SOUTH BEND, Ind. — 2012 stands as Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s most (and, by Notre Dame’s lofty standards, only) successful season since he took over in South Bend in 2010. It was a team that featured a ton of big-name stars and/or future NFL players like Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas, Theo Riddick, Manti Te’o, Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix.
Those players led the Irish to an undefeated regular season before Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide rolled to a four-touchdown win in the BCS Championship.
But heading into the 2015 season, Kelly & Co. believe their current team has more talent and better depth than the its 12-1 squad from three years ago.
“It's a faster team, it's a more athletic team,” Kelly said. “We’re deeper at virtually all positions across the board, both on the offensive line and the defensive line. Maybe we don't have singularly one superstar here or there, but the depth of (this) group is a whole different football team than that group.”
The 2012 Irish were seemingly always on the verge of a season-killing collapse, but eked out five single-digit wins. It took Tommy Rees’ relief work for that team to beat Purdue and Michigan, and Pitt’s missed overtime field goal — and the officiating crew missing the Irish having two players wearing No. 2 on the field for it — kept Notre Dame from a disastrous loss a week after a seminal victory over Oklahoma in Norman.
But lucky or not, ask anyone in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex about the 2012 team and they’ll tell you that group had great leadership and had an uncanny knack for winning games. Whether or not this 2015 team has those traits remains to be seen.
“You had guys who were going to hold you accountable at all times, and they did the right things at all times, whether it’s weight room, training, off the field stuff, they always did the right thing,” cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who started all 13 games as a true freshman in 2012, said. “So it’s one of those things, you didn’t want to let them down. So that’s where we gotta get now as a team just constantly demanding from the young guys that this could be the year. This could be the year if we do things the right way.”
The 2012 group sustained season-ending injuries to cornerback Lo Wood (replaced by Russell) and safety Jamoris Slaughter (replaced by Matthias Farley), but in general had shaky depth. By the time bowl practice rolled around in December, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand only had six healthy scholarship offensive linemen with which to practice, which contributed to the Irish looking entirely unprepared for Eddie Lacy and Alabama’s powerful downhill offense.
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Notre Dame fans!]
Now, Notre Dame feels it not only has depth, but plenty of the guys peppering the No. 2 and No. 3 units earned valuable experience in 2014 when a rash of injuries forced plenty of greenhorns into prominent roles.
“We didn’t have much depth across the board (in 2012),” Farley said. “Having that depth and also, unfortunately last year a lot of injuries happened so guys were forced to play that might not have played in other situations. So that really sped up their development and being in game situations, things like that. Coming into this year, that’s been really beneficial for everybody because you got a lot of guys who have got reps that might not have in another situation if everyone else was healthy last year.”
Still, all that skill, athleticism and depth only can go so far, according to Russell. If the 2015 Irish can find a way to replicate the leadership — Kelly said he'll choose captains from a list of 10 players, all of whom fit the bill for leadership roles — it had in 2012, there’s a feeling that this year’s team could be even better.
“Talent’s not going to beat TCU, talent’s not going to beat Ohio State,” Russell said. “We’re just as talented as those guys. But at the end of the day we gotta come together as a team and really trust each other.”