Starters returning: 7
Starters returning: 5
Gone from the offense are Ken MacAfee and Ernie Hughes, chosen in NFL draft rounds one and three. The defense lost Ross Browner and Luther Bradley, both first-round picks, and Willie Fry and Ted Burgmeier, second-and fifth-rounders. Without them, the Irish are in trouble, right? Trouble repeating as national champs, yes. Trouble as the have-nots know it, no.
With seven starters returning from the attack that ran up 35 points a game, the Irish should be able to score. The quarterback is still Joe Montana, who transformed a run-heavy offense that averaged only 269 yards its first two games into a balanced attack that gained nearly 500 thereafter, beginning when he took over in the third game. Vagas Ferguson, the dervish halfback who gained 6.2 yards a carry, can only improve now that he has recovered from an ankle sprain that sidelined him for all or most of five games. And by October Jerome Heavens should have the 387 yards he needs to pass George Gipp as Notre Dame's alltime leading rusher. Kevin Hart, son of Hall-of-Famer Leon Hart, replaces MacAfee at tight end. But look for Montana to pass more often to Split End Kris Haines, who had 28 receptions for 587 yards in '77. If there is a problem area, it might be the offensive line, which Coach Dan Devine spent much of spring practice realigning.
Defensively, the cornerbacks are inexperienced and only Mike Calhoun returns to the line. But Linebackers Bob Golic and Steve Heimkreiter, the No. 1 and No. 3 tacklers last year, are solid, as is Safety Jim Browner, now in his third season as a starter.
The schedule lists five tough early opponents. "It's baptism by fire," says Devine,. who has felt heat before, even though Notre Dame has won 80% of its games and two bowls in his three seasons. If the juggled offensive line works out, and if the defense matures fast, and if the Irish can avoid the annual upset (Georgia Tech in '76, Mississippi last season), they might go all the way again. Probably an if or two too many there, though.