April 15, 2009

WEISND Roundtable: Blue Gold Game Preview and Spring Practice Recap

Ok, with the Blue Gold game right around the corner (fingers crossed on the weather), we figured we'd start a new concept on the blog called The WEISND Roundtable. From time to time, we'll get some of the bloggers from this site together to fire off some answers to the big questions going on in Irish sports. Might try to do this again some time before the football season starts. Here's a comprehensive preview and review of spring football at Notre Dame in 2009. Oh, and go Blue Jackets. Carry The Flag tonight, Columbus.

1) Grade the ND offseason so far based on what has transpired in the last few months (recruiting, coaching changes, new developments, etc) and give your reason for the grade

Matt: B

A few positives: Manti Te’o and the potential Hawaiian pipeline; Goodbye Coach Latina – Hello Coach Verducci; Depth at certain positions (WR, CB, RB, TE) that ND hasn’t seen in a long time. A few negatives: Te’o was a band-aid to a mediocre recruiting class that didn’t address our primary need; Was Coach Brown given a promotion or demotion? I don’t care how you spin it – the guy went from calling plays to walking the sidelines with a headset on. We should be grooming him to take over after Charlie, not pushing him to the side; Charlie’s decision to coach from the field – if you’re really just a glorified offensive coordinator anyway, why not put yourself in the best possible position to succeed.

Mike: B

If there’s one lesson that I have learned through many years of observing Notre Dame football, it’s that I should remain skeptical at all times. While the early returns on Verducci, Alford and Hart are positive, there is usually a honeymoon phase with any coaching change. After all, whenever a set of new coaches is hired in any sport, you never hear the players say “I liked it better the old way” or “we aren’t learning anything different” or “Coach X cannot relate to the players.” Thus, I reserve my right to judge these new coaches until the season begins. Likewise, the shuffling of duties among the existing coaches (Brown to Assistant HC and Tenuta to DC) seems sensible, but I remain cynical.

With regard to recruiting, high school players are similarly taking the “wait and see” approach with Notre Dame. Christian Lombard and Chris Martin are certainly two important players for the class of 2010, but recruiting will suffer unless ND gets off to a fast start on the field in the fall. If ND struggles out of the gate, rumors about Weis’s job security will fly and recruits will steer clear of South Bend.

Doug: B

I guess I could have handed out an A- or something like that since I like how things have transpired this offseason, but it's hard for me to really give out an A when a lot of these changes should have happened after LAST season.

On the positive side, I think we've made some good hires on the coaching staff. I think Hart was a great hire, Verducci has a pretty good reputation, and Alford seems like a quality coach. I also think it was a good move to define roles on the defensive coaching staff. I really like Corwin Brown, but I haven't been blown away by his defenses in the first two years. I think it was a good move to hand over the heavy lifting on defensive strategy and playcalling to Jon Tenuta. Tenuta knows how to coordinate a college defense, and I like the attacking style of defense that he prefers.

The two big turning points for me were the Hawaii game and the Manti Te'o signing. The program has sort of picked up a little momentum since both those events. How much of that is real versus the manufactured hype that goes on in every offseason?? Tough to say, but the team is definitely going to be better this year.

Overall, it's been a positive offseason, and I think a lot of ND fans have stepped away from the ledge a little bit. With that said, we're coming off a 3-9 season and a 7-6 season. We most likely will be better than we've been the last couple years, but we should never have been that bad in the first place. Weis is learning on the job and doing what he needs to do to make this team better in 2009, but the program should have never fallen apart to the point where we needed to make all these changes in his fifth year.

2) Who was the best coaching hire of this past offseason for the ND staff??

Matt: Charlie Weis, Offensive Coordinator

Say what you want about Charlie, but the guy has at least proven that he can put together an offensive gameplan and dial up some nice plays. His butt is on the line, so I’m glad he’s taking advantage of his (only?) strength.

Mike: Randy Hart.

Unlike Jappy Oliver, who was an unwilling recruiter and an unspectacular position coach, Hart brings a wealth of enthusiasm and experience to the youngest, and arguably the most important, position group for the Irish. Moreover, Hart will be the perfect mentor for Bryant Young, which will hopefully allow the latter to become a successful full time coach for Notre Dame in the next few years.

Doug: Randy Hart

Randy Hart is the type of guy who SHOULD be on a Notre Dame staff. He's a Midwestern guy from Ohio, he played and coached under Woody Hayes, he's tough, he understands fundamentals, and he knows that you win football in the Midwest by being more physical than the guy across from you at the point of attack. That's football. It's not "Xs and Os time" and all this other "schematic advantage" nonsense. Football is a gladiator sport. It's a team game but also one of individual battles. I don't care how great your "scheme" is. If you are getting dominated at the line of scrimmage, your plays aren't going to work.

Enter Randy Hart. Hart seems to have brought a new attitude to this d-line, and guys are starting to blossom under his tutelage. He's also working closely with Bryant Young as a mentor, which could end up paying off down the road.

The defensive line stunk last year, but I think there's a lot more young talent and depth there this year. We now have 3-4 guys who can get in the mix at defensive tackle, and I think there are some intriguing guys at defensive end.

3) What is the one position battle (3rd WR, DE, DT, LT, LB, RB, TE, etc) you are looking at as a key battle in the spring??

Matt: Running Back

We have had musical running backs for the last two years – really since Darius left. I would love to see someone just step up and put a stranglehold on the position for the next two years. I liked what I saw out of Armando last year, not so much Hughes. I don’t care if Cierre Wood steps into the starting spot from Day 1, just give me someone who stays consistent all season back there.

Mike: 3rd WR and LB

For the spring, I believe that the 3rd WR battle is the most interesting. Injuries have hindered Deion Walker’s chances in this contest, but he remains in the mix with a rapidly improving John Goodman and Duval Kamara. After a disappointing sophomore campaign, this is a critical spring for Kamara, who must harness his talent to avoid falling behind a gaggle of younger players on the depth chart.

One final note: I am highly intrigued by the LB battle, but I do not expect things to really heat up until Anthony McDonald becomes healthy, Steve Filer and Dave Poszluzny become more familiar with the defense and, of course, Manti Te’o steps on campus. Stay tuned.

Doug: Defensive end

I'm interested in a lot of different battles, but I'm especially curious to see what happens in those DE spots. Who is going to get the majority of the playing time at defensive end?? Is it going to be Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore getting the majority of the snaps?? Or is someone like Kerry Neal going to win a job at DE and push Ethan Johnson inside?? Are we going to stick to one general personnel package or is it going to be a mix and match?? I'm curious to see who gets the majority of the snaps at defensive end.

What should we expect from Kerry Neal this year?? He burst onto the scene in 2007, but he was awfully quiet last year. Is he just more comfortable at defensive end?? What about Darius Fleming?? Is he in the same situation??

How good is Kapron Lewis-Moore?? Is he really as good as advertised?? I'm looking forward to seeing what he looks like. I'd love to see Moore emerge as a Justin Tuck type pass rusher to go with Ethan Johnson as the stalwart Anthony Weaver type on the other side.

4) Who is a surprise player you are really excited about for 2009 who didn't contribute much to this team in 2008??

Matt: Kerry Neal

The obvious answer is someone on the D-line like KPM or Hafis Williams, and I think those guys have to play a huge role for us to have any success. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Kerry Neal. That guy showed so much potential his freshman year, I just have a hard time believing he is not going to be a major contributor somewhere in that defense. My second choice would be Deion Walker.

Mike: Hafis Williams.

From all accounts, Williams brings a positive attitude and great work ethic to the practice field each day. More importantly, he has the size, strength and the proverbial “high motor” to allow him to emerge from the pack in a position where playing time is readily available.

Doug: Hafis Williams

When I first started hearing about this guy, I started getting visions of BJ Raji. Probably just the New Jersey connection, but I like what I've heard out of him so far. Nothing against Pat Kuntz, but he was not a dominant interior player on that defensive line. ND needs more guys like BJ Raji and Trevor Laws and fewer guys like Pat Kuntz. ND needs a wrecking ball on the interior who can shut down those inside running plays and collapse the pocket. It still makes me ill how badly the defensive line collapsed in the second half of games last year. There is no reason to get blown off the ball by the likes of Pitt and Syracuse.

With the move to the 4-3, ND absolutely needs guys to step up at defensive tackle. As of right now, we've got Ian Williams (who has questions himself) and a bunch of guys who have never played a down. Hafis Williams has had a great spring, and it definitely sounds like he's going to be in the rotation to play a ton this year.

Honorable Mention:

Joseph Fauria - If you are looking for a MAJOR sleeper on this ND roster, I'll toss out Joseph Fauria as a possibility. I first watched this guy in the Blue Gold incoming recruits video, and I was absolutely blown away by him. He came in with Kyle Rudolph, and I actually came away from that video feeling like Fauria was better than Rudolph and had more potential. Other than Michael Floyd, Fauria was the most impressive player on that tape. Obviously he didn't play a down last year, but I am still intrigued by this guy and have read great things about him all spring.

I'm not even kidding in saying that Fauria is a Tony Gonzalez-type athlete. Ok, maybe that's a stretch, but this kid is going to be a star if he puts on some weight and continues to mature. His combination of athleticism and height and hands are very rare at the college level. Some of the catches that he made in high school in full stride were remarkable for a guy as tall as he is.

Only thing holding him back is that he is an absolute string bean. We sat right behind the ND bench at the North Carolina game, and he might be the skinniest player on the roster. But he is ridiculously tall.

I have no idea how much he'll play this year or if he'll even play at all, but I think he could defiinitely emerge as a valuable #2 tight end by the end of the year. I know Ragone is also in the mix, but I am very excited about Fauria's potential. He has an NFL type skill set and athleticism.

5) What position are you most concerned about heading into the 2009 season?

Matt: Offensive Line

I like what I’ve seen and heard about Verducci (that clip from spring practice where Golic practically ends up in tears is great!), but I need to see it to believe that the offensive line is finally right. There is no shortage of talent there. I know Weis loves to toss the ball around and he has an embarrassment of weapons at the skill position, but I would love nothing more to see us come out and just pound teams and wear them down. We haven’t been able to do that in a long time.

Mike: Defensive line, with offensive line as a close second.

With a superb secondary, a talented linebacking corps and Jon Tenuta at the helm, Notre Dame could finally have a top-flight defense in 2009. For the defense to rise from “decent” to “dominating,” however, the Irish must receive stout running defense and a consistent pass rush from a talented, but inexperienced, group of youngsters. If Randy Hart can foster improved play from the likes of Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, the Williamses (Ian and Hafis), Brandon Newman and Emeka Nwankwo, the Irish should be on their way to a BCS bowl.

With respect to the offensive line, I expect that Frank Verducci will build upon the advances in pass protection that this unit exhibited last year under John Latina. The pivotal factor, however, will be whether the line can block effectively to allow for a serviceable running game. I’m not asking for perfection, but 4.0 yards per carry is not an unrealistic expectation.

Doug: Defensive line

The easy answer would be the offensive line, but I can't stress strongly enough how much I want to see a championship level defense at Notre Dame. You cannot be a championship level football team without a great defense. And on defense, it all comes down to your defensive line. If your d-line is dominating up front, it makes life extremely difficult on your opponents. Suddenly, their running game is shut down, their QB is making forced throws, and they are staring at 3rd and 9s on a regular basis. Sort of like what every team has done to our offense in the last couple years.

While Florida and SC have great offenses, I love how their defenses play. They come at you full throttle for 60 minutes. You might get a couple punches in early, but they adjust and take you out in the second half. Oklahoma threw some serious firepower at Florida in the first half of the BCS title game, but the Gators adjusted and shut them down in the second half. That's what championship teams do.

Watching our team against SC's defense was last year was probably the most demoralizing football game I've ever watched (and I've watched a lot of bad football at ND in recent years). They physically dominated us like we were a high school team. I think half our guys were physically afraid in that game, and I think we could have played that game for a week and wouldn't have scored a touchdown. We were lucky just to get a first down in the 3rd quarter. Which brings me to my question:

Why can't we have a defense like that at Notre Dame?? Didn't Notre Dame used to stand for dominance and toughness on defense?? Why have we morphed into this soft, rich man's Stanford with a prep school type team and a finesse "bend but don't break" defense??? What happened to the Chris Zorich and Bryant Young types??

I remember watching a "Mic'd up" segment with Nick Saban, and all he talked about during the entire segment was being physical and tougher than the man in front of you. That is what he's trying to establish at Alabama. It's just like Tom Izzo at Michigan State. They work on this stuff in practice.

Anyway, if you want to have a championship defense in college football, it all starts up front. When I look at this d-line, here's what I'm seeing for now.

DE - Redshirt freshmen
DT - Redshirt freshman
DT - True Junior
DE - True sophomore

And in the two deep, you have two redshirt freshmen, a junior, and John Ryan.

While I like the young talent and am encouraged by the practice reports, isn't a little concerning how young we are up front?? If Kapron Lewis-Moore wins the job at DE, the first snap of his college career will be against Nevada. Same for Hafis Williams, Brandon Newman, and Sean Cwynar. The veteran presences on this line are Ian Williams, John Ryan, and Morrice Richardson. Not exactly murderer's row among the vets.

I have absolutely no idea what to expect out of this unit this year. At least I've seen our o-line and can pretty much tell you what they are going to be like. I've literally never seen half of the guys in the two deep on the d-line. I hope they are ready to play a 12 game season, but I can't really sit here and say that I know they will hold up all year. Are guys like KLM and Hafis going to be physically ready for major college football right from the get go?? The class of 2008 featured 5 highly-regarded defensive linemen, but we've never seen a lot of these guys.

On the positive side, the d-line was awful last year, so how much worse could it get?? We had guys like Pat Kuntz and Justin Brown and John Ryan as prominent players on the d-line, and there was no depth. At least we now have 8-9 bodies that can get in there and give us some snaps. The increased depth will pay off as the season goes along, and all these guys have better pedigrees than the players they are replacing. Every one of these d-linemen was a 4 star type player, and they are replacing two star guys. Heck, the "least" heralded guy on the d-line out of high school was probably Ian Williams, and he's not some slouch.

This team also could give several different looks out there. We could go "small" with a three defensive end look like the Giants did with Justin Tuck at DT on pass downs by sliding Ethan Johnson down to defensive tackle. We could get more speed at DE with Kerry Neal and Darius Fleming or we can go with the size and strength of Ethan Johnson. That type of versatility and flexibility could turn out to be valuable.

I'm holding off on an evaluation for this unit until the first game. I like what I'm hearing and like all the depth, but we won't really know what we have until we've seen them play.

6) What is the strongest position group on the Notre Dame roster??

Matt: DBs and WRs

Toss up for me between the DB’s (Walls has been the best CB on the field if you believe the practice reports) and the WR’s. I’ll go with the wideouts, with Deion Walker making a big step forward this year. Michael Floyd was unguardable last year, and he was a true freshman. Tate and Floyd are going to make sweet music this season.

Mike: Secondary

Sorry to stick with all of this defensive talk, but this secondary is just teeming with ability. At cornerback, Darrin Walls is a first-round NFL talent and Raeshon McNeil is a very good cover corner. Unfortunately for McNeil, the rapidly rising R.J. Blanton and Jamoris Slaughter appear to be well on their way to stardom at cornerback as well, perhaps as early as next year. At safety, Notre Dame has the prototypical free safety in Dan McCarthy, who excels in coverage and tackling, paired with the ultra-athletic Harrison Smith. Like Smith, Sergio Brown is an incredible athlete and Ray Herring is an experienced veteran who could step right into the lineup if needed.

Doug: Wide receiver

No brainer. WR is the one position where I'm really not even paying much attention because I already know we are loaded at WR. Tate and Floyd are NFL players, and I think they'll be even better and more dangerous this year if they stay healthy. Floyd is probably as good as any WR in the country.

And while those two are the only proven commodities, there is a load of talent underneath them. I think Deion Walker could emerge this year, and Goodman is having a good spring. Robbie Parris is another guy who has rededicated himself this spring, and I wouldn't be surprised if he emerges as the 3rd WR this year.

Then you have Duval Kamara. I don't know what to expect out of him this year, but I haven't written him off at all. Kamara has the talent. He could very easily end up being a great player at ND someday if he keeps working and gets his confidence back.

Finally, as if we didn't have enough names in the mix, Shaq Evans will be coming to the Irish this summer. I don't know if he'll play much this year, but he adds to the depth that is already on the roster.

Bottom line, we are in great shape at WR for years to come, and it sounds like more help is on the way in the class of 2010 with several big name stars expressing interest in ND. One thing the Charlie Weis offense has shown is that you can put up big numbers as a wide receiver.

The only thing I'm curious about with the wide receivers is whether we will be so reliant on those jump balls again this year or if we are going to incorporate more stuff over the middle. It seemed like things were clicking for Golden Tate over the middle in that Hawaii game. I'd like to see more crossing routes and things like that this year like we once saw with Jeff Samardzija.

7) Who is your breakout star on the offense?

Matt: Armando Allen

Mike: Trevor Robinson

Can I pick a lineman here? Robinson already displayed flashes of his vast ability last year and, in 2009, it will be impossible to keep Trevor out of the lineup. Look for Robinson to establish himself as a true mauler on the offensive line and an Outland Trophy finalist before his tenure under the Dome has expired.

Doug: Kyle Rudolph

Gotta give a shout out to my Cincy boy Kyle Rudolph here. We saw some glimpses from him last year, and I think he's going to be a superstar in this offense. With his hands and ability to stretch the field, he's the perfect fit to take the mantle from Carlson and Fasano as the next great tight end at Notre Dame.

I really hope Clausen and Rudolph have been working together a ton this offseason. Carlson and Fasano were great safety valves for Brady Quinn in this offense, and I'd like to see Rudolph used the same way. It seemed like we were always finding Fasano and Carlson for big plays down the middle of the field in big situations. If we can get Rudolph open in those spots and Clausen can hit him, this offense will be much better.

Honorable mention:

Trevor Robinson - I really wanted to pick a linemen instead of Rudolph as my breakout star, but I couldn't quite wrap my head around any of these guys as a safe pick to be a breakout star on the o-line. I'll go with Trevor Robinson though. If you start as a true freshman, you must be a talented player. I expect him to solidify the right guard position on this line.

8) Who is your breakout star on the defense?

Matt: Ethan Johnson

Mike: Ethan Johnson

Like Trevor Robinson on offense, it did not take long for Johnson to show why he was so highly regarded by the various recruiting services coming out of high school. As Weis suggested in a recent press conference, Ethan’s combination of strength and quickness will allow him to play DE on rushing downs and DT on passing downs. Regardless of position, Johnson will remain on the field for many snaps this year, which will allow him to make a boatload of plays for this Irish defense.

Doug: Ethan Johnson

Of all the guys in the front seven, Ethan Johnson probably has the best chance to be a 1st round draft pick someday. He looks like a stud in the making, and I expect him to really emerge this year as one of the better d-linemen in the country. His combination of size and strength and speed has not been seen too often on the ND defensive line in recent years. I think he has a bigger upside than Victor Abiamiri.

The only question on Ethan Johnson is where he's going to play on the d-line. Is he going to be a smallish DT or is he going to be a big DE?? Or is he going to mix and match?? That might be something to keep an eye on at the spring game. Either way, when you compare him to someone like Justin Brown, it's a major upgrade for this unit.

Honorable Mention:

Steve Filer - Color me excited that Steve Filer is already listed as the starting WILL linebacker for next year. That was quick. This guy is a physical freak coming out of high school, and I'd love to see him emerge as a big time playmaker this year. Another potential huge talent upgrade. Nothing against Maurice Crum, but he was a Big East type player. Filer is a high-level recruit with big time size and speed. He reminds me of a 1990s ND linebacker. A Jimmy Friday/Tyreo Harrison type guy.

The linebackers should be significantly better. Brian Smith seems like he's been around forever, but he's only a junior. Toryan Smith is having a good spring, and we have Te'o coming in. That's before you get to guys like Scott Smith and Posluszny and Darius Fleming and Zeke Motta. There's a lot of depth at linebacker.

Robert Blanton - Bold prediction. Robert Blanton takes a pick to the house in the Nevada game and splashes onto the national scene. I'm expecting big things out of him this year. He was the only guy who looked like he belonged on the field with USC last year. I thought he had an outstanding freshman season. Love his swagger, love his aggressiveness, love his athleticism and toughness. He's going to be a Shane Walton type player at ND. I know Walls is back now, but I don't think Blanton is going to give up his starting job easily.

The ND secondary could be really good this year. Walls, Blanton, and McNeil is a strong trio. Think about that group compared to the days of Wooden and Leo Ferrine and Lambert and Mike Richardson. And I feel pretty darn comfortable with McCarthy and Harry Smith at safety. Plus, we have Sergio Brown as an insurance policy. That's a loaded group.

9) What are you looking for out of the Blue Gold game this year?? Are there any specific players or developments that you would like to get answers on??

Matt: I would consider the Blue Gold Game a success if I look at the box score on Sunday and see this:

Allen: 14 carries – 98 yards, TD

Hughes: 11 carries – 67 yards, 2 TD

Gray: 8 carries – 52 yards

Mike: I must confess that I usually don’t watch the Blue Gold game too carefully or use the game as an indicator of future performance. When I was a student, I really just looked forward to the game as an excuse to wake up early and drink and I may just do the same this year (albeit in my apartment, rather than the parking lot). As such, I am really just hoping for a nice day in South Bend for the fans, a quality effort from the players and, above all, no injuries.

Doug: I know the perception out there is that you can't glean anything from the Blue Gold game and that it's just an excuse to drink beer and enjoy the sun on the ND campus, but I actually think you can learn a lot about a team from watching the Blue Gold game closely. Some examples from the last few games:

2006 - I'll admit that I was pretty loaded for this one, but I thought our defense looked horrible all day. This was the year when Travis Thomas had switched over to defense, and you could tell that our defense was not very talented. Our BEST corner that year was Mike Richardson, and Ambrose Wooden was prominently involved in that defense. Bottom line, I had some concerns about the defense heading into the spring game and even wrote about it on this blog, and those concerns were not allayed at the spring game. Our defense ended up playing poorly that year and Minter got fired. Then again, this game was probably the best spring game weekend I've had, and it culminated with a great evening at CJs and multiple Jager bombs with some of the high school commits in town for the game.

2007 - Leading up to this game, there was a lot of talk that things would just keep on rolling at ND even though we had lost Brady Quinn and Samardzija and all those guys. Everyone was excited about the 3 man QB race and the debut of Jimmy Clausen. I remember reading up on practice interviews about how great the defense was looking under Corwin Brown and how the running game was going to lead the way with James Aldridge and thinking that 8-9 wins would be feasible even with the tough schedule.

That was until I saw the Blue Gold game. I remember walking out of the Blue Gold game thinking that we were a 6 win team and maybe worse. The receivers could not get open at all, the line looked horrible even in a practice setting, and the defense was getting run on left and right. There was a stretch of probably 5 or 6 pass plays in a row where Frazier/Jones/Clausen would drop back to pass and the receivers were completely blanketed. These were the days of Robbie Parris and Richard Jackson and Grimes and West as the feature receivers. I didn't see a 3-9 season coming, but I will admit I was a little uneasy about what I saw walking out of that game.

2008 - I did not get a chance to watch the Blue Gold game last year due to some inclement weather, but I did watch most of the game on Youtube. And as we would see later on throughout the year, the o-line was leaking all day.

Anyway, my point here is that the Blue Gold game is not as meaningless as it is made out to be. These guys talk about it being "just a practice", but I don't buy that for a second. They get geeked up to play in front of the fans, and there is at least somewhat of a gameday atmosphere to these games. It's one thing to do it in practice. It's another thing to do it when you run out of that tunnel. There will be some guys who are noticeably better, and you will be able to see some things that are concerning.

I want to see a team that is much faster and more physical and more willing to engage in contact. Notre Dame football in recent years has been a "Brooks Brothers" program. We like to win pretty with skill guys and nice passing plays. I'm fine with some of that, but there also needs to be a smashmouth element that embraces contact and the physical nature of the game. We've been a finesse program that shies away from contact. Part of that might have been from the lack of depth, but part of it is the mentality in the program. I honestly wouldn't mind seeing a couple guys get carted off in a stretcher or knocked out in this game. We need to become a team that delivers punishment, and that starts in practice. If we aren't bringing it in practice, we aren't going to do it against BC and Michigan State. Those teams always seem to win the battles in the trenches against us, and that's gotta change for us to be successful.

I also want to see a team that is hungry. The articles that I've been reading seem to indicate that this team has really circled the wagons all winter, and they are really working harder than ever to become a quality team. A lot of the practice videos have been really intense, and there seems to be a different energy level with this team. They seem to be hungry to continue the success from the Hawaii game. That's a very encouraging sign for 2009. It reminds me a lot of the 2005 team. That team was fed up from all the losing, and they came into 2005 on a mission. That type of attitude was a catalyst for a successful year in 2005.

From an individual standpoint, I'll be looking at those wide receivers competing for that 3rd spot, and I'm always interested to see how our kicking game looks.

10) Who is your pick for the Blue Gold MVP this year??

Matt: Robert Hughes

It always seems like it’s kind of a random MVP (I walked out of the stadium one year convinced Junior Jabbie was going to win the Doak Walker Award), so I’ll go with Hughes to power in for 2 td’s

Mike: John Goodman

I expect ND to install several trick plays featuring Goodman and rely upon him more in the regular passing game, which will allow him to secure the MVP. As a defensive candidate, I nominate Jamoris Slaughter, who should receive plenty of playing time in the Blue Gold game as he continues his strong push for substantial playing time at CB in 2009.

Doug: Jonas Gray

Always seems like a second string running back emerges in this game and gets the fanbase all fired up, so I'll go with Jonas Gray here. The starters aren't going to play that much, so Gray will probably get a ton of carries this weekend. I'm interested to see how he looks. I remember watching his tape on the Blue Gold incoming recruits video, and he's sort of a Tony Fisher type player who can break tackles and run the ball with some power.

Gray could end up being a sleeper this year for some carries, especially if Hughes doesn't get his act together. He's the type of tough inside runner who could be a nice change of pace for Armando Allen.

11) What freshmen do you think will have the biggest impact on this team in 2009?

Matt: Manti Te’o

I’m counting down the days until the bookstore stocks his jersey.

Mike: Manti Te’o and Nick Tausch

The former is the obvious choice since he already possesses the physical attributes that will allow him to contribute immediately on the college level. As for the latter, I expect Tausch to unseat the inconsistent Brandon Walker by the end of fall camp, en route to a solid freshman campaign at a critical position.

Doug: Cierre Wood

I could go with the obvious and say Manti Te'o since I think he'll end up seeing the most playing time, but I'll go with Cierre Wood here since I think he could be the kick returner from day one. Who else would be the kick returner on this team next year?? I guess Armando Allen or Golden Tate would be a possibility, but neither of them have been dynamic kick returners at this point. If Wood is really as good as advertised, he could give this team a big lift on special teams. I'm tired of ND starting drives at the 18 yard line every time. It puts a lot of pressure on the offense. This team would benefit from some big kick returns out past the 40 yard line.

I'm excited to see Wood get on the field. What number is he going to be? I'd love to see him as #4 or something like that. If he is really a gamebreaker, we gotta get him some carries to take advantage of his speed. He could give this offense the home run threat that we've been lacking in the backfield. The kind of guy who makes Brent Musberger shout out "FOOTRACE!!!" like he does every time Joe McKnight seems to touch the ball.

As for Te'o, I definitely think he'll be in the mix at linebacker, so he will probably be the impact freshman on the defense. Even though we've recruited a ton of linebackers in the last couple years, it seems like we're still having trouble figuring out where to align these guys. Te'o is the type of guy who can probably play any position, and he seems ideally suited to be a contributor at inside linebacker (where we still have some issues). I'm looking forward to seeing how Te'o looks against Nevada. With that said, he's a freshman, and it's not always easy to make a big impact at a position like linebacker as a freshman. I'm very excited about Te'o, but I'm trying to keep my expectations in check a little bit.

12) Do you like the switch back to the 4-3 defense or did you prefer the 3-4??

Matt: 4-3

I like the switch back to the 4-3. I think this is going to free up our lb’s to make a lot more plays. You have to commit to stopping the run with some big uglies up front, and hopefully Ian and Hafis are up to the challenge.

Mike: 4-3

The initial switch to the 3-4 in 2007 was a desperation move born from our abominable recruiting shortcomings under the Willingham regime and exacerbated by our subsequent recruiting misses at defensive line (see, e.g., Justin Trattou, Ben Martin and Gerald McCoy). Nonetheless, I have always felt that the 3-4 is more suited for the NFL, where the talent level among the various teams is roughly equivalent and the coaches have a limitless amount of time to devise various blitz schemes. Jon Tenuta rightfully has a reputation for blitzing, but his aggressive schemes will be meaningless unless Notre Dame can stop the run on 1st and 2nd down. Put differently, we do not need to confuse; rather, we need to dominate (or at least hold our own) physically.

The 4-3 is more appropriate for our personnel in 2009, insofar as this approach will allow for Notre Dame, which was badly undersized last year, to play some bigger players up front in an effort to slow the run and keep opposing lineman from reaching the second level of the defense. With the Williamses, Newman and perhaps even Tyler Stockton, we should be able to rotate fresh defensive tackles throughout the game, which can only improve performance. I also like the idea of moving Ethan Johnson inside on passing downs to play the role of a penetrating, one-gap pass rushing DT and inserting a faster edge rusher, such as Darius Fleming, at weak side DE.

Doug: 4-3

I like the switch to the 4-3, and I've been advocating the switch back to the 4-3 for quite some time. In my opinion, the 3-4 only works in college football if you have a monster d-line that can stop the run even with only three down linemen. Alabama had a guy like Terrance Cody in the middle to completely clog up the line of scrimmage, and that's why they could play the 3-4 this past year. Plus, Alabama is one of the most physical teams in the country, so they can get away with having fewer d-linemen banging around in the trenches.

But for the vast majority of teams, you want that extra d-lineman on the field to give you a little more beef up front. The difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3 is whether you want to have an extra 290 DT on the field or a 230 pound OLB. I'll take the d-lineman all day, especially in college football. That extra beef helps you stop the run, and I think it gives your d-line more confidence. The 3-4 is a frustrating defense for a d-linemen to play. When you are talking about 19-20 year old players, they might quit on the play because they are constantly getting double teamed. The 4-3 gives them more one on one matchups.

In my opinion, the experiment with the 3-4 was a classic example of the adjustment period for Charlie Weis to college football. He went to the 3-4 in 2007 because that's what he knew in the NFL. The 3-4 works in the NFL because the d-linemen in the NFL are all good and know how to be effective in that type of scheme. Getting more playmaking linebackers on the field is an advantage when you have two teams that are evenly matched in size and skill. That's the world that Charlie Weis knew from the NFL. He learned under Belichick that the 3-4 is the best defense from a schematic standpoint.

But in college football, there are talent differences that you need to take advantage of at a place like ND. A school like ND has the luxury of being able to recruit a lot of 290+ pound d-linemen. There aren't that many schools that can get a bunch of those guys. When we can line up two 300 pound DTs in the middle against a team with 275 pound guards and centers, we should have a matchup advantage there. Get those extra big guys on the field to blow up their line.

Our defensive line has been a sieve against the run the last couple years. They'd be 3-4 yards down the field before a linebacker got a glove on him. That has to change. The line has to make more plays at the line of scrimmage.

Anyway, this was clearly the right move, and we have a very good coordinator in Jon Tenuta to teach the 4-3. I think the defense will benefit from the move to the 4-3.

13) What are you expectations for Jimmy Clausen in 2009??

Matt: Heisman candidate. I’m not joking. He’s going to have a top 5 receiving corps. The o line should be improved. Clausen made some really poor decisions last year, and I’ll be disappointed if he’s still making those same mistakes again this year. I know it was just Hawaii, but he was absolutely on fire that game. Heck, half our schedule this year is worse than Hawaii, so why not keep it going?

Mike: Simply put, I would like to see his statistics approximate those of Brady Quinn in 2005. With a veteran OL that improved considerably at pass blocking last year after the 2007 debacle, as well as an awesome array of weapons at WR and TE, Clausen should throw for 30 TDs, 10 or fewer INTs, 8.5 yards per attempt and 3500 yards. No excuses- the time is now for Clausen.

Doug: I'd like to see Clausen evolve into a playmaker like we saw out of Brady Quinn in 2005 and 2006 and not just a thrower. Here's what we know about Clausen to date. Clausen has a great arm and throws a great ball. If you give him time to throw and an open receiver, he'll put the ball right on the money. His performance in the Hawaii game was about as well as a QB can play in that game. Unfortunately, you aren't always going to have that luxury of open receivers and plenty of time to throw in football. You need to be able to make reads and occasionally make plays when things break down either with your feet or with your arm.

The key for Clausen this year is whether he can make those types of plays. There were too many times last year when things would break down and Clausen gave up on the play (or committed the cardinal sin of running backwards away from the pocket). I'd love to see him find a little of that Brady Quinn magic where he'd step up in the pocket to make a throw or take off for a positive gain on the ground. That's where he needs to be this year if this team is going to do well offensively. Sometimes I forget that Clausen was only a sophomore last year. Brady Quinn didn't really get it going until his junior year either.

I also know for a fact that Clausen was hurt in the second half of last year. He got worn down, and it definitely affected his confidence and his play on the field. He played like he didn't even want to be on the field in that USC game, and I think he was a little scared of them. Hopefully another year in the weight room has paid off. If he can stay healthy in 2009, I expect him to be productive.

If you go to the spring game, take a peek at whether Clausen looks more comfortable moving around in the pocket. It's a no-contact game. There's no reason he should ever be turning away from the pocket. Hopefully that habit is long gone.

I'm giving Clausen a completely blank slate in 2009. He's shown some great things, and he's done some things that make me wonder about how good he actually is. I'm going into 2009 with an open mind on him. I've watched some of the practice videos, and he looks great. He's stronger and his throws have looked perfect. Now we gotta see it under the bright lights in the game.

14) What opponent would you most like to see ND schedule in the future??

Matt: Miami

But I’m not picky. I’ll settle for Clemson, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, LSU, Auburn, Oklahoma State, Georgia, Arkansas, or Virginia Tech. I was talking to one of my buddies in school who went to Tennessee and he was talking about how there is nothing like a big game in Neyland Stadium when Florida or Alabama come to town. I want that feeling back in ND Stadium. No more trying get into Purdue or Michigan State or Pitt like it’s some big game. Get some legitimate big boys on the schedule.

Mike: Alabama.

Good Lord, I would give anything for ND to make a voyage into SEC country. Given the rise of Alabama under Nick Saban, they would be the perfect headliner for any future Notre Dame schedule. Selfishly, I would love to make a road trip down to Tuscaloosa (or Auburn or Oxford or Athens or Baton Rouge) to witness a game in the heartland of college football.

Doug: Texas

I have been advocating strongly for Alabama to return to the ND schedule (and obviously would love to see it), but I took this question as more of a "dream series" type thing. For my money, Texas would be the dream series for ND. They are a glamour program in a great recruiting state, and it would probably be the best location for a road trip of all the possibe heavweight teams out there. I've never been to Austin, but I've heard some great things about it. I'd love to get down there and experience the city with an ND game tied in.

Texas has it rolling these days, but I think they would embrace an opportunity to play a national program like Notre Dame. People in the East and Midwest don't get to watch a lot of Texas games, so what better opponent for them to play to get some exposure than Notre Dame?? Plus, it's not like Texas has been scheduling a bunch of big OOC games lately other than that one series they did with Ohio State. Texas is essentially playing the Big 12 and four OOC cupcakes.

For ND, the benefits would be immeasurable. First, it would be a marquee "heavweight" team that this schedule badly needs, and it would give us a Big 12 team for some additional diversity. While I would also love to renew a series with Alabama, LSU, or Tennessee to get an SEC team on the schedule, Texas would be my dream opponent for a home and home series.

An ND-Texas game would be a ratings monster, and I think Mack Brown would embrace a game like this one. If we could get this series in November in odd years and in October for even years, even better.

I know it's been said a few times on this blog, but the schedule in 2009 is comically bad. We are scheduled to play ONE ranked team in 2009. ONE. I like a lot of the games on the schedule (USC, Michigan, MSU, BC, Pitt, even Washington), but the pupu platter of Washington State, Navy, Pitt, Connecticut, and Stanford to end the season is brutal. There's just no way that should be the ending to a major college football schedule when everyone else is playing big rivalry games and conference championship games. And we don't even have the argument of a really tough frontloaded schedule because there's plenty of mediocrity in the first month of games as well.

Of all the teams on there, why UConn?? Did we really need to sign that 10 year deal with UConn?? Why not hold that coveted November spot open for a really solid home and home game like Georgia Tech?? I enjoyed that series with UNC and would love to start something up with them again now that they are on the rise. Or even some other programs that appear to be on the rise like Arkansas or NC State. But UConn?? Who cares?? That's the equivalent of beating a MAC team. We get nothing for beating them.

Unfortunately, the perception of our program now is that we're cowards and that we're purposely watering down the schedule to manufacture wins. Is that what our fanbase wants as the perception of our program?? I can't imagine that it is.

15) Who is the best running back on the Notre Dame roster??

Matt: Armando Allen

The million dollar question. I’ll continue to back Armando Allen. Hopefully he has gotten more decisive at hitting the hole this spring. I still think there are big things in his future. But ask me in September and it may be Cierre Wood.

Mike: Armando Allen

Armando Allen, but not by much. Allen is the most complete back on the roster, which will allow him to complete fall camp as the top player on the depth chart. Still, Allen is not talented enough to distance himself from Robert Hughes, Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray. In fact, if Gray can ever get a handle (pun intended) on his fumbling problems, he may be able to emerge as the lead back for the Irish. As an aside, I like the shift of James Aldridge to fullback, inasmuch as it will allow for Aldridge to remain in the mix for playing time while hopefully creating more receiving opportunities for Allen out of the backfield.

Doug: Armando Allen

Still trying to make up my mind on how I feel about Armando Allen. I've had moments where I was really impressed with him, but also have seen him come up small when we really needed him to step up. Allen is the best fit for the Charlie Weis one back offense, and I'm assuming he will get most of the carries. The biggest thing for Allen is whether or not he's got the toughness and the instincts to be an every down back. There are going to be 3-4 plays a game where you need a guy who can burst through the line and break a tackle to pick up a first down. One of my lasting memories of 2009 was Allen coming up short around the goal line when we really needed him against Pitt in overtime. When I think of Allen, I don't think of him as an elite back. He's a good receiver and a decent runner when he's got a hole, but he's not the explosive Julius Jones type back that I'd like to see at ND.

Robert Hughes is a guy who would probably dominate in a traditional ND offense, but he hasn't gotten on track at ND under Weis. Look at some of his carry and yardage totals last year:

Michigan State - 5 carries, 9 yards
Stanford - 8 carries, 14 yards
UNC - 4 carries, 12 yards
Pitt - 8 carries, 24 yards
BC - 3 carries, 18 yards
USC - 5 carries, 7 yards

Is there any doubt why we lost all but one of those games?? We couldn't get even the slightest bit of a power running game going, and there was zero commitment to running the ball. The base play for Robert Hughes last year was to run into the middle of a pile and quickly get snuffed under. The other play was a slow developing stretch play where he'd float along the edge and get brought down by three guys after gaining one yard.

I really wanted to pick Robert Hughes as one of the breakout stars of this offense next year, but it's really more like wishful thinking than a great feeling about him having a breakout year. This offense hasn't run the ball all that well for four years, and we're still running the same Weis offense.

I'm not in love with our running backs, but I'm also aware that the problems in the running game are not all their fault. If you want to run the ball, you need to WORK ON IT!! You need to have tough and physical linemen and commit to it. If you watch a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers, they'll have quite a few games where the run game isn't working for the first couple quarters but they are slowly grinding teams down. By the fourth quarter, those 2-3 yard gains are 7 and 8 yard gains. They wear you out, and teams wilt down the stretch. The Steelers commit to that game plan from the start. Notre Dame has been the complete opposite in the Charlie Weis era. He'll come out with a game plan to run but quickly give up on it if it's not there. It's almost as if we use the run purely as a change of pace. Our running game is a finesse unit. That's not the kind of running game that I'd like to see at ND.

Good teams can use the run game as a weapon to grind teams down. I think that's one of the reasons we had a number of second half collapses last year. We'd get out to a lead with some big plays, but it wasn't the type of production that wore a team out and broke their spirit. These teams like Pitt and Syracuse went into the 3rd and 4th quarter feeling like they could get right back into the game. Would they have felt that way against a team like Penn State or LSU that had been ramming the ball down their throats for three quarters?? I'd guess no.

Anyway, based on the reports of his explosiveness, I would not be surprised if Cierre Wood ended up working his way into the mix at the running back spot. I really really hope the ND running game shows significant improvement this year, but it's one of those things where I need to see it to believe it.

16) Do you want Charlie Weis coaching in the booth or on the sideline in 2009?

Matt: Booth

I kind of addressed this above. I would have liked to see him in the booth. I know he would have been ridiculed and it’s practically unheard of unless your coach wears Depends, but still. He admitted that he is a better play caller in the booth. We have good information that the team has to restrain from laughing when Charlie attempts to give his pregame speeches. Why not call the plays from the booth and let Corwin Brown be the on field coordinator. He was a maniac in the Hawaii game. It was like Bo Pelini on the sideline for the Nebraska bowl game a few years ago.

Mike: Sideline

The booth may sound like a workable solution in theory, but the head coach needs to be down on the field interacting with the players and the officials. Although many view Weis as a detached, somewhat unemotional guy who does not specialize at motivation, I still believe that it is important for the coach to be “in the trenches” with the team. Besides, the dispositive factor for success in 2009 will not be whether Weis can maximize his talents as a play caller. Rather, Notre Dame can only reach its potential by executing the fundamentals (i.e., blocking and tackling) and playing with passion. Weis needs to be on the field to tend to these matters.

Doug: Booth

I've gone on record twice saying that I would prefer Weis in the booth, so I'm not going to back off that now because he said he's coaching on the sideline. I saw what I saw in Hawaii, and I can't get that out of my mind. This team was going crazy on that sideline with Corwin Brown whipping them into a frenzy. That's the most intense performance I've seen out of an ND team in several years. And Weis seemed to be genuinely happy and comfortable up in the booth. He commented about how much he enjoyed the view from up there and how it was easier to see the action on the field. It seems like the perfect idea on paper. Corwin down on the sideline firing up the troops, and Weis up in the booth using his birdseye view to draw up the right playcalls. I really thought Weis was going to give this idea a shot.

With that said, I understand why he's going to the sideline. Weis is very sensitive to his image in the public eye. He talks about tunnel vision and blocking out the media, but I don't buy that for a second. I would not be shocked if he occasionally checks out the message boards and listens to sports radio. He has made so many moves that seemed to be a direct response to message board criticism (i.e. - deferring on kickoffs, talking up the running game all the time, discussing his job security, the ESPN boycott, giving up playcalling) that I know he's following the public discussion. Weis seems to be very in tune with the public perception of his program.

Anyway, Weis knows that going to the booth would open him up to all kinds of criticism and second guessing. I think he feels like he has to be on the sideline even if he knows that the team might be better with him up in the booth. I can't really blame him for it. He's the head coach, and that's what head coaches do. They are the field generals down on the sideline. Weis is an out of the box thinker, but I think he sat down and realized that he had to be on the sideline if he was going to remain as the head coach at Notre Dame.

17) Give a percentage on how confident you are that Charlie Weis is the right guy to bring championship football back to Notre Dame

Matt: 49%

There is no denying that the guy is not a quitter. What he did on two bad legs to piece together this recruiting class was inspiring. And I do have some degree of faith in his ability to call plays. But it’s not like you can just pretend these last two years didn’t happen on his watch. I think we’ll know all we need to know about Charlie Weis come November. With the easy schedule, a veteran team, and some playmakers finally on both sides of the ball, Charlie would be the first to tell you – No Excuses!

Mike: 10%

Based upon the first four years of the Weis regime, it is unlikely that Charlie Weis will ever deliver a championship to the title starved Notre Dame faithful. Weis’s ego, as well as his adherence to certain coaching principles that are more appropriate for the NFL than college, have proven to be severe obstacles that have prevented him from succeeding at his alma mater. While Weis’s tireless recruiting efforts have resulted in a significant upgrade in talent from the depths of the Willingham era, the overall talent level at Notre Dame is not on par with the finest programs in college football such as USC, Florida and Texas. Finally, Weis has struck out on many coaching hires and he has not yet demonstrated that he can field a championship caliber defense, special teams or running game.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, there are signs of hope to which the more optimistic Notre Dame supporters can cling. On the immediate horizon, the Irish should be superior to every opponent on the 2009 schedule save for USC, which must replace its starting QB and many key defensive components. The Trojans also must travel to South Bend this year in October, thus providing Weis with an excellent opportunity to notch his first victory over Pete Carroll. In addition if Jack Swarbrick maintains the pathetic, limp wristed scheduling policies of his predecessor, Kevin White, Notre Dame will be better than the vast majority of its opponents for many seasons to come. Moreover, Weis has shown a willingness to evaluate the program critically and make staff changes when necessary, which is promising.

In sum, one could make a compelling case in favor of Weis. Thus far, however, Weis has only delivered bluster and bombast, as opposed to results. As much as I would like to believe that 2009 will be different, I fear that those who buy into the hype this summer will be in for a rude awakening as the Irish struggle to defeat Nevada in a mistake-filled opener or stumble again at Ann Arbor and/or home against Michigan State. Sadly, I believe that 2009 will be the end of the Charlie Weis chapter in the ongoing horror story known as Notre Dame football. But hey, at least there’s basketball in 2009. In fact, I hear that Mike Brey already has the NIT brackets up in the locker room as a motivational ploy for his team.

Doug: 25% (championship football); 60% ("successful" football)

I'll start this answer by saying that first you need to define the standard for success at Notre Dame in football. While the head coach is important, I think there are a lot more issues at Notre Dame than just the head coach. The standard at Notre Dame has traditionally been one of excellence and championship level teams that could compete with anyone on the field. I personally think that standard has changed in the last 15 years or so. Notre Dame isn't the same as it was once upon a time. It's much more of an academic school, and I don't think we are getting the same level of talent that you see at places like LSU and Florida and Texas even if the recruiting rankings say differently. As Ravi has said before, ND gets "Brooks Brothers" talent. We have talent at positions like quarterback, tight end, wide receiver, etc. A lot of those guys were a little overinflated coming out of high school because of the position they played and because they're more of the finished product types with a defined position instead of just an "athlete" or a "big body." It's sort of a rich man's Stanford formula. I'm not complaining about it, but just pointing out the reality of what we are getting in these recruiting classes.

If you look at the recruiting classes at some of these SEC schools, they have a lot of guys who are extremely raw coming out of high school but have big frames or big time athleticism that you can mold into a great college player down the road. Maybe they don't have a defined position or didn't play a ton of organized football, but they have the raw abilities that you want. Guys on our roster like Kyle Rudolph and Clausen and Ragone have probably been playing organized football since they were in 3rd grade and have learned a lot of these fundamentals in junior high and high school. They have a leg up in high school, but that starts to change in college.

Anyway, my larger point here is that I think the issues in this program over the last ten years do go a little above the head coach to some degree. There is only so much that Charlie Weis can do within the framework of ND football as it has been presented to him. Some other limitations that I believe are holding back this program that are beyond the coach:

1) Performance enhancing drugs - Let's get real here. This Brian Cushing scandal was a bit of a head turner, but it was probably the most obvious scandal of all time. Anyone with a pair of eyeballs could see that Brian Cushing was on the juice. Look at the guy's body. He's got veins popping out of every part of his body. And he's not alone on the USC football team. For that matter, he's just one of many who are on the juice around the country. Look at a guy like Vernon Gholston. He was all kinds of juiced up in college, and now he already looks like he's washed up in the pros. I have heard plenty of stories about Ohio State football players on steroids (Mike D'Andrea is another obvious example), and this stuff is probably going on at just about every major program in the country.

While I wouldn't be shocked to find out that there are a handful of ND guys who have done PEDs throughout the years, I'd be willing to bet that we have very few compared to other major programs. LOOK AT OUR PLAYERS!! It is plain as day. We look small and slow and scrawny compared to these other teams, including teams like Michigan State and Pitt. I wrote on this blog after the Pitt game that Pitt looked like they were just as talented as us, and I stand by that statement today. Watch the game. Our "talent" is basically the same. I feel like I watch every ND game and say to myself "why do we look like we have less talent than freaking Syracuse??" It's not just the coaching. We have guys with immature bodies playing against amped-up manchildren.

Another area where the PEDs come into play is with your strength and conditioning programs. Look at what ND has done in the last few years as the season has gone along. We've generally started out strong in September and then faded down the stretch. That's a conditioning problem, but maybe it's more than that. I do think ND has to get into better shape. We folded in the second half of a lot of games. Gotta change that.

Am I advocating that we just start juicing up our players?? No, of course not. But it is something that needs to be pointed out.

2) Campus Life - Before someone rips me for this one, let me explain where I'm coming from here. I think the campus life and responsbilities of being a football player off the field do get in the way of our team when it comes to winning ballgames.

I'll begin with a story. I was down at the Bluegrass Stakes in Lexington last weekend and picked up a copy of Saturday's Lexington Herald-Leader to get the early scoop on the races for the day. Anyway, there was also a story in the paper about the new improvements that are being made to the "Wildcat Lodge." For those unfamiliar with the UK basketball program, the Wildcat Lodge is the "dorm" for the UK basketball players. Here's a Youtube video of Chuck Hayes showing off the Wildcat Lodge from a few years ago. The cars, the flat screens, the whole works. No "regular" students. Now, they are adding weight training facilities and video rooms and all this other stuff. That's to the dorm!!

Bottom line, at a place like Kentucky or LSU, it's about the sports!! You are going to these schools to play football or basketball as your first priority. Yea, maybe you go to class, but look around at the graduation rates at some of these schools. It's plain as day that the culture for Kentucky basketball is that you are there for basketball first and then maybe a little academics if you have some extra time. The whole experience at Kentucky is built around basketball. Even the dorm is essentially a satellite basketball facilitity.

As anyone who went to ND or roots for ND is well aware, that's not the case at all for the ND football players. You are a student FIRST, and you got a lot on your plate besides football. You've got dorm activiites and homework and alumni meet and greets and pep rallies and all this other stuff. The Notre Dame football team goes to mass at 11 am ON GAMEDAY!! It's noon and we're solemnly walking to the stadium in suits while the other team is probably going crazy in the locker room to some Soulja Boy. What other major college football program is doing that??

I know this stuff is tradition and part of what makes ND unique, but the world of college football has changed in the last 20 years. It's an arms race these days. Doing quaint stuff like going to mass on gameday and shaking hands with the alums and snapping photos with little kids is all great stuff, but you're kidding yourself if you don't think it's a distraction.

All I know is that the ND team went to Hawaii last December, focused only on football, and played the best game they've played in years. Suddenly, we were focused and relaxed and HAVING FUN (apologies to Grant Irons for stealing his line there). They hit up the beach, hit up the wave pool, had some great practices, no school work, no alums, no nonsense. They were all the way out in a remote location in Hawaii, so they didn't have all the drama of South Bend hanging over them like a dark cloud. And then they went out and dominated.

Am I crazy for thinking there's something to that?? I really believe that cutting out a lot of the distractions would be helpful for the football team. This team seems to look dead in about 2/3 of the home games these days. Maybe they're just worn out from all the other stuff they've had to do, and their heads aren't in the football game. When the team is lifeless and the crowd is dead (which is also about 2/3 of the home games), it's like a morgue out there. Suddenly, teams like Syracuse and Pitt are walking onto the field feeling like they've got a shot.

3) Admissions/Culture - While this has improved in recent years, I still think there are probably obstacles that ND has to overcome on the recruiting front. We are able to reach out to most of the top 100 kids, but there are always going to be some kids that we can't go after for whatever reason. Guys with bad grades or marginal scores or a shaky family background or whatever. Those guys might end up at a place like Alabama or LSU or even a place like Utah.

And while ND can recruit a much higher percentage of the top guys these days, there are still some cultural barriers at ND. Let's be honest. ND is a very suburban type school with very few students who are from inner city or rural backgrounds. There's definitely a culture at ND that is different from what you would see at a lot of the big time football schools. So while we might be reaching out to a lot of top players, there's only a certain number of guys who are a good fit at a place like ND. Generally speaking, these are the 4.0 GPA, student body president, two parent family types that also happen to excel at football. I love having those guys affiliated with the ND program, but do you want 100 of those guys on your roster or more of a mix??

So there you go. Maybe they aren't the biggest issues out there, but I do think there are some systemic things that are holding back the Notre Dame football program that go beyond just the head coach or the assistants. I think even a guy like Urban Meyer would have to overcome a lot of these same issues if he ever came to ND, and I think he knows that. He made a big deal about admissions and all that, but I think Urban knows that there are other issues at ND that are holding us back.

That brings me back to Charlie Weis. Before you decide whether Weis can be "successful" at Notre Dame, you have to make a determination of what success is at your program. Given the parameters I've layed out about the ND program, I personally don't think we are going to see a championship level program at ND any time soon. By "championship", I mean a team that is consistently in the top 10 and regularly wins BCS bowl games and beats other heavyweights and maybe wins a national title. A team that goes into bowl games against Florida and Texas and wins those games instead of getting run off the field. I don't see that happening at ND any time soon.

But that doesn't mean Charlie Weis can't be "successful." My definition of successful for Weis would be a John Cooper type career, and I actually think he has a good shot to accomplish that. Weis took over a program in shambles, and he has steadily built up the recruiting to the point where ND now has a full roster of quality players. We have competition at every single position, and Weis has made ND into a destination place for qbs and tight ends and wide receivers. We're deeper, we have four stars instead of two and three stars, and we have more elite players than we've had at times in the recent past. Weis has also brought in a high-quality staff with guys like Randy Hart and Tenuta and Corwin Brown and Verducci and some dynamic young guns like Brian Polian and Ianello. Every single guy on our staff is highly-regarded at their respective position, and some of these guys are among the elite assistant coaches in the game. Compared to the days of Bill Diedrick and Kent Baer, ND's staff is significantly better.

Everything is on the ascent in this program but one thing. CONSISTENCY. Our esteemed colleague on this blog, Jimmy, pointed out something interesting about the Charlie Weis era. We are in the fifth year of the Charlie Weis era, and we still don't really know what we've got. Most coaches have usually put in some sort of program by the end of their first or second year. They come to a place with a philosophy that they believe will win games. A guy like Mark Dantonio is a good example. Even Bo Pelini has brought a new culture to Nebraska in only his first year. With Weis, he seems to be reinventing himself and this program almost on a weekly basis. We were pro style with a 4-3 defense, then we tried the spread, then we went to the 3-4, then we decided we were going to "pound it," then we went to a no huddle hurry up shotgun spread, and now we're going back to a pro style offense and a 4-3 defense again. Plus, you had the "coach in the booth" experiment, the give up the playcalling experiment followed by taking the playcalling back, the ill-fated Wildcat formation (that is now resurfacing with John Goodman), and all kinds of assistant turnover. My head is spinning from all these changes. I hate to bust out this word again since it was probably the defining word of the 2008 season, but the grab-bagging in this program has got to stop. Does anyone think that Nick Saban would ever consider switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and then back to a 4-3 in the span of three seasons?? Or that Urban Meyer would give up playcalling and then take it back in the same season?? Or that Pete Carroll would consider the idea of coaching the booth and then change his mind about it a week later?? If you don't know who YOU are, how can you lead your players??

If Weis wants to be successful at ND, he needs to develop some sort of consistent approach. Stop asking Belichick and Parcells what THEY would do. You are the head coach. Do what you want to do and what you are comfortable doing. What does Weis want to do offensively?? He has taken the reins back to the offense, and I think that's a good move. He needs to figure out how his one-back, pro-style offense can be successful in college like it was in 2005. Teams have adjusted to our offense, and now we have to adjust back. If that means getting more production out of the running game or getting more players involved with the passing game (second TEs, fullback, etc), then let's do it. Also, is he committed to the 4-3 or is this just another experiment?? He also needs to figure out who he is as a leader. Is he going to be the guy in charge or is he going to defer and let guys like Corwin Brown do that job?? He's gotta pick one route and stick to it. If you are going to defer, then go all out to do it. Let Corwin run the locker room and the sideline. If you are going to be the rah rah guy, figure out what you have to do to get your players on board. What type of practices does Weis want to run?? How can he make this team more physical on a daily basis?? Weis inherited a soft program, but he hasn't really made us a lick tougher in his first for years.

I think Weis is capable of producing a lot of good to very good, 2005/2006 type teams at ND, and I actually do think "9-3 is good enough" at this point for this program. If Weis can get ND back to regular 9-10 win seasons, maybe the image of ND football will start to change. These types of things can snowball in a positive way. Maybe we start embracing tougher schedules again, maybe recruits start thinking of ND as a football school and not just as an academic opportunity, and maybe other programs around the country start to respect us a little more. Even the Mark Mays of the world might start giving us a little more respect. We've been a national laughingstock for over a decade. It takes time to change that perception.

I know ND fans want national titles and big BCS bowl wins, but I don't think that's where this program is at right now. Could we beat USC at home this year?? Of course. Upsets happen in football. USC has lost to teams like Stanford and Oregon State in recent years. They could come out to South Bend sleepwalking and lose to us without question. But do I think we are at a point where we could replay a game like the 2007 Sugar Bowl against LSU and beat them?? No, I don't see it. We're not in that class at this point. That doesn't mean this program is a failure though. A 10 win season and a competitive showing in a BCS game or a 9 win season and a Gator Bowl type win would be a successful year for this program. That's what Nebraska did last year, and I'd be happy if that's what we do this year.

And while I think the odds are probably against it, I put down 25% for championship level football because I'm not ruling out the possibility that Weis really is capable of being an elite head coach who can turn ND into a truly elite program. While the results haven't been there, there are a lot of good things going on in the program. The entire team has been upgraded, the assistant coaches are top notch (it's sort of shocking that Weis has been able to convince guys like Tenuta and Hart to join this staff with all the turmoil in this program), Weis has learned from his past mistakes, and there's a lot more talent now than we've had at any point in a number of years. You could argue that Weis is better prepared now to win at ND than he was when he arrived in 2005. Weis might have a Mack Brown type breakthrough at some point where all this recruiting success piles up and snowballs into very big things on the field. Half the battle in coaching is recruiting and organization, and Weis handles both those things well. Now he and his staff need to develop these guys into a team.

Of course, I am more than willing to acknowledge that 2009 could represent more of the same that we saw in 2008 and 2007. For all of the talk of "change," it's ultimately just talk. We heard a lot of this same talk before last year. We may come out in 2009 and be the same finesse team that gets worn down and plays soft in the big games. If that happens, Weis will probably get axed.

I've been critical of Weis at times throughout the last few years, and probably would have been in favor of firing him after last year. But as I stepped away from the ND season, I realized that firing Weis would have been an overreaction. Weis finally has had a chance to build up the depth and experience that you need to be good, and he deserves to see it through. I am rooting for him, but I really have no idea how things will turn out.


Craig said...

I know it's popular to pan Mike Richardson, but he made it onto an NFL roster last season (and spent the season before on IR). He's not nearly as much as a stiff as many fans thought him to be. In fact, in 2006, he was pretty good.

Jimmy said...

You're absolutely right Craig. Excellent point, and it speaks to something about Weis that doesn't get talked about as much. Richardson actually developed how you hope most players do. He was painfully bad at times his sophomore, junior and even some plays senior year. But his experience paid off and the learning curve kept growing as he turned into our most reliable CB his 5th year. Credit the coaching staff and Mike for the improvements.

But the bigger point is Mike Richardson doesn't get drafted by the Patriots if Weis isn't coach. Weis' built-in NFL pipeline is an underrated recruiting advantage. He knows so many pro people, so his fringe players have an advantage on late round or free agent fliers with a bode of confidence from Chuck. You have to imagine Belichick and Weis discuss the merits of all of his graduating players. This is definitely a reason to expect big things in recruiting as long as CW is here.