Intro. It seems to be a standing requirement that if you write a Notre Dame football blog, you have to make pre-season predictions. I'm not a fortune teller. I'm not even a good gambler, especially when it comes to the Fighting Irish, since I usually bet with my heart and then watch in horror as my heart gets ripped out of my chest and trampled under hoof by a wolverine riding a white horse. But enough about my dreams/nightmares. Let's just say that I know so little about the team Charlie Weis will be putting on the field a week from today that I can't type the word "prediction" with a straight face. So I don't have "predictions." But I do have some expectations, based upon what we saw from the Irish over the past two seasons, what we have seen and heard from the media, and the precious few opportunities we have had to actually see real Notre Dame football players engaging in various football-like activities during the Spring and Fall.
General Expectations: Offense. With the loss of most of our key skill-position players from last year(Quinn, Shark, McKnight, Walker) we know that whoever throws, catches, or carries the ball for the Irish will be somewhere in the neighborhood of "extremely inexperienced." Nowhere is this more true than at the quarterback position. I have written before that I think Sharpley begins the season at QB, and then likely gives way to either Clausen or Jones depending upon how well the offensive line is blocking and how healthy Clausen is. However it plays out, Notre Dame will have a brand new QB who is likely to be very well prepared, but completely untested. The receiving corps is equally as raw. David Grimes was the #3 receiver for most of last season and played solidly. Expectations are that he enters this season as the #1 WR. That is a big jump, and it will be interesting to see if he can take his game to the next level. Lining up with Grimes will be multiple young receivers with little or no playing time but loads of talent. It will be interesting to see which of the young wideouts can fight their way onto the field, and if they can live up to all the hype that has surrounded Coach Weis' recruiting classes.
The tight end position is not nearly as unsettled as QB and WR. John Carlson is a pre-season All-American candidate with ample experience and great hands. Carlson will no doubt be the favorite target of whoever Coach Weis taps as the trigger-man in his offense. At running back, the Irish are expected to lead with Travis Thomas, who returns to the offense after playing last year at linebacker. TT is a physical back with decent speed and a bad attitude. He hits the hole hard and he has no intention of stopping until he finds the end zone. I wrote when TT was brought back to the offense that I believed it to be a leadership move more than a football move. I meant that while Travis is a good, solid running back, he is probably not the most talented back on the roster. After all, Darius Walker pushed him down the depth chart. The Irish probably have at least two, if not three, running backs who will eventually be getting more carries than Thomas. But Travis Thomas is a big-time football player. He plays hard, and he practices hard. He hits the weight room hard. He is an excellent role model for how the running back position is supposed to be played at this level. The leadership he brings to the running back position is invaluable. Eventually, I expect Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, and possibly James Aldridge to begin cutting into TT's carries. When they do, it will be because Travis Thomas taught them how to prepare and to play big-time football. At end of the day, we have ample talent at running back, although most of it is very young, and we have for the first time in the Weis era several players in the backfield who have true home-run capability.
Which brings us to the offensive line. I think most Irish fans are in agreement that the play of the O-line last season was pretty underwhelming. How often did we see Brady Quinn making plays with defensive linemen or blitzing linebackers breathing down his neck or draped over his back? Far too often. How many times, on fourth-and-short, did Notre Dame run a QB sneak? If your best power running play in short yardage situations is the QB sneak, your O-line is not getting the job done. How many times did Darius Walker make a spectacular run in just getting back to the line of scrimmage rather than taking a three-yard loss?
We don't have Brady Quinn at quarterback any more. We don't have Darius Walker, who could see disaster coming through the line and side-step it like a matador. We have three inexperienced quarterbacks who will need time to throw the ball. If they aren't given time, we will see interceptions, fumbles, and sacks. We have largely inexperienced running backs who will need actual holes to run through. If those holes aren't there, we'll see negative-yardage runs and fumbles in the backfield.
In short, Notre Dame's fortunes this year are riding on the offensive line. We have to be able to reliably run the ball for 4 yards or more on first and second downs. We can't be in third-and-long situations. Third and long means an all-out pass rush, with young running backs trying to pick up the blitzers, and a young QB throwing the ball down field to young receivers trying to find a soft spot in the nickel or dime zone defense. That is not a high percentage situation. We have to be able to mix pass and run as we choose to, not have it dictated to us by the down-and-distance situation. On short yardage, we don't want our young QBs running the sneak. We want to give the ball to TT, or Schwapp, or Aldridge, or Hughes and know that we can get two yards. Obviously, in the passing game, the QB will need more time to throw than Brady Quinn had last year. If the offensive line can control the line of scrimmage, if the Irish can run the ball with authority rather than finesse, then I think we can have a very good year.
But John Latina had better make sure his resume is current. Because if the O-line fails to produce this year, he will be next year's Rick Minter.
My expectations on offense are that we will see a nastier, more physical offensive line. We will see a team that is committed to running the ball with authority within a very balanced offensive attack. Ball control passing game featuring the tight ends, with the occasional surprise shots down the field. No more draw plays. The QB will be expected to manage the game in the Tom Brady / New England Patriots mode. He will not be expected to carry the team. If the defense plays well enough to keep the offense from having to play catch-up or drive the ball 90 yards, then we'll score enough points to win.
Personnel wise, I expect Evan Sharpley to surprise everyone with his play. I think he'll play well enough that it will make it very hard for Clausen to get on the field. I expect Demetrius Jones to get some playing time to see what he can do, and I expect to see him get spot duty in a couple of Coach Weis' "personnel groups." Possibly a goal-line package and an occasional West-Virginia package just to keep the defenses guessing. I expect to see a lot of running backs. TT, Junior Jabbie, Aldridge, Allen, Hughes will all get carries to see what they can do, and I expect the freshmen to carry an increasing share of the load. I expect to see more speed and more big plays after missed tackles.
Bottom line on offense - I think we'll see a more balanced, conservative offensive attack that will be able to keep us in games if the defense holds up it's end of the bargain. I don't expect to see any offensive heroics and dramatic come from behind wins like last year at Michigan State. If we turn the ball over or give up big plays on defense and get in a deep hole, we'll be in trouble. If we get into must-pass situations the odds will tip toward the defenses we face and things could get ugly. But if games stay close (or we get ahead) I expect the offense to be more than adequate to the task.
General Expectations: Defense. Two words - Corwin Brown. One of the reasons Notre Dame fans are so happy with Charlie Weis is that he "gets it." As a Domer himself, Charlie gets Notre Dame tradition, he gets the Notre Dame way. When he first got the head coaching job at Notre Dame one of his very few mistakes was hiring Rick Minter. Ironically, that error was due to the fact that Coach Weis was possibly too respectful of Notre Dame tradition and wanted to have some coaches on the staff with ties to Notre Dame. Unfortunately, as recent experience most painfully demonstrates, "Notre Dame experience" does not always equate to "great coach." Too frequently we heard players and coaches talk about confusion with assignments (especially in the secondary) and about how hard it is to play fast when you're trying to think too much. Rick Minter's schemes were apparently too convoluted and complex for the players to internalize enough to become second nature.
The buzz around Corwin Brown is that the players are all excited to play in his new "3-4 personnel" scheme. We're hearing a lot about playing hard, flying around the ball, and making plays. We're also hearing about fitting the scheme to the players rather than fitting the players into a scheme. But despite all the enthusiasm, we haven't seen anything yet. The defense remains a huge question mark. It does seem, based upon the dramatically increased success we are having in defensive recruiting this cycle, that Coach Brown does know how to connect with and motivate young men. We can only hope that his ability to reach these guys emotionally will translate into improved results on the field. In Corwin We Trust.
Based upon returning personnel I expect the secondary to be the strength of the defense. Zibby is back for another year after injury led to disappointing play last season. David Bruton is expected to bring more range and big play ability to the free-safety position, and the young corners should really come into their own. Add in talented depth that will enable the DBs to stay fresh and run nickel and dime packages when warranted and we will should see far fewer cheap touchdowns caused by broken coverage in the secondary.
If the secondary is more "don't break", I expect the front seven to supply the "bend." The change to the 3-4 will be most dramatic for these guys, and it remains to be seen how good the fit is between players recruited for a 4-3 and this new system. After studs Trevor Laws and Pat Kuntz depth and experience are real concerns on the defensive line, and Kuntz is not very big for a nose tackle. While the Irish have returning experience at inside linebacker (Crum and Brockington) plus some depth there, outside linebackers will likely be guys who will be really tested for the first time.
Bottom line on defense - I expect to see a defense that is improved overall from last year. Better play in the secondary will reduce the number of big plays allowed, and we'll see more turnovers generated by interceptions and big-hit fumbles. In the front seven I expect that we'll have a hard time matching up against talented offensive lines. Teams with big lines and good backs are going to be able to run the ball against us. We'll give up yards on the ground, but few big plays. Because of better team speed and a more aggressive scheme, we'll see a better pass rush, more sacks, more fumbles produced. With four quicker backers we'll see better underneath pass coverage, helping out the secondary. As I hinted at above, I see a "bend but don't break" defense that will also flash some real big play ability.
General Expectations: Special Teams. Why oh why can't the most storied program in college football history find a kicker? With kickoffs pushed back, I expect very few touchbacks and for opposing offenses to once again start their possessions at the 30-yard line. By the same token, the opposition will likely see fewer touchbacks as well, giving Notre Dame's young talent a real opportunity for big plays in the kick return game. I expect at least two kick returns for Irish TDs this year. I expect placekicking to be a 50-50 proposition inside 35 yards, and a prayer beyond that. The punt game will be great with Geoff Price kicking and Zibby returning (although I would try to find another punt returner given what happened to Tommy Z last year).
What Does It All Mean? I expect a more conservative, balanced ball control offense with a very effective running game and occasional big plays in the passing game. I expect an improved and talented defense with big play ability that no longer gives up long touchdown passes to receivers running wide open down the seam, although we're going to have trouble slowing down teams committed to grinding it out on the ground. Wins and losses? In general, I expect Notre Dame to win the games we won last year, and lose the games we lost last year, without getting blown out. Because of our youth and inexperience I expect us to lose at least one game that we ought to win. We still won't be a Top 5 program, but the gap is shrinking fast and I expect to end the year sniffing the Top 10.
Tomorrow: Game by Game Expectations.