SOUTH BEND, Ind. | Notre Dame is trying to focus on the present.
And who can blame the Irish? Not much has gone right for them since the calendar turned to 2013.
After enjoying their first unbeaten regular season since 1988, when they last won the national championship, the new year started with an embarrassing 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS title game, followed quickly by news that linebacker Manti Te'o had been the victim of an equally embarrassing hoax — a girlfriend who never was. Then there was the disclosure that coach Brian Kelly had interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles, the revelation that quarterback Everett Golson had been suspended for the fall for poor academic judgment and the defection of blue chip signee Eddie Vanderdoes to UCLA.
Talk about luck of the Irish. Kelly says those problems are behind Notre Dame as it seeks to prove it is ready to consistently contend for national titles.
"We've worked hard to put ourselves in a position to be back in the national spotlight. We have no intention of giving that up," Kelly said.
Here are five things to watch as the Irish look to post four straight winning seasons for the first time since 1995-98 and seek back-to-back seasons with nine victories or more for the first time since 2005-06.
1. NEW STARS: The Irish lost their best big-play players in linebacker Manti Te'o, tight end Tyler Eifert (both NFL draft picks) and Golson. The two biggest-name returnees are defensive linemen Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt. The Irish need to find a go-to guy on offense and leaders on defense. On offense, the Irish need to establish a deep threat. Aside from TJ Jones and DeVaris Daniels, no other returning receiver caught more than seven passes. Te'o was the face of the defense, winning just about every award shy of the Heisman. On offense and defense, the Irish need to find playmakers.
2. REPLACING GOLSON: Golson wasn't outstanding as a first-year starter, but good enough to help the Irish go 12-0 during the regular season and get to the national championship game. Tommy Rees is back in as the starter after losing out to Golson by throwing 14 interceptions and losing five fumbles in 2011. He is 14-4 as a starter and played key roles in four victories last season. The Irish need him to make good decisions and be an accurate passer. Kelly is looking to return to the fast-tempo offense his squads were known for at Cincinnati and Central Michigan. Kelly says he believes having Rees at quarterback will make it easier because he knows the offense better and can read defenses better than Golson. Kelly also says he'll considering using a "complementary" quarterback, meaning he could insert Andrew Hendrix to establish a running threat.
3. DOMINANT DEFENSE: Notre Dame looked like a dominant defense until it ran into Alabama, giving up season highs in points, total offense (529 yards), rushing yards (265) and first downs (28). The Irish return eight starters from a squad that finished seventh in the nation in total defense — their best showing in 32 years. The Irish say they believe even without Te'o they can be even better than last year. The last time the Irish were ranked in the top 10 in total defense in back-to-back seasons was in 1973 (No. 2) and 1974 (No. 1) — the last two seasons Ara Parseghian was coach.
4. BALL CARRIERS: The Irish finished 38th in the nation in rushing offense, their best finish in 11 seasons. But their top two rushers from last season, Theo Riddick (917 yards) and Cierre Wood (742 yards) are gone and the Irish are without Golson (298 yards). Notre Dame's only 1,000-yard rusher the past six seasons was Wood in 2011. The leading candidates to carry the load this year are George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle. Atkinson averaged 7.1 yards a carry on 51 carries last season, while coaches say Carlisle, a transfer from USC who missed all of last season with an ankle injury, has a great initial burst and good hands. Freshman Greg Bryant and returning backs Cam McDaniel and Will Mahone also are vying for time.
5. SHINING SONS: The Irish roster is loaded with children of famous fathers. Among those who could see significant playing time are Atkinson (father played for the Oakland Raiders); cornerback Austin Collinsworth (father, Cris, is a former Bengals receiver); offensive lineman Conor Hanraty (father was quarterback on 1966 national championship team); and receiver Corey Robinson (father, David, was an NBA Hall of Famer). Others include receiver Torii Hunter Jr., who is still recovering from a broken femur sustained during an all-star game (father plays for the Detroit Tigers) and walk-on cornerback Jesse Bongiovi (father is singer Jon Bon Jovi). It will be interesting to see how many of them can make names for themselves.