Looking Ahead to Year 5 of the Charlie Weis Experience
Notre Dame has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons lately, and it hasn't even been because of their athletic teams.
There was a controversial decision made by the School Administration to allow President Obama to be their guest speaker at the Spring Commencement Ceremony.
I will certainly not dig any deeper into the abortion issue that saw Notre Dame make headlines, but I would like to focus some attention on what Notre Dame had been famous for up until this point: football.
How bad has it gotten for Head Coach Charlie Weis and his Fighting Irish? Well, where should I begin?
There's the 15 combined losses from the previous two seasons, most ever in any two-year span in Irish football history. How about the 2007 home loss to Navy, which snapped the school's 43-game winning streak over the Middies?
And don't forget the 21-13 win over San Diego State in last season's opener, a game that required safety David Bruton to force and recover a fumble on the Aztec goal line in the final moments of the game.
To top it all off, only one Irish player, Bruton, was selected in last April's NFL draft out of about 250 players drafted (and it wasn't until the fourth round). In comparison, rival USC had five players taken in the first two rounds, including three linebackers.
Clearly, Notre Dame has fallen on hard times.
But with a new season and new batch of recruits, the level of excitement in South Bend will be as high as it ever was.
Here are some of the things I like about the 2009 Fighting Irish, along with some of the things I don't like:
I like the quality of depth that Notre Dame will return on both sides of the ball this year. Starting with the offense, it's hard not to get excited.
In terms of game-breaking athletes, the Irish will be right there with any team. Junior wide out Golden Tate (is there a better name for a Notre Dame receiver than that?) is fast as lightning and a match up problem for most defensive backs.
Sophomore Michael Floyd burst onto the scene last year, catching 48 passes for over 700 yards and seven touchdowns.
Running back Armando Allen is quick and elusive, while tight end Kyle Rudolph used his incredible size (6"6, 258 lbs.) to grab 29 balls for 340 yards and two scores as a freshman.
Then there's Jimmy Clausen, who will enter his third season as Notre Dame's signal-caller. The junior threw for over 3,000 yards last year, though his season was rocky at times.
In the final game of the season, Clausen threw for over 400 yards in the Hawaii Bowl, and offered hope for better things to come.
Defensively, the Irish return only six starters, but several more have seen extensive playing time both last season and in previous years.
The Irish defense had to adjust to a new scheme and new coordinator, and at times the results were not pretty. In five of the six Notre Dame losses, opponents scored over 21 points to defeat the Irish.
But in their victories, opponents scored 21 or fewer points.
The defense is very much a work in progress, no question, but there is room to grow. The Irish kept their opponents below 200 yards passing per game last season, a sign that improvement could be on the way.
Certainly, if the offense can sustain long drives, the defense will be the beneficiary of longer rest, and hopefully better production.
I also like how the schedule shapes up for the Irish.
The Irish only have four true road games next year; two will take place in the first four games of the season, while the final two will occur in the final three games of the regular season.
That translates to plenty of home games, and plenty of time to enjoy the rich, vibrant night life that only South Bend, Ind., can provide.
The schedule also features several winnable games, including Nevada, Washington, Washington State, Navy, Connecticut, and Stanford. That's six games you have to figure Notre Dame will win, setting them up for a chance at eight or nine wins if they can steal a few more wins here and there.
The remaining opponents, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, USC, Boston College, and Pittsburgh can all be wins, with the probable exception of the mighty Trojans.
Add this all up, and the Irish could feasibly win ten ball games, which puts them in the conversation for a New Year's Day bowl game.
That will be a welcome thought after two years of being completely irrelevant in the college football world.
There will be trouble for the Irish along the way, and these are things I don't like:
After winning only ten ball games the past two seasons, can this group be a legitimate top-20 team in the country?
Last year, when Notre Dame was on the verge of being ranked, they lost games they could have won, most notably against North Carolina and Pittsburgh.
You have to wonder how they will hold up if they snap off a nice winning streak to begin the year.
I don't like the running game's ineffectiveness over the past few seasons. Averaging only 3.3 yards per carry on an offense featuring a dozen blue-chip recruits is unacceptable at Notre Dame.
The line was consistently pushed back, or their holes quickly closed on running backs last season.
Teams like Navy and San Diego State have no business stopping this running game, but it seemed to happen very frequently last year.
I don't like the depth, or lack thereof, of the defensive line. Losing end Pat Kuntz will be a big blow to the Irish defensive line, and there is a clear issue of depth now.
This group features under-performing players such as John Ryan, young players like Ethan Johnson and Brandon Newman, and players new to the position such as Kerry Neal. When sophomore Ethan Johnson is arguably your best line player, questions will exist.
The 2009 Irish will once again capture my attention every Saturday and will prevent me from doing anything with my life during their four-hour games.
I have been a fan of this team and university far too long, and I really believe there are good things coming for the Fighting Irish.
It's all about coaching the kids up at this point; no one will question the level of talent that now exists in South Bend.
The talent just needs to be guided and used to the fullest. Winning the X's and O's will give these athletes the edge in 90 percent of their games this year.
While it may be a few years before I can reasonably expect a national-championship caliber team, 2009 will mark an important step for the Irish.
Much of the talent is in the junior and sophomore classes, so Notre Dame can begin their journey this year and lay the ground work for successful seasons to follow.
I have the Irish winning nine games next year, and a New Year's Day Bowl on tap.
Charlie needs improvement, and nine wins would be just that.
Or Charlie Weis can begin looking for a new job.
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