Four Ps – Pressure, Pound It, Protection, and Position.
Pressure – John Tenuta’s pressure defensive philosophy and unpredictability will clearly be evident in the Irish defense. Georgia Tech’s former defensive coordinator will line up 5-6 players on the defensive line and employ multiple blitzing schemes. The rush will come from every angle, including the secondary. The Irish defense may look like a base 3-4 or 4-3, taking advantage of different personnel, individual speed and game situations. Georgia Tech’s defense led the nation in Sacks last year, were fourth nationally in Tackles for Loss and sent more than four rushers the majority of the time. Notre Dame’s defense last year ranked second in Pass Defense and thirty-ninth overall in spite of a pitiful 96th in rush defense. The Irish return eight starters on defense. Raeshon McNeill, who saw significant playing time last year, will now take DB Darrin Walls’ place, who will miss the fall.
Some freshmen from the top-ranked recruiting class will see some significant minutes, especially along the defensive line. Watch for Ethan Johnson and Darius Fleming.
Pound It – Charlie Weis is first and foremost a ball-control coach. In 2006 and 2005, Weis used Brady Quinn’s arm to control possession. The Irish’s Time of Possession in 2005 ranked third in the nation behind an experienced offensive line. TOP for ND dropped to fortieth in 2006 and a miserable 107thin 2007 with four new OL starters and inexperience at the skilled positions.
The Irish return nine starters on offense including all three running backs – Armando Allen, Robert Hughes and James Aldridge. Jimmy Clausen starts his second year as quarterback. Four offensive line starters return in 2008. Dan Wenger, who saw significant minutes last year at guard, replaces John Sullivan at center into his natural position. Charlie has announced, to no one’s surprise, that the Irish would “pound it” in a running game. But look for Clausen and his young, fast wide receiver corps to build on his mistakes from last year, learn from Charlie’s teaching, and mix in a passing control offense.
Mike Haywood, offensive coordinator and former Texas and LSU running back coach, will call the plays in 2008. Haywood coached Cedric Benson at Texas from 2003-04 when the Longhorns were fourth in the nation in rushing in 2003 and second in the nation in 2004. While serving as running back coach at LSU from 1999-2002, Haywood coached Kevin Faulk (New England Patriots), LaBrandon Toefield (Jacksonville Jaguars) to a SEC rushing TD record, Dominick Davis (Houston Texans), Rondell Mesley (Green Bay Packers), Cecil Collins (Miami Dolphins). At Notre Dame, Haywood coached Ryan Grant (now Green Bay Packers) and Darius Walker (Houston Texans).
Newcomer Kyle Rudolph is listed as first string tight end. Watch for Michael Floyd, freshman wide receiver, to work his way into the starting lineup this season. Trevor Robinson, freshman guard, will get significant minutes.
Protection – The Offensive Line has heard it all off season. In a previous article, I reviewed ND offensive line recruiting over the years. Briefly, the offensive line in 2007 was talented but young with four new starters. The 2007 Irish could not establish an effective running game until the end of the season and were last in the nation in sacks giving up a record 58 and in Tackles for Loss Allowed. The key for the offensive line in 2008 is Haywood’s play-calling, the success of the running game, and the maturation of Jimmy Clausen to check off his receivers and throw the ball away when no one was open. With off season tutelage and a healthy arm, Clausen should show significant progress.
Notre Dame’s starting offensive line in 2008 has now accumulated sixty starts between them. In 2007, the o-line had 46 starts with 33 starts by one lineman, John Sullivan. The Irish offensive line will have more starts than all but four of their opponents – Washington (83), Stanford (82), North Carolina (73) and Purdue (66). Navy (25), Southern Cal (25) and Michigan (16 with 13 of those by one lineman, Steve Schilling) have the least experienced offensive lines of Irish opponents this year. By the last three games in 2008, the offensive line and the running game gelled.
Position - Weis and Haywood will stress on the running game more to improve the miserable third down conversion rate of 2007 – 31.09%, a significant drop from 2005’s 48.91% and 2006’s 39.55%. Too many times Notre Dame found itself in third and long – an all or nothing scenario. Another way of looking at that is when the Irish passed in 2007, they averaged 9.2 yards per catch. Yet with 49% completions in a passing situation, they still had the miserable third down conversation rate. Thirty-nine per cent of the time passes were incomplete. Twelve per cent of the time passing attempts resulted in sacks! Fifty-one percent of the time the Irish passes were incomplete or resulted in negative yardage. (from Rock Report)
With increased emphasis on the running game and an improving offensive line, look for the Irish to improve red zone scoring, which was 73.3% (’07) down from 89.8% (’06) and 81.2% (’05). Improvement in third down conversation and red zone scoring with so many returing starters will lead to improved field position.
The maturing Fighting Irish defense will return seven starters from this year’s team in 2009, losing a defensive lineman, a middle linebacker, and two defensive backs. Starter in ’07, DB Darrin Walls, will return in 2009, though, effectively making eight returning starters. The maturing Fighting Irish offense will return eight starters in 2009, losing only their fullback, a wide receiver and an offensive tackle.