It’s been a crazy year in college football, one in which the main attraction has often had to step aside for major (sometimes unfortunate) news coming from outside the lines. The 4 main contributors to HLS (yeah, we still consider Poot as a contributor) put our heads together and formulated the top-10 stories around Notre Dame Football from 2011. And unfortunately, not all of them involve things that happened on the field either. Still, it’s been a heck of a ride, and one worth looking back upon. For one thing, it wasn’t difficult at all to come up with 10 big stories from 2011 – not something you can say about every year. So here are the 10th through 6th top stories around Notre Dame Football from 2011.
10: Punt Returns? We don’t need no stinking Punt Returns!
It seems like only yesterday that someone joked on one of the message boards that John Goodman would find a prominent role to play for Notre Dame by fielding punts. Perhaps that jokester had some inside-information that we didn’t. It all started out normally, if not pleasantly enough. The Irish coaching staff had clearly tried to get expected play-maker Theo Riddick ready for the job of actually catching and returning punts, but in his 2011 debut for the job, he contributed to one of the most error-prone performances in Irish history, muffing a punt and turning the ball over to the USF Bulls in a game that the Irish never should have lost, and had no business winning after 5 costly turnovers. And really after that performance and a few other early-season gaffes, the Irish went into full safety mode with the punt returning, giving Goodman the nod to play the role of “Don’t F This Up.” Sure, the Irish played with the idea of Floyd returning punts on occasion, but for all intents and purposes, the Irish gave up on the punt return game entirely.
The Irish finished dead last nationally in punt returns, averaging .30 yards per rerturn – less than a foot. ND only attempted 10 actual, official returns in 12 games. Opting to fair-catch or let the ball roll to a stop on many, many other kicks. Interestingly, that number, 10, is not the lowest nationally, as 8 teams attempted 10 or fewer punt returns all year. But trust me, it’s not a cohort you’d want. One of those teams is about to be coached by Bob Davie in 2012. And even teams that feature just 3, 4, or 5 more returns (30-50% more) are awful. For the Irish to improve in 2012, their actual average return may not need to improve all that drastically (there’s a lot of debate over punt return yardage value to a point), but to fail to at least attempt more returns is a problem.
9: Te’o Isn’t Calling It A Comeback Because He Never Left
Many Irish fans worried over whether or not Manti Te’o would return for the 2012 season before the 2011 season even began. Indeed, if Te’o lived up to the massive expectations so many Irish fans had for him, we’re not sure he could have stayed in college, as he’d have been a shoe-in for the #1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, and would have been considered a lethal weapon in the college ranks. Still, Te’o finished #1 on the squad in total tackles and total sacks. And his total tackles were good enough to place him 27th nationally. He was also a finalist for nearly every award available to a collegiate linebacker and named to a multitude of All American lists. Still, the season also helped further develop a concern over Te’o’s pass coverage capabilities, as more than a few of ND’s opponents sought the mid-level passing routes as safety-valves throughout the season. But once it was official that Manti was investigating his NFL prospects, many considered his decision to go pro a fait accompli. Afterall, he’d just completed the sort of season personally in which an opposing head coach actually called him “unblockable.”
So when Manti Te’o casually mentioned that he’d be coming back to Notre Dame for his senior year during an awards ceremony, the news ignited a mini-celebration among plugged-in fans before most “official” news channels could gain verification. In fact, Manti didn’t meet with the media for a full week after he’d “announced” his decision.
Manti Te’o is an unusual mix of world-class football talent and personality that dances to its own drumbeat (in a good way, in this case) so in retrospect, perhaps it’s not so surprising that he’d choose senior year moments over millions in the NFL. But his decision serves as a major enhancement to the Irish hopes for 2012.
8: Young Beasts are Still Beasts on the DL – And Still Young
Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, and the still young Louis Nix III. All three have provided more than just glimpses of potential during the 2011 campaign. Nix managed not only to wreak havoc in the center of the field for opposing offenses, but also managed to tally 42 tackles, good for 8th on the team. Lynch, strung together 3 games (MSU, Pitt, Purdue) in which he recorded a sack. And Tuitt managed 23 of his 27 total tackles on the season in just 4 contests from the first week of October to the first week of November. Still, Tuitt and Lynch have growing to do. Lynch managed 1 tackle and 1 personal foul against Southern Cal. Tuitt and his coaches have both spoken of a need to build consistency in his play. And even the more senior Nix is looking to grow both as a better practice player and as an off-season warrior, as he looks to make his production “skyrocket” in 2012.
Look for these 3 players to “set the table” for 2012 with their performances in the Champs Sports Bowl, as they’re likely to face 4 true freshmen on the Florida State offensive line.
7: We All Stand Along the Watchtower, Wondering Where Hendrix Went
15 of 29 for 1 TD, 1 INT, and 225 yards, plus 21 Rushes for 136 Yards and another TD. Not a bad outing, but in Quarterback Andrew Hendrix’s case, that was all over the course of 4 total games played in 2011. And as Crist planned his transfer on the sidelines and Rees never really seemed to shake the turnover blues, more and more momentum was gained for the 2011 Most Popular Player On The Team: The Backup QB. Andrew’s first appearance came against Air Force at the midpoint of the season, when he rushed for 111 yards on 6 carries, including a hilarious 78 yard rumble in which he failed to score simply because he ran out of gas. That seemed to set the table for a “1-2 punch” approach to the QB position the next week against Southern Cal, but as we all know, that game didn’t go as planned for anyone. It was just one big, endless ride on the Crazy Train.
And then, like that… he’s gone. That is, aside for 1 play against Maryland, Hendrix disappeared from the action between Southern Cal and Stanford. And many an Irish fan wondered what the heck happened to the guy with the cannon arm and the athletic ability so vastly superior to Rees’ that it made the really silly among us pose questions of comparison between Hendrix and Tebow.
But if you read really carefully between the lines of things said since that Southern Cal game in which Hendrix clearly provided a “spark” to the Irish offense but also couldn’t deal with a corner blitz and completed only 45% of his passes, you might start to see a lot of clues about “cohesion” between him and the rest of the starting offense, Hendrix’s own practice-time performance, and adjustments to “the plan” that Kelly and Co. had to make in response to various injuries at other positions.
6: Oh, So That’s What “Beast Mode” Means
He wasn’t our “best” running back, statistically, but yeah, he was our best running back in 2011. Jonas Gray seemed to emerge from the Robert Hughes School of Late Bloomers but on the accelerated schedule, bursting onto the scene with a 79 yard TD run against Pitt in which he did the seemingly impossible: Turn an otherwise mundane running play into a highlight while outrunning everyone AND wearing an Irish uniform after the mid-1990s.
Still, it took a bit of time for Jonas to catch on as a consistent part of the Irish attack. In that same Pitt game, he only carried the ball 2 other times aside from the 79 yarder. And in the following 4 games he touched the ball just 38 times. Just as he caught on as a primary focus in the Irish offense, carrying the ball 40 times in 2 games, he finished his Notre Dame career with 11 carries, 61 yards, and 1 TD against Boston College before blowing out his knee. Over his career, Jonas averaged 5.8 yards per carry for a total of 1100 yards. And for at least one full off-season, many an Irish fan will wonder why on earth this kid didn’t arrive until just before he left.
So that’s our 10th-6th top stories of Notre Dame Football 2011. Soon we’ll release our top 5 stories of the year, but for now, we’d be curious to hear what you think are the top 10 stories and whether or not you agree with our rankings thus far.