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Football Commentary: Outlook optimistic despite Floyd’s absence

Douglas Farmer | Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Prior to junior receiver Michael Floyd’s actions along Notre Dame Avenue early Sunday morning, the upcoming Irish football season seemed filled with optimism, and only optimism.

Pending Floyd’s fate — will his indefinite suspension ever end — that optimism need not dissipate.

Yes, if the potential All-American has caught his last collegiate touchdown pass, Notre Dame will lose an incredibly potent weapon, but the absence of Floyd would not change Irish coach Brian Kelly’s plans for the upcoming season, beginning with today’s first spring practice.

“Win more games,” Kelly said Tuesday when describing the difference between the future, the 2011 season, and the past, the 2010 season.

The beauty of the system Kelly is creating hinges on the number of weapons Notre Dame has at its disposal, with or without Floyd. Last season the Irish offense lost junior quarterback Dayne Crist to a knee injury with four games left in the season, yet Kelly and freshman quarterback Tommy Rees won those four games, including wins over No. 15 Utah and at USC.

“Confidence obviously is gained with success,” Kelly said. “They had some success against some pretty good football teams and so that carried itself into the off-season.”

When Kelly refers to “they,” he is not referring to Michael Floyd and a select group of other players. He is referring to every single member of the Irish, even the five early enrollee freshmen. The confidence the individual players gained during the four-game win streak will actually have minimal effect, but the confidence the team as a whole discovered during the four-game win streak will set the tone in this spring’s practices, and will establish a high-standard for the freshmen to aspire toward before they ever know anything different.

“You can do that in year two because everybody kind of knows their place a lot better,” Kelly said. “That routine is actually what we are going to count on to be our strength in year two — get back into that routine that was so good for us late in the year.”

Late last year, Kelly’s offense clicked on and off throughout each game as Rees’ inconsistent talent only showed up in sports. Bob Diaco’s defense carried Notre Dame through Rees’ rough spots, stringing together the best four-game stretch by an Irish defense since the days Lou Holtz patrolled the sidelines.

The Irish defense returns nearly fully intact, with its biggest loss, literally and figuratively, being that of soon-to-be-graduated nose tackle Ian Williams. Yet, Williams spent a significant portion of last season on the sidelines injured, and the Irish defense only improved in his absence.

Now, with more defensive end and outside linebacker recruits than the Gug may be able to feed, the Irish defense comes back much stronger than it ended last season. Kelly said early enrollee defensive end Aaron Lynch is “as developed as some of our juniors and seniors.” The same can be said for defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Ishaq Williams, also an early enrollee.

Rees, or Crist, or whoever takes Notre Dame’s first snap against South Florida in September, will no longer feel the pressure of the necessity to outscore the opponent. This year, a shootout against Denard Robinson simply won’t happen — this defense is ready for his challenge.

But if a shootout does transpire, the Irish have the weapons, again, with or without Floyd.

When junior tight end Kyle Rudolph tore his hamstring early last season, ending his season — and with his early entry into the NFL Draft, his collegiate career — Notre Dame seemed to have lost its most reliable weapon. It had, but sophomore Tyler Eifert took his opportunity to shine, and, well, shined. By the end of the victory over Army, in which he tallied four catches for 78 yards and a touchdown, Eifert had become a common Irish household name.

Entering this past September, the idea of losing Crist, Williams or Rudolph for significant time would have delivered an anxiety attack to nearly any Notre Dame fan. The idea of no Michael Floyd for an entire season has a similar effect, yet Kelly’s past shows it shouldn’t.

“Every time there’s an injury or somebody that’s not with us, our focus is strictly on the guys that are here,” Kelly said.

“The guys that are here” may be one superstar fewer now, but, as a whole, optimism should still surround them.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Douglas Farmer at dfarmer1@nd.edu