by John Vannie
The 0-4 start by Notre Dame has prompted a spate of analyses, rationalizations and accusations by a number of well-meaning folks and the ever-present band of Irish haters across the country. Some good insights have washed ashore from this sea of words, but there are only two truths that merit further discussion. First, Charlie Weis is not wholly responsible for the current state of Notre Dame football, but he is partially responsible. Second, Weis is not going anywhere and will get a fair opportunity to fix it.
It has been well-documented that Weis was not left with much front line talent in this year’s junior and senior classes. Of the 32 players originally signed in this group, only 24 remain. None of them are elite players, nor would any start on a top 15 team. To make matters worse, the team is currently ten scholarship players short of the 85 player limit. Weis tried to fill the gaps by promoting a few walk-ons and coaxing a handful of fifth year seniors to return this season, but only Trevor Laws has played well.
The main consequence of this talent deficiency is the offensive and defensive lines are made up of players who would normally be backups. Laws is the only defensive lineman who should be getting the majority of snaps, and he is double teamed on virtually every play. Patrick Kuntz is an inspirational player at nose tackle, but he should be in a rotation where he plays about 40% of the time. Also, the two-headed monster of Justin Brown and Dwight Stephenson, Jr. at right end has not done the job.
The offensive line has one front line player, center John Sullivan. His experience as a fifth year player is valuable, but his consistency as a blocker has not always met expectations. The rest of the linemen are either limited athletically (Turkovich, Duncan) or playing a year sooner than is ideal based on need (Wenger, Carufel, Olsen). Finally, sophomore tackle Sam Young has actually regressed from his performance last season, leading me to believe (without any first hand knowledge) that he is playing through an undisclosed injury.
The skill position players on offense are a collection of athletes with some talent, but they are not yet a cohesive unit. The quarterback and wide receivers do not make reads and adjustments in a manner that indicates familiarity and a basic comfort level. Weis is obviously not ready to give Jimmy Clausen the latitude to audible at the line of scrimmage, thereby negating a major component of his offense.
There is also an undeniable talent issue at receiver. No deep threat has been in evidence, which allows opponents to crowd the short passing lanes and commit an extra body to run defense. The starting wideouts have been unable to defeat man-to-man press coverage, and the tight end has been forced to stay in and help with the pass blocking chores on most occasions. The Irish have not even been able to execute a decent screen pass. The timing has not been good on these plays and there always seems to be a breakdown in the blocking just when the back is poised to burst into the secondary.
Where Weis went wrong throughout the spring and preseason is in thinking he just needed to get his quarterback ready to play while the rest of his offense would be a plug and play proposition. His early game plans assumed a level of fundamental competence among the other ten players that was never achieved in spring and fall practice. Weis discovered the hard way that basic recognition and blocking skills, which were not an issue in his NFL offenses and the veteran group he has coached in his first two years at Notre Dame, were not fully ingrained in this year’s young line.
As a consequence, Weis has been forced to dial back and develop simple core competencies that should have been nurtured beginning in January. His area of greatest strength is in the personnel available to cobble together a decent running game, and he has already produced some tangible results against Michigan State after one week of intense practice. Still, there is a long way to go before real cohesiveness takes hold, and the dearth of talent at receiver and the limitations of a freshman quarterback will ensure that no miracles take place this season.
That Weis did not see this coming is on him and his staff. Irish fans can now understand why Ara Parseghian said he needed to draw upon the experience gained in each of his years as a head coach before he could hope to be successful at Notre Dame. Despite his outward confidence and bravado, Weis is still learning the lessons of a head coach. The good news is that he appears capable of understanding his mistakes and fixing them, as he did last year with the defense.
This is not a guarantee that he will be able to turn things around completely. He must become a better manager and surround himself with staff members that will challenge him in a positive way and provide perspective. His current offensive assistants either did not recognize the inherent problems with the rest of the unit while Weis was working with the quarterbacks, or the working environment created by Weis is not conducive to a free exchange of ideas. Neither situation is acceptable.
It’s inconceivable that veteran offensive line coach John Latina did not see warning signs in the play of his charges long before the Irish took the field against Georgia Tech. I’m concerned that Weis exerts such a high degree of control over the offense that his assistant coaches are marginalized. While Weis has obviously learned that there is more to the head coaching position than the role of play-caller, it will be interesting to see whether he is willing to delegate more responsibility and strengthen his staff.
Weis did hand pick Corwin Brown to run his defense, and the venerable Bill Lewis is there to add advice and insight based on years of college and professional experience. Still, there is room for further upgrades on this staff. The program screams for a bona fide special teams coach, and Weis must be able to objectively evaluate the performance of each assistant as it relates to the development of young players. Again, he must remember that Notre Dame is not an NFL program.
Many of the aforementioned shortcomings will be mitigated through recruiting. Weis has substantially upgraded the talent level in the freshman and sophomore classes and is on track to add another outstanding class in February 2008. There is no way to exaggerate the need for a full roster of talented players, but that alone will not guarantee championship level teams unless Weis is able to adapt and address the other basic deficiencies in his program.
The expectations for this season should be the continued development of the offensive unit such that individual and collective improvements are obvious. Wins and losses are always important, but the schedule is such that 4-5 wins may be the high water mark for this team. That will be tolerable if the effort is maintained at a high level and the incidence of mistakes, penalties and negative plays do not cause the team to lose a game it would otherwise have won.
Defensively, it will be difficult to keep the current unit from wearing down as the season progresses. Several young players will be called upon to see action a year earlier than may be ideal, but reinforcements will arrive next season and the experience will be useful in the long run. The growth of a promising group of athletes along the back seven is of interest to many Notre Dame fans. Weis and Brown should be able to integrate them into the rotation, if for no other reason than to rest the starters for longer periods later in the year.
Despite the improvements realized on special teams in Weis’ first season, the productivity of these units has since deteriorated. Weis obviously recognizes the problems as evidenced by his public statements, but his attempts to fix them have failed. This is an area to watch going forward, and Weis’ willingness to hire and empower an e
stablished coach will be noteworthy.
Weis and Notre Dame have numerous positives upon which to build, and there are sufficient indicators that they can come all the way back from the current depths. There is no pre-ordained script with a happy ending, however, and everyone associated with the program must do their part to make the Charlie Weis era a success. It’s much more than a one man show.