I just forced myself to watch the 2008 Syracuse debacle on Hulu, not having seen it on TV before. It was almost as painful as watching it in person, my last game as a student, freezing to death underneath a blanket with my girl. What really got me steaming was the absolute lack of fire so many of our guys showed in that game. As a team the Irish fell apart late in games, and came undone late in the season.
My first inclination, like many others, was to blame this lack of ability to close out games, and close out the season on the relative youth of our football team, having not developed that "killer instinct." Going back and watching film though, I am surprised, not to mention disgusted, to find myself blaming the veterans.
Both 4th quarter touchdowns can be blamed largely on 5th year senior, captain, superior physical specimen, second round draft pick David Bruton. I won't describe the plays. It's too painful. But he blew it, both times.
A lot of our veterans seemed to dissapear in the latter part of the season. I'll name Bruton, Crum, Aldridge, Kuntz, Robby Paris, and Sam Young. I'll leave out David Grimes, who showed some real heart down the stretch, despite a diminished role.
Anyway, rather than attack anyone else, I'll take this opportunity to identify those players who show true inner fire, Irish pride, who won't hesitate to hit you in mouth. These guys don't take plays off, they don't dog it, ever, and their leadership will be what brings the program back into the National Championship picture.
You can see it in the eyes, and in the body languages, those players that just have it, that want it, each and every play. Here is my All-Fire team, the kind of guys I want on every special teams unit flying down the field to knock someone's head off.
1: Golden Tate. Everything about this guy just screams "competitor." Most expected him to take several years to develop into a complete receiver, but his work ethic turned him into one of the best in nation seemingly overnight. This guy never misses a ball, never goes down easy, and his concentration and ability to make miraculous catches can only be the result of extreme dedication.
2: Brian Smith. This one is kind of a no-brainer. Since coming in as an unheralded freshman, No. 58 has been making plays all over the field, become the vocal leader of the young Irish D, and is my favorite Irish linebacker since Demetrius Dubose, may he Rest in Peace.
3: Harrison Smith. I just love this guy. From my hometown in Knoxville, Harrison was just too much of a player for the Irish coaches to keep off the field, so they worked him into a starting role at linebacker. Despite being undersized and out of position, he was one of bright spots for the Irish last year, his only real mistake, albeit a huge one, was the personal foul against UNC. Even that was a crime of passion, which I am much likely to forgive than the sin of sloth shown by some of his defensive counterparts. Smith will be a MONUMENTAL upgrade over Bruton at the safety position.
4: Darrin Walls. God I missed this guy last year. He earned his man-stripes in his very first game as a true freshman, practically shutting down Georgia Tech freak wideout Calvin Smith. He was our best DB as a sophomore, and contributed one of the most exiting plays of 2007 with his pick six against Penn St.
5: Trevor Robinson. I'm sure he has some work do learning scheme and technique, but when he gets on the field, watch out. This man-child has a mean streak in him a mile long. He's the kind of guy who plays football because he just has to hit people.
6: Robert Blanton. Notice the trend in the secondary? This why I'm so pumped up about this group. Blanton has "it." Despite looking skinny as all hell in his uniform, this guy isn't afraid to lay the wood on anybody, and play every down the only way he knows how: Balls to the Wall.
7: Armando Allen. I've been kind of on the fence about Allen. Going back and watching him play though, I think his troubles can be attributed a couple different reasons, none of them fire-related. As a freshman, he was undersized and coming off of a broken leg, and seemed hesitant hitting holes.
Last year, I think scheme and poor coaching slowed him down. He's not meant to be a patient, Darius Walker type back, and slow developing zone run plays are not what he should be running. Allen is at his best when he is hitting holes fast, making an initial cut, and driving his legs for extra yardage. They let him do this in the blue and gold game, and the difference in his game was substantial.
In order for 2009 to be a success, and by success I mean winning 11 games, there are a few more players who need to join that list. Most are right on the cusp, although a few are in need of swift kick in the pants.
1: Jimmy Clausen. Clausen is right on the verge of making this list, with only a bit of immaturity keeping him off it. He never learned what it was like to lose, and couldn't deal with losing, and his attitude suffered because of it.
To be a true leader at Quarterback, no matter what the situation, you have to have eyes on fire in the huddle, and should be pacing the sidelines rallying the troops every second off the field. On the field, Clausen is a straight up competitor, and showed he is capable of perfection against Hawai. The bar for him is set extremely high, and if he reaches it, you'll see him in New York with Tebow, Bradford, and McCoy.
2. Sam Young. Young, as they say in the pros, is up for a "contract year." This is his chance to realize his potential, and possibly earn himself a huge NFL signing bonus. He has the physical gifts to become a long time NFL lineman, and needs to learn to push himself, and become an every down player. Opposing DT's should dread going up against him, and he needs to make every play a punishment. If he does, the Irish ground game gets going for the first time in years.
3. Toryan Smith. Smith is another case of unrealized potential, but the word out of spring camp is that he may finally be tapping into it, having finally locked down the starting middle linebacker spot. The success of the Irish defense lies heavily on Toryan's shoulders, and his ability to become an immovable object at the point of attack. If Smith achieves, the Irish finish top 15 in total defense.
4. Robert Hughes. Late in his freshman year, following the tragic loss of his brother, Hughes played with a vengeance, punishing all those who dared to stand between him and the end-zone. We saw glimpses of the kind of back he can be, and if he returns to form, he gives the Irish a great complementary back to Armando Allen. He has the talent to be a featured back in this system, but it's now or never, with Jonas Gray making the most of his minutes, and Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick joining the team in August.
5. Ethan Johnson. He has strength, speed, and size, and if he can develop the type of motor that guys like T Laws, Derek Landri, and Chris Zorich had, than he has a chance to become one of the greats. Another key to the defense's success is to develop a true terror on the defensive line, and Johnson has all of the tools to become that guy.
Let me know your thoughts, who I've left off, and who you think are the most important to next years success.