Monday, August 25, 2008

Twelve Days and Counting

With attention nationally (and internationally) shifting very quickly from the Olympics to the four-day circuses known as political conventions, it's comforting to know that finally, after an excruciatingly long winter and summer of discontent and angst, we've arrived at football season. Most Division I schools will tee things up this weekend, while Notre Dame will take a pass as they prepare for the San Diego State Aztecs on September 6th.

As we've done in each of the previous three years, it's time to count down the dozen keys to a successful Irish season. Recapping past #1 selections for those of you who might have missed out:

2005 - Weis and the Wise Men. Cheated a little bit by using a column from The Dean of Michiana Sportscasters, but Jeff Jeffers was blunt and to the point in ways we could never be. Coming in, the success or failure of Notre Dame would be largely determined by how and in what ways the new coach and his charges would be able to influence first the attitude of the team, and then the tempo of the games.

2006 - Came during the extended blog hiatus, so nothing to see. Safe to say we probably would've gone with the then-predictable, "Can they ignore all the hype?" hypothesis.

2007 - Won and Lost in the Trenches. Brand new scheme up front for the defense, new faces galore up front for the offense. It was no great stretch to guess that the Irish in 2007 would go only as far as their development on the offensive and defensive lines would take them. Final answer? Not very far.

So what will this year's number one be? Check back as the countdown moves along to find out. For now, we're exactly 12 days out, so it's time to take a look at one of the countless other areas and players that could key an Irish resurgence or signal another annus horribilis. The countdown commences with...


#12 - A Heaping Slice of Humble Pie


Charlie Weis's offseason "makeover" has been discussed, dissected, and analyzed beyond the point of saturation. There's no shortage of thinkpieces circulating in the media about all the changes he made, the sacrifices he drew up, the attempts to be a more warm-and-fuzzy kind of guy in both the private and public arenas. Giving up playcaller duties this, granting more interviews that. Again I posit that only a school as monumentally irrelevant as Notre Dame could manage to generate this much attention for a 3-9 football coach.

Despite the obsession with Weis's reinvention of his own superego, how far and how firmly he goes outside of his coaching comfort zone will be a critical component in Notre Dame's 2008 season. Will it be genuine, this willingness to part with the call sheet in order to have a stronger feel for the pulse of the team? Or will it be a mirage, shattered at the first sign of offensive inconsistency (which there might be plenty of no matter who calls out signals)? Lee Corso predicts Charlie won't last one bad half before demanding to have the headcaller's mantle back, and I can't say I think that's not a possibility. What I can say is this: the Irish needed Charlie to cede playcalling duties. For his own development and the team's as a whole, he needed to stop listening to the urge to draw up schematic advantages and start paying attention to the actual schematics. The bitter slice of humble pie that got shoved in his face after realizing not every team is tailor-made for X-and-O tweaking might turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to him.

At the end of the day, great schemes can only work when paired with great players who're committed and knowledgable about how to execute them. Not to excuse Weis's 2007 designs entirely, but many of them wouldn't have seemed like a colossal failure had he been asking juniors and seniors to take control instead of 22 players making their first career start. 2007 definitely brought Weis to his knees; how he chooses to get back up during this season - as somebody determined to be a better head coach, or as somebody who can't handle a humbling experience - will be a bellwether for Irish performances in the months and years to come. My own, thoroughly unexpert opinion, is that we'll see the former.


There's been a lot of hand-wringing over having the first week off (while nearly every other college teams jumps into the fray August 30th) might do to the Irish. While it would be nice to get the football going even sooner, I like how Coach Weis shifted into "game week" mode anyway, getting the players acclimated to the schedule they'll be expected to keep throughout the year without having to worry about a Saturday game right off the bat. Weis also released what is (for now) the opening day depth chart. Among the notables:
  • As expected, youth was once again served, with freshman and sophomores all over the place on the two-deep. Tight end Kyle Rudolph became the first member of the Class of 2012 to secure a starting spot, one which came open after sophomore Mike Ragone went under the knife after an ACL injury that he at first tried to play through. With the Jersey guy shelved and junior Will Yeatman on about the same plane with Rudolph having missed spring ball, Weis cited one simple and key tiebreaker: "He runs faster down the field than the rest of them." Don't abandon the idea of a "stretch-the-field" tight end threat due to the loss of John Carlson.
  • Also sure to see minutes out of the chute are emerging cult hero Mike Floyd (listed as David Grimes's backup), cornerback Robert Blanton (backing up Terrail Lambert at right corner), and defensive end Ethan Johnson (currently behind returning senior Pat Kuntz who shifts over to make room for Ian Williams at tackle). January entry Trevor Robinson is backing up Chris Stewart at right guard, while Taylor Dever and Matt Romine are listed as second-string tackles behind Sam Young and Mike Turkovich respectively. Both are sophomores in their first year of eligbility - Dever sat out all last year, while Romine took a medical redshirt after an injury in the Michigan game.
  • Is Harrison Smith a linebacker, a safety, a hybrid of the two or one masquerading as the other? Who cares? He'll be on the field plenty (currently listed as the starting Sam linebacker) and hopefully follow up on that MVP performance in the Blue-Gold game.
  • Raeshon McNeil beat out Gary Gray for the cornerback spot vacated by Darrin Walls, who is spending the fall semester out of Notre Dame for personal reasons. Don't buy into any rumors of the absence becoming permanent though, at least not as long as Darrin's father has any say in the matter.
The misadventures of our countdown continue tomorrow and every day leading up to the opener, so feel free to check back any time. As Thomas would gladly say, "We're always just around the corner...from Main Street."

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