With the Blue-Gold game over and the football team taking time off until June, the staff of Clashmore Mike sat down to identify key players on this year’s team.
These players are not being singled out merely because of their performance in the Blue-Gold game, but because of their potential for exceptional performance next season.
This player is an anchor for his side of the ball. More than skilled, he should be an emotional leader and consistent performer.
Andy: Jimmy Clausen — As much as I hate to admit it, this must be the season Clausen matures into the type of player that commands respect and is able to coax the best possible performance out of those around him. He's shown potential and flashes of brilliance. The time is now for Clausen to finally develop into a true leader of an offense.
Anthony: Jimmy Clausen — Clausen must be the anchor of this team. There is no more important leadership position on a football team than quarterback. and Clausen needs to come into his own this year. He is a two-year starter with loads of talent but hasn’t consistently played up to his potential. The 2009 Irish squad will only go as far as his leadership takes them.
Jon: Sam Young — Young will enter this season having started every game for the Fighting Irish the past three seasons (38 games). He is the unquestioned leader on the offense in terms of experience. However, it’s time for Sam to step up as the emotional leader for the offense, and what better time than now? I look for Sam to close out his somewhat disappointing career at Notre Dame with a strong season. Hopefully, he’ll ride some momentum into the postseason this year. If he plays up to his potential this season, he could prove to be a solid first-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft.
Michael: Jimmy Clausen — While Sam Young has the quiet confidence and leadership of the offensive line, Weis’s offense is quarterback-centric. All roads lead from Clausen. Clausen’s third-year starting must display maturity and a thorough knowledge of the playbook—as Quinn did—for this team to dominate. Ten returning starters ease the pressure. I expect Clausen to show real leadership, make the right calls, and eliminate any costly mistakes.
Andy: Brian Smith — As Smith is the unquestioned emotional leader of this defense, I don’t think there’s any likelier candidate for an anchor position than him. While he is able to amp up those around him, it’s vitally important that Smith’s play becomes much more consistent and productive for him to truly lead the Irish defense into battle on Saturday afternoons in the fall. I expect him to rise to the occasion.
Anthony: Brian Smith — In the same way that Clausen must come into his own, it is time for Smith to take on a larger leadership role on his side of the ball. Smith has proven to be an exceptional athlete with loads of potential, but he needs to move beyond leading by example to being the vocal leader of the defense. If Smith can keep this unit energized, the Irish defense will significantly elevate their level of play.
Jon: Brian Smith — Even though Smith is a junior and Kyle McCarthy outranks him in terms of seniority and experience, Brian’s leadership on the field has been well-documented this offseason. Moving over to middle linebacker should help solidify his position as the anchor of the defense, and hopefully his play this season will live up to the hype. I have no doubt it will. One thing is for sure—when looking for the most emotional player on the defensive side of the ball, look no further than Brian Smith.
Michael: Brian Smith — As a legacy, Smith grew up on Notre Dame and responded to pressure with heart in his first two years. The defense will feed off of his passion and love for the school. Expect Smith to anchor the defense whether inside or outside. He’ll call the formations and provide leadership for an attacking defense. The Irish defenders will play with heart in 2009 due to his leadership.
This is the most important athlete on each side of the ball. If this player does not perform up to standards, Notre Dame will have a hard time winning close games.
Andy: Sam Young — While conventional wisdom ought to dictate a pick of Paul Duncan for this slot (and there are convincing arguments to be made), I have to pick Sam Young as the offensive cornerstone for the 2009 Irish. The entire offensive line’s play is going to be crucial for anyone to see success next year—whether passing or running the ball—and Young must finally live up to his potential in turning the front five into a fine-tuned machine. It’s time his play finally develops some sense of consistency and he is able to sustain relevance on every down.
Anthony: Offensive Line — On offense, the success of the Irish won’t be determined by a single player. Rather, the production of the offense will be directly linked to the offensive line. The Irish have plenty of weapons at the skill positions. With Clausen distributing the ball to a deep group of receivers, a host of talented tight ends, and a stable of highly recruited running backs, the offense will only go as far as the offensive line play allows. To have a BCS season, Notre Dame needs a high level of performance out of this unit.
Jon: Running Backs — While I’d like to pick Jimmy Clausen or Paul Duncan for this category, I can’t. Rather, I think the little extra that will push this year’s squad from ordinary to extraordinary (that’s right, I said it) will be the success of the running backs. Armando Allen, Robert Hughes and Jonas Gray—coupled with James Aldridge at fullback—will play a large role in determining if this offense can post big numbers on opposing defenses. If the Blue-Gold game is any indication of their potential, this offense may not be so pass-heavy next season. It may finally be time for the running game to play a pivotal part in keeping defenses honest by pounding the line of scrimmage.
Michael: Paul Duncan — Duncan must show he can protect Clausen’s backside against the opponent’s top pass-rushers without help. His dominance at left tackle will allow the Irish to utilize all their weapons, freeing up a tight end. He will be integral to a successful Irish running game.
Andy: Harrison Smith — Smith’s transition to free safety is one of the most important offseason personnel changes. period. A dominant force is needed to control the middle of the field, and it looks as if last season’s emergence of Smith as a potent young gunner should ease his migration. Following in the footsteps of safeties like Tom Zbikowski and David Bruton, Smith must deliver consistent play to avoid a drop in production at this crucial position.
Anthony: Ian and Hafis Williams — On defense the Irish need productive years from Ian and Hafis Williams. This doesn’t necessarily need to come in the form of sacks, tackles for a loss, etc., but defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s scheme requires tenacious play by the interior defensive line. Ian and Hafis will be counted on to stuff the run as well as provide push up the middle. Notre Dame’s defense must be able to stop the run with seven. If the Irish can get this production from the interior defensive line positions, the defense will open up, utilizing the assets of a strong secondary, and perform at a much higher level.
Jon: Harrison Smith — Again, the popular choice for this category would be the play of the defensive tackles, and you cannot underestimate their role in making the Irish defense a force to be reckoned with. However, another very important part of the defense is the secondary, and a big part of its success will depend on how well Harrison Smith transitions to the free-safety position. If he transitions well, the Notre Dame secondary could be one of the most talented and strongest, depth-wise, in the nation. If he transitions poorly, the secondary may prove to be the weak link in an otherwise very strong chain—a weakness opposing offenses may look to expose. The only positive, should Harrison Smith not be up to the challenge is that behind him in the depth chart is a capable Sergio Brown, and he should see some playing time regardless.
Michael: Ian and Hafis Williams — What a perfect time for Bryant Young to return to South Bend! Both Ian and Hafis Williams will benefit from his All-Pro experience and coaching and veteran coach Randy Hart. The defensive line will be counted on to limit opponents' ground games. That will force teams to pass, playing into the strength of the Irish defense—the secondary. With few experienced QBs among our opponents, Notre Dame’s rivals will try to exploit the run. Expect cornerstone play from these two up the middle.
This player should become an integral part of the team. What excites Notre Dame fans most in watching young talent develop is observing a player exceed expectations and perform at a high level (e.g. Golden Tate in 2008). This is a player to watch next season.
Andy: Ethan Johnson — Johnson is poised to become the most devastating pass-rusher since Justin Tuck was harassing opposing quarterbacks. His speed and technique at the line of scrimmage are incredible, and he looks to be progressing rapidly in a defense that seems tailor-made for his skill set. Bryant Young’s arrival will only accelerate his development and maturity.
Anthony: Armando Allen — Allen finally looks to be comfortable playing in Coach Charlie Weis’s offense. He is a back with top-end speed and quickness, exceptional hands, and game-changing ability. If the Blue-Gold game was any indication, his vision and patience have both improved, and he has finally learned to utilize his speed. He is also the best back in pass protection. If Allen can play at a high level and get the ground game going, the sky is the limit for the Irish offense.
Jon: Jonas Gray — If Gray can be a complete running back in Charlie Weis’s offense (i.e. blitz pickup, identifying defensive schemes, etc.), he could be poised to become a consistent contributor to this year’s offense. Even though I believe Armando Allen will get the majority of the touches out of the backfield, Jonas Gray could prove to be a reliable second option when Allen needs a breather. Robert Hughes has been a fan favorite, but despite some solid performances at the end of the 2007 campaign his running has been fairly lackluster thus far. If he continues to disappoint, Jonas Gray could receive some heavy consideration as the thunder to Allen’s lightning.
Michael: Ethan Johnson—Johnson will provide the outside edge rusher that pressures opponents' QBs, forces mistakes, and puts opponents in holes with sacks. Expect him to benefit from Tenuta’s attacking defense and Hart and Young’s tutelage. With few opponents returning starting quarterbacks, look for Johnson to take advantage of the inexperience. I wonder if he and Justin Tuck will be comparing notes over the course of the season.
Just as the title says, this player should be the most improved player from last year to this year, not necessarily the best performer on the field or the one to put up the biggest numbers.
Andy: Armando Allen — Allen is poised to become the difference-maker in this year’s Irish team, and it’s not hard to see why. With a new position coach, improved offensive line play, and returning experience in the passing game, Allen should be the first- and second-down back for the majority of the season. His fundamentals and technique look better than 2008, and his trademark quickness is still present. Look for Allen to dominate with Weis calling the plays.
Anthony: Sam Young — After three years as a starter, Young is poised to have a strong senior year. Young was arguably the most-heralded offensive line recruit in the country his senior year of high school but has yet to play up to his potential. Young must perform at a high level to pave the way for the Irish ground attack as well as protecting Clausen. If newly hired offensive line coach Frank Verducci can harness Young’s talent, he could secure his status as a top pick in the 2010 NFL draft.
Jon: Harrison Smith — Every report that came out of spring practice said Harrison Smith’s transition from outside linebacker to free safety was nearly flawless. With his new position, Smith will be poised to contribute to the defense on a full-time basis, as opposed to a part-time outside linebacker in Notre Dame’s speedier defensive package last season. Just as he did during the Blue-Gold game, I expect to see him terrorize opposing offenses and consistently pressure quarterbacks in Tenuta’s new blitz-heavy defense when he’s not providing extra pass support.
Michael: Armando Allen — With an experienced offensive line and improved coaching, Allen should benefit the most from the increased emphasis on the running game. With Allen developing into a complete back with the speed that is required in Weis’s dynamic offense, Armando may well double or even triple his 45-yards-per-game average from 2008. Look for Allen to score Irish TDs in punt and kickoff returns this year as a young Notre Dame team reaches maturity.
Most Valuable Player
This player should be the most impressive statistical leader and a strong candidate for a postseason team award.
Andy: Jimmy Clausen — Provided all the progress being made in the running game and along the defensive front translates into tangible performance on the field in the fall, Clausen is in a unique position to become an elite college quarterback in 2009. Throwing to all the same targets as last season, Clausen should be productive in the passing game if the Irish can finally keep teams honest running the ball. The only thing holding Clausen back at this point is himself.
Anthony: Armando Allen — Again, Allen has the potential to be an all-purpose yardage machine—running, receiving, and as a return specialist. If he plays up to his potential, he should provide a huge boost for Notre Dame’s offense and special teams.
Jon: Michael Floyd — Even though Golden Tate has the biggest game-breaking potential on the offensive side of the ball—the majority of opposing defenses will key in on Tate with two defenders—Michael Floyd should benefit the most from the mismatch. Couple his pure athleticism with Jimmy Clausen’s improvement this offseason and Floyd will be poised to have a record year for the Fighting Irish.
Michael: Jimmy Clausen — Clausen’s QB rating (23rd) ranked just behind NFL draft prospects Mark Sanchez (21st) and Josh Freeman (22nd) in 2008. Clausen had as many TDs as Matthew Stafford (25, tied for 17th), and his completion percentage was nearly the same as well (60.9 percent vs. 61.4 percent). Clausen should cut way down on his interceptions (17 in 2008). A wide-receiver corps as deep and talented as any in the nation, an improved running game, and a mature, experienced offensive line will make this an unpredictable offense. Weis will expand the playbook further now that Clausen is entering his third year starting. Surrounded by weapons and with an additional year to mature, Clausen’s junior year will look light years better than his sophomore outing.
The players featured above have been highlighted as integral pieces in this year’s squad. They will be major factors that determine whether the 2009 campaign will live up to Notre Dame standards or if the Fighting Irish will be playing in another low-tier bowl game at the end of the season.
However, this list isn’t all-inclusive and we’d like to know what you think! Leave your comments and let us know your picks for each of these categories. One thing is for certain—whether we are right or wrong, this should turn out to be, at the very least, a very exciting season for Notre Dame football and the Irish faithful.
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