Spring Cleaning for the Fighting Irish
Spring cleaning…for anyone who isn’t a spitting image of Danny Tanner, this term evokes many feelings of disgust, hate, and loathing. At least, that’s what I feel when I think of spring cleaning. It’s a tedious task that usually takes up an entire Saturday–a Saturday that could be spent watching TV, playing video games, or watching videos of Jerome Bettis clown-stomp the Florida Gators. However, spring cleaning is necessary.
The same can be said about spring practice for any college football team. It’s a time for the returning players to dust off the ol’ jock strap for several weeks and showcase their mental and physical development from the previous season to their coaches and fans. It is also a time when players get acclimated to their new positions, new responsibilities, and new coaches.
As the Fighting Irish football team begins their spring practices, there are several players who need to be extraordinarily productive in order to get themselves off to the right start for the new season. These players also need to have a strong 2009 campaign if the Fighting Irish have any dreams of a top-tier bowl game or (dare I say it?) a National Championship.
After putting up record numbers for a freshman receiver in 2007 (records that have since been broken by Michael Floyd), Duval had probably the biggest drop-off in production of any player on last year’s squad. In 2008, he racked up a measly 20 catches for 208 yards and 1 touchdown. This season, Kamara needs to improve his play so he can fit seamlessly into the slot receiver position. Because Golden Tate and Mike Floyd pretty much have their respective positions sewn up, he must fight off Robby Parris, Deion Walker, John Goodman, and Shaquelle Evans for the starting job. While Robby Parris is a viable option for the slot, he just hasn’t been very productive and the other three wide receivers have yet to record a single reception in an Irish uniform. Duval is the front-runner for the job and it’s time he returns to the form he had his freshman year (I never thought I would say that about a player). A reliable slot receiver will be paramount in taking some defensive pressure off of Tate and Floyd next season.
After his breakout season in 2007, Darrin Walls had to leave the team for “personal reasons” (read: grades). While the Irish didn’t miss his contributions last season like they missed Kamara’s, Walls will be welcomed back to the team this spring with open arms. Even though the secondary is full of bodies, Darrin Walls should be one of the front-runners to replace Terrail Lambert even though Robert Blanton did an outstanding job last season. If nothing else, the Irish could stand to have some of the upperclassmen leadership that Walls would bring to the secondary. At the very best, look for Walls and McNeil to be starting opposite one another. At the very worst, look for Walls to share playing time with Robert Blanton. Either way, it will be great to have Darrin Walls back on the team.
After receiving Freshman All-America honors in 2007, Ian Williams was a bit quiet last year. Williams had 40 tackles last season, but more alarmingly, zero sacks. With Pat Kuntz hitting the draft, it will be imperative that Williams increases his production this season as he will most likely be the veteran on the inside line. It will be up to Williams to hold the inside of the defensive line in the 4-3 defense that Jon Tenuta plans on running. Just as offensive production hinges on the offensive line, so too does defensive production hinge on the defensive line. The defensive line must increase their ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks while stopping the run and all of that funnels through the defensive tackles and Ian Williams.
Brandon Walker’s kicking in the first half of last season was probably the most consistent part of the team last year: week in and week out he was consistently horrible. Actually, it got to the point where we simply had to write an article about it. I don’t like to put blame on any one person for a loss, but if Walker had been a bit more accurate during the first half of the season, the Irish may not have had six losses last year. However, during the second half of the season, something seemed to click in Walker’s head and he started making more and more field goals. Hopefully, Walker can continue that trend and head into the 2009 campaign with a more reliable leg. I would love to see the kind of accuracy Walker had during the overtime heart-breaker to Pittsburgh. If Walker’s leg doesn’t improve from last season, I would not be surprised to see Weis pull the trigger on him and replace him with someone else.
Much like Ian Williams in relation to Pat Kuntz, with the graduation of Maurice Crum, Brian Smith will step into the middle linebacker role as the emotional leader of the defense. Brian Smith has made a name for himself since his freshman year as being a high-energy tackler with enough passion for the entire defense. This season, Jon Tenuta and Corwin Brown will call on Smith’s skills and leadership to lead the linebackers. Even though Kyle McCarthy will be the experienced leader of the defense (if he’s granted a 5th year), Brian Smith should be the glue that holds together the middle of the field for the Irish. It is imperative that he not only produces as well as Crum has in the past, but that he surpasses those expectations in leading a defense that has been fairly lackluster the past few seasons. If he does this, Brian Smith has the potential to be an All-American.
This one seems like a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning how much Jimmy Clausen’s development this off-season will have an affect on the entire team. When Clausen was a freshman, Charlie Weis predicted that, at his junior year, Jimmy Clausen should be more developed than Brady Quinn was in his junior outing. We all know that Brady Quinn’s junior year was his break-out year and this season should be Clausen’s as well. If last year was any indication of his progression, look for Clausen to surpass Quinn’s junior year numbers. Comparing their sophomore campaigns, Clausen out-threw Quinn by 586 yards, threw an additional 8 touchdown passes, but had 7 more interceptions. If Clausen wants to be better than Quinn was his junior year, he must eliminate the mental errors that cost Notre Dame several games last season. It’s also especially important that Clausen, as well as the entire offense, produces well this season so Weis can give backup Dayne Crist some meaningful playing time. Weis has already commented that this spring will be especially hard on the quarterbacks. Let’s hope that the extra difficulty will prove to be beneficial to Clausen’s development.
Entire Offensive Line (LT)
Under new Offensive Line coach Frank Verducci, the Notre Dame Offensive Line will look to improve on their progression from 2007 to 2008. Last season was a huge step forward from their abysmal showing in 2007 and if the Irish offense, and Jimmy Clausen, wants to be productive, it will all hinge on the ability of the offensive line to block for the quarterback and the stable of running backs. Can the component of the offense that was fairly inconsistent last year mesh more effectively this season? The only position really open for battle this season is at left tackle, however it’s also the most important position on the entire line. With the graduation of Mike Turkovich, the competition for his replacement is between fifth year senior Paul Duncan and junior Matt Romine. The productivity of the offense this season centers more on the cohesion of the offensive line than on the progression of Jimmy Clausen. Whichever blocking scheme Charlie will utilize the most this season, it is up to Frank Verducci to implement it and make it work. This is one area I will be paying special attention to this season.
Entire Running Back Corps (Tony Alford)
Am I the only one who had to find out who Tony Alford was when Charlie Weis announced him as Mike Haywood’s replacement? It has been well documented how poor the Irish running game has been the past few seasons, in spite of superior talent. Notre Dame now has seven potential running backs (including Ciere Wood and Theo Riddick), all of whom were highly touted out of high school. So, the problem isn’t talent–it’s either coaching or execution. Charlie Weis has already attempted to fix the coaching problem (even though he didn’t fire Haywood), now it’s time for the running backs to fix the execution (enter Tony Alford). Tony Alford and newly appointed Offensive Line Coach/Running Game Coordinator Frank Verducci have had a large task set in front of them. But, if the offense wants to be productive this season and have some sort of balance between the running game and the passing game, the running backs and the offensive line need to work together in order to produce a solid ground game. Utilize man blocking with Robert Hughes, James Aldridge, and Jonas Gray. Utilize zone blocking with Armando Allen and Ciere Wood. Do whatever it takes, but let’s get some production out of the ground game. Hopefully, with opposing defenses keying in on Golden Tate, Mike Floyd, and Kyle Rudolph, the Irish running game should see some success.
This spring and fall will be very interesting to watch as this is the year most Irish fans believe the football team will begin to seriously compete for a BCS bowl game or a National Title. There are several issues with the team that need to be addressed before they can think about competing with some of the other elite teams in the country. Some of those issues are highlighted here, but this list is not all-encompassing. However, if the squad performs to its potential and these insidious issues are rectified, this team could produce as well as or better than the 2005 squad. Anything short of that will be a disappointment.