1. The Offensive Line
Last year Notre Dame's offensive line was absolutely horrible, allowing 58 sacks on the season.
The line is anchored by right tackle Sam Young, who this offseason has added 30 pounds of muscle. Last year he had an arm injury and was playing his unnatural position of left tackle. I really believe this year will be a breakout year for him, allowing him to live up to the hype.
Another key offensive lineman for ND will be Chris Stewart, who really turned a corner last year. He is now in a physical condition where he can be a great presence at guard.
The other question on the line is, "Who will play left tackle?" I believe it will be senior Paul Duncan, though redshirt sophomore Matt Romine should give Duncan a run for his money.
2. The Defense
Last year's season opener against Georgia Tech was horrible. The Jackets' defense destroyed the Irish offense. That defensive coordinator, John Tenuta, is now at Notre Dame.
Tenuta will be coaching a talented young group of linebackers, led by fifth-year senior Maurice Crum Jr., whose experience will be huge. Tenuta is the king of blitzing, a genius when it comes to defense. The linebackers will thrive under Tenuta's guidance.
Brian Smith and Kerry Neal are two sophomores that became impact players at year's end. Both are very fast, talented players that are great coming off the edge. The inside linebackers will be Crum and likely Toryn Smith, who has patiently waited his turn.
For once the secondary is a position of strength for the Irish, though the loss of Darrin Walls is a huge blow, because Walls was the only proven shutdown corner ND had. The void left by Walls will be a great opportunity for either Gary Gray or Rashon McNeil to start. Both were very highly regarded recruits, and both have great potential. That also will allow a better chance for true freshmen Jamoris Slaughter and Robert Blanton to play in dime formations.
The safeties are strong, led by David Bruton, who is a hard-hitting ball hawk. The spot left open by Tom Zbikowski's departure to the NFL will be filled by Kyle McCarthy and Harrison Smith. Smith is a natural athlete who you can't keep off the field.
3. Running Backs
The running back position has great depth this year. The position is led by Robert Hughes, Armando Allen, and James Aldridge. I believe the starter will be Hughes, though all will get plenty of carries.
James Aldridge is the one back really needing to break loose. Hindered by a knee injury suffered in high school, he was still not even close to what he could have been last year. Sophomore speedster Armando Allen is now fully healthy from a HS injury and is ready to be the gamebreaker the Irish are looking for.
True freshman Jonas Gray is also going to be tough to keep off the field. Look for Gray to get valuable touches in '08. Of course, unless the offensive line doesn't improve—which it should—the running game doesn't stand a chance.
4. The Passing Game
Look for the passing game to feed off the running game in the 2008 campaign. With a talented receiving corps and a healthy, stronger Jimmy Clausen, the air attack should be a force to be reckoned with. Sophomore Duval Kamara is the top returning receiver for the Irish. Look for the 6'5", 215-pound WR to build off a good freshman year.
Behind Kamara will be slot receivers Golden Tate and David Grimes, and possession receiver Robby Paris, who is very similar to Jeff Samardzija. Grimes brings experience to the table, while Tate is a big play receiver with great speed. Tate will be matured and more of a complete player in '08.
Don't forget about the freshman class, which brings in three very talented receivers in Michael Floyd, Deion Walker, and John Goodman. Floyd will have the most immediate impact. He reminds a lot of people of Tim Brown, but it is a little too soon to be making those comparisons. Don't be surprised if Walker and Goodman get serious playing time as well.
The TE position is loaded with Mike Ragone and Will Yeatman, assuming he returns, and freshmen Kyle Rudolph and Joseph Fauria. Ragone will most likely be the starter, being the most complete TE. Yeatman is more of a blocker but has a good pair of hands. Ragone reminds me of Mark Bavaro. Both freshmen are ready for the college game, though I expect Rudolph to be the one to play first.
Of course, the maturation of Clausen will be very important. Clausen has added 20 pounds of muscle, is fully healthy, and has a year under his belt. Jimmy will be fine—he is a very good quarterback looking to break out.
I have been able to spend a lot of time with this team, and they have something about them, that IT. Maybe they're pissed off because of last year. I don't know what it is, but they have it. I feel this is a very improved and a very good football team.
We will really know where they stand when the Wolverines come to town Sep. 13. Personally I would have no problem with players getting fired up and getting into a little tussle with Michigan.
For the Irish, I think anything less than 8-4 is unacceptable. I feel there is a very good chance ND goes 9-3, 10-2, or maybe even 11-1, with possible losses coming to Michigan State, BC, Pitt, UNC, and USC.
But hey, if ND is rolling into USC 11-0, who knows what could happen? It is unlikely, but it could happen.