Wednesday, March 26, 2008

As Always, Hope Springs Eternal

A year ago it seemed a lot simpler. The Irish were going to come into spring practice and do a nice, methodical self-inventory of their strengths and weaknesses, emphasizing what worked during a 10-3 2006 season and plotting out how to fix what went wrong. There would be a healthy, spirited competition for the de-facto leadership position at quarterback, while the defense quickly moved past the bad taste of the USC and LSU games with a plainer, more aggressive attack under Corwin Brown. Then the young Irish would take that carefully cultivated base into fall camp, steeling themselves for a tough opening slate of games that would leave them better positioned for long-term success, win or lose.

In hindsight...why did we think it was going to be so simple? At least followers of the Irish program know better heading into this 2008 preseason, which opened today with the first of two non-pads workouts and a full-scale press briefing from Charlie Weis. The head man seemed a little more clipped today than in past appearances, in more of a rush to answer the first set of burning questions from the press and then move on to the business of coaching his team. UND.com has both video and the full transcript, but here's the opening shots from Weis as he moves into an absolutely pivotal fourth year:

On top goals for the spring sessions...
The obvious objective that everyone could see is we need to improve fundamentally and technically across the board. There's one position that's exempt from that which is, you know, once again, not to be redundant but just stating the obvious. Other issues that are of equal importance to us. We felt the team didn't have much confidence as we went through last year for a number of reasons, but we're working on confidence as one of the goals of this spring, confidence/swagger.
How'd the offseason training program go?
There's some obvious improvement physically and there's some subtle ones. Let's start with the subtle ones. David Bruton, for example, we just finished testing as we finished the off season program and his measurables are off the chart. I mean, his weight is a pound or two different, maybe a pound or two lighter but his body fat is like three and a half and he's vertical jumping 41 and a half. He's in phenomenal shape. He's not alone. There's a couple of those guys...A couple of people in the off season, it was very important that we got some weight gain and strength without succumbing to having additional body fat. For example, Jimmy Clausen, last year, started off at 194 and he's walking in at 212 for the first day of training camp. That is obviously a significant gain. His body fat is status quo but has a lot more lean muscle. That's pretty much the same. Dan Wenger last year started at 282 and he's at 300 now. Sam Young started at 309, dropped to 287 by the end of the year and he's at 330 right now. So we have had some people that have gotten themselves without sacrificing increased body fat, just adding a lot of lean muscle and putting themselves in a lot better position to compete.
For the moment you're a little thin on the defensive line...
The way we are looking at it is we have a whole bunch of defensive linemen coming in the summertime. So this is the opportunity for them to make a statement and to put themselves in a position to say whether or not we can count on them or not.

What's going to happen, all of a sudden it gets to be summertime and we get those [guys] -- Sean Cwynar is already here -- but you get another bunch of players, an infusion of guys coming in here and we want to see how quickly we can integrate them into our system and get a good look at them. So I think that right now is a time when the guys want as many reps as they could possibly get to try to stake a claim for these depth charts that we like to leave the spring with.
Aside from figuring how to not go 3-9, what will be a noticeable change for the players?
Well, I think that the players are definitely going to feel a very, very great sense of urgency, similar to the first year I got here. There's going to be a great sense of urgency and the coaches are on board, the players are on board. This isn't something that's going to be unique and is going to catch them off guard because one of the things by me being around these guys a heck of a lot more in this off season time, it's given me an opportunity to let them know and say, look, fellas, I can talk to you and be buddy buddy all you want, but when we get on the field, it just doesn't work that way. The job that coaches have are to push players to get them to play better.

Because they understand that you have two sides, not one side, you're just not going to be on them all the time, I think that they already know what the expectations are as far as what the tempo is going to have to be in practice because we all know that there isn't one area of the team that you could say that you were satisfied with from last year, not one. And they all the players are on board on that, too. So this isn't going to catch anyone off guard.
How exactly do you go about "coaching" swagger & confidence?
You make plays. Make plays leads to confidence. Confidence leads to swagger.

If you don't make any plays, how can you build any confidence? And if you don't have any confidence, how can you make any swagger? So the first thing you have to do is make plays. It starts with making plays. Swagger is something that you evolve to. Confidence is something that comes after you start making plays.

A guy like David Bruton who used to just be a special teams gunner and one of the better ones, at that, now is one of our best players on our team, okay, and it happened because he started making plays. The minute you start making plays, you start getting some confident, now it's taken some time but now he's got swagger, but we've got to get more guys to get to Step B and Step C.
That last parsing wasn't included because of some earth-shattering revelation, but more for the humorous connotations the phrase "Make Plays!" will always have to any Notre Dame fan. Just observing Weis' overall tone and making some feeble attempts to read between the lines, his approach this season in terms of player development will harken back to his first year, when the overarching tone was, "C'mon fellas, you're actually NOT as s&*%y as everybody says you are." That could wind up being all for the good - less obsession with schematics, more concentration on the motivation and building-block philosophy that eventually leads to success. Phrased another way: get them to believe they can play at the highest level before skipping straight ahead to gameplanning with the oversized expectation that they will. It was very encouraging to see Weis laud Bruton on several occasions and here's hoping David's career trajectory (plus his tireless offseason work ethic; Weis made a specific point of comparing Bruton with Trevor Laws as a player who plain wills himself toward greatness) serves as inspiration going forward.

Now, while it's fun to depth-chart engineer and speculate about how so-and-so showed off "crazy improvement" and "increased intensity" and all the other cute coaching cliches (Weis already invoked "flipping the switch" in today's presser), last season and all the others before it ought to bring out the harsh reminder that few sporting periods have a worse hype-to-results ratio than college football spring practice (MLB Spring Training is all-time undisputed champ in this category). But it sure can't hurt to approach this time as a moment not to hype up a player as sure-fire All-Americans, but to instill the confidence and swagger that has them thinking and acting like one.

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