Friday, August 26, 2005

The Big Man at Practice...

Okay, so it wasn't the most inventive of cheers - "1, 2, 3 - GET BETTER!!!" - but the Irish broke from their huddle following a team address from Father John I. Jenkins, new University President, fully aware of the number one expectation this year.

Can't you imagine the conversation going something like this....

"Boys, I really stuck my neck out there, took a lot of S*&T, in order to get this Weis guy as coach. So I expect to see an 8 or 9 win season right away. Otherwise, you're going be seeing some personalized tuition increases."

Read Jason Kelly's column on the visit and other goings-on at practice here.

Eight days and counting, taking us directly to -

#8 - Putting the Special Back in the Teams

Charlie Weis won a hearty round of applause at a Q&A with Notre Dame students in mid-February when he announced his desire to completely overhaul the Irish special teams unit. "I thought [they] stunk", was one comment which drew particular raves.

So what's his grand plan? For starters, everybody better be damn ready to cover punts and kickoffs. No longer is this going to be a job for the walk-ons and fourth-stringers alone (although several of them are quite good at it and have been singled out for praise during camp; Weis even awarded a scholarship to Casey Cullen, who will serve as long-snapper and maybe see a little O-Line action). But Weis is unafraid to plug his best athletes into the coverage and return units.

Weis stated numerous times in interviews that one of the fastest ways to get better on the whole is to play excellent in the special teams coverage. As we've seen in the past, it's an often overlooked element of the game which can still determine the outcome. Weis' reasoning makes perfect sense. Last season the Irish managed about 19 yards per kick return. Imagine if they bump that up to 23. Generally when you return kicks you're anywhere from 5-10 yards away from the goal-line, so all of a sudden the Irish are consistently starting near or past the 30 yard line. It's one less first down that has to be made on offense. It opens up the field, and if the offense stalls the punter is suddenly much better situated to pin that opposing team inside their own 20. You can bet the Irish will be needing to win the field-position battle against nearly all of their opponents.

Travis Thomas has become the poster-child for Weis' special team makeover. Expected to finally "arrive" last season, the redshirt sophomore opened up his Notre Dame career at running back by fumbling on the very first play from scrimmage against BYU. The ball-control problems weren't as horrific as everyone made them out to be, but multiple fumbles when you carry only 25 times for the season is gonna follow you.

Rather than accepting his predicament, Thomas redoubled his efforts and is now the Irish special teams captain for the season opener next week at Pittsburgh. To hear Weis speak about him is to know that the head coach has found "his kind of guy" to lead the coverage units: "“He’s an offensive running back with a linebacker mentality,” Weis said. “And he plays that way. There have been very few times I have seen offensive players excel in special teams.”

High praise from a man who comes from working with the best special teams unit in all of football.

Thomas was often criticized for fumble-itis,
but now he leads the unit Charlie Weis says can
lead to a quick Irish revival.



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