Saturday, August 30, 2008


Luke: Master, moving stones around is one thing, this is totally different.

Yoda: No - no different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.

As best I can tell, Jimmy Clausen is still very much a work-in-progress, but one week from today we get our first genuine look at what's been happening behind the curtain since November of 2007. Like former "Chosen Ones" Luke Skywalker, Neo, Aragorn son of Arathorn, and current Second Coming Barack Obama, he has arrived at that pivotal moment where he must set aside the slings and arrows in order to move to the next level. Checking in with #7 in our 12 Days of Irish Football is...

#7 - Ready, Aim, Fire

Now although I'm a firm believer in a strong ground attack, there can be no denying that many a college football game is won through the air, often with superior athleticism and clever scheming designed to get the fastest players the ball with maximum opportunities to create a chance for themselves. But the backs and receivers of this new wave of college football, no matter how talented, are still the hands of the operation. The most important player on the field, the only one who touches the ball on every snap, remains now and forever as the brains of the outfit - the quarterback.

By statistical measures, Jimmy Clausen had the kind of season one would expect from most players who went directly from small-school CIF football in the San Fernando Valley to starting in front of 100,000 hostile fans at Penn State. His line from 2007:
PASSING              GP-GS   Effic Cmp-Att-Int   Pct  Yds  TD Lng Avg/G
Clausen, Jimmy 10-9 103.85 138-245-6 56.3 1254 7 44 125.4
Most fans would've accepted this as the natural starting point for one player making the most difficult transition from one level to the next at the most scrutinized position. But coming from Clausen, the youngster to whom so much hype and praise had been given for so long, it was not nearly close to good enough.

For comparison's sake, here is Notre Dame's last two true freshman starting quarterbacks and their rookie numbers:
PASSING              GP-GS   Effic Cmp-Att-Int  Pct   Yds  TD Lng Avg/G
Quinn, Brady (2003) 12-9 93.53 332-157-15 47.3 1831 9 85 152.6
LoVecchio, Matt (2000)8-7   151.70  125-73-1    58.4  980  11  68 122.5
Clausen's opening act certainly wasn't aided by a non-existent running attack nor an offensive line that usually couldn't keep him or Evan Sharpley vertical long enough to finish the snap count. LoVecchio was the definition of a game-management quarterback, relied on only insofar as he would do nothing to cost his team the game. In his one performance that required a real step-up and make things happen moment, he went 13-for-33 in a Fiesta Bowl blowout at the hands of Oregon State.

So back to Clausen. Is he further along than those two were at the same checkpoint? Impossible to make the claim based on the numbers alone, because all three of their situations had significant (and unique) variables. But JC showed signs of handling the transition from prep ball to big-time college ball as well as anybody could have under the circumstances of having little to no help and playing without being fully healthy. More importantly, after stepping aside for two and a half games (BC, USC, and...gulp...Navy) he completed 55% of his throws with 6 TDs and 1 INT over the final three games. A key phase in his development was being able to finally breathe and watch from the sidelines, according to Coach Weis:
I explained to him how much easier it is to sit there and see how much the game slows down when you're not in the center, and he said that he couldn't believe the difference because he's been playing every snap his whole life...There's a lot of things when you're standing on the sideline and you're not in the center the game slows down tremendously. And what I said to him is if you ever want to be a good quarterback, how much it slows down when you're on the sideline, that's how slow it's got to be when you're playing because that's what the great quarterbacks do. They see everything happening before it happens, and the game plays for them it's a nice slow pace.
In his first year Clausen took some of the rudimentary steps forward, like Luke learning to levitate stones and R2-D2. Now comes the next challenge, one which having a true offseason conditioning program should make him more prepared for. Clausen and his bulked-up frame at some point will be asked to hoist the Irish on his shoulders and carry them across the finish line, to bail them out of an impossible situation that seems so unlike racking up meaningless stats against Duke and Stanford. But the great quarterbacks can handle the game whether it's fourth-and-goal against USC or first-and-ten against San Diego State. They digest everything thrown at them and then have the entire offensive attack learned and "unlearned" - a high degree of being able to see the entire play before it's ever been run is what takes the QB to that next level. If Clausen crosses that threshold this season, all those promises of being the "LeBron" of high school football may not seem so empty.

Note: as an important corollary to this 'stronger, faster, smarter' Jimmy, I imagine another sci-fi inspired conversation between Weis and his pupil:

Charlie: I've seen USC linebackers, Michigan defensive ends, punch through a concrete wall. We have emptied entire two-deeps at them and hit nothing but air. Yet as powerful as they are, their speed and strength are but tethers to the rules of an unreal world. Because of this, they will never be as strong or as fast as you can be.

Jimmy: What are you trying to tell me...that I can dodge blitzes?

Charlie looks across the practice field. to see five 300-pound members of his offensive line conduct the Irish Eyes drill. He watches for a moment, thinking.

Charlie: No Jimmy. I'm telling you that, when you're ready, you won't have to.

Friday, August 29, 2008

New Leader, Same Band

One might think that today's installment on the countdown ought to rank a bit higher, but while there's been a lot of ink thrown at this story, I don't see as the seismic shift in philosophy some are making it out to be. Tying in with Charlie's desire to be a better head coach, we scan over how his top lieutenant's development might shape the Irish season...

#8 - The Haywood Effect

The gut reaction upon hearing that Weis was ceding playcaller duties to Michael Haywood, a former Notre Dame receiver, was equal parts concern and intrigue. Concern because, let's face it, for all the flaws in the 2007 logic, few people would argue Weis' strongest attribute is offensive playcalling and he's now turned the operation over to a career assistant who's been an offensive coordinator (in name only) for just 3 seasons and never handled in-game playcalling. Intrigue because a) there was a growing feeling that Weis' ego was getting in the way of his development by not giving up the call sheet, so how would this announcement alter that, and b) while Haywood may just now be getting the keys to the car, he's had an opportunity to understudy some of the best drivers in the game for more than a decade.

Haywood spent time as running backs coach first for Nick Saban at LSU and then Mack Brown at Texas, both regarded as superb offensive minds in the college game. For three years he's had plenty of input while directing the offenses that ranked in top 20 both in 2005 and 2006; in the former season he earned Assistant Coach of the Year honors from the AFCA. This is not his first rodeo. If Weis were handing things over to a new hire with little familiarity in the system, no relationship with the players and no track record of being around successful offenses, the hand-wringing would be justified.

Having said that, worry is not without merit. How quickly can Haywood climb the learning curve of "the game within the game"? This is a key question, the answer to which will impact every drive the Irish mount in 2008. After all, if Weis truly believed that the offense was beyond repair he'd have brought in a new coordinator for a new system. The offense Haywood will run is the same one he's been working with every day for three years - the only upgrade is the man wielding the call sheet. He's not being looked at to reinvent the wheel, but he is being looked at to quickly grow into the role of how to meticulously prepare ahead of time and then prepare to adjust on the fly mid-game.

A good example of what I'm talking about could be taken from Weis' opening game in 2005 against Pittsburgh. Unlike his counterpart Matt Cavanaugh, also imported from the NFL, Weis had specific plays tailored depending on which hash mark the ball was spotted on (Cavanaugh admitted after the game several bad plays were the result of him not remembering the different set-ups on college and pro fields). Additionally, Weis had a series of plays ready in case Pitt came out using Dave Wannstedt's preferred defense, and one if they saw the defense of Paul Rhoads, who was retained from the Walt Harris era. According to Weis it took five plays to figure out which one was out there, and the sixth play was Darius Walker's 55-yard screen touchdown. Weis' aptitude on offense has been culled largely from having expectations before the play's ever been run - he sees, and expects his players to see also, that a certain play will generate five yards without exception on first down to set up second and short. And if it fails, he's already formed a plan B, C, and D. Last season Weis became too consumed with contingencies to even make sure his players were with him at step A.

So enter Mike Haywood. He has a big challenge in front of him no question, one that will register a big impact on Notre Dame in 2008 and beyond as well as his own career - remember he was a serious candidate for the top spot at the University of Houston and a successful year or two as a 'play-calling' offensive coordinator could put him on the radar of even more high-profile jobs. But first things first - the Irish need an identity on offense and they need it coming out of the gate on the first play. A year ago they tried to mold one week-to-week before finally, in game #4, Weis realized the grab-bag approach was an utter catastrophe. It's encouraging how much both the head coach and his coordinator share the same approach in making the plan rise to their expectations:
One of the main things Haywood learned from Weis is to be consistent in play-calling and to make sure players understand what the team is trying to achieve with each play.

"We're teaching them that on first and 10 when we call this play, we're expecting four yards on this play to make it second and six. On the next call, we're making a call to get us in third and short or to pick up the first down," he said.
Handing the reigns to Haywood is a commitment to avoid making the same mistake twice; now it's up to Haywood to prove the Irish will be doing a lot more than just making a brand new one.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Player to Watch

Like any good citizen-level sports journalist site, we have to arrive at that moment in our "Big Preview Countdown" when we tell you about the "Player to Watch". The great thing about the "Player to Watch" is that he could be anybody - you have a much chance of being right about who was watch-worthy by picking a name from a hat as you do of following's practice reports - and I say that with all due respect as I know firsthand how hard it is to compile those things. Kudos to CSTV, the University's athletics site partner, for finally converting their video player over to a universal platform that doesn't discriminate against Macs or Firefox. Click here to keep tabs on all the All-Access videos at their new blog.

So, with that out of the way, let's get back to the "Player to Watch" - we tried to get this segment sponsored by Pontiac, but apparently we don't generate enough hits to warrant being an official partner of the Game-Changing Performance crew.

#9 - There Can Be More Than One

A few weeks back a Pac-10 follower struck up in conversation, "Who's the Irish running back going to be?" Ostensibly he was wondering who should've been getting the high rankings on NCAA Football 2009 for his X-Box, but in reality he was calling to mind a pressing question I hadn't thought of yet - who exactly is going to be Notre Dame's running back?

I fumbled for an answer briefly before settling on the following: "I can't tell you who's going to be the starter. And I have a feeling it'll be important only in that it determines which one touches the ball first." In that spirit, here is Notre Dame's Player to Watch in 2007 - the unsettled starting running back, who may be (in alphabetical order) James Aldridge OR Armando Allen OR Robert Hughes.

The Irish need to run the football. Such is the categorical imperative you face when your offense ranked at the absolute bottom of the barrel statistically. That's right - from consecutive Top 20 units in '05/'06 to 119 out of 119. Pretty stunning fall made possible by mass failure at lots of things, and an absolutely putrid rushing attack was no small accomplice. The way to slowly and surely rebuild the identity of the Irish offense is not by asking a still young quarterback and offensive line to start stringing together 400-yard passing games. Rebuilding occurs on the ground level, by establishing within the first drive that certain things are going to work around here, like a five-yard sweep or a seven-yard draw (and hopefully a bunch of other stuff too).

Yesterday brought a brief mention of Weis's Monday evening declaration that, "We're going to pound it." Now, I know in some circles any Notre Dame offense that throws the ball more than 10 times per game is considered blasphemous. On the flip side, others in what I'd call the New Wave insist that dynamic passing games have to take hold in the college game because they're how the football moves these days. Of the teams who ranked in the Top 10 of Division I (FBS) offenses, only one earned more yards running than passing (#10 Oregon). For the Irish though, first things first - let's establish something that we're good at it before attempting to mount a case for why one is preferrable to the other. When Weis was in his last season as Patriots coordinator, he disputed the notion that his 'pass-first' New England attack was born from some deep-rooted love of the air ball:
I love to move the football. I'm probably known as more of a 'passing guy' because that's what we've done to move the football. So, a lot of times, people say:'`Well, they want to throw it.' Well, I want to throw it because it works. If it's not working, I don't want to be throwing it. A lot of it has to do with what players you have and what you can do against who you're playing against.
Moving forward into 2008, Notre Dame cannot afford to try out the Tulsa, Texas Tech, or Hawai'i offenses (who ranked 1-2-3 last season in the NCAA, all with a lopsided preference for throwing the rock instead of pounding it). As a matter of fact, thank God for the Warriors and Red Raiders, or else ND might've been dead last in running the ball rather than 115th. Which brings me full circle to our player to watch - it'll be whomever among the three well-qualified candidates bursts out early in this 2008 season.

For two years the Irish had Darius Walker - not the fastest, but with solid speed and terrific vision, the kind of back who may not rack up a 60-yarder but could always be counted on for 10 sixes. Brady Quinn was unquestionably the best player on the field and was throwing to some pretty good receivers, meaning the Irish built an attack around getting their best players to do what they do best in order to move the football. Quinn's arm was the center of the offense, but Walker's running ability (with Travis Thomas providing an effective change-up in '05) was the ace in the hole that made ND a complete unit. In 2007 that dependency vanished from the backfield at both QB and RB, and the closest thing to a star turn was given by Hughes in the final two weeks against Stanford and Duke. A lot of factors spelled out an Irish team with no real hold on what exactly they did well offensively. Weis grasped the totality of his mistake and vows now to come out swinging, which is precisely what needs to happen.

Maybe we look at the numbers and see a lack of a "difference-maker" at running back, a significant problem for a coach who wants his team to "pound it". For optimisim's sake, let's look at it as an opportunity presenting itself like a problem - a challenge on how to get Aldridge, Hughes, and Allen out there often enough so that no matter who the back is, a dependable running threat is in the game on every single down. That kind of security blanket can only be a positive for an offense looking to complete the transition this season. That is your "player to watch" in 2008 - whomever one of these three lines up behind Jimmy Clausen. There can only be one at a time, but that doesn't mean there can only be one. Let's learn how to do one thing well first, to find that niche Charle so memorably noted was missing after the Michigan game last year. The rest might soon fall in line afterwards.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Separation Anxiety

One of the most devastatingly simple things in football is the sack. One player is taken down by another, loss of yardage, loss of confidence, potential loss of cognitive function. So to hear that 4/5 of the same offensive line that allowed a staggering 59 sacks in 2007 is returning doesn't exactly have me making New Year's Day travel plans. But just as a sack is simple, it is also complex - what usually looks like a cut-and-dry case of one man beating another to the quarterback is usually a mix of great athleticism, split-second timing, favorable luck, and contributions from any number of players who were nowhere near the play.

This is not to absolve the offensive line of all blame, but in 2008 it won't be just the big five up front who determine if Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen can spend more time vertical than horizontal. Which ushers in key #10 in the countdown...

#10 - We Need Some Space

No need to mince words - if Notre Dame's gonna have anything close to an offense this season, they need the wide receivers to get physical and create some space. People say the problems for Clausen, Demetrius Jones, and Evan Sharpley all stem from holding the ball too long. That's not without merit, but it was often a total lack of open targets which compounded the problem. Perhaps the most gaping loss of experience and productivity after the quarterback position came among passing targets, with John Carlson usually held back to block and the wideout corps seeing the end of the Samardzija/Stovall/McKnight era. Considering that outside of David Grimes and Carlson there was no receiver on the roster who came in with more than 2 career receptions, it's no surprise that the leading receiver was freshman Duval Kamara, a guy who definitely was trying to find his way at the start of the year.

Now Kamara's a grizzled veteran and paces the passing attack along with Grimes - the two combined for 59 catches and 6 touchdowns, not including Grimes' layout grab against Stanford which mystifyingly got overruled on video review. Throw in Golden Tate, who has earned plaudits in camp for transforming into more than a one-route wonder, and five-star recruit Michael Floyd next to juniors Robby Parris (29 catches for 341 yds in '07) and George West, and we're getting closer to a productive receiving corps.

Productivity is nice, but what the Irish need first and foremost from this group is the kind of hard-nosed play that usually doesn't show on the stat sheet. One of the hidden gems in the 2005 season was the terrific run-blocking provided along the edge by Maurice Stovall, freeing Darius Walker and Travis Thomas for a variety of sweeps and draws that moved both the chains and the clock during some of the most important stretches of big games. And when the Irish did go to the air, both Samardzija and Stovall physically punished those who tried to jam them, while tight ends like Carlson and Anthony Fasano stretched the field over the middle.

But if Weis and Mike Haywood truly want to "pound it" on offense this year, they need more than just the five blocks of granite along to be doing their part. Sending Robert Hughes or James Aldridge between the tackles for some bruising five yard gains will take its toll, sure - but imagine how effective the Irish could be by balancing some outside space for Armando Allen to work with. And if the run can be established and the Irish sprinkle in the play-action pass, the receivers can't routinely get beat off the ball and provide no escape when Clausen drops back. What made the Irish offense hum in '05/'06 wasn't scheme alone, it was solid veterans who ran every play to the whistle whether the ball was heading their way or not. Expecting a fully smooth transition to such a young group of receivers last year might have been too much - but the mistakes of youth cannot stand in 2008.

We talk a lot about the obvious in football, and just because it's obvious doesn't make it less true: Notre Dame will need dramatic improvement from it's offensive line to have a desirable running attack in 2008. But if that does happen, watch for the kind of "game-within-the-game" plays from guys like Grimes and Kamara to be a less-heralded but equally vital reason why. Highlight reel catches are welcome (for this upcoming season, looking at you, Tate & Floyd), but a solid pancake block to cut off a cornerback and spring Allen or Hughes downfield will do just as nicely.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Leader of the Pack

Yesterday the countdown opened with a bit of abstract thinking. Today we turn our attention to one player who'll play a key role in the 2008 Irish defense.

Twelve Days of Irish Football continues with...

#11 - The Leader of the Pack

Notre Dame's football team last season was so bad in so many ways that it's almost tough to fathom that anybody on it could be considered good, but there were actually a few solid individual performances last season. One stands out because it could be a precursor to across-the-board improvements if the 2008 Irish are keen to follow his lead. The player? Free safety David Bruton.

To say Bruton's career as a defensive player got off to an inauspicious start would be putting it kindly. Though a solid special teams contributor throughout his freshman and sophomore campaigns, an injury to Chinedum Ndukwe thrust him into his first significant, game-in-doubt playing time against USC in the final game of the 2006 regular season. The results weren't pretty. Looking out of place and out of synch, Bruton was targeted over and over during the second half as J.D. Booty and Dwayne Jarrett kept the Irish at arm's length throughout a 44-24 loss.

At first, Bruton punished himself by tape study, forcing the second half coaches' film down his own throat for weeks on end.
Every day for three weeks, Bruton would watch the USC tape, beating himself up mentally each time, questioning his ability and his potential.

"Putting that behind me is part of the maturity thing," Bruton said. "Every defensive back gets beat. The great ones have the ability to move past that."
Instead of falling apart, Bruton redoubled his efforts, cut his weight, bulked up his frame, and turned into a playmaking safety while nobody was watching during 2007. He had as many sacks by the end of the first quarter in the first game against Georgia Tech last year (1) than both Ndukwe and Tom Zbikowski combined during all of 2006. He finished with 85 tackles, 4.5 for a loss, 3 interceptions and 1 fumble recovered. His interception near the end of the first half against Michigan State was the kind of play most NFL safeties don't make. To put it bluntly, David Bruton got burnt to a crisp - and then came back for more and was better for it.

Now he's a father (his son Jaden will turn 3 this year) and team captain. While plenty of due respect gets directed to fifth-year senior Maurice Crum as the leader of the defense, Bruton's own teammates on both sides of the football would do well to follow his example. He got thrown to the mat and sprang right back up, refusing to let bad results break him down. For his own part, as much progress as he made last year, Bruton knows that work remains both for his own game and Notre Dame's defense as a whole. Can he become an even stronger coverage safety, which would grant the Irish more freedom to blitz with the front seven (as we know Jon Tenuta and Corwin Brown probably want?) Can he get stronger playing the run? I don't mean in a complete sell-out to the ground game, but several Irish opponents will be looking for open daylight with either option (Navy) or zone-read (Michigan) running games. A big part of how the Irish defense plays in those matchups will be determined by how well Bruton plays, especially since he's the one true voice of experience in the backfield along with Terrail Lambert. Exceptional play from him early should alleviate the pressure on first-time starter Kyle McCarthy and Raeshon McNeil, plus youngsters Gary Gray, Sergio Brown, and Robert Blanton.

We're inching closer to the first step in this 12-part answer. While it could be too much to tab Bruton as the player on whom the entire Irish defense turns, it's not too much to ask, "What better way to compensate for the loss of your best cover corner, and to allow your coaches to generate more pressure up front than by having an All-American safety dropping back?" Bruton could have that type of year, and the Irish need him to have that type of year. Already a terrific example of the maturing process that can turn a very raw freshman or sophomore into a standout upperclass leader, a fantastic finish from David could pay dividends that last well beyond 2008. Great leaders don't just go places, they get others to go there with them - watch out if Bruton's hard work and strong development start to trickle down through the ND roster.

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."

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Show That Never Ends

Welcome back, my friends.

Notre Dame kicked off the 2008 football season with a weekend designed to give everybody a peek behind the curtain for what will (God willing) be an improved Irish football team this season. A breakdown of how each day came and went:

Friday - Meet the Press

Weis, the coaching staff, and selected Irish players took turns in front of the firing squad Friday morning before hitting their shiny new FieldTurf practice facilities for the afternoon's first full workout. As has become customary, had it covered from every angle, but here are a few selected quotes I particularly enjoyed:

Bernie Parmalee on the competition at tight end:
The competition is going to be great, those guys know what they are in for and they will go out there and work hard. They know that every play is being evaluated; we just want the best out there to help us win ballgames. We have seven guys who will be working hard and they determine the depth chart because it's all about performance. It is a good group of guys looking forward to the challenge.
John Latina on offseason development of the O-Line:
We, as a staff, felt like we needed to get bigger. We needed to get stronger. Not necessarily heavier because a lot of times that naturally comes with getting bigger, and we felt like we had to improve those areas. They look bigger and better than I've ever seen them, so that's a real positive.
Corwin Brown on which defensive players could step up and make an impact:
All of them that go out on that field. Literally, all of them. That's what we want from all of our guys.
Charlie Weis on the desired team psychology:
In Jersey, Memorial Day opens up the Jersey shore. It might be 90 degrees, but the water's about 50, and no one wants to go in the water.

So there are two types of people that would go to the beach that weekend. One group of people would go up there, put their toe in the water and say, 'Oh, I just don't know if I can do that'. And they'd walk in a little bit, and walk in a little bit, and most of them would then return to their suntan oil or lotion and go lay back down on the beach.

Then you'd have those loony tunes that would just throw their stuff down and just go running into the water and just "Dive Right In".

Basically, the whole thought methodology with our team is we're looking for players that want to "Dive Right In". I'm not looking for 'toe-in-the-water' type of players.

I'm looking for players that aren't waiting to see how things go. They're going to be part of making things go. That's been our whole thought methodology from the beginning of 2008 right to this time.

Naturally, you have to avoid trying to go too far between the lines when consuming practice reports and massive amounts of coach-speak and spoon-fed cliches that come from the players in these settings. Everybody looks fine in practice, everybody's "just a little bit of confidence" away from having a big year. Even with that fully justified caveat, the "Dive Right In" philosophy is exactly where the Irish should be heading right now. No looking back, just charging straight forward. If nothing else, it beats the "throw it on the wall and see what sticks" style from a year ago.

Saturday: Fan Apprecitation Day

Average fans got their first peek at the squad with a workout in Notre Dame Stadium. Though (for obvious reasons) a very vanilla practice meant to give nothing away, there were a lot of positive notices handed out to Jimmy Clausen's improved arm strength, the promise shown by corners Raeshon McNeil and Gary Gray as they prepare to compensate for the loss of Darrin Walls, and the glints of promise shown by rookies like Mike Floyd and Kyle Rudolph.

Of course, that's all they are. Just glints. Fleeting moments of, "Hey, something might be happening here" on a practice field with no pads, little contact, and 4000 people watching instead of 80,000. The point I think that needs remembering here is that once the first whistle blows on September 6th, things will change - in a hurry. How a young team adjusts to that is the measure of progress, moreso than raves about how so-and-so looks like a different player.

Saturday Part II: Banks, EJ Banks

While there have been some players they were particularly high on who've already gone elsewhere, the Irish coaching staff is indeed having recruting unfold according to plan. Saturday brough the news that Pennsylvania cornerback E.J. Banks chose the Irish over Ohio State. Banks joins Marlon Pollard as the second true cornerback recruit, yet another solid CB duo for future Irish teams to build around:

"Every program has its ups and downs, and some could say that Notre Dame has been down," [Banks] said. "But, if you look at the people the program has coming in, they are going to be back on top, very soon. A big part of me going there is that I wanted to be there for when Notre Dame is back on top, and I think that will happen in my time there."
Obviously I don't sit in the meetings; I'm not there when Weis and his assistants do home visits, or when prospects finally pull the trigger. But it sure looks to my laymen's eyes that even in the face of a 3-9 season, the Irish coaching staff has not yielded an inch. There are a lot of kids out there who just simply want to be a part of what's building in South Bend. To dip into the cliche, they "get it".

To be sure we've already seen some players, particualrly from that first big recruiting class Weis landed, appear and sound totally sold on Notre Dame only to determine they needed to move on (sometimes not long after they arrived). To a certain degree that's expected - a lot of colleges look great on video and in brochures, and every year ordinary students discover that one school that seemed so perfect turn out to be a very different animal. When it happened in a cluster around the football during the fall of 2007, encapsulated in a disastrous on-field effort, there was a real concern that recruiting would follow suit. There was indeed one high-profile, some might say nefarious, defection, but the rock-solid commitment shone through for every other member of the class. For 2008, the trend has undoubtedly continued.

Sunday/Monday: Wrapped Up With Professor Appreciation Day

ND faculty and their families were invited to practice on Monday, the fourth Irish workout and the last which must occur without pads by NCAA rule. Still more practice reports from the usual suspects like Irish Eyes, Blue/Gold Illustrated, and Irish Illustrated to whet the appetite of those who subscribe. Still more superlatives about how big freshman like Hafis Williams and Brandon Newman look. Still more hypotheticals about how the linebacking corps will shuffle out with safety Harrison Smith taking a lot of reps while one of last year's pleasant surprises, Brian Smith, shifts to the second middle linebacker spot. Still more hope that things are gonna quickly go back to the way things are supposed to be.

Notre Dame lives under a microscope. Numerous other programs, some of them powers and some of them paupers, are trying to put a forgettable 2007 behind them. They're out there, holding competitions for open starting slots, sizing up their new recruits, trying to find that right mix while sizing up their schedule. What's going in South Bend is no bigger or smaller than anything going on in Miami, Seattle, State College, Los Angeles, or any other college town in America. It just feels a lot bigger, which is maybe as it should be. There's still 24 days to go before a meaningful snap is played, so let's not spend all our foolish optimism at once.