Of Prime Importance
Since we know nobody bothers to check out the blogs on Saturdays, we move the countdown into the hurry-up so's to be able to finish tomorrow and not on the actual Zero Hour of 3:30 PM Saturday. We look at one man and one unit that hold Irish fortunes in their hands...
#3 - I Understand You're Contemplating a Blitz
The hiring of Jon Tenuta to be "Assistant Coach - Defense" raised a few eyebrows around college football, but it raised the expectations of Notre Dame fans high as a paper kite. This is a guy who could've gone to be a defensive coordinator anywhere he chose, so why was he coming to work under Corwin Brown, pundits asked. Irish fans, meanwhile, were asking 'How many sacks will we get during the opponent's first drive?"
It's no secret Tenuta loves to blitz. If you watched any tape of the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech games from the last two years, you know this. I would also hesistate to call his blitz packages "exotic", which is another one of those in vogue descriptors being thrown around to describe defense these days. This guy is pure old school - playing defense is about one thing: see ball, get ball. Everything else is just window dressing.
Knowing Tenuta's football philosophy, the real trick for the 2008 Irish will be how will his schemes can be grafted on to the preferences of defensive coordinator Corwin Brown. One of the interesting notes is that the Irish only face what could be called a "traditional" offense once in the first month. San Diego State is a wide-open, pass-60-times-per-game unit, Michigan is in the throes of an awkward transition to the zone-read spread attack, and Purdue is once again Purdue. Michigan State, with classic dropback QB Brian Hoyer and running back Javon Ringer, is the kind of team Tenuta's blitz-happy defense likes. Brown's shifting personnel groups and 3-4 setup to get more atheletes into space rather than running straight for the quarterback would work better against the other early opponents.
Both Brown, Tenuta, and Charlie Weis have been pretty clear that Brown is still the coordinator and Tenuta is the linebackers coach and sounding board for the defensive gameplan, not the other way around. The expectation is that he can enhance the defense, not drastically overhaul it. That's why it's a little dangerous to be on the outside looking in, see they hired the mad scientist and assume, "Great! We're gonna blitz on EVERY play." The Irish need more consistency from the defensive line and continued great play from their secondary in order to spring Tenuta's schemes with maximum efficiency. To be simply reachnig for the big red 'BLITZ' button on every down is probably going to wind up creating more problems as good offensive coaches, particularly ones in pass-oriented offenses, will diagnose that early and favor a quick-step passing game to counter. In the end, whatever gains the Irish defense make will be measured not by how they adjust to Tenuta, but how Tenuta adjusts to them.
#2 - Chemistry Set
Let's get it out of the way right off the bat: team chemistry is overrated. Or, to be more accurate, it's the ultimate 'chicken-or-the-egg' quandry; as in, "Which comes first?" Do you win because of your great team chemistry, lose because of bad, or do you only have great/bad team chemsitry because you lose? Well, like any chemistry problem, we should remember this is dependent on any number of elements that are all independent yet must fuse together in order to work properly. And in sport, the number one element in the hallowed "team chemistry" equation is winning.
Although a lot of people (self included) didn't want to accept it before last year started, 2007 had all the proper elements for a spontaneous combustion. Tons of young starters along with a huge void in the middle of the team (leadership & experience wise) left the Irish trying to construct a team as the season went along. Hardly a recipe for success, and soupled with a huge miscalculation on the part of Charlie Weis, things snowballed so badly that by the time October rolled around it wasn't a question over if Weis had lost the team. The issue was if he would ever be able to get it back.
The offseason storylines were mainly about what the head coach was doing to change, but some things have to come from within. That's why Weis went after his players early in camp, telling 'em point blank that at some point, 'I can't do it for ya', as if he were Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday. At the end of the day though, a large part of football, particularly in college, can be determined by who wants it more, who's willing to lay it down for his teammates the most. That's why losing seasons unravel ridiculously fast at the amateur level - in the pros everybody's playing for a paycheck, but in college you're mostly playing for pride, and each other. Last year's team never developed that unity, and a lack of cohesion from the head coach on down turned the tide from bad to worse.
So a big part of the direction the Irish travel in 2008 won't be decided with a playbook or a wristband or physical matchups - it'll be what kind of mental approach the team takes to the situations that challenge them. Last year there were moments when one bad play, such as in the Air Force game when a perfectly thrown ball and a 28-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage ended with a John Carlson fumble. Like many other moments, that first mistake was the equivalent of a retreat siren; hardly anybody was willing to take a stand and fight through it as a team. And it wasn't just the games against the Academies where the Irish seemed more than willing to roll over and quit, shrug off mistakes made as the equivalent of "Who cares, we would've lost anyway." That attitude cannot show up when they face adversity this season, and the prime counter to it will be that always elusive "chemistry" that comes from knowing the other 10 guys in the huddle have your back. This team needs to get to the point where the motivation isn't avoiding a lecture from Weis, it's staying away from the dreadful feeling that goes with knowing you let your teammates - your brothers - down.
So what is it - do you win because of great team chemistry, or have great team chemistry because you win? Let's tune in Saturday and start to find out.