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A Clashmore Mike Roundtable: Critical Elements to Irish Success in 2009

By · August 27th, 2009 · 0 Comments · 1,692 views
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A Clashmore Mike Roundtable: Critical Elements to Irish Success in 2009

Notre Dame’s season opener against Nevada is right around the corner and a seemingly eternal off-season can’t end soon enough.

Fans seem tired of attempting to produce logical explanations for the last two years: a disastrous 2007 season and an underachieving 2008 campaign. Head coach Charlie Weis’ said it best at Notre Dame’s media day, it’s time to stop talking and start showing it on the field.

But what will it take for the Irish to reach their potential in 2009?

The staff at Clashmore Mike sat down to discuss the critical elements for the Irish in 2009 including the biggest concerns on offense, defense and special teams, as well as what intangible qualities this team needs to excise the demons of 2007 and 2008.

Offense

What aspect of  Notre Dame’s offense is most critical for the Irish offense to return to the form of 2005?

Andy: An often-overlooked key component in 2005’s offense, Darius Walker had the necessary skillset to make defensive units that keyed in on the stellar Irish passing game pay. To that end, the largest factor to the success of the Notre Dame offense in 2009 will be establishing a running game that can keep opposing defenses honest. Whether by platooning two or three backs, or keying in on the success of one in particular, the 2009 squad needs to find a way to put themselves in favorable second and third down distance situations to maximize the availability of all parts of the playbook. Resorting to Clausen finding Floyd or Tate on third and long will simply not be a credible long-term option should the running game falter out of the gate.

Anthony: The obvious choice is offensive line play, but two subtle factors will be just as critical. Weis’ offensive philosophy is predicated on creating one-on-one mismatches via formations and personnel groupings. This requires personnel flexibility at every position. If injuries take away the first option, a player behind him must step in and fill the void. This is particularly important at the tight end position where Notre Dame has few proven commodities. Second, Weis must remedy the predictable play-calling and personnel groupings that plagued the Irish in 2008.

Jon: The biggest hurdle keeping the Irish offense from becoming truly elite is their own mental development. This year, the entire offense must limit their mental breakdowns, making the nuances of Charlie Weis’ offense second nature. With most of the offense being upperclassmen, they must be able to develop mentally to the extent that they do not have to think about how to adjust their check-downs, route running, or blocking assignments when going full-speed on game day. This is especially true for the offensive line and Jimmy Clausen who is expected to put up big numbers this season.

Michael:  I’m satisfied with the way the offense is developing. For me, the critical element is the pressure the front seven put on opposing quarterbacks and their ability to stop opposing running games.

Defense

What is the weakness of the 2009 Irish defensive unit and what must the Irish do to minimize this weakness?

Andy: Due to Jon Tenuta’s high-risk/high-reward defensive scheme, the onus of pressure on the defensive side of the ball is going to be squarely on the shoulders of the Irish linebacking corps. Blitzing, run stuffing, and short yardage pass play coverage is going to keep these athletes very busy. Their unit’s success will largely be determined by their ability to make correct decisions and read opposing offenses.

Anthony: The defensive line’s recruiting shortfalls—in both quality and quantity—early in Weis’ tenure will begin to show this year. Entering the season, this is the unquestionable weakness of the Irish defense. Notre Dame must win first down and force opposing offenses into passing situations. This plays to the strength of the defense: an aggressive, attacking scheme coupled with a very athletic back seven. If the opposition stays ahead of the chains, it could be a long day for the Irish.

Jon: Most Irish writers and fans alike boast about the depth on the Irish team this year. However, the quality depth on the team lies mostly on the offensive side of the ball at the offensive line, receiver, and quarterback positions. The cornerback position on the defense is deep with talented replacements, but the linebacker and defensive line positions are especially vulnerable as they lack the quality depth to keep players fresh by rotation, but not having a drop-off in talent and production. Most of the players backing up the starters on the defensive front seven and at both safety positions are either young and inexperienced or players that were recruits that just didn’t live up to their potential. The Irish must remedy this by sustaining long drives on offense where the talent is deeper to give the defense, where the talent isn’t as deep, a rest to keep the starters fresh.

Michael: Tenuta has more talent than he had to work with at Georgia Tech, especially in the secondary. Without two classical nose tackles, the linebackers will be critical both for his attacking defense, neutralizing the quick passes opponents will use, as well as blitzing. The Irish will minimize these shortcomings with “Band of Brothers” teamwork and an attitude for domination.

Special Teams

After showing marked improvement in many special teams statistical categories in 2008, what prevents the Irish from reverting back to the form it displayed in 2007 as Weis will no longer be managing this unit?

Andy: The returning talent and experience at the majority of special teams positions makes a relapse to 2007-level inconsistencies an unlikelihood. The major question mark for the special teams unit this season is, of course, the notoriously inconsistent kicking game. Whether Tausch can stabilize a kicking game that has long left points on the field is one of the most worrying aspects of this year’s squad. Both on kickoffs and placekicking duties, Notre Dame’s kickers need to develop into a reliable part of Weis’ overall offensive strategy week-to-week.

Anthony: Simply speaking: depth and athleticism. The Irish roster hasn’t been this full of talent since Lou Holtz and Vinnie Ceratto roamed the sidelines. The 2008 season provided many young and talented—but raw—Irish players with valuable special teams experience. This, coupled with an influx of talent, should provide competition at many special teams positions. The trio of freshmen specialists certainly won’t hurt either.

Jon: The biggest detriment to last year’s special teams was the inconsistency with the kicking game. The lack of leg strength and accuracy with Ryan Burkhart and Brandon Walker severely limited Notre Dame’s ability to put points on the board. As Brandon Walker finished the season somewhat consistently last year and had all summer to develop his skills, the fact that Nick Tausch, as Charlie Weis put it, “…won the [kicking] competition fairly convincingly” bodes well for the Irish kicking game. I expect him to go through some freshman growing pains, but hopefully his leg strength and consistency will provide the Irish an option to score when the offense might sputter near or in the red zone.

Michael: Veteran leadership. Returnees include both kickers and returners, as well as most of the special teams players. An improved kicking game will give Weis more choices in his offense.

Intangibles

What intangible is likely to be the best asset for the Irish in 2009?  What figures to be the biggest liability?

Andy: The largest asset this Irish team may possess is stability and experience at every coaching position this fall. With a clear offensive and defensive coordinator, no longer will Weis be reliant on Haywood’s head-scratch-inducing playcalls or an unwieldy combination of Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta’s defensive philosophies. The additional changes to position staff will also maximize execution of a unified coaching vision in all personnel areas. Conversely, the largest liability of this Notre Dame team is their recent inability to be more than just a sum of their individual parts. An early-season contest won by consistent and unspectacular play would do wonders to bolster the confidence of an Irish fanbase that doubts their team’s ability to grind out difficult wins.

Anthony: After losing several close games last season (many by surrendering double-digit leads), the Irish should know how to finish in 2009. Disappointing outings against North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Syracuse in 2008 should serve as lessons for the coming season and become an asset. The biggest liability may be success. To date, this crop of Notre Dame players haven’t enjoyed a lot of it. How the Irish react to success will likely determine whether or not they lose a game they shouldn’t.

Jon: The biggest asset for this year’s team is the sheer talent and athleticism laden in nearly every starter at every position. Similar to the Hawaii Bowl, if nothing else, the Irish have enough talent to win six or seven of the games on their schedule. The biggest liability for this year’s team is Notre Dame’s historically uncanny ability to play down to teams they should beat, similar to their loss to Syracuse last season. Should the Irish overcome that liability, they have the ability to finish the season with a bare minimum of ten victories.

Michael: The team has learned they need to protect leads and minimize mistakes better. Navy, too, almost came back from a huge deficit due to poor on-sides kick coverage. Clausen must show command of his weapons and the maturity to limit his mistakes. Their biggest liability could be an inability to recover from deficits.

Furthermore

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