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March 26, 2010

Notre Dame begins new era under Kelly

All the major players who defined the past few years of Notre Dame football, for better or worse, are gone.

Former coach Charlie Weis is back in the NFL as the Kansas City Chiefs' offensive coordinator after getting fired at the end of his fifth season with the Irish. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen and Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver Golden Tate are about to join their former coach in the pro ranks.

Irish fans will miss watching Clausen's pinpoint passes and Tate's highlight-worthy catches. They won't miss the late-season collapses that caused Notre Dame to go from BCS contention to a .500 record each of the past two seasons.

Notre Dame now begins a new era under Brian Kelly, who led Cincinnati to a 12-0 regular-season record and a Sugar Bowl bid in 2009. Over the past two seasons, Kelly's Bearcats won back-to-back Big East titles, while Notre Dame went 0-4 against Big East opponents.

The Irish will have a new look on the field as well as on the sideline. Notre Dame is shifting to a spread attack on offense and switching to a 3-4 scheme on defense.

Here's a look at the Irish as they head into spring practice.

NOTRE DAME AT-A-GLANCE
Armando Allen leads a talented group of running backs for Notre Dame.
THE BASICS
Coach: Brian Kelly
Last season: 6-6
Spring dates: March 26-April 24
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum of six starts)
Offense (6): RB Armando Allen, WR Michael Floyd, TE Mike Ragone, G Trevor Robinson, TE Kyle Rudolph, G Chris Stewart.
Defense (10): CB Robert Blanton, LB Darius Fleming, CB Gary Gray, T Ethan Johnson, E Kapron Lewis-Moore, LB Brian Smith, FS Harrison Smith, LB Manti Te'o, CB Darrin Walls, NT Ian Williams.
Special teams (2): K Nick Tausch, P Ben Turk.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

Rudolph gives Notre Dame a legitimate All-America candidate and a potential first-round pick at tight end. Notre Dame actually has two quality tight ends, since Ragone is a former Rivals100 prospect and a capable backup. Notre Dame lacks star power but boasts plenty of depth at running back. Allen and Robert Hughes combined to run for 1,113 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood also have plenty of promise, though they remain unproven. Notre Dame might not have much quantity at receiver, but the Irish boast plenty of quality. Michael Floyd, an All-America candidate, caught 44 passes for 795 yards and nine touchdowns last season despite missing five games with a broken collarbone. The Irish still need to upgrade their depth at the position as they move to a spread offense that frequently includes four- or five-receiver sets.

HELP IS NEEDED

Notre Dame doesn't have any experienced offensive tackles to replace four-year starter Sam Young and two-year starter Paul Duncan. Candidates to fill those positions include Matt Romine, Taylor Dever and Zach Martin. The lack of players at this position could mean Matt James earns playing time as a true freshman. The Irish also need help at strong safety following the graduation of Kyle McCarthy. The quarterback situation is a major concern until Dayne Crist fully recovers from the knee injury he suffered midway through last season, but the former five-star prospect eventually should emerge as a capable replacement for Clausen. Crist already has won the respect of his teammates, and he seems like a good fit for the spread.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

S Zeke Motta: Notre Dame needs somebody to step up and contribute at safety. The most experienced player at the position is Harrison Smith, who struggled last season while alternating between the secondary and linebacker. Motta played mostly on special teams last season as a true freshman, but he would add plenty of athleticism to the Irish's defensive backfield.

WR Theo Riddick: As a freshman running back last season, Riddick showed plenty of promise while averaging more than 6 yards per carry in a reserve role. Notre Dame has plenty of depth at running back and needs more receivers to complement Floyd, so Riddick should earn much more playing time now that he has changed positions.

LB Brian Smith: We typically reserve this section for first-year starters, but we'll make an exception for Smith since he's adjusting to a new role. Smith was a big-play performer in 2008 but seemed to take a step back last season. After working as more of an interior linebacker, Smith will move to the outside this season as the Irish shift to a 3-4 defense. The move should allow Smith to rely more on instinct.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

WR Duval Kamara: Kamara, a senior, was the No. 34 overall prospect in the 2007 recruiting class. But he has reached the end zone just once in each of the past two seasons and hasn't caught more than 23 passes. Kelly's spread offense should give Kamara plenty of chances to showcase his talent, but he must perform well this spring or risk having younger receivers such as Shaquelle Evans, John Goodman and Deion Walker pass him on the depth chart.

THE BUZZ

Notre Dame fans will get their first glances at Kelly's spread offense this spring. They might even get to see more of Crist than they might have expected back in December. Kelly has indicated Crist will work out, though no defensive players will be hitting him as he recovers from a knee injury. Kelly also must decide on his backup quarterback, so the spring drills will represent a chance for early enrollee Tommy Rees to make a good first impression. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will begin implementing a 3-4 scheme in an effort to upgrade a unit that ranked 86th in the nation in total defense. The move shouldn't represent a major transition because the Irish occasionally ran a 3-4 scheme during Weis' tenure.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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