SCOUTING REPORT Because of their rich history and devoted fan base, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish always face high expectations. After a promising finish last season and with 19 starters returning, second year Coach Brian Kelly and his staff need a successful season to reinvigorate the masses.The million dollar question in South Bend at the moment: Who will be lining up behind center on September 3rd? Dayne Crist played reasonably well in Notre Dame's first eight games last year before rupturing the patella tendon in his left knee. His replacement, true freshman Tommy Rees, came on and helped the Irish win their last four games, including blowing out Miami in the Sun Bowl. The more experienced Crist should have a slight edge, but Kelly does not plan to name a starter until 10 days before kickoff.With four offensive lineman back, standout receiver Michael Floyd returning from suspension and Theo Riddick manning the flank, the only offensive mystery for the Fighting Irish is their backfield. Armando Allen and Robert Hughes are gone, so Kelly is counting on heralded sophomore Cierre Wood to carry the load. Wood led the Irish in rushing yards last season, but it remains to be seen if the diminutive back can handle extended carries. Senior back Jonas Gray has patiently waited his turn and should get carries as well.On the defensive side of the ball, the Fighting Irish return nine starters from a unit that ranked 30th in the nation last season. The backbone of the D will be the linebacking corps, with tough junior Manti Te'o and breakout sophomore Carlo Calabrese leading the way. Hard-hitting safety Harrison Smith spearheads a secondary which drastically improved as 2010 progressed.The biggest concern for defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is getting his unit to perform better against mobile quarterbacks. Michigan's Denard Robinson and Stanford's Andrew Luck killed the Irish last year and will get a chance to do so again this fall.With the tragic fall death of student cameraman Declan Sullivan and the widely publicized March DUI arrest of Floyd still hanging over the program, the Irish are facing more pressure than ever to win, and win in the right way. The pieces are there to play in early January. Kelly and Co. just need to figure out how to get there.
THE BIG IF Can Crist fully recover from a debilitating knee injury and hold off Rees for the starting job? TELLING NUMBER 70 -- The total margin of victory in Notre Dame's last four wins in 2010. KEY RETURNEES Cierre Wood, RB, Jr. -- Wood led the Irish running backs in every category last season but will be asked to carry a larger load in 2011. Having lost secondary back Armando Allen and physical backup Robert Smith to graduation, Notre Dame needs Wood to have a monster season.
Harrison Smith, S, GS -- One of the emotional leaders of the team, Smith is either tied for or leads all active players in every defensive category. A vicious hitter from his strong safety spot, Smith has experience playing linebacker as well and serves as Notre Dame's defensive captain.
Manti Te'o, LB, Jr. -- The heart of Notre Dam's defense and the key to the Irish's late defensive resurgence in 2010, Te'o has played in every game over his first two seasons with the Irish. His 133 tackles last season were the most by an Irish player since Tony Furjanic in 1983.
Michael Floyd, WR, Sr. -- Floyd has seen his share of drama during his Irish tenure, earning an indefinitely suspension this offseason following his DUI arrest. But there's no doubt that when he's on the field, he's one of the elite pass-catching weapons in the nation. BREAKOUT PLAYER Hafis Williams, DT, Sr. -- The massive senior nose tackle has plenty of on-field experience, but will be counted on to play a major role for the Fighting Irish this year. In Notre Dame's 3-4 defense, the nose tackle is the team's most important player in terms of stopping the run. TOP RECRUIT Aaron Lynch, DE, Fr. -- The Irish landed three five-star defensive end recruits this February, but Lynch looks like the best of the bunch. He turned heads in the annual Blue and Gold game and is expected to contribute as a pass-rusher immediately.
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