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Monday, August 11, 2008


posted by John Vannie
There is plenty of Kool-Aid being sold in South Bend these days, and I’m surprised by the numbers of folks that are more than eager to guzzle it. Perhaps it’s an elixir that will erase the painful memories of Notre Dame’s 2007 season while pumping up expectations for a splendid campaign in 2008. In any event, my approach to the upcoming football season is one of caution and healthy skepticism. There are plenty of holes to fill and improvements to be made, and anyone who predicts nine wins or more after a dismal 3-9 performance is conveniently overlooking a few basic truths.

Let’s start with the defense. The Irish ranked 96th out of 119 Division I programs in rush defense last year, barely edging out powerhouses such as Eastern Michigan and Rice. The only difference I see up front this year is that last year’s best player, Trevor Laws, has moved on to the NFL. Laws made a boatload of tackles (112) last season while everyone else was getting blown off the ball, and his replacement will come from a committee of freshmen and a few guys who have not done anything in previous seasons to get them on the field for meaningful action. It’s safe to say that none of our 2008 defensive linemen would start for a Top 20 team, and this by itself is both frightening and sad.

The linebackers aren't all that bad, particularly if Brian Smith works out in the middle and Maurice Crum is healthy. New coach Jon Tenuta will have them blitzing on their way through the tunnel, and this will lead to several big plays in both directions.

One thing you’ll need with a blitz-happy scheme is a solid set of cornerbacks, and Notre Dame lost its best cover man when Darrin Walls was forced to sit out the season. That means Terrail Lambert will take on more responsibility and the opponent’s best receiver. Lambert has never been a shut down corner, and talented free safety David Bruton is going to have a tough time figuring out how to cover the entire field when the blitzers do not quite reach the passer in time.

Special teams is another area for which Irish fans maintain a strong case of denial. The biggest change is the departure of ace punt returner Tom Zbikowski, and the same cast of previously ineffective kickers returns to take another swipe at the ball. Last year, Notre Dame’s opponents were treated to an average starting position in the vicinity of their 40 yard line for each offensive possession. The Irish still don’t have anyone who can kick the ball to the goal line or beyond, so not much change is likely. Coverage teams should be better since Coach Weis took a 101 course at summer school in Blacksburg, Virginia, but that may not be saying much since last year’s bunch was downright awful.

Notre Dame was not very competitive last season, but they may be good enough this year such that a field goal kicker might be able to help win a game or two. The bad news is there are no proven kickers on the roster, and any field goals will probably come from close-in territory where the Irish are tempted to roll the dice and go for it on fourth down.

If the defense plays as I expect, the Irish will be returning a lot of kickoffs again this season. There were not many seams last year and the timing between the Armando Allen and his blockers was abysmal. Weis has promised strong special teams every year since his arrival, but if anything their performance has deteriorated. Again, keep drinking that Kool-Aid.

Finally, let’s look at the offense. Weis will hand over the play-calling duties to Mike Haywood, so one would think that Notre Dame will run the ball more often. The bad news is that this ground-based juggernaut finished 115th last year, and the same personnel return for another try. Yes, we’ve all heard the offensive linemen have gained weight and strength during the off-season, but opposing teams have weight rooms and conditioning programs, too.

The right side of the line will feature 660 pounds of Chris Stewart and Sam Young. These guys are supposed to be road-graders, but they may be better suited to go against a blocking sled. If defensive linemen are still allowed by the rules to move laterally and shoot through gaps, the resultant whiffs by Stewart and Young could suck the air right out of the stadium.

The left side, particularly at tackle, is downright scary. Neither Paul Duncan nor backup Mike Turkovich is ideally suited for the position, but there is no one else available. Duncan does not have the requisite agility and footwork to neutralize opposing pass rushers, so he had better be able to yell, “Look out, Jimmy” at the appropriate times.

Overall, this group of Irish linemen is not very light on their feet, so opponents will attempt to transform them into set of turnstiles with stunts and delayed blitzes.
I have no doubts that Jimmy Clausen will be a much-improved quarterback this season if he can remain upright. A strong running game will help, but he may have to settle for “decent” since teams rarely improve from 115th to the upper echelon in one year.

The wide receivers are another area where the unknown is greater than the known. David Grimes is the most accomplished of the group, but he is small and played much of last season through a variety of ailments. Duval Kamara is a talented sophomore whom many project to have a breakout season. The problem with Irish fans is they always expect more than is objectively likely, and they frequently expect more than is humanly possible.

This year’s phenom is a highly acclaimed receiver from Minnesota named Michael Floyd. Expectations for Floyd make those for Kamara appear pedestrian. Weis has already expressed giddiness about Floyd’s skill set, but I’ve heard this song before. Two years ago, he gushed over Munir Prince, who is no longer with the program. Allen was the anointed home run threat last year, but he gained only 348 yards rushing and his long gain was a paltry 15 yards.

None of this will stop some Notre Dame fans from talking about a BCS bowl, but there are quite a few question marks on this team and only some of them can be answered in eight short months. The schedule also fuels optimism since it is arguably the easiest (and most uninspiring) slate in recent memory, but Irish fans routinely underestimate the ability of other teams to develop capable replacements for departed players.

In summary, the best way for fans to approach this season is with eyes wide open. The good news is that the Irish return 19 starters and the entire coaching staff from last season, but those same facts are also the bad news.

Tomorrow's Rock Report will feature SEE's rebuttal to my gloomy outlook after he has chugged a few liters of the local drink of choice.
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