2011 Notre Dame Season Preview Welcome Fighting Irish Fans (and Haters) to the 2011 season preview, the Irish are currently ranked #2 in the preseason polls and expectations are high. The losses to graduation and the NFL were average for ND, but the highly touted recruiting classes are looking to change that and hopefully compete for the national title. The returning Big Ten and Rose Bowl champs are looking to be crowned the National Champions at the end of this season, as last season saw them knocked out of contention due to a late loss @ Ohio State. Without further ado, let's get to the position breakdown. Offense Quarterbacks - Dayne Crist returns and he brings with him a full year and more under his belt, along with his 6'5 234 pound frame. He's one of the top pro QB prospects as junior and had the most passing TDs last year of any returning QB with 34 along with only 7 interceptions. Backing him up will be red shirt freshman Steve James along with new true freshman QB Marcus Rodgers who may be used similarly to how Tebow was used in Florida's first NC title run. QB Grade - A Running Backs - After losing Armando Allen and Larry Hughes perhaps the biggest question of the offense is who will carry the ball? Well, it's been a fierce battle in the offseason and it has yet to be decided. Jonas Gray, Cierre Wood, and Mark Richard should all see time, how the carries are split has yet to be determined. It may be similar to what USC has used the last few years with having a stable of backs instead of having one or two be the focus which most programs use. Senior Steve Paskorz returns for his senior year, and will hold the FB duties for the season. His health is key to the football team as there isn't any depth at the FB position if he goes down. This is something that will need to be addressed in this year's recruiting class. RB Grade - A- Wide Receivers and Tight Ends - The captain has returned for his final year, and the Irish faithful couldn't be happier! Mackey Award winner Kyle Rudolph is looking for a national title to cap off his illustrious career. Rudolph will lead a group of fiercely competitive WRs and TEs. It is perhaps the most talented group of the team with Michael Floyd being an impact player, alone with speed demon Deion Walker playing opposite. Shaquelle Evans and Curtis Swain will play the Slot WR and there has been hints of opening the offense more with the vertical passing game. For the double TE set, there isn't a better backup TE than Michael Ragone who will be the second TE in personel groups. Despite backing up Rudolph for all 4 years, and transfer rumors he will complete his degree, and perhaps even get a shot depending at the NFL depending how he performs at the combine. WR/TE Grade - A+ Offensive Line - Perhaps the best news for the offense is the fact that all 5 starting offensive lineman return! Including 3 that performed at All Big Ten levels last year. The offensive line will average 6'5 297 pounds across the board, and with the experience they have from the last few years, they should be able to dominate the line of scrimmage, and overpower teams. OLine grade - A- Overall Offensive Grade - A- Many have become used to the ground game of ND, but look for possibly a new playbook to be tried given the returning personnel. The Irish offense has been the #1 scoring offense for the last 2 years and this year looks bright to maintain that status. Defense Defensive line - This might be the weakest part of the Irish team on either side of the ball as some recruits have not progressed quite as much as projected. This may make Irish fans grown as getting pressure on the QB has been seen as the biggest problem. However the addition of true freshman DT Joe Williams will be welcomed, as he will get the start. It's very rare for a true freshman to start, but if there's any Irish defensive player of the last 15 years that should, it's Williams. Lewis-Moore returns who will be a strong pass rushing defensive end, however the key to how well the Irish play may be on the shoulders of how good DE Ethan Johnson plays. If he struggles look for team's to capatilze and run right at the weakness. DLine Grade - B+ Linebackers - The linebackers are easily the strongest group on defense. All 3 starters return and Teo and Filer are 2 year starters entering their 3rd. The experience here will be key to help out a young defensive line. They are great at run stuffing, but their pass coverage will need to be kept up on as they have a tendency to become gassed quickly and let opposing TEs/RBs have their way. Smith will be key to spying the numerous running QBs in the Big Ten. LB grade - A Defensive Backs - Three of 5 starters return in the secondary this year. Last year the team had talent but no experience this year, the team has some experience returning and although they lose Thorpe Award winner Dan McCarthy to the NFL, the red shirt freshman phenom Stacy Davis is ready to explode onto the college football world as a premiere safety. Blanton returns as perhaps the best shutdown corner in NCAA, as well as SS Allen and Dixon, both of whom played well as true freshman last year. Dixon was even a freshman All American. DB grade - A- Overall Defensive grade - B+ The pass defense was horrendous last year, although the defense attacked well and had the highest turnover margin in the Big Ten with +16. The team gave up too many points on the gambles however and often let teams back into the game. The offense was able to save the defense last year, however this has been looked at in the off season to see if there's a way to counter it. The defense's worst game was probably the Rutgers game last season. When they shutout Rutgers in the first half, then gave up 50 second half points to allow Rutgers to take the game to OT! The offense was able to save them like many games last year, and this year Coach Noknee looks to avoid this. Special Teams Kick and Punt Returners- Blanton returns who had a couple of KR TDs last year, however returner of the year Armando Allen is gone, and Mark Richard will take his place on both kick and punt returns. This is an explosive group that looks to maintain their title of best special teams return game in the country. Field goal kicking, punting, and kickoff Handling all of these duties will be red shirt freshman Anthony Yates. He has a decent leg, but is moderately accurate. Look for him to improve as the season goes on, especially given the amount of in game reps he should get on kickoffs this season. ST grade - B Coach Noknee is 23-3 as the Irish head coach and led the Irish to their first conference title and BCS bowl win last season. The 2011 season looks to be an exciting one in South Bend as there are plenty of games to be excited about this season. Many of the tougher games will be at home fortunately, and this may be the perfect storm that allows the Irish to have their perfect season.