelly wants to line up in 5-wide sets at the one-yard line, that’s fine, because it worked in Cincinnati. But he will have an established power runner in Hughes to use however he sees fit when a tough yard or two is needed.
· With the depth and talent at wide receiver at Notre Dame, the ball will be successfully thrown around the field no matter who the quarterback may be. With Michael Floyd returning and Duval Kamara working back into the mix this past season, two targets are already expected to find success. John Goodman showed an ability to contribute this past season and there is no reason that talent like Dion Walker and Shaq Evans cannot catch a few passes. Even Roby Toma got on the field, showing that he obviously has something that Brian Kelly will see and probably utilize. And lets not forget Kyle Rudolph, a future NFL talent at tight end. Kelly will find mismatches for the big man who has surprising speed and moves after the catch. If Crist can get healthy and find a rhythm at quarterback a few games into the season, expect Floyd to go over 1,000 yards with 12+ touchdowns and expect two other receivers to go over 600 yards.
· Brian Kelly has shown that he can have a defense just good enough to get the job done even after replacing ten starters. He knows how to leave a defensive unit in capable hands, and look for that to be the case next season. They will be more experienced and should be improved from this past season (probably because it couldn’t have been much worse). They will do enough to keep the offense in striking distance at all times, just like the Bearcat defense did for Kelly.
· Expect a lot of true freshman and younger players on the roster get their shots on the field for the Irish, as Kelly will look to grow alongside them. He will feel comfortable coaching up the young guys that he will see for three or four years as opposed to older players who will be gone sooner into his tenure at ND.