A battle-ready unit must possess the raw ability, mission-specific potential, and legitimate proof that they will be successful come judgment day.
Three marquee Notre Dame positions have the pedigree, the potential, and enough proof to make Irish fans confident that a double-digit win season is possible in 2009. The receiving unit, the linebacker corps, and the cornerback group all possess the depth and ability to help substantiate claims of an Irish return to glory.
Golden Tate is on the 2009 Biletnikoff watch list, along with 36 of the finest receivers in the nation. Michael Floyd was a Rivals five-star recruit who responded with a 719-yard, seven-touchdown season as a true freshman last year. Duval Kamara is a 6’5", 220-pound mismatch nightmare.
And those are just the prospective starters.
Phil Steel ranked the ND receivers as the No. 1 unit in the country, and Athlon positioned them at No. 2. These rankings came without recognition of challengers like veteran Robby Paris, four-star sophomore Deion Walker, uber-athlete John Goodman, and incoming freshmen playmakers Shaquelle Evans and tiny dynamite Robby Toma.
The true test of a position’s strength is its ability to produce numerous starting lineups that still scare opponents. Consider the current knee injury to Kamara and conjure up a scenario where both Tate and Floyd are out of the lineup.
It would be easy to get excited about the 4.45 speed of Evans and Walker on the outside with the sure-handed Parris, the lanky Goodman, or the speedy Toma in the slot.
Jimmy Clausen has plenty of weapons to call upon in 2009, and he’ll need them to get out to a fast start in the first five games of the season, leading up to the USC tilt on Oct. 17.
Nevada, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, and Washington return just 11 total starters in their defensive backfields. Purdue returns the best national pass defense rank at No. 24, but that was against a run-dominated series of opponents in 2008.
Nevada and Michigan (ranked 119 and 87 nationally against the pass) should allow the ND pass game to sprint out of the gate with authority.
The Irish receivers possess the pedigree and the potential. The return of over 130 receptions and 2,000 yards is the proof.
A word from the wise: opposing defensive backs, take cover.
Speaking of the defensive backfield, Notre Dame is loaded at corner. That has not always been the case.
It wasn’t long ago that Weis camps were filled with a dozen corners without one true cover corner on the lot. Those days are long gone as names like Walls, McNeil, Blanton, Gray, and Slaughter push into the current two-deep.
The hamstring issues of Darrin Walls once again proves the depth of this unit, as one can present the same question as before without fear: If ND subtracted each member of the potential rotating trio of starters (Walls, Raeshon McNeil, and Robert Blanton) would you sleep well at night with Gray, Slaughter, and early enrollee E.J. Banks working through the left and right side? Absolutely.
And don’t sleep on Mike Anello. If inserted into the lineup, Anello would guarantee the Herculean effort and Holtzian passion needed to make up for his Davidian stature.
As for the pre-stated standards of pedigree, potential, and proof, the Irish corners have each locked down.
Blanton, Slaughter, Gray, and McNeil were all four-star recruits and highly touted athletes ripped from the heart of SEC country. Walls turned down Penn State, Florida, and Michigan to come to South Bend.
The potential of this group has been realized through a vast improvement in the national pass defense rankings. ND ranked 43rd in ’08. Looking deeper, it’s obvious that when Walls and McNeil made their debut three years ago, the Irish went from recent highs of 281 yards allowed through the air in '04 and 265 in ‘05, to 162 in ’07, and 195 in ’08.
Coach Weis has true cover corners with plenty of speed, depth, size, and experience. With at least seven new starting quarterbacks (including four in the first six games) looking down field at the ‘09 Irish DB’s, a top-25 ranking, 20+ interceptions, and a landmark year in the annals of Notre Dame football are all plausible.
The pedigree is obvious. Six high school All-Americans, two state Players of the Year, six four-star recruits, and the No. 1 linebacker commit in the nation.
The potential is already evident on the sweltering August practice fields of South Bend. Much-hyped freshmen Manti Teo and Zeke Motta are both pushing for playing time.
Projected starters Brian Smith, Toryan Smith, and Darius Fleming are showing off power, speed, and experience. And players like Steve Filer, the four-star Player of the Year from Illinois, and fifth-year Irish stalwart Scott Smith complement young athletes like Anthony McDonald, Dan Fox, and David Pozluszney as they push for two-deep consideration
The proof is on paper. Brian Smith brings his 54 tackles and two sacks back to the midway. Fleming brings back his 2.5 sacks and impressive game-film highlights of speed and power. Toryan Smith brings back flashes of brilliance from his 10 tackle, one touchdown performance against Navy.
All of these numbers have the devious Jon Tenuta spending more time in the dirt, drawing up new blitz packages to haunt Colin Kaepernick on opening day.
In conclusion, these three positions will possess the pedigree, the potential, and the proof that many ND fans have been waiting to see. More importantly, these three positions are the ESPN Top 10 plays positions of college football. Michael Crabtree, Malcolm Jenkins, and Rey Maualuga proved that last season.
They are the flash positions, always looking for highlight reel catch, the dynamic interception, and the slobberknocker hit that can change the course of the game and the season.
Notre Dame has talent in many areas, but none more deep or arguably more important than the playmakers who reside at receiver, cornerback, and linebacker.
Battle-ready and battle-tested; it’s time for the playmakers to make plays.