After reading and responding to many articles on Bleacher Report, I have decided to get off the bench and write my own article on this year’s Fighting Irish. I look forward to responses and constructive criticism on my writing.
The 2008 Fighting Irish will not resemble the debacle that took the field last season. This team comes into the season experienced, stronger, and most importantly, possessing a better understanding of the playbook.
I believe that the Irish will be vastly improved this year based on four things: experience, conditioning, coaching, and our schedule.
Last year the Irish had to rely on many underclassmen with little or no experience. This year will not be the same.
Going into last season, Jimmy Clausen was the third string quarterback. Coach Charlie Weis announced just before the beginning of the season that the team would run the spread offense and that Demetrius Jones would be the starter.
Clausen was a freshman still learning the playbook, did not have much opportunity to practice with the first string, and was coming off surgery on his elbow to repair bone chips—yet after Jones transferred and backup Evan Sharpley proved ineffective, Clausen was thrust into the starting role.
In his first seven games, Clausen threw one TD compared to five INTs. After sitting out a couple of games with an injury, he came back and threw six TDs compared to one INT in his final three games.
After a first year of being thrown into the fire and taking his lumps early, Clausen has spent the offseason learning the complete playbook and practicing with the first team. These factors, combined with a fully healed elbow and strength conditioning in which he added considerable muscle to withstand the rigors of the season, leave me with an optimistic outlook at QB.
The success of this year will rely on the offensive line, which was both young and brutal last season. Four starting O-linemen were sophomores last year with little playing experience, allowing Clausen to be sacked 34 times. While only John Sullivan has graduated, the changes on this line should be significant.
Junior Sam Young will move back to his natural right tackle position. He has bulked up to 330 lbs., and along with right guard Chris Stewart at a massive 340 lbs., the right side should be able to open the way for the running game.
Junior Dan Wenger will move from right guard to his natural position at center. Wenger was described as a nasty and physical center coming out of high school.
The biggest concern with the O-line will be at left tackle. Whoever is named the starter will have to protect Clausen. Having all five offensive linemen in better physical conditioning, along with increased size and significant game experience, will benefit this group.
Much has been said about the coaching of Charlie Weis. Like the university itself, college football fans either love him or hate him.
Coach Weis has made some eyebrow-raising decisions this season. The first one was that Weis has handed over the play calling to offensive coordinator Michael Haywood. While Weis was hired with the reputation of a great play caller, he is trying to become a better all-around head coach and look at the entire picture, not just the offense.
If Weis is concentrating on offense, it makes it difficult to see all other areas of the team, such as defense and special teams. An offensive coordinator needs to spend a lot of time with his offensive players even after practice. This makes it difficult for the head coach to assist with other aspects.
Haywood graduated from ND in 1986, coached at LSU and Texas, and has been with Weis since 2005.
Weis also brought in coaching help on the defensive side. Former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta has accepted a lesser role as linebackers coach. He will work with defensive coordinator Corwin Brown.
The Irish plan to bring the pressure this year. Tenuta was known for his blitzing plays and creating pressure on opposing offenses to execute their plays quickly. This defensive strategy, along with playing more 4-3, will help against the run. It is a high risk, high reward style that could create havoc, or it could lead to big offensive plays if offenses escape the pressure.
The last area that I believe will help this year’s turnaround is the schedule. Unlike last season, when the first 10 opponents qualified for bowl games, this year only U$C cracks the preseason AP Top 25.
This year’s schedule is much kinder, featuring San Diego State, a rebuilding Michigan team, MSU, Purdue, Stanford, UNC, Washington, Pitt, Boston College, Navy, Syracuse, and finishing against U$C. The schedule features many toss-up games, and Notre Dame should even find itself favored in many of these games.
This year should be a major turnaround for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The team should be good enough to finish with seven wins and qualify for a bowl game. I believe that this team is capable of winning nine games given the schedule and improvements made this offseason.
If this team struggles and wins fewer than seven games, it will be a major disappointment.