SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Notre Dame nearly made it all the way back to the top a season ago.
Led by a Heisman finalist at linebacker and a winner at quarterback, the Fighting Irish completed an unbeaten regular season before losing 42-14 to Alabama in the BCS National Championship game.
They'll try it again, this time without that linebacker (Manti T'eo) and that quarterback (Everett Golson). Te'o was a senior and was drafted by the San Diego Chargers. Golson has two years of eligibility left, but he was suspended for the fall semester because of ''poor academic judgment.''
That gave the reins of the offense back to veteran Tommy Rees, who has started 18 games for the Fighting Irish during his career.
Rees, a senior, played sparingly a season ago and has not seen regular action since he was a sophomore when he started every game but the opener.
Rees is 403 of 634 passing in his career for 4,413 yards in 33 games, with 34 touchdown passes and 24 interceptions.
Other Notre Dame players drafted were tight end Tyler Eifert (first round, 21st overall, Cincinnati); safety Jamoris Slaughter (sixth round, Cleveland), running back Theo Riddick (sixth round, Detroit), defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore (sixth round, Baltimore), safety Zeke Motta (seventh round, Atlanta), while others like center Braxston Cave (Cleveland), guard/center Mike Golic Jr. (Pittsburgh) and running back Cierre Wood (Houston) signed free-agent contracts.
Still, Rees won't have to do it alone. The Irish return plenty, and they've got Watch List guys all over the field.
That begins with senior defensive lineman Louis Nix III, who found himself on the preseason lists for the Maxwell Award (Player of the Year), Walter Camp Award (Most Outstanding Player), Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year), Bronko Nagurski (Outstanding Defensive Player), Lombardi Award (Lineman of the Year), and Outland Trophy (Outstanding Interior Lineman).
As a defensive player, that's as good as it gets. Of his 95 tackles, two were for sacks and 12 were for a loss.
Fellow defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt (Maxwell, Walter Camp, Bednarik, Nagurski, and Lombardi) had 14 sacks a season ago, the same number as senior outside linebacker Prince Shembo (Bednarik, Lombardi, Butkus).
Senior cornerback Bennett Jackson (Bednarik) broke up six passes and forced a fumble, inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese (Butkus) had 145 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and nine tackles for a loss, while inside linebacker Dan Fox (Butkus) rounds out the Watch List guys on the Notre Dame defense. Fox, a graduate student from St. Ignatius High School, had 131 tackles - 4.5 for a loss, and broke up three passes.
Joining Rees as offensive headliners are offensive tackle Zack Martin (Lombardi, Outland Trophy, which is given to the nation's outstanding interior lineman), and receivers DaVaris Daniels and TJ Jones (both Biletnikoff Award Watch List guys for most outstanding receiver).
Daniels, a junior, had 31 catches for 490 yards last season, while Jones, a senior, had a huge season with 111 catches for 1,321yards and 10 touchdowns.
Tight End Ben Koyack landed a spot on the Mackey Award Watch List (Most Outstanding Tight End) and junior kicker/punter Kyle Brindza finds himself on the Lou Groza Award list, given to the country's top placekicker.
Other notable returnees for the Irish are running back Cam McDaniel (26 carries, 134 yards, one touchdown) and kick returner/running back George Atkinson, who had 57 returns for 1,356 yards and a pair of TDs and is known as one of the fastest players on the team, left guard Chris Watts, center Nick Martin, right guard Conor Hanratty, right tackle Christian Lombard, defensive end Sheldon Day, and safeties Elijah Shumate and Matthias Farley.
Of note, ''Dog'' linebacker Danny Spond has stopped playing football because of a medical condition. A big part of the team, Spond will remain wiht the team and help coach some younger players.
Notre Dame seems to annually have a top-10 recruiting class and this year was no different, as Rivals.com rated the Irish's haul as the sixth-best in the land.
Among those expected to make noise early are running back Greg Bryant, who has an open door with the Irish's top-two leading rushers leaving (Riddick and Cierre Wood).
Receiver James Onwualu, who hails from the same high school as Michael Floyd, was an early enrollee who got 15 practices under his belt. Safety Max Redfield, one of three five-star recruits head coach Brian Kelly brought in (on signing day), is the highest-rated defensive back to sign with Notre Dame in the Rivals.com era (11 years). Corey Robinson, a 6-foot-5 receiver, has a big future ahead of him. Linebacker Jaylon Smith will try to take Spond's spot and could be an early force on special teams. He is thought to be the next great linebacker in South Bend.