Touchdown Jesus was a happy Golden Domer in 2012
After wallowing for years in the weeds of obscurity, the Fighting Irish football program has undergone a resurrection in the three years since Brian Kelly was hired as Notre Dame's head coach.
In Charlie Weis' final year at the helm, the team lost its final four games to finish out of bowl contention, resulting in the change at the head coaching position. Under Kelly, the team enjoyed consecutive 8-5 seasons until absolutely everything came together in a magical 2012 regular season.
Under the leadership of superstar linebacker and Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o, the Irish ran its record to a perfect 12-0, earning themselves the opportunity to play for their first national title since Lou Holtz was running the program back in 1988.
The wheels completely fell off the magic school bus at that point, however. The Alabama Crimson Tide rolled, elephant stomping Notre Dame, 42-14. Adding further insult to the injurious championship game result was the investigation into the actual existence of Te'o's girlfriend, who had supposedly passed away from leukemia in September.
His girlfriend was never real, but the program's fantastic 12-0 start to the 2012 season was.
Can we expect another run at The Coaches' Trophy in 2013 from Brian Kelly and Co.?
Everett Golson must show the world what he can do
Every year, Notre Dame is one of the most famous and most popular football programs in the nation, no matter its record. Generally considered the most important position on the field, the Fighting Irish quarterback thus faces far more scrutiny than most other schools' signal callers must deal with.
Throughout the Domers' unbelievable 2012 run, that man was the very young, very inexperienced Everett Golson.
As a mere redshirt freshman, and with the previous year's starter still on the team, Kelly went with Golson due to his mobility within the pocket and because Kelly did not expect him to turn the ball over.
In that move, Kelly was was proven correct. In 13 games, Golson only threw six interceptions. However, relegated to the role of 'game manager', as opposed to 'game winner', Golson only threw 12 touchdown passes all season.
If Notre Dame is going to remain in the spotlight and within the national top 10, Golson must do more than 100-some yards he managed in most games in 2012.
Golson eclipsed the the 200-yard mark in each of the team's final five games, including 270 against Alabama (granted, they were playing from behind and were forced to throw to try to catch up). If he can keep that up, the team will have a Fighting chance (like how we did that there?) next season.
With so many skill position losses, TJ Jones must fly high
Notre Dame, over the last few seasons, has become known as a bit of a tight ends factory. Back in the day, the Irish produced the likes of Mark Bavaro and Dave Casper at the position, and if you don't know them then do yourself a favor and run a quick Google search. More recently, the program has sent Anthony Fasano, John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph to the next level -- but outgoing star and leading receiver Tyler Eifert may be more talented than them all.
Finding a way to replace Eifert's 50 receptions and 685 yards will not be easy, but the onus will fall upon TJ Jones, a relatively small receiver destined for big things in South Bend. In 2012, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Jones was right up there with Eifert, catching 50 passes himself, for 649 yards.
Jones' father, Andre, started at defensive end when the Irish won the 1988 national championship, but unfortunately passed away in 2011 of a sudden brain aneurysm. TJ wears the same No. 7 as his father did, and with Eifert headed to the first round of the NFL Draft, TJ can stamp that number permanently into the record books as the Jones' number, if he continues to develop alongside Golson.
Kelly is expected to put much more of an emphasis on the passing game following the departures of his top two running backs as well, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, both of whom are expected to be drafted.
Georgie Atkinson III, who finished with 361 yards on a mere 51 attempts, should receive an expanded role in the team's running game.
You can't talk about losses without talking about Manti Te'o
The Fighting Irish won the first twelve games of their season on the strength of their defense, led by captain Manti Te'o. Even after the BCS game debacle, the unit as a whole finished with the nation's No. 2-overall defense, giving up a stout 12.8 points per game.
Besides Te'o, Brian Kelly's defense loses defensive back Zeke Matta and his 77 tackles, linebacker Dan Fox and linebacker Carlo Calabrese.
That is a big chunk of an elite defense.
Luckily for Kelly and Notre Dame fans, however, studly defensive tackle Louis Nix III listens to his mother.
A handful for any offensive line, Nix finished the year with 50 tackles, good for seventh on the team. As a junior, the 6-foot-3, 326-pound monster could have declared for the NFL Draft as soon as the final whistle sounded on the championship game. However, his mother begged him to stay in school and to get his degree -- the seven-figure paychecks could wait.
And now that he is returning, Kelly can't wait to have him back out on the playing field, anchoring the Irish defensive line for another year.
Lest we forget, special teams are one-third of the game
Luckily for Kelly and Notre Dame fans, the kicking game does not have to deal with the heavy losses suffered in the running game and on defense.
Kyle Brindza proved himself to be relatively reliable in his sophomore season, bagging 23 of his 31 field goal attempts in 2012. Exemplifying the type of anemic, at times, offense the Irish ran, Brindza only attempted 29 extra points, makings 28 of them. As a reference, Taylor Bertolet of Texas A&M took 75 extra point attempts in 2012, making 68 of them.
If Golson can turn up the juice, if TJ Jones can make up for the loss of Tyler Eifert and Atkinson III can make moves out of the backfield, hopefully Brindza will be taking a lot more extra point attempts and far fewer field goals.
Watch out for Davonte' Neal, the team's freshman punt returner. The little man can absolutely fly. If he adds a little weight to his 5-foot-9 frame, he may begin to see more time at wide receiver as well.