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July 25, 2013

Experienced where it matters

Notre Dame won't face a better combination of quarterback and offensive line experience this season.

So while the Irish will face plenty of questions when they report for training camp next weekend, what Brian Kelly returns in concert along the line and in the shotgun may make finding answers a straightforward task.

No 2013 opposing quarterback has more starts on his resume than Tommy Rees with 18. Only two opponents return quarterbacks with double-digit career starts in Arizona State (Taylor Kelly) and Michigan State (Andrew Maxwell). But the Spartans benched Maxwell in their bowl game, with back-up Connor Cook leading a comeback win over TCU. A quarterback competition is expected in camp.

If Cook ends up winning the job at Michigan State it would mean that the five opposing quarterbacks Notre Dame faces in September would have started a total of four games at the position all last season. Michigan's Devin Gardner accounts for all of those, but he played receiver against the Irish last season.

Considering Rees' immobility, Notre Dame will need its offensive line to step forward in its second season under Harry Hiestand. The Irish have the experience to do that, even while replacing two starters.

In Zack Martin, Chris Watt and Christian Lombard, the Irish bring back 78 career starts. Only Michigan State, Oklahoma, USC and Stanford have more starting experience in their lines. Notre Dame's first three opponents are well off the Irish pace in Temple (58), Michigan (58) and Purdue (52). The Owls and Boilermakers also have new head coaches and new quarterbacks.

Even without Everett Golson's mobility behind the line of scrimmage, the front has the potential to improve its production, which has been on the rise under Kelly the past three years. Notre Dame's ground game mustered just 127 yards per game in Kelly's first season, then improved to 160 in his second season and 189 last year.

Even with the ground game's no-show against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game, that season average was still the best by a Notre Dame rushing attack this century.

Combined, Notre Dame's quarterback and offensive line experience doesn't ensure the Irish will have another historic season. Questions at running back, linebacker, safety and a host of other positions have to be answered first. But, with the foundation in place in Rees and his line, Notre Dame will have a chance to move forward after an off-season of back pedaling.

Mixing Rees with a veteran line might not give Notre Dame's offense much flash this season, but it should give the Irish a more experienced offensive base than any opponent on the schedule.


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