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Athlon Team Previews: Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2009 Record: 6-6
Head Coach: Brian Kelly
Michael Floyd :: AP
at Boston College
Navy (East Rutherford, NJ)
Army (Bronx, NY)
Washington State (San Antonio)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Michael Floyd, WR: His 18.1-yard average in '09 easily led the team.
Kyle Rudolph, TE: Stats don't do justice to the impact the junior tight end makes.
Darius Fleming, LB: His 12 tackles for loss last season nearly doubled everyone else on the team.
Jimmy Clausen, QB: He completed 68.0 percent of his passes with 28 TDs in '09.
Golden Tate, WR: He set Notre Dame records for receptions (93) and receiving yards (1,496) in a season.
Sam Young, OT: He did a better job protecting Clausen than he was given credit for.
21: The Irish have lost 21 games the last three seasons, three more than during the previous worst three-year stretch in program history (18 from 1959-61).
From a scheme standpoint, the Irish are starting from scratch. Jimmy Clausen is gone, and the offense is in the midst of a significant transition from a pro-style attack to a spread offense. Yet new Irish coach Brian Kelly, who produced the No. 4 scoring offense in the country a year ago at Cincinnati, has more than a few weapons at his disposal.
It starts with wide receiver Michael Floyd, tight end Kyle Rudolph and running back Armando Allen, who all had productive '09 seasons despite battling through an assortment of injuries. For the second straight season, Floyd was hampered by a significant injury, this time a shoulder separation that kept him out of five games. He still managed 44 receptions and nine touchdowns in six-and-a-half games.
Rudolph is a budding first-round draft choice who can use his 6-foot-6 frame to stretch defenses, but can also aid the running game with his blocking prowess. Allen, meanwhile, began to show the flash he boasted coming out of high school in Florida.
Veterans Sam Young and Paul Duncan are gone at offensive tackle, but junior Trevor Robinson is on the verge of stardom at either right tackle or right guard.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's first order of business was shifting from a four-man front to a 3-4 alignment, a better fit for the personnel on hand. The end result this spring was a much more cohesive, instinctive unit that got the best of the offense throughout.
Defensive end Ethan Johnson headlines a veteran three-man front, which also includes nosetackle Ian Williams and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore. Manti Te'o is back at inside linebacker after a notable rookie season, and the Irish are deep and talented at outside linebacker with Darius Fleming, Brian Smith, Steve Filer and Kerry Neal expected to make an impact.
Two-time leading tackler Kyle McCarthy is gone at safety, but a trio of veteran cornerbacks (Darrin Walls, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton) and a deep set of safeties (led by Harrison Smith) point to a dramatically improved defense.
For a kicking unit that was 19-of-22 on field goals last year, the position still has an unsettled feel to it. Sophomore Nick Tausch made 14 field goals in a row at one point last year but succumbed to a leg injury in November. Walk-on David Ruffer made all five of his field goal attempts, but Brandon Walker is in the mix after missing last season with a back injury. Sophomore Ben Turk has the punting job to himself after sharing it with Eric Maust in '09. Turk was inconsistent with a 38.2-yard average.
Kelly is known for his offense, but his greatest challenge in Year 1 will be reviving a defense that was a sieve last season, particularly on the ground (4.8 yards per carry). Kelly started the ball rolling by implementing his customarily rigorous offseason strength and conditioning program, and it seems to have had a positive impact.
Kelly has a major reconstruction job on his hands, but his squad is hardly devoid of talent. Eight or nine victories -- which is what the Irish should have notched each of the past two seasons -- is realistic.