I know, I know—not another one of these lists. I have read several of them, and often their vanilla content adds little to what everyone already knows. Yes, Jimmy Clausen and the playmakers (read Allen, Floyd, Tate, and Rudolph) have to play well and put up numbers on offense. And yes, there needs to be big plays on the defensive side of the ball, too. One assumption I make that you have to understand is I am assuming all of these guys do what we expect. So who does that leave to be the potential difference makers in the game? Here is my list:
Football, for all of its complexities and intricacies, nuances, and schemes, is still a relatively simple game. Win at the line of scrimmage and your team will win most of the games. I don’t care if you are running a 3-4, 4-3, 3-4 with 4-3 personnel, 4-6, or whatever, the defensive line has to occupy the O line to let the linebackers roam. Don’t believe me? Just watch the BC game from last year and see BJ Raji single-handedly destroy the Irish OL. Listed at 6’2” and 310lbs, he burst on the scene as a freshman during the ’07 debacle, but according to most, failed to make the next big step as a sophomore last year. If he can draw a double team from the OT/OG more often than not this year, the defense should be in great shape. My measurement for impact: the safeties aren’t 1-2 in team tackles this year (it’s not a good thing when safeties lead the team in tackles, trust me).
I realize a lot of people want to see Manti Te’o start from day one. I believe he could be very effective, but I prefer to put freshmen in a place where they can succeed and not where they have to make all the plays. That’s where Toryan Smith comes in. He showed what he was capable of in the Navy game, starting for the injured Brian Smith and recording 10 tackles. Penciled in as the starter coming out of the spring at MLB, he will have the chance to prove what he can do and will hopefully take some pressure off of the highly touted Te’o. My measurement for impact: 60+ tackles on the season.
How does a guy who isn’t a player (anymore) and technically not a coach (he is a defensive graduate assistant, to be exact) come in so high on the list? Let's see—you take a former NFL all-pro, bring him in under a proven coach (Randy Hart) as a grad assistant, and let him teach the defensive line (a group that will be a bit undermanned due to depth and last-second defection of recruits) everything he has learned. This has worked for other teams quite well—just look at Ken Norton Jr at USC if you disagree. My measure for impact: ND defense holds the opposition to under 3.5 yds/carry (vs. 4.1 yards/carry in 2008).
Blindside, anyone? He has admitted to not playing up to his potential in his first four years on campus, so now, in his fifth and final season, will he finally step up? I think the work he put in during the spring will be contagious and he will motivate the entire OL to play a bit closer to their potential. My measure for impact: an overall reduction in the number of sacks (26 in 2008) to somewhere in the mid-teens. Also, a yards per carry average of 4.0+ would be great to see.
I’m not really sure anyone knows where he fits in the offense. He could be the x-factor or the thunder that complements Armando Allen’s lightning. Charlie Weis himself said Hughes needs to pick which kind of runner he wants to be—the elusive shake-and-bake or downhill power type. I think he is more of a north-south, straight-ahead guy that doesn’t shy away from contact. He desperately needs to prove himself in the first few games in order to prevent loosing playing time to Jonas Gray or Cierre Wood. My measure for impact: he gets 5-10 touches a game, averages 40-50 yards/game (hey, that’s only 600 yards on the season) and can become the featured third-and-short (and goal-line) guy who gets his job done.
Will someone please step up? I see a heavy rotation early in the year until someone stakes a claim to the position and effectively keeps it. I would prefer to see Duval Kamara step up and claim the role, as someone with his size (6’5”) would be difficult for any team to match. Other candidates include Robby Parris (needs to stay healthy), Deion Walker (was higher rated coming out of high school than Michael Floyd by the recruiting pundits), and John Goodman. Shaq Evans could be a dark horse in this competition, especially with an outstanding camp performance. Whoever wins the battle needs to be an effective run blocker for all cylinders to be firing in the Irish offense. My measure for impact: 600-800 yards receiving, 6-8 TDs (similar to the numbers I expect from the TE position).
He finally has all the pieces in place on the offensive side of the ball to impose his “decided schematic advantage.” After not replacing Mike Haywood in the offseason and retaking the offensive reins, there will be plenty of scrutiny if the offense sputters coming out of the gate this fall. I think he would be better off calling plays from the press box, but that is no place for a head coach (unless your name is Joe Paterno.) Here is an interesting fact for you to think about—the Irish have yet to score 50 pts in a game with Charlie Weis as head coach. My measure for impact: Top 20 offense, 4+ yards/carry, 30+ pts/game average.
Who? In case you haven’t heard, they offered a scholarship to a long snapper last February. This has been a bit of weakness over the past few seasons with more than a few miscues on special teams. CW addressed the need with the only scholarship offer to a LS I can remember in recent history and perhaps ever since the NCAA mandated 85 scholarship limit. For such a specialty position to earn his keep, this kid will have to play mistake-free football from day one. This is a no glamour/no glory position and he will probably not get any credit for doing his job, but will be vilified for any miscues. Talk about no-win situations. My measure for impact: no snapping miscues on punts, field goals and PATs.
Who? Part 2. This kid, who is a place kicker by the way, earned a scholarship offer and verbally committed without even setting foot on campus. While Brandon Walker improved drastically in 2008, a bit of competition can’t hurt. I expect Walker to keep his job for PATs and field goals, but one huge weakness in special teams has been the lack of touchbacks. After consulting the stats from last year, there was a grand total of one touchback in all of 2008. One. Uno. Hopefully we will see an improvement here. My measure for impact: wins the kick-off responsibilities and hits double digits in touchbacks.
Special Teams Part three. He averaged 41.1 yards/punt last season while having two punts blocked. Do I really need to talk about field position? While the 41.1 average is respectable, it would be great to see an improvement, especially in kicks inside the 20. My measure for improvement: an average a little closer to 45 yards/punt, which is asking a lot. If the average isn’t there (which partially depends on field position), then an increase in the number of punts inside the 20.
If all of these guys play their part, it is quite possible Notre Dame ends up in a BCS bowl game come January. Let's hope for the best as camp is right around the corner and the season starts in a month.