Broken Bones and Missing Teeth
On Saturday, I felt very empty. While the rest of the country was enjoying the first games of the 2008 College Football season, I was sitting at home watching the television, wishing I could root for one team or another, but I’ve never been able to root for a team that isn’t wearing the interlocking ND on their uniforms. So far, the 2008 season has dealt us a handful of surprises. Virginia Tech, Clemson, Michigan, and Pittsburgh all lost their season openers to what many deemed “inferior” opponents. This coming Saturday, however, the 2008 Fighting Irish football team takes the field for the first time since their horrid 2007 campaign that left many weak-hearted Irish fans (read: bandwagon fans) running for the hills. There will, however, be some very different ingredients that will go into this year’s team that will make this year a much better year for the Irish faithful and will kick that dead horse that was the 2007 season out the door.
One of the major bright spots for this year’s football team is that they return almost all of their starters on offense and defense from last year. However, one could argue, “Hah, the Irish were horrible last year. The same lousy players will produce the same lousy product on the field.” While the departure of John Carlson, John Sullivan, Tom Zbikowski, Trevor Laws, Travis Thomas, and Darrin Walls (for just this year) will hurt, there are many more positives about this year’s batch of players.
First off, all of our offensive line that started the last few games of our 2007 campaign will be back. This can only help the cohesiveness that is sorely needed on any good offensive line. Second, many players, including Jimmy Clausen, Sam Young, and Duval Kamara have bulked up, and trimmed down, as the case may be (Kamara), and we should start to see the effects of these moves in every facet of our team. In fact, the whole offensive line as a unit is bigger and stronger. Finally, this year’s Irish team will add the best recruiting class to its ranks since the days when Lou Holtz was picking grass on the Notre Dame sideline.
The most recent depth chart was released on August 25th for the Irish football team. Michael Floyd (WR), Braxton Cave (C), Trevor Robinson (RG), Kyle Rudolph (TE), Robert Blanton (CB), Darius Fleming (LB), Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE), and Ethan Johnson (DE) have all cracked the two-deep at their respective positions, with Rudolph being the starter at Tight End as a result of the injury to Mike Ragone. The highlight of the addition of these freshman players is the fact that none of them were forced into their respective spots because of a lack of depth. All of them were good enough to earn a spot. Look for Floyd, Rudolph, and Johnson to make the biggest and earliest impact on this team.
It’s no secret that the Irish have added Jon Tenuta to their defense staff from Georgia Tech. If you’ve seen any of the practice videos of this year’s Irish team, you would have heard his gruff voice in the background yelling and taunting his linebackers. Jon Tenuta’s presence on the coaching staff can only help 2nd year coordinator Corwin Brown. With Tenuta’s blitz-happy defense style and Corwin Brown’s 3-4 defense, our defense should only improve from last year, providing that Jappy Oliver can get our defensive line ready to play.
The other change to this year’s staff that you should have heard about already, if you’re not living under a rock, is the addition of Mike Haywood to the play-calling fold. Yes, Weis is handing over the laminated card to the running back’s coach and offensive coordinator, Mike Haywood. Haywood has had a lot of coaching experience at some great schools, LSU and Texas to name a few, and only time will tell how he will handle his new role on the staff. Many are projecting the Irish to run the ball more than pass the ball and with a healthy stable of running backs and bigger, stronger offensive line, I could hardly disagree. Additionally, Charlie said so: ”We’re going to pound it. That will help everything get better. It will help the play-action pass, will get guys open on intermediate routes and will help pass protection because people will have to worry about stopping the run first. I don’t want to sound hypocritical, but ever since I’ve been here, I’ve wanted to pound the football and we haven’t.” But, rest assured, if Weis thinks that Haywood has slipped up one too many times with the play-calling, we will undoubtedly see the laminated card back in Weis’ capable hands.
What ever happened to the type of teams that the Irish had in the 40’s with Leahy at the helm? What ever happened to the toughness for which the Irish were famous—people playing with broken bones and missing teeth? One precursor to the incredible break-down that occurred last year was a result of the type of preparation that the team had during the preseason and the first few weeks of the season. The Irish looked like they were afraid to hit someone and were afraid to be hit. Part of the reason of the light-contact practices can be attributed to the poor depth that the Irish had last year at many positions, but mainly on both the offensive and defensive lines. If you practice hard and bring people to the ground, people are likely to get hurt. It was just simply a risk that the coaching staff was not willing to take. This year, however, things are different.
It’s good to see videos of the Irish’s practices. It’s good to hear the sound of pads on pads with everything being done to toughen up the players except to cut block a player who is blitzing. While I’m not expecting players on the team to be playing with broken bones and missing teeth, I am expecting to see some sort of the “nastiness” that Weis had proclaimed when he was introduced as Notre Dame’s new coach and we haven’t seen it yet, not even in 2005 or 2006. Hopefully, this year will be the year that some of that nastiness is shown in our playing. The difference is, however, that this year, we can afford to play with some nastiness because our depth on the lines and at the skill positions allows us to do so.
The other aspect to a difference in this year’s team preparation style comes with Weis’ new role as a true head coach. Because Weis has handed over the playing calling duties to Coach Haywood, he has more time to devote to other areas of the team. This has lead to different things such as Weis and Coach Polian traveling to Virginia Tech to get some special teams help from Head Coach Frank Beamer, who is nationally known for his expertise in special teams. Additionally, Weis’ increase in free time during practices allows him to help out at other positions where his coaching is badly needed like at wide receivers and the offensive line. Hopefully, if Weis is the football “genius” that others have labeled him as, spreading his knowledge around the practice field can only help this still young football team.
Before this season began, the 2008 Fighting Irish football schedule looked to be a very weak one at best. At least, the schedule was weaker than the typical schedule that the Irish have. However, after the round of upsets that took place on Saturday, it seems that the Irish’s schedule may be weaker than originally anticipated. Two teams that were supposed to be fairly decent, Michigan and Pittsburgh, lost to arguably inferior opponents in Utah and Bowling Green respectively. This only hurts Notre Dame’s already weak strength of schedule. Despite the weak strength of schedule, however, the Irish’s schedule is laid out in a way that can only help the Irish this year.
First off, the Irish started off with a bye week. This should turn out to be beneficial to the Irish as they have an extra week at the beginning of the season to not only prepare for San Diego State, but it also gives them an extra week to hone their fundamentals instead of throwing them into the fire against a strong team like Georgia Tech, a la 2007.
Second, as fellow Notre Dame writer OC Domer wrote in a recent article, the Irish’s schedule layout can only help the team. The schedule has four “peak” games in Michigan, North Carolina, Pitt, and USC. These four games are against the highest ranked teams (pre-season) on our schedule. The good thing about the schedule comes in the fact that each “peak” game comes after a game against an inferior opponent and is followed by a game against a lesser opponent or a bye week. This can only help to boost Notre Dame’s confidence going into the big games and allows them to repair themselves after the big games. The only negative to this format is that the Irish are likely to be caught in a trap game following one of their “peak” games and get beat by Michigan State, Washington, or Boston College. This could be the most detrimental thing to our season—losing the games we ought to win.
I’ll admit that I was a person who was defending the Irish last year before the 2007 campaign, drawing parallels to the young and untested 1988 squad where there weren’t parallels to be drawn. My hope in the 2007 team was grounded in things that weren’t factual and was based on purely emotion. Too many times, Irish fans make their predictions after they watch Rudy or listen to “Notre Dame, Our Mother” too many times and I fell into that trap. However, this year should be a jolt of reality to all Irish fans.
All of this positive evidence that points to a good 2008 season should do nothing but help this team. However, this team is still very young. Once the football leaves the tee at the beginning of the game, everything that I have said in this article will have had no impact on this team if the players haven’t increased their capacity to process things mentally during the off-season. If they have increased their mental capacities as they should, and with all of these positive aspects for the 2008 season surrounding nearly every facet of this team, anything less than a record of 7-5 and I will be very disappointed in both the players and the staff. Anything more than 8-4 and I will be pleasantly surprised. This prediction, I believe, is rooted in fact and supported by the truth previously discussed herein. Just as this past Saturday provided many surprises for college football as a whole, here’s hoping that the 2008 season will deal Irish fans a handful of surprises…hopefully the kind we can be happy about. Bring on the Aztecs!