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Independents Preview: Brian Kelly will whip Notre Dame into shape. But how quickly can he do it?

Mario Puig

Mario is a Senior Writer at RotoWire who primarily writes and projects for the NFL and college football sections.

Since only three teams resist conference affiliation, thereís obviously not as much to say about the independents.

Thereís no league, so thereís no common pursuit between the three ó no title to fight over. With no technical competition at hand, thereís nothing to concern ourselves with but the fantasy impacts that the Notre Dame, Navy and Army players might have.

The biggest news regarding the independents this offseason is definitely the departure of the failed Charlie Weis regime and the arrival of former Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly. Kelly turned Central Michigan and Cincinnati into conference powerhouses, and the expectation is that Kelly will bring Notre Dame into contention for the national championship in the near future.

That certainly doesnít seem likely to happen this year. Although heís a former top recruit, quarterback Dayne Crist probably isnít any Jimmy Clausen, and Kelly doesnít have the exact personnel his schemes need to run optimally. Still, itís safe to say that Kelly is better suited for this job than Weis was, and an improvement is almost definitely in store for the Irish in 2010.

Navy was the most dangerous of the independents in 2009, and it wouldnít be at all shocking if the same were the case this year. Star quarterback Ricky Dobbs is an injury worry given the beating he takes as a triple-option quarterback, but he's potentially a top-five fantasy quarterback when he is on the field. In the 11 games he started, Dobbs ran for 1,187 yards and 27 touchdowns, adding 1,031 yards and six more touchdowns through the air.

Army struggled in 2009, going just 5-7, but this was an improvement over the 3-9 season the year before. The program has to be a bit optimistic with its running potential, as quarterback Trent Steelman was effective enough as a freshman, and the program is excited about the potential new fullback Jared Hassin presents (the fullback runs frequently in the triple-option). The team figures to have a great deal of difficulty throwing the ball, however, because the ridiculous wideout Alejandro Villanueva (who measured in at 6-10, 283) was the teamís only receiving threat last year, and he has since graduated.

Although only very deep leagues should be keeping an eye out for Army fantasy prospects, Notre Dame and Navy should have a decent amount of good options.

No player among the independents figures to be as valuable as Notre Dame wideout Michael Floyd. There are some injury worries with him, but Floyd averaged 113 yards and more than a touchdown per game last year, and he was extremely consistent when he was on the field. We figure his productivity will drop a bit this year, because Floyd had superb chemistry with Clausen, but he should still be highly effective.

Although we have to rank Floyd No. 1 here, Dobbs is a very close second. To put up 33 touchdowns in just 11 games is obviously brilliant, and thereís no reason to expect a drop-off this year. Still, in leagues where passing touchdowns are worth the same amount as rushing ones, youíre probably better off with a handful of more traditional passers who donít figure to take the bruising Dobbs will.

As far as other quarterbacks go, Crist looks like a solid bet to put up good numbers for coach Kellyís spread offense. Kelly has a brilliant history with quarterbacks (Tony Pike, Zach Collaros, Ben Mauk, Dan LeFevour, Kent Smith), and you have to like his chances of succeeding again this year.

The other biggest name in the conference is probably Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph. Rudolph is arguably the best pro prospect at tight end in the nation, and he figures to be at his best as he auditions for a potential first-round bid in the 2011 NFL Draft. He totaled 33 catches for 364 yards and three touchdowns in nine games last year and would have done better if injuries hadnít gotten in the way. Thereís some concern with how heíd fit into the Kelly offense, however, because Kelly has almost no history of utilizing tight ends extensively. Still, history says Kelly will find a way to make the most of the talent he has available.

Look for Floyd, Dobbs and Rudolph to be among the best at their positions nationwide, while Crist is a good sleeper to step into that same sort of category. Outside of that, the only player you should concern yourself with in most leagues is Navy fullback Vince Murray, who has the ability to put up big numbers occasionally.

Players to Target

Ricky Dobbs, QB, Navy

We understand the injury concerns with Dobbs, as well as the fact that he wonít throw the ball much, but weíre still puzzled by the lack of attention he receives in discussions regarding the top fantasy quarterbacks. The numbers speak for themselves: three touchdowns and 100 rushing yards per game. He only committed seven turnovers, so itís not as if thatís a significant drain on his numbers. If you make Dobbs your starting quarterback pick relatively late and nab a good backup, you could look smart this year.

Dayne Crist, QB, Notre Dame

Thereís no telling what Crist will do as far as the specifics go, but we have to assume heíll be productive as a passer. Brian Kelly is just too good of a coach to let anything else happen. Furthermore, the Notre Dame defense will probably be less than impressive this year, and the Irish will need to throw the ball to keep up with their opponents. We think there are better starting options out there, but Crist might be a good gamble for someone waiting late to draft a quarterback.

Vince Murray, RB, Navy

Murray is only worth a slight bit of consideration in most formats. His workload is unsteady, so heís anything but a stable option. When he does get the ball, though, heís highly effective. In one four-game span last year he totaled 589 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Unfortunately, he finished the year with just 971 yards and six touchdowns, so he wasn't exactly a model of consistency. Heís worth a desperation shot in really deep leagues.

Malcolm Floyd, WR, Notre Dame

We are just a bit concerned about Floyd this year, as he worked extremely well with Jimmy Clausen and might not be quite as productive with a different passer, but he remains a top-tier receiver option in all formats. Heíll be playing for a potential top-15 NFL Draft pick bid this year, so he has every reason to be at his best yet. Floyd averaged one touchdown for every five or so catches last year, and he averaged six receptions per game. Anything less than double-digit touchdowns from Floyd would be a major disappointment.

Kyle Rudolph, TE, Notre Dame

We donít buy the talk of Rudolph being a top-tier fantasy tight end this year, but we think heíll probably end up in the second tier. At around 6-6, 260, Rudolph is a complete tight end who should be dangerous off play-action passes. He could very well emerge as Notre Dameís best red-zone threat besides Michael Floyd. Like Floyd, he just needs to stay healthy this year.

Top Sleepers

Army DST

Army made the most of the modest talent it had last year, intercepting 13 passes and totaling 24 sacks in 12 games. The main force in that pass-rush, defensive end Josh McNary, is back this year after posting 65 tackles, 13.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss in 2009. The linebackers and secondary are young for this team and should return improved in 2010. While the Midshipmen are perhaps the safer bet on defense among the independents, donít be surprised if Army outdoes them.

Shaquelle Evans, WR, Notre Dame

Although Evans did next to nothing as a freshman last year, heís a former big-time recruit with the athleticism to do big things in Brian Kellyís spread offense. Tai-ler Jones is the only receiver identified to start with Malcolm Floyd at the moment, but there ought to be at least three receivers catching a good amount of passes this year for Notre Dame. Evans is a player to keep a close eye on with that in mind.

Biggest Busts

Army and Navy Receivers

Itís the triple-option. Thereís not much more to say here. Neither team has a Demaryius Thomas (or Alejandro Villenueva, for that matter), so no receiver on either team is worth a bit of your attention.

Notre Dame Running Backs

Armando Allen and Robert Hughes are decent enough runners, but neither is good enough to separate from the other and earn a featured role. Hughes has the edge as a goal-line runner, but he doesnít put up the yardage numbers necessary to make him worth much attention. The passing game will be the engine that drives the Notre Dame offense.

Top Freshmen/Newcomers

Jared Hassin, RB, Army

While thereís no way to know exactly what Hassin is capable of as the fullback in the Army triple-option, itís worth noting that the program can hardly contain its excitement over him. Kingsley Ehie is the other main fullback option on the team, but it seems like heís barely noticeable in light of Hassinís arrival. Ehie ran for 473 yards and two touchdowns in a limited role last year, but the general belief is that Hassin will see the ball much more (and do much more with it).

Tai-ler Jones, WR, Notre Dame

As long as Jones can stay out of trouble before and during the season (he was arrested for underage drinking in July), he should be a starting receiver for Notre Dame this year. He figures to be the more elusive speed threat to complement the all-purpose/big wideout skill sets that Malcolm Floyd and Shaquelle Evans bring, making him a candidate to play extensively in the slot. Heís worth keeping an eye on in most formats.