Despite the loss of WR Michael Floyd and S Harrison Smith, two first-round selections in this year's NFL Draft, there's reason for excitement in South Bend. A host of Irish upperclassmen have received inclusion on preseason national watch lists including: LB Manti Te'o, TE Tyler Eifert, WR TJ Jones, RB Cierre Wood, OT Zack Martin, C Braxston Cave, and DE Kapron Lewis-Moore.
Still, questions linger after Monday's plea agreement from QB Tommy Rees stemming from his involvement in an off-campus party in May. Rees is one of four quarterbacks vying for the starting spot.
1. A power-run attack that can control the clock-
Wood, a 6-0, 215-pound senior, is a powerful inside runner who rarely hesitates when he spots a crease. When reaching the open field, Wood has little trouble adding a second gear. The Irish running back can also improvise quickly, as he did last year when he hurdled a defender against Purdue. He'll run behind an experienced line that helped Notre Dame add 33.8 yards per game last season.
2. Te'o mans the middle -
Few linebackers in FBS possess the playmaking ability of Te'o. The 6-2, 255-pound senior is equally adept at delivering a big hit as he did against Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor and USC WR Robert Woods or at covering ground in the secondary like he did versus Stanford TE Coby Fleener. Te'o currently ranks eighth in school history with 324 tackles.
3. Formidable receiving duo in Eifert and Jones -
Notre Dame is providing stiff competition to Miami (Fla.) to earn the moniker of Tight End U. While the Hurricanes boast Jimmy Graham, Kellen Winslow Jr. and Jeremy Shockey among notable alums, the Irish counter with current NFL tight ends John Carlson, Anthony Fasano and Kyle Rudolph. Before the season is over, senior tight end Tyler Eifert may break all of their records. Eifert needs 39 catches and 605 receiving yards to break Ken McAfee's school record for receptions and yards by a tight end.
Jones, a Biletnikoff Award nominee, will replace Floyd as Notre Dame's No. 1 receiver. The 5-11, 190-pound junior must become more of a deep threat. He averaged just 9.6 yards per reception last season and didn't have a catch beyond 30 yards.
1. More disappointment at QB?
Since Jimmy Clausen declared early for the NFL Draft after the 2009 season, the Irish have lacked star-power at quarterback. Rees may have been the front-runner in the four-way battle but is contending with legal troubles. The three others competing for the spot – Everett Golson, Andrew Hendrix and Gunner Kiel – all lack experience.
The quarterback that wins the job must have better accuracy than Irish quarterbacks had last season. Notre Dame finished 59th in FBS in 2011 in passing efficiency.
2. Another Challenging Schedule -
The schedule at Notre Dame always seems tougher than it needs to be and this year won't be an exception. Notre Dame faces nine potential Top-50 teams in Michigan State, Michigan, Miami (Fla.), Stanford, BYU, Oklahoma, Pitt, Wake Forest and USC. For it to be considered a successful year, the Irish must avoid losses in at least four of those games. The month of October is particular brutal with matchups against the Hurricanes, Cardinal and Sooners.
3. Tighter coverage in the secondary -
The Irish finished last season ranked 38th in FBS in pass defense. Notre Dame can't allow an opposing quarterback to pick apart its secondary as Andrew Luck did last year in a four TD effort. The Irish also had trouble containing Woods when the USC WR caught 12 passes for 119 yards last October. Notre Dame faces Woods and Trojans QB Matt Barkley again, as well as Oklahoma WR Kenny Stills and Michigan QB Denard Robinson.
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