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!


James said...

Great list! Despite everyone seeming to write about the same two shreds of new ND material during this part of the year, this was still a terrific read.

Anonymous said...

#9: "He is slow to fire loyal coaches."

Where have you been? One thing Charlie has done extremely well is separate personal relationships from football decisions. Replacing Minter with Corwin? I think you're confusing Charlie with Ty, who was partially given the pink slip because of his reluctance to replace his coordinators.

OC Domer said...

Anonymous -

Yes, CW fired Minter, which separates him from TW on that score. But I was specifically thinking of our offensive line play (Coach Latina) and our special teams play (Coach Polian). Have you been satisfied with the coaching in those two areas?

Pops said...

nice post - always fun to have a long read that says something different than the other blogs this time of year.

OC Domer said...

Thanks Pops. I can't be as prolific as I'd like, but I do try to at least be thoughtful.