Tuesday, August 21, 2007

12 Days of Irish Football - 2007

Wow. Can it really be football season already?

It does not seem that 8 whole months have passed since the Irish walked out of the SuperDome with their collective tail between their legs after getting overrun in the second half of the 2007 Sugar Bowl by LSU. And a TON has happened both inside and outside the realm of football since then:
  • The Irish changed defensive coordinatorsand defensive schemes.
  • Former "All-World" Notre Dame QB Ron Powlus was promoted to QB coach, a move that coincided with the arrival of Jimmy Clausen, the departure of Zach Frazer, the misdemeanor marijuana charges (subsequently dropped) against Demetrius Jones, the news that Clausen was cited for being a minor transporting alcohol, Clausen's elbow 'procedure', and a 3-man derby for the starting quarterback jobthat won't be publicly resolved before the first snap on September 1st. I'm not sure if Charlie had a smooth operation planned for Powlus' first offseason, but that probably wasn't it.
  • Nose tackle Derrell Hand, who probably wasn't a starter but would at least have been much-needed depth along the interior line of the new 3-4 scheme has his future at the University in doubt after being picked up for soliciting a working girl during a SBPD sting.
  • The Irish were nowhere close to being ranked in either major poll, the first time that's happened when the Irish are coming off a winning season since 1959 - and for only the second time in program history.
  • Mark May pegged the Irish to open the year at 1-7.
  • Everybody else agreed Mark May is a colossal douche.
  • The Irish announced that they would be wearing throwback green uniforms for the October 20th USC game, robbing the moment of whatever suspense it might have possibly had, but took a beating for it on NDNation as another sign that Kevin White merely is whoring Notre Dame traditions out to the highest bidder (in this case, Adidas).
  • More NDNation panic ensued when the Irish unveiled their first "off-site" home game as part of White's 7-4-1 scheduling philosophy (really 8-4, 8 home and 4 road games every year, but we'll play along with Dr. White's semantics): a Halloween matchup with Washington State...in San Antonio. Recruiting pundits applauded the move as a great marketing chip for long-distance prospects, as Weis would now be able to guarantee Texas blue-chippers at least one crack at playing for the hometown crowd. Everybody else wondered how there would ever be enough tickets to spread around the central Texas chapter of the WSU Alumni Club.
  • Oklahoma was added to the schedule for 2012-2013, apparently with the result of Michigan being bumped off for a "two-year break". Now NDNation was positively apoplectic. Then the Michigan series was officially renewed for 20 years through 2031. All was well once more.
In short, so much superfluous crap flowed around the Irish program that some of us (namely, this guy) were desperate for fall camp to arrive just to hear only the endless pontifications about who should be starting at quarterback and why. 

So here we are now, August 21, and game 1 of Year 3 is just 12 short days away. It seems like forever since we talked football, but like a lot of things, time off between football campaigns seems to fly-by quicker when you get older and actually have stuff to do during the summer months. So now, part 1 of the 12 keys to the Irish season, one per day until we reach zero hour at 3:30 ET on Sept. 1 against the Yellow Jackets.

#12 - Them's Fighting Words

"They may have an opportunity to get Purdue, Michigan 
State out of these first 8 games...that's about it." -- Mark May, July 27

When he opened up fall camp two weeks ago with an hour-long media season, Charlie Weis hedged on a lot of things - he discussed the QB situation in broad strokes, noted that he was "anxious" to see how things were coming in the receiver and defensive line corps, and made passing references to his expectations for the newest crop of Notre Dame freshman. What Weis wasn't coy about during his opening day press conference August 6th - the fact that he's very aware of the fact that most people expect nothing from the Irish. And so is his team.

"It's easier to get your team to buy into it when you can sit there and say, look, no one thinks you're worth a darn. It's easier to do it that way because usually players - football players or any athlete in general - want respect, and I think that they understand that respect is something that you just don't hand out. It's something you have to earn." Rumor has it that when May opened his trap in 2005, boldly declaring the Irish to start "1-5, possibly 0-6" (and promptly got Lee Corso to jump on his bandwagon), that the video evidence found its way into the team film sessions on more than one occasion. You never want to give too much credit to an idiot, but there's no denying that the Irish played with an extra zip through 2005 that seemed at times directly propelled by the kind of thing they'd been hearing all offseason from talking heads like May. That same sense of urgency seemed to be lacking alongside the gargantuan expectations of the following season. So now, with all this "great talent" that's moved on to the NFL, it's only natural that the Irish expect a huge drop-off and settle for a respectable 7 to 8 win season that preps a lot of young talent for the following year. Right?

Wrong - "May God strike me dead if I use that word," Weis said, referencing the dreaded "R" word of rebuilding. And don't misread my putting the "great talent" in quotation marks. Yes, that was an unbelievably gifted squad the Irish trotted out in '05/'06. But it was the exact same squad that proved themselves quite capable of going 6-6 as opposed to 10-3. Brady Quinn took a lot of heat for tumbling to the 22nd pick in the draft, but he wasn't even considered anywhere close to a pro prospect before Charlie Weis got his hands on him. The same goes for Jeff Samardzija. Most of these 'irreplaceable' guys were anything but before Weis arrived. And on defense, let's just say this - Victor Abiamiri, Chinedum Ndukwe, Mike Richardson, & Derek Landri were all NFL draft picks. Factor in that Tom Zbikowski, Trevor Laws, & maybe even Maurice Crum, Jr. will be and you have HALF of Notre Dame's starting '06 defense that's capable of making an NFL roster. So was it that they weren't talented or that they weren't being coached to their potential? You have to tend towards the latter just a tad at this point, particularly when you hear the raves NFL coaches have been placing on all four guys who've gone on to pro camps this fall.

So, if you want my honest opinion, given that this 2007 squad is composed of two full Weis recruiting classes plus the best of the best of the Ty-LeftOvers (Zbikowski, TE John Carlson, C John Sullivan, Crum, & RB Travis Thomas) you would have to consider this squad as the hands down best of Weis' brief tenure in terms of raw talent and (major factor here) depth. Of course, the true key word is 'raw'. But few things fire up a group of young, ornery men in football helmets like a collective "you stink" being directed from the national media. Coming into last season everybody loved the Irish, and success seemed to come too easy after they grinded out a win against Georgia Tech and then blew-out what was supposedly an elite-level Penn State team. The 2-0 opening seemed to butter them up and the result was an egg against Michigan and a near-disaster against Michigan State. No such praise will come automatically this year. Nobody, absolutely NOBODY (with the possible exception of Lou Holtz) is stroking the Irish ego at this point in the year. The chip is back on the shoulder, and that could wind up becoming their most dangerous weapon of all. No matter who takes the snaps under center.



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