Pieces falling into place for Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Midway through spring practice, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was asked if he worried about preseason expectations being too high for this season.

Kelly smiled. After a tumultuous first season with the Irish, the last thing concerning him was the pressure of fans wanting too much from the team.

"My players know I'll beat that out of them," he said.

Those who like to throw barbs Notre Dame's ways -- at least half the country, it seems -- might quip that usually opponents beat the expectations out of the Irish. That's not really true, as the program hasn't performed well enough to merit high preseason perches most of the last decade. But there have been a few examples, such as the 2003 team that started in the top 20 and ended 5-7, or the 2009 bunch that went 6-6 after a top 25 initial ranking. Even the 2006 team that went 10-3 was viewed as a disappointment after opening the season at No. 2 in The Associated Press poll.

So here we are again, with Notre Dame a consensus top-20 pick as the 2011 curtain lifts. Many prognosticators are high on the team, and Athlon Sports even placed the Golden Domers sixth, as if just begging to be let down.

Scoff if you want. Just know there are a few reasons to actually believe this year's team can meet expectations, and possibly even exceed them. Such as:

Last year's finish. Let's face it, most preseason polls are based on what a team did at the end of the previous season and what it brings back. Few teams kicked into gear quite like the Irish in 2010.

We didn't come to Notre Dame to be preranked. That's encouraging, but at the same time it doesn't mean anything. Winning on the field on Saturdays is what means something.

-- Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith

Its four-game winning streak to close the year (over Utah, Army, USC and Miami) was the best finish by the program since 1992. The Sun Bowl win over the Hurricanes was its first postseason victory over a BCS AQ team since the 1994 Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M.

It wasn't just the wins; it was the way the team did it. Even starting a true freshman quarterback in Tommy Rees, Notre Dame plowed ahead on the strength of its defense, which allowed just 9.8 points and 276.5 yards per game over the final four contests.

It's fool's gold to think that momentum carries over from a New Year's Eve bowl game to the following Labor Day weekend. But what the winning streak did was inspire confidence.

"We don't just pick up where we left off, because that's not how it works," safety Harrison Smith said. "But the things we learned as individual players, all of us tried to build on that in the offseason. If we can take that and jell together, we have the potential to be better than last year."

Talent in the right places. Charlie Weis could attract and develop star players, including Brady Quinn, Golden Tate and Tom Zbikowski. But too often those guys were skill players or on the perimeters, not the tough-nosed anchors in the trenches that win games at the highest level.

Kelly showed that he and his staff could turn both lines into strengths, not weaknesses. The offensive line, which looked to be a concern going into last season, became the backbone of the offense and now has enviable depth. The defensive line play improved throughout the year, and recruiting has brought a new wave of defensive line prospects, the likes of which haven't been seen in South Bend in years.

Aaron Lynch starred in the spring game as a true freshman early enrollee. Stephon Tuitt turned heads his first practice simply by filling out his uniform with his 6-foot-6, 295-pound frame. A slimmed down but still massive Louis Nix could make noise in his first year of playing at nose tackle. As linebacker Manti Te'o, no shrinking violet himself, said of the freshmen, "They look like football players."

"The dominant teams in college football have dominant players on the defensive front, and Notre Dame has not," ESPN.com recruiting expert Tom Luginbill said. "To be able to get those types of players to come to Notre Dame, in my opinion, is really the start of where you're going to see the upswing."

Stability. It's not just that Notre Dame has 17 starters back and scores of key contributors returning. It's also that all the coaches are back.

Tyrone Willingham lasted only three seasons, and Weis continually tinkered with defensive coordinators and systems while taking the offensive coordinator role on seemingly every few months. So it's worth noting that every member of Kelly's staff from 2010 remained in place.

"Change was sort of a constant for them," athletic director Jack Swarbrick said of the Irish players. "This is really the first period of time where they've had 24 months in the same system with the same coaching staff and the same approach. You can absolutely see it in a host of ways. They're so much more comfortable and so much more focused. It's a very discernible difference."

Kelly said he hopes the biggest on-field difference will come on the offensive side. That unit struggled to jell last year as it adjusted to the new system and the losses of starting quarterback Dayne Crist, starting tailback Armando Allen and star tight end Kyle Rudolph for the season, while go-to receivers Michael Floyd and Theo Riddick were slowed by injuries. Kelly said he has four proven playmakers in Floyd, Riddick, tight end Tyler Eifert and tailback Cierre Wood to go along with an offensive line that proved it could grind out games if needed last year.

"Another year with Coach Kelly and his staff should have us taking our offensive scheme to the next level," Rees said. "All of us are back and clicking, and our timing is just that much better."

Legitimate concerns linger for the Irish, including the lack of depth at running back and cornerback, where injuries could be catastrophic. The quarterback situation is unsettled and either Crist or Rees will have to raise his game if chosen as the starter. The schedule, while not featuring many truly daunting individual opponents, contains none of the breathers that teams from power leagues usually enjoy.

Yet there are enough things in place to believe the preseason expectations are real. As Kelly said on the eve of Notre Dame's first fall practice, "I like the ingredients. I think they're all portioned correctly."

Now it all has to come together under fire.

"We didn't come to Notre Dame to be preranked," Smith said. "That's encouraging, but at the same time it doesn't mean anything. Winning on the field on Saturdays is what means something."

Brian Bennett covers the Big Ten and Notre Dame for ESPN.com.