Preseason Notre Dame Preview

Needless to say, 2007 was not Notre Dame's best year. They were an absolute mess on both sides of the ball, especially offensively. The arrival of Jimmy Clausen was overshadowed…literally…by the defensive linemen who sacked him about a hundred times. The running game was non-existent, and opposing offenses pounded the ball straight down the throats of the Fighting Irish. So how does Charlie Weis avoid an encore? It would help if the offensive line played better football, and Weis did bring in defensive guru Jon Tenuta to help revamp the scheme on that side of the ball. Will it be enough?
Last Season
The Irish got blasted in the early season, looking baffled in a thirty point loss to mediocre Georgia Tech, sleepwalking through a three TD defeat in Happy Valley, an getting embarrassed by a reeling Michigan team to the tune of 38-0. In the first three games, the Irish accumulated -14 yards rushing thanks to 23 sacks, and didn't score an offensive touchdown. Things weren't any better in double digit losses to Michigan State and Purdue. Notre Dame got into the win column when UCLA had to go to a walk on QB in an ugly 20-6 contest, and even managed to be competitive against the highly ranked Boston College Eagles before finally succumbing 31-17.
Then came one of the darkest stretches in ND football history. USC showed up to South Bend with a back up quarterback and handed the Irish one of their worst shutout losses in history. Then Navy snapped a one million game losing streak to the Irish when Weis foolishly decided to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking a game winning field goal. A foiled two point conversion at the end of the game drew tears of joy from many USNA grads. The Air Force stormed into Notre Dame Stadium and stomped the Irish, looking like the physically superior team. Late season wins over woeful Duke and talent starved Stanford to end the season really didn't garner much enthusiasm from the faithful. The Irish finished 3-9, their worst season in decades.
Jimmy Clausen did about as well as you can expect from a true freshman who is not 100% and is playing behind a porous offensive line. This season, he is fully recovered from the elbow surgery that hindered him in 2007. Obviously he is a great talent with his size and his arm strength, and the coaches are excited about the strides that he has made with decision making. He needs to have a good year, because if he doesn't, whether it's fair or not, the "bust" label is going to come out. Evan Sharpley is back to play the #2 role, but he is not good enough to play quarterback at Notre Dame. True freshman Dayne Crist is, and if he picks up the offense quickly enough, he will surpass Sharpley. With Clausen and Crist, the Irish have a talented one-two punch at quarterback, but they need to produce.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
The receivers were subpar last year, but a lot of that had to do with poor pass protection. David Grimes is the veteran of the group, but he only averaged 8.3 yards per catch last season, and in my opinion he's just a guy. George West is the poor man's Grimes. The staff if hopeful that sophomore Duval Kamara will step up after making some starts in 2007. He led the team in receiving TDs with four. He's a tall receiver who does well in the red zone. Golden Tate provides some speed, but he is extremely raw at the position and is not a great route runner. The Irish are counting on true freshman Michael Floyd, who was a big time recruit, to step on to campus and make an immediate impact. In a perfect world, the starters would be Floyd and Kamara, with Grimes playing the slot in three wide sets, which Weis uses frequently. P>
The Irish will miss tight end John Carlson, but they do have some skilled players vying to win the spot. Mike Ragone looks to be the new starter, and he was national recruit. Will Yeatman could be a solid number two in double tight sets, but Kyle Rudolph and Joseph Fauria are two freshman who definitely have the talent to make some plays. The Irish are well stocked at tight end, but they need a couple of receivers to become playmakers. They had a dearth of big plays last season.
Running Backs
Notre Dame to this point is going with Robert Hughes as the starting back. He's big at about 240, and he could be the kind of player that the Irish need: someone who can squeeze out yards when there isn't a hole. Armando Allen is the speed guy who could handle the bulk of the outside running and receiving duties. James Aldridge is a hybrid of Hughes and Allen, but he's closer to Hughes. He led the team in rushing last season, but averaged less than four yards per carry. The Irish will also bring in Jonas Gray, a top member of their heralded recruiting class. Asaph Schwapp, a favored whipping boy of some Irish fans, returns to his fullback spot, but he will be pushed by Luke Schmidt who played a little last year. Notre Dame is going to play a lot of backs, and I don't expect one to emerge from the pack.
Offensive Line
This group was the biggest problem on the team in 2007. They gave up an incredible 58 sacks, and couldn't kick start the running game. They rendered Notre Dame's offense useless. There was a lot of screaming for the head of OL coach John Latina, but he managed to keep his job. Most of the players from last season are back, and if they aren't better, you can bet that Latina will be gone. Sam Young was supposed to be the jewel of the group, but he just hasn't lived up to the hype. After playing some left tackle last season, he's back to the right tackle slot that he manned in 2006. Paul Duncan switches spots with Young and could guard the blind side of Clausen. There is some deep concern that he will not be up to the task, so Mike Turkovich has moved from guard and he could be the starting left tackle.
Eric Olsen will return to his right guard spot, and he will likely be joined by Chris Stewart, who briefly quit the team last season before his parents talked him into coming back. The Irish have to replace four year starter John Sullivan at center, but Sullivan's best season was 2005, and he underachieved in the last two years. Dan Wenger will get the first crack at center, but the staff is hoping that true freshman Braxston Cave will push him. The improvement of this unit will be the most important factor in the success of the 2008 Notre Dame football team. Production similar to last season's will likely mean a sub .500 record.
Defensive Line
The bulk of the criticism last year was laid at the feet of the offense, but the defense wasn't very good either. With Mark Sanchez at the helm last season, the Trojans struggled offensively…except for their trip to South Bend, when they dropped 38 points and over 450 yards on the Irish. ND gave up almost 200 rushing yards per game, and registered only 19 sacks all season. So Weis brought in Jon Tenuta to "coach the linebackers." Tenuta was the defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech for the last few years. He brings a zone blitz scheme to ND with him, and he will have a ton of input with the Irish. But does he have the horses.
Notre Dame will be operating out of a 3-4 set this season. They have a large hole to fill with the loss of Trevor Laws, who was probably the best player on the team last season. There will be shuffling going on this season. Pat Kuntz played tackle last season, but now Notre Dame will line him up as an end. He'll be playing the "inside" end, because he is not quick enough to play the other side. He didn't have a single sack last season despite starting ten games. Sophomore Ian Williams will be the man at the nose spot, and he played extensively last season as the Irish fumbled through different defensive alignments. At the other end spot will be Morrice Richardson, a converted linebacker, and the staff hopes that he will be the kind of pass rusher that they have missed on the outside.
Depth is very suspect, so true freshman Ethan Johnson from Oregon could figure into the mix early. Justin Brown gives the team some experience at end as well. It's probably a good thing that ND is playing the 3-4, because they still lack the kind of quality up front to play a 4-3, which is the defense that Tenuta prefers.
The group has a leader in inside backer Maurice Crum. He gets by on grit, because he really shouldn't be playing the inside spot. Despite a huge game against UCLA last season, he is not really a playmaker. Harrison Smith, who played free safety last year, has been moved to linebacker, and it looks like he will start on the outside. It will be interesting to see how he plays the position, because the Irish didn't have a lot of luck switching Travis Thomas to LB a couple of years ago.
The guys to look for are sophomore Brian Smith and Kerry Neal. Both displayed flashes of upper echelon ability in 2007. They're still learning, and in this system, where blitzes come from all angles, expect these guys to be the big play catalysts that the Irish need. Notre Dame has some usable depth in guys like John Ryan, who made ten starts last season, Toryan Smith, who played quite a bit in '07, and Steve Filer, who was the top linebacker recruit in the nation last season according to most recruiting sites. This group will love the changes that Tenuta brings, and they could be the major spark behind a big defensive improvement.
There was a time when the Irish were known for great secondary players. They have not featured a dominant corner or safety in years. The coaches like what they have to work with this season, although they were dealt a major blow when starting CB Darrin Walls was suspended for the season because of academic issues. He was probably the team's best cover corner, so his loss is a blow. Raeshon McNeil will slide into the spot, and ND fans hope he doesn't get picked on too much. Waiting in the wings if McNeil falters is redshirt freshman Gary Gray, a big recruit who lost his first season to injury. The dean of the secondary is Terrail Lambert, who prepped in California. He is a blazer, and he should step forward as a team leader. Because of the loss of Walls, lack of depth at CB will be a factor if there are some injuries.
David Bruton is probably the best player in this group. He acquitted himself quite nicely in his first season of starting, and gives the team a fast and savvy free safety. If the linebacker experiment doesn't work out, Harrison Smith will do some back-up duty here. Replacing the much talked about but overrated presence of Tom Zbikowski is Kyle McCarthy. He's one of those guys that doesn't wow you with physical ability, but he is always around the football. He'll likely become a fan favorite. His brother Dan, a true freshman, could join him in the starting line-up soon, although next season would be most likely. Ray Herring will be the #2 guy at strong safety, but he will probably not see much time unless Kyle gets hurt. The secondary should be better this season, and the pressure that will come from Tenuta's scheme won't hurt, because in 2007, the Irish gave up a lot of big pass plays with out gambling much.
Special Teams
This unit was an abomination last season. Sophomore Brandon Walker was a brutal 1-7 outside of 30 yards. The Irish didn't have a touchback on a kickoff all season! Eric Maust did a reasonable job as a part time punter. Notre Dame loses Zbikowski, who was a good punt returner, and Armando Allen is the likely replacement. Allen and Golden Tate were decent on kickoff returns. The coverage teams were garbage in 2007, and that must improve. The Irish have a full time special teams coach, but it didn't show last year.
I'm not sure what the Irish will do. Their schedule definitely lightens up some. Penn State, Georgia Tech, Air Force and UCLA are off, while ND adds San Diego State, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Syracuse. When you add a return engagement with North Carolina from a couple of years ago and the now annual game with Stanford, it's unlikely that ND goes 3-9 or worse. But some Irish fans have the team penciled in for eight wins because of the schedule, and I'm not sure about that. Michigan, even with the scheme changes, is far more talented than ND. Games against Michigan State and Purdue won't be easy, and neither will the trip to Chapel Hill, as Butch Davis' teams are known for their improvement. Pittsburgh will be better this year, and then there are roadies against Boston College and USC. The offensive line is going to have to play well for the Irish to win eight of those games, and I don't know if that will happen. If games are won in the trenches, then the lack of quality on the offensive and defensive lines have to be a concern. In my opinion, 6-6 is more likely for Notre Dame in 2008 than 8-4.
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