An ugly 2013 comes to a close for Notre Dame

An ugly 2013 comes to a close for Notre Dame
December 31, 2013, 6:00 pm
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The calendar will flip to 2014 at midnight, putting to bed a fairly miserable 2013 for Notre Dame.

Sure, the Irish went 9-4 and were the only team to beat Michigan State in the regular season. But a lot went wrong for Notre Dame over the last 365 days. (If you're into the positivity stuff, that's below the negative stuff here.) Among the misfortunes:

Early January: Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14. It was so thorough of a beating it never really felt like Notre Dame had a chance to win a championship that Monday night in south Florida. The gap between Alabama and Notre Dame was set, and it only widened later in the year. The SEC is the nation's gold standard, and Alabama -- no matter what happens Monday night in Pasadena -- is still the model for consistent winning and championship contention. Notre Dame still has a ways to go to catch Nick Saban's Crimson Tide -- just like every program in the nation.

Early January: Not 48 hours after the BCS Championship ended, coach Brian Kelly's flirtation with the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles became public. While Kelly said later that month with regard to leaping to the NFL "It's just not what I want to do. I want to be a college football coach," the flirtation with Philadelphia at least created mass paranoia among the Notre Dame fanbase. The NFL's Black Monday earlier this week certainly didn't help allay any of those fears of Kelly, the most successful Irish coach since Lou Holtz, leaving South Bend.

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Mid-January: The Manti Te'o hoax story hits Deadspin, exploding into a two-week whirlwind that ended with Dr. Phil and an entirely destroyed image for the Heisman Trophy runner-up. He slipped from being a sure-fire first-round pick to waiting into the second round for his name to be called, then largely faded into the background in an injury-riddled rookie season in San Diego. Maybe it was for the best.

Mid-March: Before spring practice began, quarterback Gunner Kiel decided to transfer. Now, it's worth noting Kiel may not have beaten out Tommy Rees for the starting job after Everett Golson's expulsion, given a not-so-great relationship with offensive coordinator Chuck Martin. There might've been nothing Notre Dame could've done to keep Kiel, let alone turn him into a productive quarterback. But losing a five-star quarterback to transfer before even seeing him in spring practice still couldn't have been an ideal situation.

Late March: More transfers, this time wide receivers Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson. Neal was a projectable slot receiver, while Ferguson was more a depth guy. Notre Dame recovered pretty well from this, as its wide receiving corps turned out to be one of the stronger units on the 2013 team and appears to have a bright future.

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Late May: Golson is expelled from the university for a violation of the academic honor code. About 12 hours of chaos ensued, with thoughts popping up of Kiel ditching Cincinnati to return to Notre Dame (which was never going to happen). But the Sunday morning after the initial news broke brought this: An apology from Golson and the door being open for his return to Notre Dame. Perhaps the Irish still wouldn't have made a BCS bowl with Golson quarterbacking the team, but it was easy to wonder what could've been after each of Notre Dame's four losses this season.

Early June: Five-star defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes backs out of his commitment to Notre Dame. This wasn't a routine decommitment; it was a player angling to be released from a signed letter of intent. Kelly refused to let him out of his NLI, creating a firestorm of backlash both against the Notre Dame coach and blue-chip recruit. Vanderdoes wound up being allowed to play at UCLA this season, much to the chagrin of Kelly. While Jarron Jones held his own late in the season, injuries to Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke created a massive void at nose tackle -- and both Nix and Schwenke won't be around in 2014. Jones may wind up holding his own at nose tackle for the next two years, but Vanderdoes has star-player potential and would've been key in holding the Irish defensive line together in 2014 without Nix and possibly Stephon Tuitt.

Early August: Linebacker Danny Spond has to end his playing career due to a recurrence of hemiplagic migraines. Spond was one of the unsung heroes of the 2012 Irish defense, with his skill playing the difficult dog outside linebacker position incredibly important to the run to the BCS Championship. Here, Notre Dame made the best of a bad situation with Spond playing a key role in training freshman Jaylon Smith, who became one of the bright spots of the 2013 season.

Early August: Defensive lineman Tony Springmann suffers a torn ACL and is ruled out for the 2013 season. With Nix, Tuitt, Schwenke and Sheldon Day all banged up at various points, Springmann's presence would've been a fantastic jolt to the depth chart.

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September-December: Notre Dame loses four games, is quickly eliminated from the BCS Championship discussion at Michigan and then from the BCS bowl discussion in embarrassing fashion at Pittsburgh. Wins over Michigan State (albeit in very, very sloppy fashion), Arizona State and BYU were quality, and none of Notre Dame's losses were blowouts. But regressions on both sides of the ball were enough to keep Notre Dame from beating Michigan, Oklahoma, Pitt and Stanford. Ultimately, Notre Dame was relegated to a sloppy Pinstripe Bowl win over a bad Rutgers team.

These events ranged from routine maladies (transfers, injuries) to the stunning (Golson) and bizarre (Te'o). While all this seems like an overwhelmingly disappointing year, Notre Dame wasn't without positive takeaways. Among them:

-- A large group of freshmen made an impact, with running back Tarean Folston, wide receivers Corey Robinson, Will Fuller and James Onwualu, offensive lineman Steve Elmer, defensive lineman Isaac Rochell and defensive backs Devin Butler and Cole Luke earning significant playing time. But no freshman's star shone brighter than Smith, who finished third on the Irish with 67 tackles and second with 6 1/2 tackles for a loss. The Fort Wayne native also notched an interception, forced a fumble and recorded three pass breakups.

-- The 2013 recruiting class was stocked full of talent that didn't play or didn't play much this season: Quarterback Malik Zaire, running back Greg Bryant, wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., tight end Durham Smythe, offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus and safety Max Redfield all have drawn praise and should be in line for increased roles in 2014.

-- Junior tight end Troy Niklas was a Mackey Award semifinalist and caught five touchdowns, emerging as an elite red zone weapon. But it wasn't just Niklas -- fellow junior tight end Ben Koyack improved to the point where two tight end sets became a staple for the Irish offense.

-- Senior wide receiver T.J. Jones excelled in his final year with the Irish, finishing with 70 receptions for 1,108 yards and nine touchdowns. Jones is now second on Notre Dame's all-time receptions list with 181.

-- The best play of 2013? Nix's successful two-point conversion out of the "Irish Chocolate" package in April's Blue-Gold scrimmage. "Everybody needs to be scared of Irish Chocolate," Nix said. "Everyone. Including you."