College football fans have long believed that year three is a critical year for a new coach in a program. At Notre Dame, coaches Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won National Championships in year three. Year three will be very important for current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, but in my opinion it's not as critical as some may lead you to believe.
Now don't get me wrong, I do believe Kelly's Iirsh need to show vast improvement this year. Kelly is starting to get his players into his program and run his schemes. The change in mental toughness is evident, but the Irish need to show more attention to detail and discipline this year. This year losses should be because the oppostion was simply better, and not because of a lack of mental discipline.
As important as year three will be for Kelly, in my opinion it's not do or die. With a tough schedule and young players the Irish have a tough road, but improvment for the team will mean more wins than losses. This will continue the postiive trend that Kelly has instilled in the program so far. And that in turn will fuel recruiting such as we are seeing with his Class of 2013.
Additionally, I believe that Tommy Rees cannot be named the starting quarterback. Understand that I like Rees and feel he has done an outstanding job in his two years at the reigns. But for the offense to function at full speed, one of the young and moblie quarterbacks must get the nod. A quarterback who can run will really open up the offense considerably, and the good thing about Kelly's system is you don't need to have three years in the system to execute it well like you needed under Weis. Whomever the returning starter would be would have enough experience to make enough plays to win the tough games in 2013.
Running back would also be stocked.in 2013 with Cierre Wood possible coming back for a fifth year, George Atkinson and Amir Carlisle would give the Irish plenty of speed and playmaking ability at the running back position, more than they've had in a very long time, and Will Mahone would add a different element to gain the tough yards and inside running they'll need in certain situations.
Notre Dame also has a bunch of up and coming receivers who will get some valuable experience and the chance to contribute this year. DaVaris Daniels has impresse this spring and is expected to make a huge jump this season. T.J. Jones is another player who many expect to step up his game this season after a very difficult 2011 season with the death of his father. These two would seem the most likely to take a step forward in 2012 to grab starting spots and step into "playmaker" roles.
On defense, they will have a few more holes to replace, but the core of talent returning is excellent at most positions. Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix III, Kona Schwenke and Chase Hounshell along with talented freshmen Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones have the ability to form one of the best defensive lines in college football. Depth, experience and talent is in abundance for 2013.
At outside backer, the Irish need Ishaq Williams to emerge and Prince Shembo, Danny Spond and Ben Councell to all bring athleticism to the other position. The outside backer position hasn't been overly productive so far in the Bob Diaco system, but the Irish staff should have plenty of athletes to coach up at this position. They just need to coach some of these talented prospects to become more productive at these positions. The talent is there to be highly productive in the future.
Believe it or not, safety and not cornerback will be the biggest issue in 2013. The Irish have good size and players at corner with Bennett Jackson, Josh Atkinson, and Jalen Brown. However, at safety, they will lose Zeke Motta, Jamoris Slaughter and Dan McCarthy after 2012. It will up to Eilar Hardy, who was hurt most of this season, and then five freshmen, who have zero experience thus far in practicing and playing in Notre Dame's system. This will be the big question mark heading into 2013.
The future is bright for Kelly and the Irish, however, to get there in good shape, they'll have to show strong improvement in 2012. The pieces are in place. This team just has to do their job this season and Irish fans could be in for some great football in 2013 and beyond. Again, in my opinion, 2012 is not a make or break season for Kelly and his staff, but I do think it's an important season for the Irish program. Looking ahead, fans should be able to see a solid foundation being built.
Should the Irish be successful in 2012 they will be well on their way to Kelly's goal of a competitive and consistent BCS caliber team. So the questions becomes for Kelly, in year three, will the 2012 squad do their job to get them there?