If Notre Dame earns a playoff berth, Everett Golson will have a say in it. But it's what the quarterback says that will be crucial. The 6-foot senior endured his seasonlong suspension for cheating on a test in part by honing his football IQ with quarterback guru George Whitfield last year, and he is prepared to embrace the intricacies of coach Brian Kelly's offense instead of running a remedial version of it, as he did in 2012. "I can go in the room Sunday after a game, watch some film and have something valuable to bring to the table," Golson says.
He'll first have to fend off 6-foot sophomore Malik Zaire in what Kelly insists isn't "artificial competition." Expect the cannon-armed Golson to start and to far surpass his 2012 numbers (58.8% completion percentage and 12 TDs).
Returning defensive players accounted for just three sacks in 2013, and the search is on for playmakers after five front-seven starters departed. That quest begins with 6'2" sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith, who weighs a mere 230 pounds and has just 3.1% body fat. He's "a ridiculous freak," according to junior defensive lineman Sheldon Day. A more assertive approach from new coordinator Brian VanGorder aims to be very disruptive. "We're going to dictate the terms," Smith says. "We're not going to wait on you to mess up. We're going to enforce that."
Greg Bryant arrived last fall as a consensus top 50 recruit vying for a role in a wide-open backfield. He had three carries for 14 yards in three games before missing the rest of the season with severe knee tendinitis. Despite transfer rumors, the 5'10", 205-pound Bryant remained on the roster and had a team-best 95 yards rushing in the spring game, including one 51-yard burst. He offers an explosive complement to Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel.
The lineup is typically ambitious but more backloaded than usual for the Irish. The first few games seem manageable, though Week 1 opponent Rice won 10 games in 2013 and Michigan visits in Week 2 for the last installment of that rivalry for at least six years. October features three Top 25 teams: Stanford and North Carolina at home, followed by a trip to Florida State. Road games at Arizona State and USC in November won't give the Irish any late-season breathing room.
SI POWER RANKINGS / By Rotowire.com
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SPECIAL TEAMS 80%
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
You've got a quarterback who has to kick some rust off, you've got a head coach calling plays again who has to kick some rust off, and you've got a new system on defense. Notre Dame has as many unknowns as anybody in the country. The formations and the style of the [offense] are going to be the same. The [dual-threat] dimension of their quarterbacks (Everett Golson and Malik Zaire) makes it different. You have to go back and look at when Brian [Kelly] called plays [in 2012], what were his tendencies? They have receivers with some size. They're going to have a line that's big and gets in the way. There's a chance the ball can get thrown to a big [receiver] easily. They're still haunted by the ghost of Manti Te'o, waiting for another great linebacker to step up. It's just a matter of when they'll become household names. [Defensively] they'll be a combination of [what] Michigan State and Iowa [run], but also what [defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder] tried to do when he was at Auburn—a fanatical 4--3 defense [with a lot of movement and blitzing].
JOHN BIEVER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GOLSON)
ROBIN ALAM/ICON SMI (BRYANT)