A Short Tale of Redemption
Notre Dame's leading passer, rusher and receiver are all "true" freshmen. That's unheard of. If you break out the yards and points by this offense, both categories are dominated by true freshmen. BTW, don't let failed sports writers looking to "hair pull" for attention and eyeballs mislead you, it's incredibly important to have a passionate leader like Clausen on the field. It may not fit into a model of what some want, but their wants are not only irrelevant, but childish. Leaders come in all styles, it's refreshing to see a quarterback play so hard and care so much. If he didn't play injured, take a career's worth of hits in a year, say the right things and still put up far better numbers than Brady Quinn in their comparative freshmen year, it might be a bit silly. But, it's not. ND has found itself a vocal and talented leader for the future. Of course he still throws his deep balls like a fade, but that's another issue. Kudos to Clausen for an outstanding freshmen year under incredible duress. Obviously Hughes and Allen are going be very good players, but it's not clear either will prove to be the breakaway threat ND's looking for. Kamara is a Stovall clone, but also lacks the instinct for yards after the catch. I believe we're going to be looking at Tate, Goodman and Floyd to bring that extra element to the passing game.
There's a lot to look forward to, but also a lot of worries. The offensive line has started to come together, but is a long way from being there. For perspective, Iowa inked it's fab five offensive line the same year Notre Dame signed up their studs and Iowa (with a decent junior class,) even with Ferentz (a running minded coach who coached OL) has had real trouble up front. A perfect illustration of why you can never, ever leave the cupboard bare on the OL. Regardless of H.S. accolades, some offensive linemen don't develop until they are seniors, so that pipeline has to be full. You need numbers and talent on the OL, but actually numbers more than talent because the hit ratio for OL is exceedingly low. They're just hard to gauge.
Defensive line is the next worry. Justin Brown, Ian Williams and Patrick Kuntz at least give us a nucleus for a decent line. But it's the still high school seniors who have the ability to carry Notre Dame into the upper echelon of college football. Cynwar, Hunter, Williams, Johnson and Newman are going to have to play a lot next year... and while that's promising, it's never a good thing to have to play freshmen on the line... ever.
The third major concern is our inside linebackers. What happened to their development? If there's not a coaching change here NDNation will be deeply surprised.
The final major concern is our special teams. Except for Laws blocking field goals, there is nothing special about them. Teams win championships on the backs of their special teams and Notre Dame has been improved, but still woeful here.
It's tough to tell what's happening on the coaching front, but it's clear we need to fix the offensive line and fast. As noted, Oregon and Iowa both faced similar situations to Notre Dame's this year. Oregon lost Dixon and their offense fell apart -- so there's a glimpse into ND's QB situation at the start of the year. Iowa is rebuilding their offensive line and struggled through the end of the year. They're looking at progress and are in a very similar situation to Notre Dame. So coaching is an issue, playcalling is an issue, but young talent is still the major problem, IMO.
So here we sit on the back end of a 3 win season, but with many problems awaiting us. While I expect the team to be better overall next season and while our skill position situation looks very promising, our line situation is, at best, unclear. I have hope, but with the mess things are right now, medium confidence we're going to dramatically improve. We're not going to have the defensive line talent to be a real force next year (we will in the freshmen class) and that will hinder our chances against top level teams and leave us vulnerable against mid-tier teams like, unfortunately, we are right now.
In the meantime a thank you to the seniors for their effort over the years and for setting the course for future progress. There's so much young talent to get excited about, but until they mature and until we are fully restocked in the trenches, it's going to be hard for me to get excited about possibilities for next year. At the beginning of this year I wrote that we had far too many question marks to have any expectations for this year. Unfortunately, I think last year's expectations are going to be next year's reality. Don't get me wrong, I think top 10 is possible, but not unless we get the O-line situation sorted out.