Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Mobile Units | by George

The Fantastic Four of Section29 has arrived. (Note: please, do not sue us for copyright infringement, Walt Disney Company...)

#4 - Get The Line Moving, or the QB Will

Notre Dame and the running quarterback - a bad joke that's been getting delivered over, and over, and over again. Whether it's been the stocky, elusive frames of Troy Smith (above) & JaMarcus Russell, or the deceptively fast Drew Stanton, the triple options of Navy & Air Force, or some cement-foot pocket passer breaking out for an old-fashioned busted play big gain, it seems that some of the most comfortable positions for an opposing QB have been out of the pocket when playing against the Irish. This hasn't been a unique problem under Weis - running quarterbacks have killed Notre Dame often in the last decade or two.

If the current head coach is yet to come up with a solution for this, it hasn't been due to a lack of effort or concentration. After the second of two straight bowl losses when a failure to corral the quarterback led to disastrous results, Weis overhauled the defense behind Corwin Brown and a fundamental shift into a "3-4 personnel" dynamic that provided some positive results but still left ND a middle-of-the-pack defensive unit. On came Jon Tenuta and his blitz-at-all-costs persona to shake things up in 2008. The Irish dialed up pressure from the inside, outside, and all points in between, but the results were far from legendary - the Irish picked up 27 sacks, but that was up only marginally from the previous year (20) when you consider how much more they blitzed. What's more, after the Michigan game last season the Irish never really faced those QBs with "escapability" save for Midshipmen in mid-November.

Now in 2009 comes the return of the dual-threat quarterback. The Irish have 1,000 yard runner Colin Kapernick on Saturday out of the Nevada Wolfpack's "Pistol" offense, then year two of the Rich Rodriguez Experience up at Michigan (whether they've been over-practicing it or not, Rich Rod's teams always see an exponential jump in productivity during the second year). A few weeks after marks the arrival of Jake Locker (assuming he's still vertical by then) from Washington, who took Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors in 2007 while rushing for just under 1000 yards. Throw in the usual date with the USNA, and also consider how USC might for the first time under Pete Carroll have a true "mobile" QB in Aaron Corp, though reports indicate he's all but lost the job to freshman phenom Matt Barkley. Toss in Stanford (not exactly a spread offense but one that prefers a QB with some legs) and you have an opposing slate with a lot of unique challenges that need to be met with equal parts pressure and discipline.

Pressure, of course, is Jon Tenuta's favorite thing. If you told me he sings the Billy Joel song every night before he goes to bed, I would not be shocked in the slightest. Now that's he's officially the defensive coordinator alongside "assistant head coach" Corwin Brown, I figure to see his signature move - BLITZ!!! - even more, if that's somehow possible.

Now, moving the chess pieces around is all well and good, but it's worth taking a look at what kind of opponent you're facing before defaulting to the "blitz everybody on every down" approach. Football evolves just like everything else - the spread-option offenses favored by coaches like Rodriguez are a direct counter to the aggressive defenses favored by Tenuta because it plays directly into the likelihood that a little bit of misdirection (and a lot of mobility) will catch those overzealous blitzers out of position. Back in the dark ages of the 1980s/90s it was screen pass and precise timing routes of the West Coast offense that came about to counter the blitz, now it's a new breed of quarterback running the veers and counters from what looks on the surface like a pass-happy offense.

Essentially, it won't be enough to see a QB running all over the place when going against Tenuta's pressure packages. He may just be doing that by design. What the Irish need is to win the battles, consistently, at the point of attack and, to paraphrase Weis, "get the line of scrimmage moving in the right direction" (backwards, in this case). Essentially, I'm saying that Tenuta can and will blitz until the cows come home - if the Irish can't make themselves known up front and in the trenches, to take away those lanes and gaps that these agile quarterbacks love to seize on, those blitzes will once again yield only low-hanging fruit.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Hunting for Red Numbers | by George

Everything offensively for Notre Dame begins at the quarterback position. That's been true from the moment Charlie Weis stepped on campus all the way thru the highs of the Brady Quinn Era and the perilous depths of 2007. One of the more intriguing elements for 2009, from my perspective, will be seeing if the actions and deeds of the current Irish signal-caller match with the offseason praise that's been coming his way. We're into the top five and the home stretch, so...

#5 - Hey, Remember the 60s?

Jimmy Clausen may have rolled into town with a spiked, over-gelled hairdo, a stretch Hummer, and lots of high school bling, but a couple of years at the school of hard knocks (well done on that by the way, offensive line) humbled him at first, then steeled his resolve. As a result, his teammates voted him captain, a year after his own stop-start-kinda start-dead stop-start up once again performance under center mirrored the Irish's tease of a 2008 campaign. You think a quarterback's not important (and if so, what game have you been watching?), take a look at Clausen in Notre Dame's wins and losses:

Hate to stir bad memories for you Bears fans, but Notre Dame in '08 often got acquainted with a Good Jimmy and a Bad Jimmy. More or less, Good Jimmy = a win. Take a look at the six regular season wins:

9/6 San Diego State W 21-13 21 34 237 61.8 6.97 38 3 2 0 87.5
9/13 Michigan W 35-17 10 21 147 47.6 7.00 60 2 2 0 63.1
9/27 Purdue W 38-21 20 35 275 57.1 7.86 38 3 0 1 111.0
10/4 Stanford W 28-21 29 40 347 72.5 8.68 48 3 0 1 123.6
10/25 @Washington W 33-7 14 26 201 53.8 7.73 51 1 1 2 76.0
11/15 @Navy W 27-21 15 18 110 83.3 6.11 14 0 2 1 52.5

Which brings us to Bad Jimmy. 2008's losses...

9/20 @Michigan State L 23-7 24 41 242 58.5 5.90 30 1 2 363.3
10/11 @North Carolina L 29-24 31 48 383 64.6 7.98 47 2 2 485.7
11/1 Pittsburgh L 36-33 (OT)23 44 271 52.3 6.16 47 3 0 194.0
11/8 @Boston College L 17-0 26 46 226 56.5 4.91 32 0 4 133.3
11/22 Syracuse L 24-23 22 39 291 56.4 7.46 40 2 0 297
11/29 @USC L 38-3 11 22 41 50.0 1.86 11 0 2 418.4

Now the most intriguing thing is that Good Jimmy and Bad Jimmy seemingly can surface at any time. Two of his strongest performances as a passer were in defeat (Pittsburgh & North Carolina). He was also struggling to be merely pedestrian in wins over Michigan & Navy. Note an underlying trend as well: in six victories he was sacked a total of five times; in six losses, 15 times.

The role of the offensive line is going to come up before this countdown is over with, to be sure. But let's keep the focus on #7 for the time being. His statline from 2008's 12 regular season games confirms that numbers don't lie and that numbers don't tell the whole story. Sometimes a mediocre Clausen was still enough for Notre Dame to win, other times he played quite well in defeat. If I were to boil it down to one hard-and-fast statistic though, here it is: think of the above chart like a golf board - red numbers are good. You see only four of them though - in five of the six losses in '08, Clausen failed to reach a 60% completion rate. Further more, if we take 60% completion as the magic number, Clausen reached it overall just 4 times in 12 games. To compare with recent history: from 2005-06, Brady Quinn hit 60% or better 18 times in 23 games. The Irish were 17-1 in those contests.

Coming out of high school Clausen was heralded as a quarterback who could make all the throws. The stories of his work ethic and competitiveness were almost mythic in status, and there was the (unsolicited) but still highly-touted moniker of "The LeBron James of High School Football". He's now more than halfway through his eligibility at Notre Dame and that crucial confidence and decision-making expected out of an elite quarterback has to shine through now. That's what got everybody buzzing at the Hawai'i Bowl, even if the opponent was an overwhelmed 6-6 WAC team. Jimmy looks different, people kept saying, and it's hard not to notice when a guy who flirted with 50% passing all season uncorks a near "perfect game", to use his coach's words. What's he done in the offseason to follow up on that and make sure it wasn't simply a mirage? Tune in Saturday as we begin to find out.

Clausen's almost done with the red practice jersey, but starting Saturday he needs to post a few more of our version of the red number.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Embarrassment of Riches | by George

Everybody wants Notre Dame to have a power running game, bringing back lucid memories of the days when Jerome Bettis used to peel defenders off of his cleats in between plays, while bulksters like Marc Edwards and Ray Zellars would chew linebackers up and spit them out...those were indeed the days. They are also long gone, but only to be replaced by an attack that hopefully blossoms this year as equally effective. What will it take to get there? Let's examine peg number six on our 12-step ladder of Irish importance:

#6 - Cavalcade of Wide Receiving Stars

Arriving in 2009 (fingers crossed) should be an absolutely scintillating Irish passing attack. I know we're all supposed to temper the enthusiasm on Jimmy Clausen's bowl performance because "it was just Hawai'i", but the kid didn't only carve up Hawai'i, he looked like a totally different QB in process. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has one of the best one-two punches at wideout in all of football, from the NFL-prototype known as Michael Floyd to the shape-shifting speedster with the vertical of a man twice his height, Golden Tate. As Irish fans we know that. You can bet every defensive coordinator the Irish go up against knows it too.

In analyzing the Weis passing scheme, the most successful year was 2005. Brady Quinn had not just two dependable, 6'5" receivers in Samardzija and Stovall, but also arguably the nation's best tight end, an abnormally sure-handed #1 running back (Darius Walker not only posted a 1000 yard season but also caught 43 passes and helped craft a lethal screen passing game), and a grinder, "possession" receiver - as opposed to all those non-possession receivers out there - to look for when teams keyed on his big men (Matt Shelton). In 2008 the Irish came close to duplicating this formula, but Armando Allen wasn't looked to quite as often, Kyle Rudolph the freshman wasn't as polished as Fasano the junior (though he was damn close and ought to be ahead of the curve with a full offseason under his belt), and David Grimes was thrust into a top-two role when Floyd got injured.

All the while, injury and inconsistency left the Irish relying on lots of jump balls and "draw in the dirt" plays that relied on the athleticism of Floyd and Tate. For 2009, the Irish passing attack must evolve or perish. Duval Kamara and Robby Parris, junior and senior respectively, have earned their way back onto the depth chart, and for the time being Weis has said they will be there in front of second-year freshman John Goodman, Deion Walker, and true frosh Shaquelle Evans. If they prove why in the first few games of the season, Jimmy Clausen won't just look like a great quarterback - Notre Dame will have the makings of an elite offense.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Don't Overlook the Middle Man | by George

In which we examine if the Irish need to be an army of one up the gut. The "12 Keys" continue...

#7 - "The Man" in the Middle

The all-Smith linebacking corps dreams may have taken a hit with the relocation of #22 (Harrison) to the defensive backfield, but Notre Dame's middle linebacking group is still heavy on the Mr. Smith rotation with #49 (Toryan) and #58 (Brian) listed as starters, along with team captain #41 (Scott) backing up Darius Fleming at the outside position. Then there's this new kid on the block, Manti Te'o, currently listed as #2 behind Brian Smith but guaranteed to be on the field (and not in mop-up time). Reports coming in from corners unknown indicate that this Te'o gentleman may potentially be a good player. Since he hails from the tropical island of Hawai'i, precious little has been stated about his ability aside from his being, apparently, the GREATEST DEFENSIVE RECRUIT EVER. There's also a couple of sophomores of quality pedigree who've risen up the depth chart and will hopefully provide quality backup minutes, Anthony McDonald & David Pozluszny.

Why is middle linebacker so important? Aside from the fact that the recruiting experts will be looking for Te'o to record a five-yard tackle for a loss on every down he plays, every snap of his college career, the Irish need to make a leap forward here. For many seasons now middle linebacker has been a position at Notre Dame known for steady, dependable leadership performances (not like those are unimportant - they're huge, turned in by the likes of Anthony Denman, Mike Goolsby, Courtney Watson, and most recently Maurice Crum). At some point though, Notre Dame needs a true playmaker out of the linebacker corps. Every team needs a player like Crum, but every elite team has a player like USC's Rey Mauluga.

So, will it be Manti Te'o with an instant impact up the middle? We'd all like to think so, if only so all those miles Brian Polian racked up flying to Hawaii will look worth it right away. But for all Te'o's obvious gifts, he remains a freshman. The player who needs to be the rock, emotionally and schematically, is Brian Smith.

Smith is a third-year starter who will serve as the fulcrum of the defense - and he knows it. Always an emotional firecracker and a vocal leader of the Irish defense, even dating back to his wild-eyed freshman days (when he pick-sixed Matt Ryan), the time has come to elevate his game to the next level and bring the rest of the unit along for the ride. Moving into his third year as a starter, he needs to be more than a player who can be counted on for a strong play or two per game. He needs to be a guy opposing offenses have to account for on every single down. I may be adverse to predictions but I will offer one up right here - if Brian Smith notches 100 tackles for the season, the Irish will be a BCS team.

Friday, August 28, 2009

8 Men In | by George

We all know that Notre Dame football provides its fans with something to talk about (or argue, whichever comes first) all the time. This season, no matter the results, much will be written and debated about the link between coaching and talent, specifically with some of the key units for Notre Dame under new management - Frank Verducci (O-Line), Tony Alford (Running Backs), Randy Hart (D-Line). More ink will be devoted to these men and their charges as the season draws closer - and if it is successful, prepare thyself. A flop? Oh boy, really prepare thyself. But one coach who holds a big sway in Irish fortunes is a one-time wunderkind who's evolved into a veteran voice on that staff, a savvy co-owner of the defense who is still, in one man's humble opinion, the second most-important member behind one Charles Weis.

#8 in the countdown, come on down...

#8 - All Cornered

There were a few position battles going in during Notre Dame's spring and fall practice periods, and one area that always had a healthy competition going was the defensive backfield. This was not a case of, "Sure, there are some incumbent starters there but things are pretty open anyway because nobody's been all that good" like we saw in the special teams unit and certain places along the offensive line. The four starting spots among the DBs were going to be earned the old-fashioned way.

For all the potential that lurks with the linebackers, and all the promise of a new regime along the lines, one area that seems to be limited only by the fact that you can only play so many guys at a time is corner & safety. RJ Blanton is back after turning heads during his freshman year, and classmate Jamoris Slaughter won't be kept on the bench a second year due to lack of effort. Returning (and right back in the thick of things) after a semester off is junior Gary Gray, and he's joined by senior Darrin Walls - who missed all of last season after being away from the University. Include safeties Kyle & Dan McCarthy, Harrison Smith, true frosh early enrollee Zeke Motta, plus do-everything nickel back Sergio Brown and senior corner Raeshon McNeil, suddenly being a DB for Notre Dame seems a little like being an RB at USC these days - 'there's just so many options to choose from!'

The man in charge of juggling the formations and tendencies is Corwin Brown, who experienced a shift in titles and responsibilities this offseason as Jon Tenuta was officially given a defensive coordinator's placard. Brown has effectively become the Kordell Stewart of the coaching staff, a multi-faceted role known as "Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs". It's this third slice which should be a point of emphasis. We've seen Notre Dame play aggressive coverage (Walls & Blanton), we've seen them blitz like there was no tomorrow (Smith & Brown), we've seen them develop into great open-field tacklers that helped kill off potential big plays (McCarthy). Now comes the moment when Brown proves himself as a coach - molding the deepest and most experienced part of Notre Dame's defense into a great complement to what Tenuta & Hart are working with up front.

Ideally, this is an impact that won't show up in countless ways on the stat sheet, if at all. Phrase it a simpler way: it can either be a good thing or a bad thing when the top tacklers on the team are defensive backs, and in the past couple of seasons Notre Dame has flirted with the wrong side of that distinction. No more over-relying on good safety play to stop the option/spread offenses the Irish will face in the first couple weeks (though inevitably these guys are going to have to step up and make plays against those units if Notre Dame wants to win). More pressure up front, allowing the Irish to give more reps to the 'playmakers' in the backfield like Blanton, Brown, & and Harrison Smith, while still having the ace of an excellent coverage back like Walls to go against quality wideouts. Avid readers of Blue-Gray Sky might remember their outstanding recap of the opposing wideout groups for 2009 - it's interesting to note that only 2 of the 12 Irish opponents (USC & Washington) return a WR who had at least 50 catches last season, and there isn't really an "elite" wide receiver on this year's schedule of foes...though I wouldn't bet against one developing out of USC before the year ends.

Point is, with a full two-deep of players who bring unique skills and various styles to the backfield, Corwin Brown ought to have the freedom to let an opponent know on every single down that going to the air is going to pose a problem...and that's before offensive coordinators start thinking about how they're going to handle the Tenuta blitz packages. This could finally be the season when the Irish complete the transition from that ugly duckling year of 2007 when they ranked so highly against pass simply by virtue of being horrendous against the run, and they still allowed numerous big passing plays along the way. If it is, Corwin Brown and the boys who are often seen leading the "Crank Me Up" cheers will be cranking all the way to January...and maybe beyond.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Highest Expectation Must Come From Within... | by George

Before we get down to the business at hand, I was brushing up on Lou Holtz's book Wins, Losses, & Lessons, when I came across a passage that I hope finds a way into the locker of many of Notre Dame's relocated/new players this year, like certain key special teams players, defensive lineman, linebackers, fullbacks, and offensive lineman: "Inexperience is an excuse put forth by people who know they're going to lose."

So while the preseason legends grow, so the countdown continues...

#9 - Expect To Be Better Than Expected

On the heels of the prediction made the other day by the esteemed Dr. Lou, resident college football crank Beano Cook also went on the record with the opinion that Notre Dame could be a logical pick for a National Championship Game berth, due to mainly to thier "easy" schedule.

Now, I can't really get on the soapbox and defend the scheduling tendencies of Kevin White, the recently relocated athletic director who crafted such gems as playing Washington State in San Antonio. Dates with Nevada and Connecticut don't add luster to the schedule either, and thanks to historic craters hit in 2008 nobody expects much out of what would normally be quality opponents Michigan & Washington. Boston College, Michigan State, Navy, & Pittsburgh aren't top 10 teams, but they aren't Bowl Subdivision directional schools either. This year's Notre Dame schedule is the quintessential "B" student - it does enough to get by, but hardly stands out in a crowd.

The point is that Notre Dame hasn't done enough to merit the pats on the back that seem to go with the recent surge of, "Don't worry, you'll be better than every team on the schedule except for USC, so just expect to take 10 or 11 wins without much of an effort." How many times in the past five years has the BCS tricked people into this exact same kind of "shine by way of overcoming very low expectations" for teams like West Virginia, Louisville, and even Rutgers; for the record, I don't think it's a coincidence that all of those teams are in the Big East, a league Notre Dame may find itself increasingly married to on the football field (yet another ingenius innovation from Dr. Blanco).

Here's what Notre Dame should be expecting- no talking up how deep and experience they've become. No awards for being "almost" a nine-win team a year ago. No quotes about how it's only natural to assume they'll be the better team every Saturday with that one annoying Southern California exemption. They have to expect everyone's best shot (because they're going to get it) and respond in kind. And for the love of all things holy, do not fall backwards into the thinking about how there's a bunch of players who still need time to grow, time to gain experience, and how it would be a nice achievement to go 9-3. I'm not saying 9-3 wouldn't be a successful year on the face of things - I'm saying the expectation that Notre Dame can coast to a 9-win year and a January 1 bowl berth on the strength of the Notre Dame name alone needs to be just that - an "expectation" made by people who have no idea what they're talking about, or how good this team can be.

In other words, let everybody else waste their breath (and their blog space) speculating on how good the talent might be or how manageable the schedule is. Notre Dame needs to get back to one mindset: expecting to be a lot better than people expected.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

10 is the new...10? | by George

Over the course of the countdown, we will invariably bring up some of the key moments and personalities who will shape the Irish destiny (new coaches, players in new positions, big names who need to fill big expectations) but today we turn it over to a player who, if all goes according to plan, will not have to take one meaningful snap the whole year. But how (and if) he gets on the field will have a dramatic effect on the present and the future of Notre Dame football...

#10 - The Curious Case of Dayne Crist

Charlie Weis is fond of saying one of the biggest lessons college football has taught him is how much of a difference there is between 22-year old seniors and 18-year old freshman. He was speaking to one's ability to mentally handle the rigors of big-time sports (not to mention a boatload of verbal tongue lashings), but I think he also came to grips with the fact that when the playbook is loaded with nuance like his is, it takes a special mind to grasp it all and a special talent to execute it. And there's only so much you can learn about that by a) watching from the sidelines and b) going in only to hand the ball off.

In case you can't tell, I'm zeroing in on the quarterback position here. As far as the starter is concerned, one of the more encouraging things about this Irish team is the upwards-trend of the numbers for Jimmy Clausen. Many of the key "metrics" for the QB position improved between seasons for Jimmy - touchdowns up, completion percentage up, interceptions down, improved decision making, and better overall health due to an offensive line that reduced the # of sacks allowed by over half. Not all was perfect either - Clausen missed throws in key moments, and some of the INTs he did throw were among the most costly plays in the Irish season (think opening drive of the second half against UNC).

Brady Quinn had similar statistical improvement in his sophomore season, which was similarly inconsistent as Clausen was in '08. It was the third year when his ability not only came to fruition but happened to lock in with a system well-suited to his talents. Clausen is traveling on the same trajectory - surprisingly enough, he does not worry me...going into the season. He also has what Brady Quinn never had - a legit potential superstar backing him up. This is what concerns me.

Dayne Crist? The five-star heir to the throne, like Jimmy a SoCal native with moxie to spare and an intense competitive fire? What could possibly be a concern regarding Dayne Crist? Precisely that - as the heir to the throne, the false sense of security that can build with simply "waiting a turn" and languishing on a bench, coming on only for mop-up duty. Crist the competitor (and this is a good thing) will never accept the idea that he's just the number 2 quarterback. Can Weis the coach do enough to make him ready for the inevitable ascension, though? He addressed the role of the backup QB during last week's full-open practice (without directly referring to Crist) with the following:
The one thing that's going to bother me some, if situation presents itself, is when I put him in, I'm going to have to let him throw the ball. Let's say you get an opportunity to play the whole quarter. You can't just sit there and run inside zone on every play. You've got to give him an opportunity to run the offense.
The "bother" portion isn't a referendum on Crist's ability to run the offense, but an acknowledgment on Weis' behalf that quarterback is a deep position for this Irish team and has a huge influence on the overall direction of the program. It doesn't benefit anybody, least of all Crist, to call him in and do the same things David Wolke was doing as Quinn's backup. Put it in this context: Notre Dame has a comfortable 20-point lead with 5 minutes to play in the opener against Nevada, and has just gotten the ball back. Do you send in Crist to run with the second unit and call three two-yard runs before punting? Or do you act like it's a tie game and put the onus on Crist and whoever he's on the field with to move the ball with the precision expected out of Clausen? Let's go with the former and Crist leads a cool 65-yard scoring drive to kill off the rest of the game, completing a nice pass or two along the way. Then the next week against Michigan Jimmy Clausen tries to scramble for extra yards and suffers a torn ACL. Now it's Dayne Crist's show, period. Think having his snaps be treated like meaningful snaps won't be beneficial at a moment like that?

On the hoof, of course, this will not be a burning issue in 2009. The world will be perfect, Clausen will stay very healthy and very effective, and Notre Dame will build insurmountable leads that will provide Weis the opportunities to start the long, developing segue into the Crist era (we have to dream, right?). In two years with Quinn at the helm Weis didn't do this at all, which came back to royally bite him during 2007. The opportunities the team creates for Dayne Crist to play (excluding injury scenarios) and what Weis chooses to do with those opportunities probably won't be the difference in this team winning or losing a game. But it will speak volumes about what kind of team the Irish have.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Young & Hart

Notre Dame shifted into "game week" mode as the school year began today, with specific prep for Nevada's "Pistol" offense topping the list of concerns. Fits with the theme of today's bulletin in our 12 Days of Irish Football countdown...

#11 - The Very Young, and Hart

Scan Notre Dame's 2009 depth chart and you see a lot of players who've been around the block for 20 games or so - they've adjusted to the speed of college, they've flashed some skill, they're ready to go to another level (popular choices: Brian Smith, Michael Floyd, Jimmy Clausen, Kyle Rudolph). Good depth and maturing talent seems a given at a lot of spots on Notre Dame's roster. Defensive line is not one of those spots.

When it comes to Notre Dame, the performance of the d-line has been a matter of perspective. First, you have to restrain the temptation to define on the scale of who they are not - in other words, forget about how it was "supposed" to be a line of Butch Lewis, Gerald McCoy, Justin Trattou, & Omar Hunter. It isn't. We can argue about recruiting could/woulda/shouldas until the cows come home, and all it does is turn attention away from the players who are here and who are working their tails off to refortify the Irish front.

Among the adjustments to the coaching staff this past offseason was the resignation/dismissal of Jappy Oliver after four years of inconsistent (to be generous) line play. The best thing one could say about Notre Dame's trench players on defense was that they had a tendency to play beyond their means - an undersized but absolutely ferocious Trevor Laws in 2007, a similarly productive year from Pat Kuntz in 2008. Yet there's been scant continuation, and no overwhelming presence has established itself to stop opposing rushers. Passing defense? The secondary for the Irish has done a lot of heavy lifting lately, and for all those 'TAH-NOO-TAH' blitz packages, there's certainly been something left to be desired so far as generating pressure with the front four goes. In four seasons under Charlie Weis, here have been the team leaders in sacks (where the law of diminishing returns seems in full force):
  • 2005: Victor Abiamiri, 8
  • 2006: Abiamiri, 10.5
  • 2007: Laws, 4
  • 2008: Kuntz/Harrison Smith/Ethan Johnson, 3.5 each
It's more than a bit disconcerting when the returning co-leader in sacks is a safety who was playing out of position. And for all the hand-wringing over the players who got away, it's not that Notre Dame has been devoid of talent up front in past years - and that certainly will not be the case this year. Ethan Johnson was perhaps the best defensive line prospect west of the Mississippi when he came out of high school in 2008. Plenty of other players, some of whom took of redshirt year, could have gone just about anywhere they wanted. So now, partly because of graduation losses and partly because the guys who were in there haven't gotten the job done , the Irish two-deep along the line features four players who didn't play at all last season.

In the ear of newbies and returning contributors alike during the critical spring development period & fall camp has been one of the elder statesman of defensive line play, an old-school disciple if ever there was one: Randy Hart. A three-time letter winner (as an offensive lineman, no less) at Ohio State University - he played on the 1968 Buckeyes championship team which featured a young Lou Holtz on its coaching staff - Hart brings a resume of more than 40 years in college football and a decidedly up-tempo, punch-in-the-gut style of tutelage. The decision to extend media viewing at practices to 45 minutes on Tuesdays this season (it will be completely closed all other days) ought to provide many beat writers the opportunity to fill up a notebook with Hart-isms. From today's report out of Irish Illustrated - subscribers click here:
With Hart standing behind [senior Morrice] Richardson signaling two "offensive linemen" (actually, two defensive linemen simulating offensive linemen) the blocking scheme, Richardson guesses wrong, opening a gap straight up the field for the running back.

"You know what they're doing? The band is playing, and it ain't our band!" Hart says.

Adds Hart, "If you're thinking, you're stinking, and if you're guessing, it's worse!"

Animated commentary aside, Hart boasts an impressive resume and he'll need to draw from every ounce of it to get the Irish up to speed. Hart's last two units at Washington, where he coached for 21 years before not being retained by Steve Sarkisian, were historically bad at run defense, allowing 4.92 & 5.69 yards per carry to their opponents. In his defense, when the team is 0-12, it's not any one thing. More to the point, at Notre Dame he figures to be working with talent more on par with the type of units he led as a coach on six different Rose Bowl teams. It is that talent, and how Hart molds it differently than the departed Oliver, which will go a long way to defining Notre Dame's defense. A lot of attention (or, more accurately, anxious anticipation) is being thrown towards Tony Alford and Frank Verducci on the offensive side, but they've been charged with a renovation project, seemingly having to retro-fit players with a lot of experience (most of it bad). Hart is the coach working on a much broader, almost blank, canvas: Tyler Stockton, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sean Cwynar, Brandon Newman & Hafis Williams all could be thrust into a pivotal role along with the still-learning Johnson, to say nothing of "situational" upper-class players like Richardson & John Ryan, for whom it is now or never. The closest thing this unit has to a polished veteran is Kerry Neal, which is why you're probably still going to see a lot of "four linebackers" on the field, even if the Irish are officially not running the 3-4 personnel grouping under Jon Tenuta.

How quickly can the Irish defensive line dominate the trenches? I guess that'll depend on if they listen to their Hart...and before you say anything, of course that was a terrible pun. Given the reports I'm hearing about his manner and energy at practice, you think Randy would mind? Hardly.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Journey of Twelve Steps...

A full year has passed since the last Twelve Days of Irish Football. That can only mean one thing - just 12 more days until the start of another season! Welcome to the annual countdown of the 12 keys (as voted on by our crack editorial board) that will determine not just the future of the Notre Dame 2009 football team, but most likely the fate of the free world and humanity itself.

Tonight we open with some business to attend to: Coach Charlie Weis released the updated depth chart (final answers on this will be revealed next Tuesday) and announced the awarding of scholarships to walk-on tight end Bobby Burger and punter Eric Maust, who for now retained his punting duties despite a stiff challenge from true freshman Ben Turk. Meanwhile, another new recruit was making waves on the special teams unit, and that is where (our) story of the 2009 Irish begins...

#12 - New Kicks

Finding a reliable kicker has been a problem for Notre Dame. Not necessarily special teams play as a whole, though that unit has had its share of hot-and-cold moments during Weis' 4-year tenure. Kicking, however, has been a consistent sore spot. Despite having a top-flight coverage unit last season (#1 nationally in return yardage allowed and average starting position), the Irish had just 1 touchback for the year out of Ryan Burkhart. Placekicking wise it was a tale of at least two seasons for Brandon Walker, who suffered some big lows - missing 6 of his first 7 attempts in '08 - then course corrected to finish the year 13-for-17 (14/24 overall). Two of those late-season misses were critical though, with a 38-yarder in the fourth overtime against Pittsburgh shanking left, then a 49-yarder against Syracuse (which could've sealed the game) falling just short. That's not to say Walker carries the blame for those losses - he doesn't. It's just that no objective observer could look at the Irish and say there's room to argue over the Irish performance in the kicking department. I'm often fond of stating that numbers don't tell the whole story, but they also don't lie: since the start of the Weis era, the Irish are just 12-for-27 on FG attempts of 40 yards or more.

Enter Nick Tausch. Posting good numbers as a senior in Texas is one thing (career long in high school: 53 yards, 22 of 41 kickoffs were touchbacks), now he just needs to be equally good with 80,000 people watching every swing of the leg. In analyzing the position battle between the Walker, Tausch, and senior Ryan Burkhart, Weis went to one of his most famous euphemisms: "It wasn't close". Which once meant, based on how he applied that term the past two years to Walker, "If we're not well-inside the 30 I'm going for it on fourth down every time". At first Irish fans loved the go-for-broke attitude, especially when it was walk-on D.J. Fitzpatrick handling the placekicking duties. But with three scholarships tied up in kickers for 2009, the "inexperience/lack of ability" card can't really be played, and placekicker is hardly the only position - on the field and off - where that phrase is going to come up in previewing the season. More on that in future installments. The question every follower of the Irish has regarding the kicking game is a simple one: surely one of these guys can step up and provide a legit safety net for when the offense can't quite get to the red zone...right?

Tausch will have first dibs to calm that fear after a strong fall camp. And if he can't quite boom every kickoff to the back of the endzone, look on the bright side: a fully healthy Mike Anello is back for one more ride.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Lou, You Need to See The Doctor

Well, maybe not. I know Lou's opened himself up to criticism for being unashamedly pro-Notre Dame during his tenure at ESPN, but I remember at a moment like this one of the chapter titles in his recent book: Perfection Is Possible if You Accept Nothing Less.

So no matter what anybody else thinks, the Irish have at least one guy firmly in their corner as the season creeps closer:

The Number 23

With today's release of the Associated Press poll, both halves of the "human element" in the BCS formula have weighed in. Notre Dame will begin the season ranked 23rd, the first time in either poll since the final poll of the 2006 season (on the heals of a Sugar Bowl blowout, the Irish finished 17th). So the Irish will begin the year as Golden Tate. How low can they go - Jimmy Clausen (#7)? Manti Te'o (#5)? Darrin Walls (#2)? Or perhaps even a Deion Walker?

As for Notre Dame's opponents, only one - #4 USC - begins the year as being, in the eyes of the voters, any good. Six others - Pittsburgh, Michigan State, Boston College, Nevada, Michigan, & Navy - recorded at least one vote in one of the polls (the Wolverines and Midshipmen receiving some love only from the coaches).

Can the season really be just 14 days away?

Friday, August 07, 2009

All the News That Was Fit to Print

...except we missed the deadline.
  • Meanwhile, the 'where there's smoke there's fire' crowd got an unexpected "gift" when it was announced that Nate Montana, the older son of Joe, would be leaving Notre Dame for a semester to play at Pasadena City College. Montana himself made more than one attempt to explain that the idea of the sabbatical was to gain meaningful playing time with the idea of returning to Notre Dame a better player this spring (and with Jimmy Clausen and Dayne Crist locked in to the first two depth chart positions, plus the return of Evan Sharpley for a fifth year, Montana didn't figure to get a lot of reps in practice nor games this fall, so it was a shrewd maneuver that actually will aid his development). The whispers though, about if the Montana clan had now cast a full "no-confidence" vote in Charlie Weis - remember how Montana's other son, Nick, committed to the University of Washington - just got louder. Not to mention infinitely more annoying.
  • Then there was another Urban Meyer dust-up. Personally, I think this is a sick inside joke Meyer has going with somebody over how many times he can make the media speculate over his job status without him actually saying something. Every summer Urban owes his friend at least 12 "wild speculation blog posts" about a guy who heard from a guy who heard from a guy that Meyer might be interested in taking the Notre Dame job at some vague, undetermined future year that nobody has any clue over. If Urbie comes up short he has to do a lap around Gainesville in jorts. Now, when it came to Notre Dame, the Great Meyer Hope actually did say something. Write down the exact date and time he said it, please. I'm just saying, you never know when that kind of information might come in handy. (How quickly have we forgotten Saban's "I'm not going to be the Alabama coach". Anyone?)
  • And of course, Lou Holtz was in the news. First as a coach (above photo) while leading the Notre Dame Legends team to victory in the Japan Bowl, 19-3. It may well go down as the most impressive unofficial win in football history, as Holtz steered to triumph a squad that had Ambrose Wooden (!!) at quarterback for most of the game (do not adjust your computer monitor. You're reading it correctly). Brandon Hoyte also got in some carries at tailback. Then there was a quick rumor of a run for Congress out of the state of Florida (Lou currently makes his home in Orlando). Like Meyer, Holtz quickly emerged at a golf outing to deny the veracity of the claim.
To wrap it all up, programming note: the Japan Bowl can be seen in its entirety (and really, who doesn't want to see Ambrose Wooden run the triple option?) this Monday night on CBS College Sports Network - formerly CSTV - at 9 PM ET.