ND FOOTBALL AT THE CROSSROADSposted by John Vannie
The question is whether Notre Dame will ever be able to recapture past glory. Many people scoffed at the notion that the college football landscape has changed and the Irish can no longer compete against schools with lower academic standards. They argued that success at Notre Dame was more a function of the right coach, and cited historical examples such as Holtz and Ara Parseghian to support their case.
This argument seemed plausible until last season, when Charlie Weis produced the worst Irish team in a half century. Weis had raised the hopes and expectations of Irish fans with a successful debut in 2005, but his teams’ performance has declined ever since. In retrospect, the 2005 season is somewhat similar to Tyrone Willingham’s first team in 2002 – a veteran team that came together under a first year head coach but could not sustain its early success.
The difference in the state of the program after three years of each coach is that Weis’ roster is stocked with a wealth of young talent while Willingham’s poor recruiting efforts left gaping holes in the depth chart. Next year’s freshman and sophomore classes are the best such back-to-back groups in 18 years, but last season’s dismal results undermined Weis’ credibility and reputation to the extent that he must prove he is the right coach to lead them. A 3-9 record and a series of utterly futile performances have placed him on the proverbial hot seat, at least in the eyes of disgruntled alumni.
What went wrong in 2007?
Several factors contributed to the awful season in 2007, not all of which can be laid at the feet of Weis. Graduation losses depleted the offense and decimated the defensive line, and Willingham’s poor recruiting left Weis precious few options to replace them. Most people expected a more competitive team, however, and the Irish were simply an embarrassment.
First, the 2007 offensive line was terrible. This was due to a combination of factors exacerbated by a lack of overall depth: young players that were forced to play before they were physically ready, older players with limited talent and at least one key starter that was trying to play through injuries. Despite these elements, the unit was poorly coached and made untold mental errors. Weis attempted to correct the problem after the third game of the season, but it was really six months too late.
Second, Weis mishandled the quarterback situation. Jimmy Clausen was the heir-apparent to succeed Brady Quinn in Weis’ offense, but the freshman from California was not ready to play on September 1 despite his early enrollment in January. In retrospect, the decision to postpone minor surgery on his elbow until after spring practice was a mistake. This should have been done in February. The entire quarterback competition in the spring accomplished nothing and pleased no one.
Weis was left without a reliable option heading into the season, and he attempted to compensate by employing game plans built on smoke, mirrors and multiple quarterbacks. It would be a gross understatement to say that each plan backfired. After a 33-3 drubbing by Georgia Tech in the season opener, Clausen was pressed into service and promptly beat to a pulp. By early November, Notre Dame had been defeated by Navy and blown out by Air Force and other more notable foes. Only marginal success against even worse competition in November allowed the Irish to escape 2007 with a shred of dignity.
Third, Notre Dame’s special teams were atrocious. When he was first hired, Weis maintained that special teams were one of the easiest areas to fix while rebuilding a team. This low hanging fruit turned out to be rotten, though. The Irish did not have a reliable place kicker, coverage teams allowed significant yardage and the return game was a disappointment despite Tom Zbikowski’s brave efforts on punts. Weis also botched the recruitment of kicker Kai Forbath two years ago by unnecessarily exerting pressure for an early commitment. Forbath settled for UCLA where he has been outstanding.
Finally, Weis has been unable to deliver on his promise to field a tough, nasty football team. Opponents used to be sore for weeks after playing Notre Dame, but that is not the case anymore. The Irish do not punish people with a clean, hard hitting defense. Safety David Bruton and tackle Trevor Laws are among the exceptions, but the unit has an inordinate share of soft, slow and undersized players.
A bruising offensive line used to be the hallmark of Notre Dame football, but this defining characteristic has steadily declined under Weis. It remains to be seen whether he can recapture it. While recruiting has been on the upswing, there are still questions at the tackle position.
The overall lack of physicality and uninspired play has raised questions about Weis’ coaching acumen that must be answered in 2008. Since he has made no changes to his staff during the off-season, he must believe that he has the right people to turn around Notre Dame’s fortunes.
Outlook for 2008
Despite last year’s meltdown, expectations should be set high for Weis this season. The Irish had better talent than their 3-9 record suggests, and this year’s schedule has been watered down to a level that would make even Holtz sound overconfident. Additionally, several opponents that were formidable in 2007 face their own rebuilding jobs in 2008. Notre Dame returns 18 starters from its last game against Stanford and adds several talented freshmen.
Despite these positives, the team has several serious weaknesses. The defensive line lacks depth and the starters are just average now that Trevor Laws has departed. Nose tackle Ian Williams is the lone player with star potential, but he is still a year or two away from that level and there is virtually no one to spell him during games. Unfortunately, teams should be able to run against the Irish. Help from incoming freshmen won’t begin to make a difference until 2009.
Inside linebacker is another concern. Maurice Crum returns, but he lacks the size and speed to be a difference maker against good competition. Junior Toryan Smith is the primary candidate to play along side him, but he needs to master the subtleties of the position during the offseason. The Irish have a number of linebackers on the roster, but none appear to be on the verge of taking the next step.
The strength of the defense is at outside linebacker and in the secondary. Kerry Neal and Brian Smith showed great promise as freshmen and should be even better in 2008. Both can pressure the quarterback but need to improve in pass coverage. The secondary returns three starters and will benefit from strong competition at every position. The main area of weakness is the lack of run support from the cornerbacks, who must be more physical in their play.
While the defensive front seven suffers from a lack of elite talent and pure numbers, the same is not true along the offensive line. Dan Wegner, Eric Olson, Chris Stewart and Sam Young enter their third season and their level of play will indicate how well the staff has coached and developed them. Paul Duncan and Mike Turkovich are each in their final year of eligibility, and they should be no worse than competent. The single greatest improvement and stabilizing force in the line this year should come from Young, who is expected to return to health after struggling with nagging injuries last season.
The offensive line is a “no excuses” area for Weis this year. Notre Dame desperately needs a running game and must be able to protect the quarterback from the relentless poundings of the past two seasons. Irish fans can only hope that Weis sees fit to expend his energies in this regard as opposed to drawing up nifty game plans and passing schemes with his quarterbacks. The best thing he can do for his signal caller is equip him with a solid running game and protect him in the pocket.
Another question mark is the development of the wide receiver corps. Young players have passed older ones on the depth chart, but their unfamiliarity with the offense combined with poor pass protection severely limited their productivity. Another weakness in 2007 that begs for improvement is the inability of the receivers to block effectively in the running game. There is considerable talent on the roster at this position (including incoming freshmen), but as with the quarterback it is still a very young group of players.
Speaking of the quarterback position, it is fair to expect Jimmy Clausen to build strength and add muscle after a spring and summer of conditioning. He will have a better command of the offense and appears to be a capable leader. The main question for 2008 is how fast Clausen and his young receivers will be able to develop the chemistry and timing needed to be successful.
Clausen’s continued health is also critically important. Although the Irish still have Evan Sharpley available as an experienced backup, the senior is really a stop-gap measure in the scheme of things. Incoming freshman Dayne Crist is the real heir apparent to Clausen, but Weis would like to keep him out of game action this year.
There is no doubt that Notre Dame’s offense will improve upon the futility of 2007 and its overall ranking as one of the worst units in college football. The question is how much progress can be made between January and September. Unlike the defense where several problems are driven by talent deficiencies, the only ceiling on offensive improvement is the speed of player development. This unit will definitely be formidable in 2009, but it needs to be able to outscore some opponents in 2008 if the Irish hope to have a winning season.
The last major area that Weis needs to address is special teams. There are two significant problems within this category: the overall approach by the coaching staff and the kicking game. Weis first tried to place responsibility for the schemes and overall approach in the hands of assistants who lacked the requisite experience, and last year he made his entire staff responsible for this phase of the game. Neither approach worked. Despite the glaring need for an experienced special teams coach, it does not appear that Weis plans to do anything other than rearrange the deck chairs again this season.
The lack of a competent kicker will continue to hurt Notre Dame barring unprecedented improvement by one of the current roster candidates. The Irish did not play many close games last year, but a few of them may be decided by a field goal in 2008. It’s obvious that Weis had no confidence in his kickers beyond 30 yards, and even the short kicks caused fans to hold their collective breath.
Short kickoffs also cost the Irish valuable field position, which is a bad circumstance for a struggling defense. The coverage units also performed poorly with the notable exception of walk-on Mike Anello and Bruton. There is no clear answer as yet for the kicking problem, but there is plenty of talent to draw from to improve the coverage and return teams. Weis must figure out how best to coach and motivate them after two years of lip service.
A winning season is the objective expectation for 2008, while fans can argue regarding the number of wins necessary for Weis to keep his job. The defensive unit is neither big nor fast, but the players must improve their tackling and develop the mindset that they will punish the ball carrier. The offense will produce as many points as the line will allow. Weis must utilize his stable of running backs and develop fundamental competencies rather than spend excessive hours and resources on clever schemes that Clausen will not have time to execute.
For these reasons, Notre Dame football is truly at a crossroads. The young talent on the roster was attracted by Weis’ initial success and NFL pedigree, and he was able to restore the program to a highly competitive level in the short term. In order to take the next and most difficult step in the restoration process, he must prove that last season was an aberration. If he expects to continue to attract talented recruits and create a sustainable base for long term success, Weis must remove all doubts regarding his capability as a college head coach.
Why is 2008 critical for Weis if it appears that the team may be even better in 2009? It’s a matter of credibility, not only among the current players who bought into your program but also to attract top newcomers. Opposing coaches show no mercy on the recruiting trail or on the field when a rival program is down, and there is little chance to compete for elite players if you are trying to explain consecutive sub par seasons.
Another consideration is that the current squad needs an infusion of confidence after a painful season. A poor start coupled with a repeat of past mistakes will undermine their development and make any sort of miracle turnaround in 2009 much less likely. Besides, continued talk of the next season only works on the north side of Chicago.
A bounce back season in 2008 capped by a bowl victory should be where the bar is set. Ultimate failure by the Weis regime and the current administration would render a subsequent recovery very unlikely, unless the NCAA and university presidents were to finally place academic integrity above greed on their priority lists. Don’t bet on it.