It’s strange to think that Notre Dame didn’t know who its starting quarterback, tailback, or wide receivers would be when it started Spring practice a year ago. It’s stranger still to think that two of the four contenders have transferred, and that the starting skill positions were dominated by youth. Coming off the heels of a 3-9 season, among the worst in program history, Notre Dame looks to turn it around this Fall. Much more is known about the 2008 incarnation of the Fighting Irish heading into this Spring, but there are still plenty of questions surrounding key positions and the coaching staff.
The Coaching Staff
The coaching staff received a significant makeover, led by the addition of former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta. Known as a brilliant defensive mind, his blitz-happy schemes should complement second-year defensive coordinator Corwin Brown’s aggressive philosophy. Brown remains Notre Dame’s coaching leader on defense and also takes over the defensive backs coaching position from Bill Lewis, who stepped down due to health reasons (Lewis remains affiliated with Notre Dame in a public relations capacity). Elsewhere, head coach Charlie Weis has turned over playcalling duties to offensive coordinator Michael Haywood, a significant gamble that Weis hopes will make him a better overall head coach.
It appears that quarterback position is settled and the Jimmy Clausen Era has officially begun. Evan Sharpley, who started two games last season, will be the backup. Clausen, who will be a sophomore in 2008, played much of 2007 through injury, and is expected to be stronger and better-prepared this coming season. Most Irish fans are hoping he hits the weight room and puts on 15 or 20 more pounds of muscle (Weis has indicated as much), which should help him elude more sacks and stand up better in the pocket. He can be deadly accurate when given time and many Notre Dame fans see “something special” in him as they did after Brady Quinn’s freshman campaign. That being said, he needs to improve on some things – learning when to step up in the pocket, finding ways to elude sacks and pressure, throwing the ball away instead of taking a loss and pulling the trigger faster in the pocket.
There may not be a consistent starter at the tailback position, and many Irish fans hope for a return to the multi-back approach of Holtz. There are three very solid players in junior James Aldridge, sophomore Robert Hughes, and sophomore Armando Allen. All three players bring a different style to the table and complement each other well. Hughes finished the season with two straight 100-yard rushing games, and is expected to be the starter. At 5’11” 238, he is a bulldozer of a player who started to come on strong in the second half of the season. Aldridge too has shown some toughness between the tackles, and Allen started to display the breakaway speed that made him so coveted toward the end of the season.
Senior David Grimes and sophomore Duval Kamara appear to be entrenched as starters at wide receiver. Notre Dame used a heavy rotation at receiver, with junior Robby Parris and junior George West also getting significant playing time. Sophomore Golden Tate was a dynamic player, catching three passes for over 100 yards and a touchdown against Purdue, but he was inconsistently used as he adjusted to playing the wide receiver position. Incoming freshman Michael Floyd looks to be an instant impact player, and freshmen John Goodman and Deion Walker could be factors as well.
Projected starter Will Yeatman is lost for the Spring at tight end, leaving sophomore Mike Ragone to pick up the slack. Both players were backups behind future NFLer John Carlson, though both also got significant playing time.
The much-maligned offensive line, among the worst in the nation last year, returns nearly intact. Center John Sullivan is gone, but backup Dan Wenger got plenty of time snapping the ball. There’s plenty of talent at the skill positions, but the fate of the Irish offense really rests on the shoulders of these five men: Wenger, junior left tackle Sam Young, senior left guard Mike Turkovich, junior right guard Eric Olsen and senior right tackle Paul Duncan. All five players need to show significant improvement in both run and pass protection, as last year’s porous unit gave up 58 sacks and blocked for only 2.1 yards per carry rushing.
Three starters from last year’s unit are gone: strong safety Tommy Zbikowski, inside linebacker Joe Brockington and defensive end Trevor Laws. All three are significant losses, but none so much as Laws -- teams don’t get better by losing a player who led the nation in d-lineman tackles. There were hiccups in the switch from a traditional 4-3 to Brown’s 3-4 alignment, but the Irish have added depth and talent, especially in the linebacking corps. and the secondary as the defensive coordinator has brought in players more suited to his scheme.
In fact, the defensive line figures to be the weakest unit on Corwin Brown’s side of the ball, both in terms of numbers and overall talent. Freshman All-American nose tackle Ian Williams returns and will hopefully be an anchor in the middle of the line. Tipping the scales at just over 300 pounds, Williams needs to add weight and strength over the Spring and Summer. The Irish may once again depend on incoming freshmen to shore up the depth chart, as they add Brandon Newman and Hafis Williams, both of whom have a chance to see the field early. Senior defensive ends Pat Kuntz (who shifted from nose tackle) and Justin Brown are both returning starters, though Kuntz is not with the team this Spring for undisclosed reasons. Behind them are unproven backups – sophomore Sean Cwynar, sophomore Emeka Nwanko, junior Paddy Mullen, junior Kallen Wade and incoming freshmen Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore.
The linebacking unit should be much improved. Fifth year senior Maurice Crum, a four-year starter, will return to anchor the inside. He’ll no longer have the benefit of playing next to graduated senior Joe Brockington, but junior Toryan Smith figures to be the starter at the other ILB spot. On the outside, sophomores Kerry Neal and Brian Smith had flashes of brilliance in their freshmen campaigns and both return as likely starters. Both are tough, aggressive players, though they were often driven out by blockers on running plays – a year of added strength and conditioning should benefit both of them. Backing them up is junior former starter John Ryan, along with juniors Morrice Richardson and incoming freshmen Steven Filer and Darius Fleming.
The secondary figures to be the strongest unit on the entire Irish team. Senior free safety David Bruton has All-American potential, and he’ll be backed up by the very capable Kyle McCarthy. At corner, the Irish return both starters – junior Darrin Walls and fifth year senior Terrail Lambert. Both of them will be backed up by a deep and talented corps. of players, which include sophomore Gary Gray (sidelined in 2007 due to injury) and junior Raeshon McNeil. Only the strong safety position is up for grabs and there appears to be no likely leader at this point – sophomore Harrison Smith, junior Sergio Brown and senior Ray Herring all have a shot at filling Tommy Zbikowski’s considerable shoes.
The Irish return punter Eric Maust and kicker Brandon Walker. Maust was a steady punter in place of now-departed senior Geoff Price, averaging 42.1 yards per punt. Walker was inconsistent in his freshman campaign, going 6 for 12 kicking field goals, with a long of 48. He was also 22 of 23 on extra points. Notre Dame also has to replace Zbikowski, who was a dynamic punt return. At kick returner, both Golden Tate and Armando Allen return, but as the two increase their offensive playing time, both will probably be replaced by other players.
It’s hard to fathom that Notre Dame will get worse after the atrocity that was the 2007 season. The 2008 team is now completely Weis’s – there no more Willingham players on the roster and the men that Weis has recruited ostensibly fit his system. The Brady Quinn era is over and the Jimmy Clausen era has begun.
2008 is the key season for Weis – will his team recover and be a contender, or will he join the ranks of Willingham and Davie as disappointing failures? Weis has (hopefully) learned some hard lessons from the past season, and will approach this Spring far better than he did last Spring: No more experimentations with foreign schemes like the spread option. No more minimum-contact practices. No more stranglehold on the offensive system. No more “hidden revelations” at key positions.
The upcoming season will reveal much about the future of Weis and the Notre Dame football program, and the foundation begins this Spring.