Saturday, April 19, 2008

Morning Wood

Happy Blue-Gold Day! Just a couple of quick hits before we here at OC Domer get going on a day full of lacrosse and Angels Baseball.

The BIG NEWS is that Cierre Wood, listed by many as the nation's top running back prospect for next year's recruiting class, verbally committed to Coach Weis and Notre Dame during his unofficial visit to campus this morning. If this is true, it would be a HUGE way to kick off the new recruiting cycle (no disrespect to young Jake Golic, who already committed but who doesn't carry the same cache'). Hopefully the reports are true, and this will get the ball rolling!

The other "news" is the unveiling of the "The Shirt" for 2008. Background on the shirt is here. Best pictures of the shirt are here.

I just have a hard time getting into "The Shirt." Who's the flabby, slow-looking white guy? Is he supposed to be a kicker? A symbol, perhaps, that our kicking game will improve to just mediocre (instead of God-awful) this year? You couldn't throw a picture of a determined David Bruton on there? Or a pumped up Robert Hughes? Or a snarling Coach Tenuta? Sheesh.

ND will rise again? Sounds like "the South will rise again", which is a sad joke because folks in the South have been vowing to "rise again" for 150 years, without success. (There's a great "South will rise again" parody at which I can't get out of my head when I look at The Shirt).

"The Shirts" were better when they were done by the students, spontaneously, and when they were for specific big games and had a real edge to them (usually involving a nasty insult to the opposing team). It meant something to have "the shirt" that was made for a big USC game, or a Miami game, or an important Michigan contest. The Shirt today is so darn corporate vanilla that I just can't get into it.

But I like the blue.

Pat at BGS informs me that students still make "bootleg" shirts for big games. Bootleg?! What does that mean? The student shirts used to be the only "real" shirts. Now they're considered "bootleg"? What's the world coming to?!

Anyway, I hope everyone has a great day at the "2008 Blue-Gold Spring Football Festival, presented by Home Run Inn Pizza!"

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What's In a (Blue-Gold) Game? (2008 Edition)

The 79th Annual Blue-Gold Game will be played this Saturday afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium. Of course, the scrimmage is now part of the "2008 Blue-Gold Spring Football Festival, presented by Home Run Inn Pizza." Coach Weis has named six big-time heroes from Notre Dame's storied past to be the Honorary Coaches for this year's contest. He has also modified the format of the game a bit (offense versus defense with funky scoring), probably due to depth issues (such as at QB and TE).

However it's played, the Blue-Gold Game is always a highlight of the Spring for Irish football fans, as we've been in serious withdrawal from our steady diet of football since at least the Super Bowl, or perhaps even since the Stanford game for those who just can't get a good buzz from the NFL (the "Methadone" of the hardcore college football fan). It's also the way those serious fans finally get release from the tension that has been building up for several weeks. We know that football is going on. We've been teased and scintillated by video clips of guys running over bags, and receivers catching balls in drills, and coaches cussing at the linebackers - but we haven't been allowed even a glimpse of "our guys" playing real football, full speed, on real grass, and under the bright sunshine of a Notre Dame afternoon. The anticipation is part of the fun, but after a while it's almost too much to bear. This Saturday we'll all be able to satisfy our hunger, relax, and breathe easier. At least for a while.

If that last paragraph feels a little creepy, I think it's because I've been distracted by the whole Marilyn Monroe sex tape thing. Do you think it was really JFK?

But I digress. Every Spring, there are two categories of questions swirling around the Blue-Gold Game. The first category of questions are the "what will we see?" type question. Last year those questions dwelt on the four-horse quarterback derby (including Jimmy Clausen's arm) and on Corwin Brown's new defensive scheme. This year, we aren't expecting a lot of surprises from a depth chart perspective, many of the young players played a lot of football last year and we (or at least "I") don't expect to see a lot of "new" faces in the lineups. But that doesn't mean we don't have questions.

  • How does Jimmy's arm look? Is it finally 100%?
  • Have the young receivers (Kamara, Tate) matured enough in the offense to take the passing game to the next level?
  • Who's going to be "the guy" at RB? Can Armando Allen run through some contact and rip off some big yards?
  • How different will the defense look with the addition of Coach Tenuta to the defensive staff?
  • Do we have enough big bodies to fill out the D-line? Will the D-line be able to stop the run at all?
  • Can anybody in St. Joseph's County kick a f*&%ing field goal? A touchback?
  • And, the number one question of the Spring: Can the offensive line get the job done?
So we'll watch the game and get some tentative answers to the "what will we see?" questions. But it's the second category of question that is the most compelling: "What does it all mean?" It's tempting to say that "it's just a practice" and that you can't really put much stock in what comes out of this somewhat artificially staged scrimmage. Last year I did some digging to try to see if there was any correlation between what happens in the Blue-Gold game and what we see in the Fall. I was able to find some data back to the 1998 B-G contest, which I've included here, updated to reflect the results from 2007.
  • 2007. Gold defeated Blue, 10-6. Offensive Player of the Game, Junior Jabbie (13 rushes for 87 net yards, 0 TDs). Defensive Player of the Game, David Bruton (4 total tackles and 35-yard INT return for a TD).
  • 2006. Blue defeats Gold, 10-7 on a Carl Goia field goal. Offensive MVP was Travis Thomas (8 rushes for 104 and a TD). Defensive MVP was Trevor Laws (6 tackles, including 2 sacks).
  • 2005. Blue defeats Gold, 28-6. Offensive MVP Brady Quinn (8 of 12 passing for 102 yards, 2 TDs). Defensive MVP Trevor Laws (1 sack and 3 total tackles for loss).
  • 2004. Blue defeats Gold 35-7. Offensive MVP Brady Quinn (17 of 22, 263 yards, 1 TD). Defensive MVP Tom Zbikowski (1 INT).
  • 2003. Blue defeats Gold 17-14. Offensive MVP quarterback Chris Olsen (11 of 25, 146 yards). Defensive MVP Justin Tuck (3 sacks).
  • 2002. Gold defeats Blue 3-0 on Nick Setta field goal. Offensive MVP Ryan Grant (7 carries for 45 yards). Defensive MVP Gerome Sapp (5 tackles, 1 INT).
  • 2001. "Defense" defeats "Offense" 74-40. Is nothing sacred? Offensive MVP David Givens (2 TD catches). Defensive MVP Shane Walton (INT return for TD).
  • 2000. "Defense" defeats "Offense" 39-31. Offensive MVP Jabari Holloway (4 receptions). Defensive MVP Anthony Denman (39 yd INT return for TD).
  • 1999. Blue defeats Gold, 49-10. Offensive MVP Jarious Jackson (5 of 6 for 73 yards and a TD). Defensive MVP Anthony Denman (6 tackles, 1 INT).
  • 1998. Blue defeats Gold, 38-7. Offensive MVP Autry Denson (11 carries for 109 yards). Defensive MVP Kory Minor (5 tackles including 1 sack).
Based upon my review last year, I concluded:
Well, to me it looks like what you see is what you get. If a player has a big Blue-Gold game, he's a pretty decent player and he's likely to have a pretty good Fall season. If the offense is prodigious in the Spring, you'll probably be able to move the ball in the Fall. If the defense dominates the Blue-Gold, the defense will likely be the better unit come September. So, while you're tempted to say that the Blue-Gold is fairly meaningless, I would have to disagree. Looking back a few years tells me that teams don't change drastically over the summer. Warning signs in April are serious weaknesses in October. Strengths now will likely be the team identity in five months.
Well, that's what I said before the 2007 Glue-Gold. Did it hold up? Here was my recap of the action in last year's contest:
So, after last Saturday, a day on which the weather did cooperate, what do we have? We have a quarterback derby that is still very much in the air. Before the game, Zach Frazer was pretty vocal about being #1 in the race, at least in his own mind. Then he went 0 for 4 with a pick. Demetrius Jones was only 3 of 6 with an INT, but also threw the only TD pass of the day, and had a very nice 31 yard run in a key spot. Evan Sharpley was 5 for 7 for only 31 yards, and got "sacked" 4 times. Wonderkid Jimmy Clausen was 3 of 7 for 23 yards. As a group, the four quarterbacks were 11 of 24 attempts for a whopping 77 yards, 1 TD and 2 INTs. You'd have to say nobody set Rock's House on fire from the quarterback spot.

On the ground, contrasted with just 24 passing plays (by the QBs), the Blue & Gold squads ran the ball 44 times for a net 211 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per rush (excluding QB runs and sacks). The combined squads had 12 first downs via the ground, only 2 converted through the air. The offensive surprise of the day was Junior Jabbie, who had more than twice as many yards as any other rusher (net 87 yards on 13 carries). Travis Thomas, James Aldridge, Asaph Schwapp, and Armando Allen were all within spitting distance of 30 yards gained and 4.0 per carry.

All offense taken together averaged just 3.2 yards per play. (3.0 for the Gold, 3.5 for the Blue).

The defenses, aside from holding the offense to just 3.2 yards per play, had 2 interceptions (one returned for a TD), 9 two-handed "sacks", and 8 other tackles for loss. Longest pass completion was just 15 yards.

The offensive MVP was an unknown running back (Jabbie), not a QB or receiver. The defensive MVP was a defensive back (Bruton), which is a good sign.
Last year we saw quarterbacks go a combined 11 of 24 for 77 yards, 1 TD (reportedly on a shaky throw by Demetrius Jones), and 2 INTs. We also saw the QBs get "sacked" a total of 9 times with 8 other plays going for a loss. I think it is fair to say that we should not have been surprised when our passing game was anemic to start the Fall campaign and when our O-line couldn't pass protect at all. The clues were there. In retrospect, it also wasn't a great sign when our #1, #2, and #3 running backs (Thomas, Aldridge, and Allen) were all significantly outgained by the guy who would end last season 5th on the depth chart. It probably was also a clue that Coach Weis dialed up a total of 44 running plays to just 24 passes, and that the teams combined for just two first downs through the air (versus 12 on he ground). At the time there was much conjecture that Coach Weis was playing his cards close to his vest, calling a very vanilla game plan so as to give nothing away to opposing scouts. The truth was that our passing game (including Clausen's elbow) was not ready for prime time and what we saw in the Spring was what we got in the Fall.

Of course, Defensive MVP David Bruton did go on to have a great season, capped off by being named the OC Domer Player of the Year.

Spring practice wraps up on Saturday. Kick-off against San Diego State follows 140 days later. There will be a lot of weight lifting and conditioning over those 140 days, but precious few real practices. Some new talent will be infused, but likely won't be a big factor in September. The team we see for the 2008 Blue-Gold Spring Football Festival, presented by Home Run Inn Pizza, is the team we'll see on September 6th. Let's hope they look sharp.

In particular, I'll be looking for much improved blocking (especially pass protection) from the O-line, and I really hope to see Brady Quinn-like numbers from Clausen (65% to 75% completion percentage for 200+ yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs). If Clausen doesn't have time to throw, and if he can't push the ball down the field, I'll be very, very concerned.

So, just try to have fun out there guys!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Special Teams Doom Irish in Hockey Final

The Notre Dame Men's Hockey Team saw their amazing season come to a disappointing close last night in Denver as they suffered a 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Boston College Eagles in the NCAA Championship Game. Congratulations to the Eagles. Dang it.

I was worried going into the game that, however the Irish might match up with B.C. on paper, they were going to have a little trouble getting into the right frame of mind emotionally for the contest. Thursday night's overtime win over Michigan was such an emotional, historic win for the program that I felt a letdown in the title game was a real possibility. Whether it was a letdown, or just running into a better hockey team, Notre Dame was clearly outplayed in the Final. Boston College was 2 for 4 with the advantage on the power play, while the Irish were 0 for 8 when they were a man up.

What is it about special teams play that gives Notre Dame fits (in any sport)?

Congratulations to the Irish on a fantastic season. Those coaches and players, once they get over their disappointment, will be able to look back with pride to a season in which they took Notre Dame hockey to the next level.

More on the game here, here, and here.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Spring Blog-cleaning

For some strange reason, I actually had a few minutes available this morning to spend on the blog - so I thought I'd do a little Spring cleaning. Specifically, I like to check on the sites listed on my blog rolls to make sure that they are current (i.e., worth keeping on my personal list of best Irish blogs and worthy of promoting to my tens of readers).

The first change I had to make was to put The Irish Roundup on probation. For all I know, the proprietor(s) there could be dead, or maybe just kidnapped, or maybe just ran off with a Purdue cheerleader. In any case, the last post over there was on February 6th (signing day). That's well over two months of NOTHING. But Irish Roundup has been good to the OC Domer (i.e., they once sent us a nice e-mail and they include us on their blog roll), so instead of unceremoniously dropping them altogether, I have made them the first member of the new blog probation list. Hopefully Irish Roundup will get back from his bender in Vegas soon and we can take him off probation.

The other changes right now are the addition of two excellent blogs to our rolls. Section 29, Row 48, Seat 10 is a group blog with nine contributors. Despite a strong whiff of Dillon Hall in the air when I visit their blog, I'm adding them to our roll because they consistently produce very thorough and thoughtful posts, and cover several Irish sports besides football. I first became aware of them about halfway through last football season, but their archive shows that S29, R48, S10 has been up and running since 2005, which makes them a sort of blog Grandpa. Check 'em out.

Finally, OC Domer is pleased to welcome Irish Band of Brothers. IBB is a new blog (even younger than OC Domer!), but they've been pumping out a very nice mix of Irish news, analysis, opinion and humor since their inception in October 2007. The WeisGipper who runs the site doesn't provide much personal information about himself, but IBB does link to both the official and the unofficial websites for Carrol Hall. Being a Vermin myself, I would probably link to IBB for that reason alone - but the quality content is a nice added feature.

I hope you'll visit the blogs on my rolls. They really do represent the best, most consistent, non-commercial content available and are worthy of your time and support.

I'll have some more thoughts on Spring football later in the weekend (I hope!).

Friday, April 11, 2008

Puck U!

Hail to the Victors! Congratulations to the Notre Dame Mens Hockey team for their momentous semi-final win over the #1 seeded University of Michigan wolverines last night. The 5-4 overtime win sends the Skating Irish to their first NCAA Championship game ever, against Boston College on Saturday night.

Not to beat a dead horse, but does anyone else remember when the talk was all about how "relevant" Notre Dame isn't anymore? Well, we're relevant enough that when the Irish win a HOCKEY game it's worth a story in the New York Times.

I won't spend any time breaking down the X's and O's (does hockey use X's and O's? Or do they use, like, Canadian letters?), because I would quickly embarrass myself. I just had a few very quick thoughts.

  1. It ALWAYS feels good to beat Michigan. It'll feel better when we beat them in football 155 days from today, but a win over UM in swimming, fencing, golf, always feels very good.
  2. Of course, knocking off Michigan when they're ranked #1 in the nation in a sport they take pretty darn seriously is even better. That's gonna leave a mark.
  3. Beating Michigan with a roster full of kids we recruited from the state of Michigan is just icing on the cake.
  4. I hope Coach Brey was at the game taking notes about how to win a big tournament game. Which was higher: Number of goals scored by the Irish hockey team last night, or number of 3-point shots made by Brey's Irish basketball team against Washington State? (Answer: Hockey scored 5 goals last night, the basketball team hit just 3 of 17 3-point tries against WSU).
  5. Beat Boston College! No, really, please, I'm begging you, Beat B.C.!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Lessons Learned?

It's Spring here in the OC, if not quite so in South Bend, and Spring football is underway. Blogging Spring football is a difficult and dangerous task. Difficult because a blogger living in Orange County who can't go to the practices and who can only watch short, grainy video clips of players running through bag drills, has a hard time producing thoughtful content that is actually relevant to what's going on at practice. Dangerous because of temptation. The vacuum created by the lack of anything real to write about tempts one into believing that all will be well with the world. That the Spring, which is a season of miracles, will produce wondrous and positive changes on the Notre Dame practice fields. Spring brings out a little Bob Marley in all of us:

Don't worry about a thing,
cause every little thing gonna be all right.
I wrote last year, when OC Domer was only about a week old, that while it is silly to sit here in California and try to write a "preview" of next year's version of the Fighting Irish, Spring need not be an unproductive time.
What's a fan to do? We can hope. Spring is the season of hope, and that is our role. We can't lift weights, we can't hold the blocking dummy, we can't help the young cornerbacks with their footwork. So we hope. We hope that Coach Weis and Coach Brown really do have the mojo and the savvy needed to teach our very young players how to play this game at the highest level in a very short period of time. We hope that the young men Coach Weis and his staff have brought to Our Lady's University are really all that and a bag of chips. We hope that at least one of the quarterbacks really can grasp and run this complex offense with confidence. We hope the young offensive linemen play better than the seniors who are about to graduate. We hope the defensive backs can cover the seam route, and that we can develop a pass rush. We hope all those kids coming off injuries are 100% "GO!" for this season. We hope we find a guy who can kick the ball through the end zone and one who can make a 40-yard field goal.

We hope. And those of us who have been "hoping" since we were toddlers - we believe.
So, I hope, and I believe.

Coming off a 3-9 campaign in 2007, there's a lot of hoping and believing to be done, and frankly Hope and Belief are a little bit tougher to come by this year than last. So I have tried to identify and organize my hopes in such a way that, with a little Irish luck, I might be able to move beyond mere Hope and into actual optimism about the 2008 season. I know, baby steps OC ...

In his 2007 season wrap-up press conference, Coach Charlie Weis stated that once recruiting was over, he and the staff would begin systematically addressing the "what went wrong" issue and the "how can we fix it" question. I stated at that time that I did not expect that Coach Weis would be issuing a White Paper in the Spring detailing the results of that inquiry, and I was right. While Charlie appropriately takes the full blame for everything that went wrong on the field, he also has been very adept at avoiding any substantive discussions about why things went as poorly as they did last year, or how he is going to fix things for 2008.

In the absence of a White Paper from Coach Weis, Irish fans (and bloggers) are left to break down the 2007 season on their own and to try to fashion a sort of blueprint for an improved 2008. My contribution to this effort is set forth below, in the form of my Top 10 Irish Lessons Learned from the 2007 football season.

10. Special Teams are too important to be left to a committee. After two mediocre special teams seasons in 2005 and 2006, Coach Weis decided that special teams were going to become a priority for every coach on the staff, that special teams would be coached by committee. The result was that Irish special teams in 2007 looked like the product of a committee. CW has recognized the error of his ways, has gone back to having one coach with full-time responsibility for special teams and one assistant special teams coach, a guy by the name of Weis. These changes, coupled with an imminent visit to Frank Beamer, the head coach at Virginia Tech who is widely acknowledged to be a special teams genius, will hopefully produce some positive results in the form of field position on Saturdays.

9. Talent Needs to Play. Coach Weis is a loyal guy. He is loyal the University. He is loyal to the great Notre dame players of the past. He is loyal to his own players who have moved on. He is slow to fire loyal coaches. He wants to reward senior players who have been good soldiers by giving them playing time, and he has been reluctant to bench more veteran players even when it is clear that guys behind them on the depth chart give the team a better chance to win. Unfortunately, in football, loyalty and experience can be overrated. Superior talent needs to get on the field. Call this the Travis Thomas rule. TT was a loyal member of the Irish program, who selflessly moved from running back to linebacker because the team needed him there. But he was never the best running back on the roster last year, and he shouldn't have been taking carries and touchdowns from the younger, more talented players. By the end of the season, Coach Weis seemed to understand that and we saw very little of TT. But it wasn't just him. Similar scenarios were played out at safety, in the O-line, among the receivers, and at linebacker. You're recruiting these 4- and 5- star players for a reason - get them on the field!

8. The football field is not giant craps table. The playing surface inside Notre Dame Stadium is green like a craps table, and shaped like a craps table, so I can understand the confusion. I guess. But calling plays for the Fighting Irish is not a game of dice. There's a little riverboat gambler in Coach Weis, and that's a good thing. You don't want to be too predictable for opposing defenses, you have to keep them off balance to be most effective. But Coach Weis isn't just a gambler. He's that guy who who has emptied the ATM, and who is now playing on the credit card cash advance because he's convinced his winning streak is going to start on the next roll of the dice, even though he hasn't won anything all night. Coach Weis (and now Coach Haywood) needs to call plays that will work, instead of plays that should work. There's always a gap between theory and reality. In football, that gap is known as execution. It's not enough that the opposing defense is lining up just right, and that your substitution package has created the match-up you wanted, and that the play you called will be a quick touchdown, if your players can't be counted on to execute the play perfectly. Rather than calling "perfect" plays that might or might not work for easy touchdowns, Coach Weis needs to dial up plays that can more reliably be expected to get 5 yards and a first down because the team knows how to execute them. I think I speak for many when I say I would gladly take high-percentage first downs over low percentage shots at the end zone.

7. Coach the Team You Have, Not the Team You Wish You Had. Charlie Weis clearly has a vision of what he wants his football teams to be. Too often, he coaches his team, and calls the game, based upon his vision of the future rather than current reality. Two examples. First, he wants the ball. It is CW's stated preference to receive the ball on kick-offs, because he believes that his offense is good enough to march down the field, score a touchdown, and put his team on top early. In 2005 and 2006, that was a sound strategy. In 2007, it wasn't. In 2007, our offense was anemic and the only thing receiving the kick-off did was give the opponent great field position after two quarterback sacks and a lousy punt (great tackle by David Bruton). Coach Weis finally admitted this flaw in his philosophy in the worst possible way - by choosing to kick instead of receive against USC. While the decision was the right one, choosing to abandon his long-held bravado at that moment sent a horrible signal to his team and the fans in the stadium that felt for all the world like a giant white flag of surrender. The second example is fourth downs. More than any other college coach in the country, probably, Charlie loves to go for it on fourth down. If you have a decent offense and you pick your spots, it's actually not a bad percentage play. But last year it wasn't a good percentage play. More often than not, a failed fourth down play left a dejected offensive unit smelling of failure as they went to the sidelines, and forced an overmatched and tired defense to take the field with their backs to the wall. Finally, in the UCLA game, Charlie punted. And he punted, and he punted. By playing the high percentage field position game, Coach Weis forced the game to be decided by the match-up between a UCLA offense with no quarterback and a Notre Dame defense that was playing with its hair on fire. He was finally coaching the team he had, rather than the team he wanted to have. And it made a world of difference.

6. Quarterback Derby = Bad Idea. It's an old football cliche' that if you have two quarterbacks you don't really have one quarterback. That apparently goes double if you have four quarterbacks. In 2005 and 2006 the Irish were so settled on a single QB that most fans were unsure who the QB would be if Quinn got hurt. And that actually worked out okay. In 2007 Coach W gave four different quarterbacks equal opportunities to win the starting job, keeping the winner a big secret up until opening day. That didn't work out so much. While guys should certainly be given a chance to work their way up the depth chart, the importance of stability and confidence at QB should not be underestimated. It's because of this lesson that Dayne Crist won't see the field next year unless Clausen fails spectacularly or gets hurt. Ditto Evan Sharpley. The days of quarterback controversies at ND are over, at least for a while.

5. Men versus Boys. Coach Weis knows how to coach NFL players. And he knows how to coach older, more experienced college players. Last season he learned that 18 and 19 year old boys have to be coached differently than men are coached. You have to account for the youth on your roster and adjust EVERYTHING accordingly. You have to adjust the way you coach technique, as well as the game plan you install. Because while young players may have all the talent and potential in the world, they can't execute an NFL offense. No matter how smart the coach is. It is amazing to me that Coach Weis apparently didn't fully understand this lesson entering 2007. But I think he gets it now. Of course, understanding that adjustments are necessary, and actually figuring out the correct adjustments to make are two different propositions. Stay tuned for future developments.

4. "Scheme" is overrated. Coach Weis has proudly boasted that because of his NFL experience, the Irish will usually be able to win the battle of "Xs and Os" on game day. Which is nice. But calling the perfect play does you no good if it isn't executed. Calling the right pass protection is worthless if the running back whiffs on the blitzing linebacker. In 2005 and 2006, Coach Weis' Xs and Os helped Notre Dame win a lot of football games. Rarely did the Irish take the field with an overwhelming talent advantage. But we did have a superior QB and some experience around him, so that "scheme" could make a difference in the final outcome. "Scheme" helped mask some deficiencies and even gave us a shot at beating USC in 2005. But at the end of the day, "scheme" didn't get us over the hump against USC, or Ohio State, or LSU. At the end of the day, you have to block and tackle better than your opponent. You have to beat the guy across from you. You have to be able to run off tackle for two yards and a first down when you need it, and prevent your opponent from getting that first down when he needs it. Fundamentals first, scheme second. Or maybe fundamentals first and second, scheme third.

3. Let's Get Physical. Although Coach Weis will tell you now that his practices have "always" been physical, such an assertion seems at odds with his very public statements following the Michigan loss last Fall that he was taking the team back to "training camp." Everyone acknowledged at the time that practices from that point on included much more full speed contact. The reluctance prior to that time to be too physical in practice was dictated by depth issues. Going into last season, Coach Weis had never been able to fill out a "two deep" chart for the offensive line with guys who could actually be counted on to play. We have been paper thin in both the offensive and defensive lines, and an injury to a starter on either line would have been a disaster. But that issue has finally been addressed. We're still awfully young, but at least we have enough talented bodies in camp to fill out a credible depth chart. NFL players don't need full contact on Wednesday to be ready for Sunday, and experienced college players can perhaps spend their time most productively on the mental aspects of the game. But the young guys needs to hit other college players at full speed, a lot, to be ready for Saturdays.

2. Tempo. I wrote about tempo (or the lack thereof) after the season opening loss to Georgia Tech last season. It's closely related to lesson #3, physical practices. Young players need to be prepared for the speed of the college game. Full speed on a college Saturday afternoon is a whole different animal than full speed on a high school Friday night. To be properly prepared, young players need to see (and feel) full speed at practice. Over and over again. Walk-throughs and practice reps at 80% speed doesn't do the young player any good. It gives him a false sense of confidence that quickly evaporates on game day as his opponent makes him look silly at game speed. Practice physical, but you also have to practice fast.

1. Niche. After last year's catastrophe in Ann Arbor, Coach Weis talked about "niche." He talked about how the team needed to go back to square one and establish a core package of plays that they knew they could execute well when they needed to. He was talking about having an offensive identity - about not trying to do too much. And was right. He was late, but he was right. This is closely related to lesson #4, Scheme. Don't be too fancy, don't try to outsmart the opponent every play. Have an identity, then line up and execute the plays you have earned the right to have confidence in. I think Coach Weis recognizes that the time spent last Summer installing an exotic spread offense for Demetrius Jones and Georgia Tech was a huge mistake. It left the young players confused and without any idea of who they were supposed to be. The confusion led to a lack of confidence as well as horrific execution of both the spread offense and the regular offense. It's good to tweak your game plan to exploit your opponent's weaknesses. But you can't let your opponent force you to change who you are. Without your identity you are lost. And the Irish looked completely lost for much of last season.

So, instead of a Spring preview, you have my Top 10 List of lessons I hope Charlie Weis and the Fighting Irish learned last season. If these lessons are taken to heart, I believe Notre Dame will be a much improved team in 2008.

Go Irish! Beat Aztecs!