Just a few very quick thoughts on the recently concluded recruiting cycle.
- Let's have a big OC Domer welcome to all the members of the Notre Dame graduating class of 2012. Yes, that's right, graduating class of 2012, because unlike many "premiere" football "schools" we at ND actually provide our kids with a world-class education and a meaningful college degree - in four years. There will no doubt be a few exceptions, but most of these young men will don a cap, gown, and tassel in May of 2012 and get their diploma just like Coach Weis promised their moms they would.
- Congratulations to Coach Weis and the rest of the staff for bringing in one of the top classes in America in talent, and the top class in America in character - no matter what ESPN says. I was very impressed by how many of these young men committed to the Irish before, or even during, the worst football season in University history and stuck by their commitment to the very end. That tells me all I need to know about the caliber of young man we are recruiting, and I pledge right now to always keep that in mind when writing about the performance of these guys on the field. Even when things go wrong, and the level of play is not up to our level of expectation, these are fine young men who should be respected as people even if they are being critiqued as football players.
- I guess Coach Weis gets a big "I told you so" on the rest of us. When the Irish lost out on a couple of big recruits at the last minute last February, he told us all he was going to reinvent the process to prevent that from happening again. He was largely scoffed at for his remarks at the time, but the reality is that he re-wrote the rules on how recruiting should be done, and his plan bore a bounty of fruit this year. The fact that he was able to analyze a problem and come up with an original solution that yielded positive results makes me optimistic that the other changes he recently announced with regard to coaching style and play calling may well be similarly successful.
- While I am very excited about the infusion of talent that Coach Weis has brought into the program, I must remain only guardedly optimistic (rather than wildly optimistic). With respect to recruiting, we've seen this story before. For three years running - 1981, 1982, 1983 - Gerry Faust brought the #1 recruiting class in the nation to Notre Dame. Notre Dame did not win a bowl game with any of those classes, and the Irish failed to crack the Top 20 in the final Associated Press Poll until they were ranked #17 at the end of the 1987 season (the season after most of the 1983 recruiting class would have graduated). As much as we have lamented the lack of talent in the program (and by "we" I mean Boob Davie, Ty Willingham, and Mark May), talent has to be well coached in order to translate into wins. Coach Weis has just about used up the benefit of the doubt he was getting on the talent side of the equation. Now it's time to coach that talent up. To coin a phrase, 3-and-9 is not good enough.
- One reason I am a little skeptical that this new class will make huge contributions on the field this season is the lessons we learned from 2007. The first lesson was that true freshman players, at any position, have a hard time getting on the field and being truly ready to play. The learning curve is just very steep, and we saw how our young players, even though they had a world of talent, struggled early in the season. The second reason is that when you look at the depth chart, the positions where you might expect freshman to have a chance to play (generally the skill positions) are already occupied by talented young guys who survived the trial by fire last year, and the positions where we have most need (generally in the line) are the positions where guys usually need a year or two of physical development before they can be really effective. Dayne Crist is great, but he's probably not going to push Clausen for playing time in the first season. We have three terrific running backs who got a lot of time last season (Aldridge, Hughes, Allen) - are true freshman going to pass all of them on the depth chart? Michael Floyd is a stud - but he has to get by Duval Kamara and Golden Tate, among others, to get on the field. I'm sure there will be a glaring exception or two (tight end?), but for the most part the Irish will have to compete and win next year with the same guys who went 3-9 last year.
- Great hire to get Jon Tenuta. Frankly, I can't believe he was available.
- I like the decision to empower the offensive staff to put together the game plan and call the plays. When Charlie was calling plays I think he sometimes outsmarted himself by calling plays that should theoretically work in spectacular fashion (but that failed for lack of execution) rather than calling plays that would reliably work for a first down. When Charlie first came in he had at his disposal an uneven distribution of talent, and he did a great job of using scheme and X's and O's to get the most out if that talent. But the program is ready to enter a new phase. Beginning soon, the Irish aren't going to out-scheme opponents, we're going to out-play them. Our O-line will block better than your D-line rushes, our receivers will beat your DBs, and our QB will deliver the ball in stride. We'll no longer need to call exotic plays in an attempt to mask talent deficiencies. Coach Haywood, being closer to the players, will be in a good position to call plays based upon what is working and who is hot. And hopefully he won't allow his gaudy reputation as a genius play caller to interfere with calling a solid and effective, if un-spectacular game.
- Maybe Coach Weis can use some of his spare time to help Coach Latina with the offensive line. I predicted last year that the season would hinge on the play of the O-line, and I was right. With an improving defense and capable players at the skill positions, I believe the same thing is true this year - maybe more so. The defense is good, but possibly thin on the defensive line. The offense has to control the ball this season so that the D-line doesn't get absolutely worn out. And the offense has to score some points so that our opponents can't just grind it out on the ground. We have some talented outside pass rushers and an effective secondary that can defend the pass once our opponents are forced to take to the air. But a thin (young) D-line and linebackers who aren't real run stuffers could be vulnerable to a punishing running attack if we're playing from behind.