April 28, 2009

Scheduling Tidbits

Buried in the news of Domers signing on with NFL teams as free agents is a tasty nugget of scheduling info, courtesy of East Lansing. Looks like the series that took root in 1897 will officially continue through 2025, and that's fine. I have no qualms maintaining our relationship with MSU. They probably rank 3rd in terms of historical tradition with Notre Dame - USC and Michigan obviously being ahead of them.

A couple thoughts: HUGE statement from Dantonio & Co. with home-and-homes against West Virginia and Alabama. I'm sure the Spartan faithful will work themselves into a frenzy welcoming Saban back to town. Alabama and Notre Dame as non-conference opponents in 2016-17 might be biting off more than Sparty can chew, but I tip my cap to them for having the cajones to pull it off.

More important for Notre Dame's future schedule flexibility are the two-year breaks in the extension with Michigan State, due in 2014-15 and 2020-21. Weis and Swarbrick must jump at the opportunity to beef up the schedule with another traditional jewel like Texas, Bama, Florida, Miami, Georgia or LSU. If MSU can do it, it would be a shame if we didn't up the ante and cue up some "Games of the Year" in their place. I can't even fathom the prospect of more watered down regional matchups. That's not what Irish football was built on.

There's a glimmer of hope. At the Annual Rockne dinner for the Chicago Alumni Club last week, Swarbrick spoke about the tradition of playing national schedules, specifically Jesse Harper's first season on the sidelines in 1913. Harper scheduled road games with Army, Penn State and Texas within 27 days of each other, en route to a 7-0 undefeated campaign and putting Notre Dame football on the map for good. When Rockne took the reins, he merely continued Harper's legacy of testing yourself against the best competition. The fact that Swarbrick is publicly talking about this tradition bodes well. Hopefully there's some exciting news to come shortly.

April 27, 2009

NFL Draft Recap: Let the Rey Maualuga Era Begin in Cincinnati!! Who Dey!

Just when I'm ready to get out, the Bengals pull me back in!! I don't even need to talk myself into this draft for the Bengals. The Bengals really couldn't have done this draft any better in terms of getting value and addressing needs. They did the OPPOSITE of everything I've come to know about the Bengals in 20+ years of being a fan. It was un-Bengal-like in every way. No head scratchers, no major reaches, no wasted picks, and no passing over obvious needs just to take a skill player that they didn't need. I kept waiting for the Bengals to suck the air out of the weekend with a dumb pick or a guy who made no sense on the roster, and it never happened. They kept doing smart things. I'm looking at all 11 picks, and every one of them actually has a chance to make the roster and make an impact.

Where did this come from?? Are we sure that Mike Brown is still running this franchise?? Did he outsource our draft to the Patriots or some bloggers from a Bengals blog?? Was this the first draft where Marvin actually was allowed to run the draft and make intelligent picks?? This whole weekend was surreal. It was like I was dreaming or something.

Every pick seems to be an impact player, and the Bengals have created a new identity virtually overnight.

Starting with Andre Smith, I know there is a perception that he has character issues or whatever, but look at the guy on film. He was the best lineman in the draft. He's the guy I wanted going into the draft. If they had held the draft the day after the college football regular season ended, he probably would have been the #1 or #2 overall pick. Are there some concerns about him hiring an agent or taking his shirt off at the combine?? I guess, but all I know is that he was one of the most dominant players in college football last year. I'd rather take a guy who dominated ON THE FIELD but didn't do as well at the combine than the other way around. If you google "Andre Smith is a MAN" and watch what he did on the field, he's a dominant player. I watched clips of all the linemen out there (Eugene Monroe, Jason Smith, Andre Smith, Oher, etc), and Andre Smith was the most impressive guy. As for character, Nick Saban has vouched for him. That's good enough for me.

This guy is an absolutely perfect fit for what the Bengals like to do offensively. The best Bengals team of the last 20 years was the 2005 team that won the division, and that team was built around a power running game and play action attack. They had big, physical linemen who could run block and open up holes for Rudi Johnson. Those linemen have steadily gotten older or are no longer with the team, and the Bengals have completely lost their running attack. Instead of 2nd and 5 and 3rd and 2, they are now always in 3rd and 9 with Palmer going back to throw and d-linemen pinning their ears back. That's how your quarterback gets hurt. And with no one afraid of their running game, the Bengals couldn't really run any play action stuff.

The perception of the Bengals from the Kipers and others was that they needed a left tackle who could pass block like Eugene Monroe, but I actually think the real need for this Bengals team was a right tackle who could run block. If the running game gets going, it opens up the pass. Nothing against Eugene Monroe, but he's a finesse lineman who was probably going to get bullied in the AFC North by the James Harrisons and Terrell Suggs of the world. The Bengals needed a physical presence who can start to push back.

Enter Andre Smith. He's a manchild and he was the key guy in that Alabama running attack. Look at what happened to them when Smith had to sit out the bowl game. He played left tackle at Bama, but I'm expecting him to be a right tackle for the Bengals. Suddenly, the Bengals might actually have a running attack this year that can open up the passing game down the field. Great pick. That's the guy I wanted all along, and the Bengals actually figured it out.

Then there's Rey Maulaluga. YES!! I have loved this guy since his freshman year at USC. I remember actually being surprised when he came back for his senior year because I thought he was a top ten player after his JUNIOR year. I can't even begin to count how many times I've watched him play and thought to myself "my god, I would love to have this guy on the Bengals someday." Coming into the draft, I felt like he was one of the five or so biggest impact players out there.

Here's how highly I thought of Maulaluga. If the Bengals had taken him at #6 overall, I would not have been that disappointed. No joke. I would even go so far as to say that I would have been happy to get him at #6.

To get him at #38 when I would have been perfectly happy to have him at #6 is beyond my wildest dreams. I kept seeing his name up there in the "Kiper's best available" list as we got to 15 and then 20 and then 24 and 28 and 30 and 34 and on and on. I saw teams like the Browns and Steelers and Ravens pop up and said "oh god, they are about to get Maualuga, and he's going to terrorize the Bengals for the next ten years." And yet he kept falling farther and farther in this draft.

At our Bengals draft party, we were all kind of watching the picks fall and started whispering "man, could Maualuga really drop to us in the 2nd round??" As we got closer and closer, every pick that didn't involve taking Maualuga was cause for celebration.

Then the Browns came up at #36. Oh no! They are going to grab Rey Rey right here, right?? A few Browns fans were at our draft party and were giddy at the thought of Maualuga as the new face of the Browns defense. The pick comes in, and it's Brian Robiskie!! What?!? Between the Buckeyes fans and Browns fans at this gathering, the pick was met with laughter. Brian Robiskie?? I don't get that pick at all. I've watched Robiskie play many times, and I can tell you with 100% certainty that he is not a #1 WR. You're going to use a top 40 pick on a guy who is AT BEST a #2 WR (and probably more like a #3)?? Robo has decent hands, but zero explosiveness. When you have a chance to take a guy who could be the face of your defense for the next decade and you take a guy like Robo, I think it's a mistake.

As we get to #37, we're one pick away!! And suddenly we see "Seahawks trade pick to Broncos." Say it ain't so! The Broncos probably saw Maualuga still there at #37 and felt like they had to make that move up to get him. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. But wait a minute! The Broncos select..........cornerback Alphonso Smith from Wake Forest! Phew!

The Bengals are now officially on the clock. I'm literally pacing, things are really tense, we're building ourselves up but knowing deep down that "WE'RE THE FREAKING BENGALS! We're not taking Maualuga. That makes too much sense. We're going to blow this pick and take some complete wildcard." I'm already depressed and the pick hasn't even been made yet.


(wild screaming and yelling)
(piling on)
(champagne cork from the second bottle of champagne pops)
(more wild screaming and yelling)
(cell phones ringing off the hook)

As ridiculous as it sounds, it was probably one of the top 5 moments I've had as a Bengal fan. When you've played in a grand total of one playoff game since 1990, there's not much to get excited about.

The Browns fans are in disbelief and saying things like "there's a reason he dropped this far. He's probably going to get arrested before the season starts. He's a thug. His 40 time wasn't that great. Bust."

I could care less what anyone thinks about this pick, and I could care less about his 40 time or his broad jump or any of that nonsense. I know what I saw on the field. Rey Maualuga was the best defensive player in college football last year. Heck, I think he was the best defensive player in college football in each of the last TWO years. He won the Chuck Bednarik Award. He's physical, he's NASTY, he's intimidating, he goes sideline to sideline and makes plays, he hits as hard as anyone in the game, he loves football, and he's a winner. Every time I've watched this guy in a big game, he seems to be at his best. Of all the guys I feared, Rey Rey was at the top of the list. He was the most intimidating player in the country.

Nothing against Brian Cushing or Clay Matthews, but I feel like the Bengals got the best linebacker at USC and they got him in the second round. I've watched all those guys, and Maualuga was always the guy who stood out to me. I really can't think of a draft pick that I've been more excited about in all my years as a Bengal fan.

Here's a spectacular quote on Maualuga that I saw in one of the Bengal blogs.

Pete Arbogast, voice of USC football, on Rey Maualuga
"20 years from now, 31 teams will be wondering what the hell they were doing when they passed on this guy, one team will be shaking and and looking smart. Best LB ever at SC, including Seau. Misses a few plays here and there being overagressive in pursuit. Makes up for it ten other times a game. Stud. Huge and fast. Freak. Quiet, family guy, nice guy, monster on the field, like Polamalu that way"

WOW!! I agree with him. I've watched so many great players at USC through the years, and the two best players I've ever watched at USC on defense were Troy Polamalu and Rey Maualuga. That's my list. Does that mean that Maualuga will be an all-time great in the NFL?? I have no idea, but he's one of the best defensive players I've ever watched in college.

Plus, he's Samoan!! These Samoan guys don't always have the "measureables," but there's just this innate football ability and explosiveness with these guys that you can't measure until they strap the pads on. You can't measure how hard a guy hits at the combine.

As for character, I don't really care about that either. Maybe I've been beaten down by all the arrests and other stuff, but I don't care any more. At this point, the Bengals might as well embrace their bad guy image and go all in. I care about what they do on the field. I think the Bengals have decided to that they don't care either. They tried the "good character" thing for awhile, but apparently that is out the door. The Bengals brought in Tank Johnson, they still have Chris Henry, and now they have Maualuga. Maybe a couple shaky guys there, but the talent is undeniable.

Rey Rey has some background issues, but the Bengals are getting a motivated guy. I couldn't be happier to see this quote from him.

”Yes, I was picked in the second round, but I'm going to prove to everybody that they were wrong,” Maualuga said. “I'm going to show all the people who didn't draft me that they should have.”

If he plays with a chip on his shoulder for the next five years, fine by me.

Bottom line, the Bengals apparently made a decision before this draft that they wanted to get AFC North type football players. Physical guys, run stuffers, run blockers, tough guys, intimidators. If you're going to play four games a year with the Steelers and the Ravens, you cannot afford to be a soft team. If they push you around, you gotta be able to push back. I don't know why it took this long for the Bengals to figure that out, but that's what I've wanted them to do for years. They finally appear to be learning that lesson.

Now suddenly the Bengals have a big physical right tackle who can probably start from day one and a middle linebacker who is going to be the face of the defense from the moment he arrives in training camp. That's the type of guy the Bengals have needed for a long time. Our Ray Lewis. Our Troy Polamalu. Our James Harrison. Someone who gives this defense an identity.

In the last couple drafts, the Bengals have quietly added 4-5 big physical guys to their front seven. Guys like Keith Rivers and Pat Sims and Maualuga and Domata Peko who played in big time college programs. Their defense was actually half decent last year, and I expect to see the defense get better again this year.

As for the rest of the Bengals picks, I really like this 3rd round pick as well. Michael Johnson, a defensive end from Georgia Tech. Seems like a really explosive and athletic guy. Kiper has been saying that he's a top ten talent but has motor issues. Maybe he'll be a bust, but if the Bengals can light a fire under him, that could be a steal. His highlights are impressive. He could be another guy to add to that front seven to boost the pass rush a bit.

And then also in the third round, I think the Bengals stole Chase Coffman, the tight end from Missouri. I don't know why he fell all the way to the 3rd round, but look at his production. He was probably the most productive tight end in the country the last couple years. I don't care what his 40 time is or his "measureables." He's a football player.

I keep using that word with the Bengals draft. They drafted a lot of football players. I know the scouts love to fall in love with workout times and combines and all that (the Bengals have been as guilty as anyone), but I want to know what he did on the field. If you ask a USC fan who the best linebacker on USC was the last couple years, they'll tell you Maualuga. If you ask a Missouri fan if they think Chase Coffman can be a good player, they'll tell you yes. That's good news to me.

If I had to give a grade for the Bengals draft, I'd honestly give it an A. I don't even consider it a homer pick. I feel like the Bengals got two of the top ten players in this draft, and I think they got really good value in the later rounds. They addressed needs, they got tougher and more physical, and they added depth. It's the best Bengals draft since 2003 and maybe will turn out to be one of the best Bengal drafts in the history of the franchise. I feel that strongly about it. You win with impact guys in the NFL. That's what the Bengals accomplished.

Are they a playoff team next year?? No. I'm not going to delude myself into saying that they are. There are still major question marks on this team. Carson Palmer tore his elbow and inexplicably decided not to have surgery to fix it. Now he's proclaiming he's healthy again. I'll believe it when I see it. Chad Johnson is still an issue, and Ced Benson is going to be the feature back. Plus, even if the Bengals were demonstrably better, they're still probably well behind the Ravens and the Steelers. So I have no expectations that they are a playoff team.

But I will say that it's always a good thing when you have a good draft. 2-3 good drafts in a row, and suddenly you can have a really good team. I'd love to see it someday.

1) Read an interesting article on this Freakonomics blog on the New York Times website the other day. Very interesting stuff about the state of the draft, and I agree wholeheartedly with it. How is it a good system when having a top 5 pick is a curse?? Every team in the top 5 would LOVE to trade out of that spot, but no one wants those picks.

Unless there is an absolute can't miss quarterback (Peyton Manning is probably the only guy I would view as can't miss in the last 15 years or so) or some sort of Orlando Pace type linemen or defensive player, why would you want a top 5 pick?? You're handing out a $40-50 milliion contract for a guy who has literally never played a down. The bust rate for top 5 picks is like 50%. Detroit clearly is not in love with Stafford, but they're on the hook for $40 million for this guy. That's a reward for a bad season?? Why not make them play with 10 guys on the field while you're at it?? Meanwhile, a team like New England gets to load up on guys in the last 1st and 2nd rounds who are probably just as good as the top players but cost about 1/10 as much. In a world of salary caps, you want as many affordable young guys on your roster as possible and as few big dollar capeaters as possible.

I'm curious, why don't any teams just pass on their pick and drop down to the 8th/9th pick or something like that. If you were a team like the Lions, why not just pass on your pick and move down to a spot where you can get a good player for a good value. Wouldn't they rather just draft a defensive player or some offensive lineman with the 12th pick and a $10 million deal versus plunking down $50 million on Stafford even though there's probably a 50% chance that he's a bust??

The only solution to this problem is a rookie salary cap with slotted salaries. How has this not happened in the NFL? Suddenly, those top 5 picks become more valuable when you aren't on the hook for those ridiculous salaries. If Stafford was "only" making $3 million a year instead of 8-9 million, he'd be worth the pick at #1.

I feel bad for the Lions. As if they didn't have enough problems, they get saddled with this huge contract for a guy who has been up and down his whole college career. If I had to bet on it, I would bet that Stafford is just an ok quarterback. I know there are some people who view him as an Aikman type with a big arm and all that, but I haven't seen the fire out of this guy or the accuracy. For the Lions' sake, I hope he proves me wrong.

2) As far as Mark Sanchez is concerned, I'm sort of conflicted on how I feel about this Jets trade up to get him. On the one hand, I was shocked at how little they gave up to move all the way to #5 from #17. All they had to do was give up a 2nd round pick and some roster filler to move up 12 spots?? That's crazy! Couldn't the Browns have held out for more than that?? Look at the team they were trading with. The Jets are like the AFC version of the Redskins these days. They are DESPERATE to do anything in the offseason to get some attention on the back pages of the NY papers. They've turned into what the Mets used to be back in the day.

Did the Browns not know that?? Why didn't they use that leverage?? I would have held out for the 2nd rounder AND a 2010 first rounder. Does anyone think the Jets wouldn't have done that?? I think they would have done just about anything to get Vincent Chase...errr...Mark Sanchez. Sanchez is Mr. Hollywood, and it seems like the Jets were in love with him.

So in that respect, I think the Jets really didn't give up all that much to get into the top 10 to take a "franchise" quarterback. If Sanchez pans out, that trade will look like a steal in retrospect.

On the other hand, why didn't anyone at ESPN have the guts to throw caution to the wind on Sanchez?? ESPN was practically popping the champagne when this trade happened, and I don't think I heard a guy all weekend who wasn't singing the praises of Sanchez.

Am I missing something on this guy?? He played in 16 games, and looked mediocre at best in at least half of those games. I love the "highlights" that ESPN showed for Sanchez. They went something like this:

-Sanchez goes back to pass with no one even remotely near him on a pass rush
-he flings it down field to a wide open receiver who has to slow down to catch the ball
-Sanchez celebrates and points to the crowd

What a player!! No one underthrows to a wide open receiver in the face of zero pass rush like Mark Sanchez!! Those skills will easily transfer over to the NFL. Because NFL quarterbacks always have wide open receivers and no one in their face all game, right?? And NFL quarterbacks always play in perfect climates in Southern California instead of howling winds and sub zero temperatures, right??

I watched probably 10 or so Mark Sanchez performances, and at no point did I watch the guy and say "man, Sanchez is carrying USC right now. They'd have no chance in this game if he wasn't on the USC roster." I mean, come on. When you have the best defense in the nation giving you great field position, a stable of stud WRs and RBs, a great line, and a great coach, aren't there a lot of quarterbacks out there who could have done what Sanchez did last year at USC???

If I had to make a comparison for Sanchez, I'd say he can maybe be a Jeff Garcia/Rich Gannon type player. A fairly mobile quarterback who can be productive in the right offense but isn't an elite quarterback. Are those guys bad quarterbacks?? No, not at all. But Sanchez is no superstar.

3) Speaking of ESPN's draft coverage, I figured I would chime in on the most annoying new trend of their draft coverage.

Why do they insist on showing the guy talking on his cell phone right before the pick?? Does ESPN realize that they kill all suspense when they show the guy on the cell phone talking to the team?? Isn't that half the fun in the draft??

It completely sucked the fun out of the draft. Goodell announcing the name at the podium was just a formality because we already saw the guy talking on his cell phone to the team two minutes earlier.

What is the point of the cell phone thing?? Is this just ESPN's way of bragging that they can get a camera in about fifty different living rooms?? I have yet to figure out one good reason why they show the pick talking on his cell phone right before he's taken.

Does the NFL Network's draft coverage do the same thing?? I still don't get that channel because of Time Warner. Ugh. If they don't do the cell phone thing, I'm going to have to go to a bar next year to watch it.

As for the 4 pm start, I'm a huge fan of that move by the NFL. The move to the ten minute picks was a great move, and I like that you have the whole day to do something else before the draft starts. Then again, if we have any female readers, I feel your pain. The NFL somehow managed to sneak another event into the sports calendar for males to get together and watch sports during the evening on a weekend. As if there aren't already enough of those weekends on the sports calendar. The NFL is doing everything it can to make you a slave to the league. Oh well, I don't mind it.

4) Speaking of the sports calendar, how long before one of these college football programs pulls a Jackie Robinson and hosts the first spring game "under the lights"?? Isn't a night spring game inevitable?? You could even turn it into an impromptu pep rally before the game with an introduction ceremony for all the players and a spotlight and all that. I think there are a lot of things that these schools could do to make these spring games as entertaining as possible. Maybe have the coach speak, more player intros, 40 yard dash contests, end zone celebration contests. It's already an exhibition event, so why not go all out to do fun stuff like that to make it a big time event?? Wouldn't it be a fun atmosphere for recruits??

It is amazing how much these spring games have exploded in the last five or so years. I went to the Ohio State spring game on Saturday, and they had 95,000 people there! 95,000 for a spring game!! That's INSANE!! The entire Horseshoe was completely full, and there were only a smattering of empty seats in the south stands. It basically looked like a regular season crowd. The $5 tickets and the perfect weather probably helped, but that's still an amazing feat.

As for the game, Terrelle Pryor started out really slow, but really came on in the 2nd quarter. He looked pretty good, and he's throwing the ball better this year. He still has a long way to go and probably is going to still rely on the legs more than his arm, but I think the Buckeye Nation saw what they needed to see out of him. He hit a perfect deep ball on a touchdown and had some real nice passes down the field. Guess we'll see what he looks like against USC.

A name to keep an eye on: Sophomore WR Devier Posey. Just mark it down that he'll be the next 1st round draft pick in a long line of first rounders at WR for Ohio State. He's going to be a big time player starting this year.

5) This might be blasphemy to say it, but am I the only one who likes Todd McShay more than Mel Kiper these days?? I love Mel, but he's basically turned into a vehicle for the "conventional wisdom" these days. He gives you the info on the players, but I'm looking for a little more opinion from him besides the obvious. McShay has really turned into a force in the last couple years, and I'm more interested in what he has to say than Kiper these days. McShay just calls it like it is. He's turned into the Keith Law of the NFL Draft, but I kind of like that.

Speaking of Keith Law, I might write him a letter of apology for ever doubting his opinion on Edinson Volquez. When the Reds traded for Volquez, Law said he had a chance to be a #5 starter but probably would end up as a dominant reliever. He was saying this stuff even when Volquez was dominating in the first half on the way to a spot on the All-Star team. He became Public Enemy #1 among Reds fans for most of last year.

But now?? He's right!! Volquez has looked HORRIBLE through his first few starts. The guy has no command!!! He'll cruise along for a few innings and the wheels fall off. The other night, he walked five batters in a row, including the pitcher. He didn't give up a hit, but only made it through 4 1/3 innings. When he loses it, forget it. Might as well take him out of the game.

Anyway, I was nervous about Volquez going into the season, and he's done nothing to dispel that fear. I would not be shocked to see him in AAA at some point this year. If you can't get the ball over the plate, you can't be a starter in the big leagues. You can't afford to have a guy in your rotation who can't get through 5 innings. He's the fifth best starter on the Reds right now, and Homer Bailey might replace him if he keeps struggling.

Keith Law deserves an apology letter from me. For now, he is looking like a wise sage on Volquez. Amazingly, that blockbuster Volquez-Hamilton trade that looked like a monster one for one swap last year as both of them got off to hot starts is starting to look like a possible bust for both teams. Hamilton has regressed significantly this year as well. That didn't surprise me either.

6) Some drafts I liked:

New England - How is New England the only team that has figured out this "trade down" thing?? Why aren't more teams doing this stuff?? New England has like 5 second round picks every year. Second round players are usually very good prospects, and they get them for half the money that you pay a first round pick.

No one manages the draft better than Belichick. The guy is amazing, and he somehow managed to finagle about five more second rounders for next year. Every year, they can basically stockpile their roster with cheap young players.

Pittsburgh - Noticing a familiar pattern here?? The Steelers draft doesn't look like anything special on paper, but why would I doubt that these guys aren't all great picks??

I watched the highlights of this Ziggy Hood guy, and he looks like a beast to me. Great "need" pick for the Steel. They get a young d-linemen just as their d-line is starting to get a little bit older. They can plug him into the rotation and groom him to be a starter at defensive end someday.

Then they pick up two corners, a downfield WR to replace Nate Washington, and two big uglies to replenish that o-line.

Is that a classic Steeler draft or what?? Four linemen overall, a WR sleeper in the middle rounds, and some secondary help. Death, taxes, and a solid Steeler draft from top to bottom.

Philadelphia - I know it's easy to say you liked a draft when the team drafts two skill guys, but I think the Eagles got great value. Besides, they seem to always draft a million linemen, so they probably could afford to take a couple skill guys in the first two rounds.

I am a HUGE fan of that LeSean McCoy pick. I'm just a huge fan of LeSean McCoy in general. Honestly, I think he has a chance to be the best back of this draft class, and I think he's a perfect fit in that Philly offense. With his pass catching skills and versatility, I think he's got the potential to be a star in Philly. They can groom him for a year or two behind Westbrook and then hand him the job. I would not be shocked if he was the starting running back in Philly by 2010.

I like Maclin, but that pick seems a little redundant with DeSean Jackson already on board. Either way, it's a good value.

Plus, they also got this Jason Peters guy in a trade from Buffalo to be a starting offensive tackle. That's three impact players to their offense.

That offense is suddenly loaded with players. The Eagles are going to be right back in the mix to go to the Super Bowl.

7) Some drafts that are getting decent grades but I'm not sure about:

Minnesota - I don't have a problem with where they took Percy Harvin considering his value, but I'm not that high on him as an NFL player. What position is he going to play?? Can he stay healthy?? Just too many question marks about him. He's an amazing athlete and one of the best college football players in recent memory, but he's not a pure WR. Those "athlete" types never work out in the NFL. Ted Ginn, Desmond Howard, Rocket Ismail, Reggie Bush. If you can't stay healthy and you don't have a natural position, you're probably not going to work out.

If anything, I almost think Harvin should just try to become a Charles Woodson type and be a DB who can occasionally play offense and special teams. He's so athletic that he could be a good DB I would imagine.

I just don't see how Harvin makes Minnesota that much better. Don't they still have the same issues at QB?? Why not just keep adding to your defense and hope that you can build a championship defense?? Or better yet, why not just go all in and try to get Jay Cutler??

Denver - On paper, these Denver moves don't look so bad. Moreno could be a huge stud, Ayers is an SEC guy with big time ability, and Alphonso Smith was a solid player at Wake.

But look at what they gave up to get these guys!! Denver had a boatload of #1 picks after the Cutler trade, and now they're basically cashed out. It was the equivalent of saving up a bunch of money to buy a house and then blowing it all on a giant boat instead. I thought the whole point of the Cutler trade was that the Broncos could position themselves to be another New England with all kinds of picks and leverage, and they went out and just blew all the picks in one draft.

Now, not only do they not have Cutler, they don't have any more picks next year than any other team because they already used those picks to get Alphonso Smith. It just seems like they are going to be in a huge rebuild for the next few years for no reason.

Miami - I know everyone is all excited about this Pat White pick, but I don't get it. A second rounder for a Wildcat guy?? What happens when the NFL adjusts and shuts that down?? Is that still going to look like a great pick?? And why do you need Pat White to run it?? What was wrong with Ronnie Brown running it?? It's not like Pat White is ever going to throw out of the Wildcat formation.

This pick strikes me as Miami trying to be too cute. A second round pick is a valuable pick. To use that pick on a part time player (at best) is a waste of a pick if you ask me.

I don't like Miami's draft at all. Patrick Turner is a bust. He never impressed me at USC. And Brian Hartline in the fourth round?? Are you kidding me?? I don't think he would have even started at Ohio State this year. That's a laughable pick.

Honestly, I think I'd give Miami an F for draft day. I think they did a terrible job. It was the complete opposite of what I would expect a Bill Parcells draft to look like. A bunch of corners and WRs and a Wildcat QB?? That's insane. Get back to the old days of big linemen and defensive players.

St. Louis - Another team that seems to be getting some praise for making "smart" picks, but I don't see a lot of impact guys. That's the second year in a row where St. Louis drafted really high, and last year they took Howie Long's kid. I don't know what he did last year, but I don't remember hearing his name much.

This year, they go for Jason Smith and Laurinaitis. Nothing against Laurinaitis, but how could anyone watch Laurinaitis and Rey Maualuga and think that Laurinaitis was a better pick?? I think the Rams will regret passing over Rey Rey.

Cleveland - Finally, I'll end with the Brownies. We had a few Browns fans at the draft party, and it was a highly-entertaining day for the Browns. I love the concept of what the Browns did, but I am scratching my head over the results. I'm a huge fan of trading down to get more picks. In the NFL Draft, you are going to always have some busts, so you might as well get as many picks as possible as "insurance" against some of your bad picks. Strength in numbers. So when the Browns kept trading down, we were firing off "MANGENIUS!" lines left and right. This was right out of the Belichick playbook.

But then the results of these trades started trickling in. First, they only get one second rounder from Jets, and then they only get a couple 6th rounders to move down twice from 17 to 21. They moved 16 spots for a second rounder and a couple late round guys. Why couldn't they get more for any of those trade downs??

And then we see their pick. Alex Mack..center. Not a bad pick, but the Browns already have a decent center. Browns fans are wondering what the point of moving down was.

Then we get to the second round. Maualuga is there, and it's looking like Rey Rey is going to be the man on that defense. Instead, they go with Brian Robiskie. With their other second rounder, they go with that Massaquoi guy from Georgia.

I don't get it. I don't think either of those guys has the ability to be a #1 WR in the NFL, but you're using two second rounders on them?? And you also have Braylon Edwards?? How did those picks make their team any better?? If anything, all they did was tread water. If they get rid of Braylon, it's a net downgrade at WR.

Very puzzling draft for the Browns. They did all the right things, but I'm not in love with any of their picks and they didn't get enough in return for trading down all those spots. Instead of getting a big time impact player at #5, they end up with a center and Massaquoi. That's not a lot of value for the #5 pick overall.

The other thing is that they have completely jerked around Brady Quinn. What was the point of including him in all those trade rumors if you didn't intend to trade him?? What were they trying to accomplish there?? That made absolutely no sense to me. Instead of embracing him and showing some confidence in him, they completely alienated him.

The more I see out of these Belichick disciples, the more it becomes apparent that I wouldn't touch any of these guys. His coaching tree is becoming a litany of busts and guys who are completely in over their head. And with McDaniels doing all kinds of wacky things in Denver, the tree keeps growing.

I almost get the impression that these Belichick guys are so intent on doing things "the Belichick way" that they lose all common sense. Belichick doesn't have a "Belichick way." The Belichick way is doing intelligent things. It's not about being a grouch or trying to alienate your players in the media or trading down just so that you can say that you traded down even if you aren't getting enough value in return.

Finally, I'll end with Notre Dame. Congrats to David Bruton for being the only ND football player to get drafted, but doesn't that sum up the state of Notre Dame football these days?? When you are only getting one player drafted, you probably didn't have a very good football team the year before. You win in college football with your upperclassmen, and the reality is that ND hasn't had good upperclassmen in either of the last two years.

UConn had four first and second round picks!! My god! Maybe Kevin White was right about them. UConn the heavyweight! I think Cincinnati had like five players drafted, and Pitt and BC had multiple draft picks. The reality is that our talent hasn't even matched up to the Big East type teams in the last couple years.

It'll be interesting to see what the ND draft class looks like in 2010. While there certainly will be more than one ND player drafted next year, we still probably are not going to have a bunch of first day draft picks. That doesn't appear to be on the way until 2011 or even 2012. As far as I'm concerned, that's reason enough to still hold back expectations a bit for the 2009 season.

April 24, 2009

Clausen and Weis on the cover of Sporting News

Wow, big cover story on Charlie Weis and Jimmy Clausen coming out in the Sporting News this week. I might have to pick up a copy of this issue and check it out.

According to this article in the Fort Wayne paper, it looks like there is going to be some interesting stuff in this feature story. Seems like the Sporting News always gets some juicy nuggets on the ND program. I seem to recall a good Weis article from a couple years back.

Interesting quote here from Jimmy Clausen:

"I'm taking it personally. Coach Weis will not get fired because of me."

Good stuff from Clausen there. Hope he throws this team on his back this year.

April 21, 2009

Blue Gold Game Recap: Awards, Thoughts from the Game, a Dayne Crist review, Brooks Brothers talent, and this year's Junior Jabbie

All right, another eventful weekend in South Bend, so let's hand out some awards and other thoughts from Saturday's Blue Gold game.

The Grant Irons Awards for "players who may or may not be able to play a lick, but at least they pass the eyeball test": Deion Walker, Ethan Johnson, and Jamoris Slaughter

Deion Walker - This is a completely unscientific standard, but I'm a big believer in first impressions when it comes to sports. And by first impressions, I'm not even talking about whether or not they look like they can actually play. I'm just talking about whether they look good in that blue and gold uniform! Some guys just LOOK like they are going to be good even before you watch them play. With these young guys who are just starting to get some playing time, I like to see if they can pass that eyeball test.

That's how I would describe my initial impression of Deion Walker. I have absolutely no clue if he's going to be a great player at ND. But he just looks like an athlete. He's tall and smooooooth and real fluid with everything he does out on the field. He is a string bean right now, but I think he's got a lot of potential to be a big time weapon in this offense someday.

Walker wasn't the star of the game by any stretch, but he did make a couple real nice plays that have me excited about his future. I don't know if he's got the body right now to be a big contributor though. He's really really skinny. I'd like to see him get on the field a little bit and then start to make more of a real impact in 2010.

Tyler Stockton - WHOA!! Of all the guys I saw on our defensive line, I think this guy was the most impressive from a physical standpoint. He is a big big man and really has a presence on the field. It took about five times of saying "who is this #92??" to finally come to the conclusion that it was Tyler Stockton.

For a true freshman (heck, he should really be a senior in high school), I was really impressed with Stockton's performance on Saturday. I know he was probably going against a lot of second team guys, but he was wreaking havoc on the interior. He had at least 2-3 plays behind the line of scrimmage.

Like Deion Walker, I have no idea if Stockton will play much at all this year, but I liked what I saw on Saturday. He is a big dude, and he has the type of size and presence that we haven't had on the defensive line in a number of years.

Jamoris Slaughter - Another guy who had me scrambling to find a roster to find out who #26 was. Slaughter is a really impressive athlete with a lot of height and size for a cornerback. He looks like another guy who is going to contribute big things down the road, and he probably would be playing a ton this year if we didn't already have a boatload of talent at cornerback.

That was an underrated signing for Charlie Weis. He goes into the heart of Georgia and pulls a dude named Jamoris from the bowels of Tucker, Georgia. That's the kinda guy I want on the ND roster. Plus, even if he never plays a down, he's already a legend for introducing "Crank Me Up" to Notre Dame lore.

The Shane Walton Award for "the player who could throw this team on his back and carry the team just with his pure joy and enthusiasm for the game": Robert Blanton

WITNESS. Wow, I like a lot of guys in this secondary, but "D___ in the Dirt" really looks like he might already be our best player on defense. He looked spectacular on Saturday. Not only did he take an INT to the house on the first series of the game, he was blanketing our receivers all day long. As we all know, Michael Floyd is a pretty darn good football player, and Blanton was running stride for stride with him for most of the afternoon. Blanton has the ability to be a shutdown corner and a playmaker. And he's not afraid to stick his nose in there to make a tackle. For a 19 year old kid, he's already awfully good.

I said this the other day before the spring game and I feel even more strongly now. Blanton is going to take a huge INT to the house early in the season that is going to galvanize this team. I don't know what it is about him, but Blanton is the kind of guy who other players rally around like Shane Walton was in 2002. He has the confidence to take on anyone, and he has the skills to back it up. I think he is going to emerge as a star this year.

The ND secondary is really good this year. It's gotta be the best secondary we've had since the 2002 team. Walls is a first day NFL pick, Blanton is a young star, McNeil is a solid player who probably would have been our best corner in 2005 and 2006, and Slaughter is an impressive looking young player. Harrison Smith and the McCarthy brothers are rock solid at safety, and you've got Sergio Brown as Mr. Versatility. Great to have Walls back this year. He looks like he hasn't missed a beat. I expect him to have a great year and then probably go off to the NFL somewhere in the first few rounds.

The only thing I can definitively say about this team after watching the spring game is that our secondary is really really good. There is NFL talent back there now, and I think the days of getting beat with regularity down the field are over. Hopefully that back four will create some coverage sacks and things like that.

The Junior Jabbie Award for "spring game all stars that have the fanbase a little bit too excited": Jonas Gray, Joseph Fauria, Nate Montana

Jonas Gray - I'm a fan of Jonas Gray and have said as much on this blog a few times. I like what he brings to the table, and I do think he's capable of becoming a feature back in this offense someday. Gray is one of the few guys on this roster who seems to be willing to do his work between the tackles. He runs hard, he seems to like contact, and he hits the hole with more determination than some other guys on this roster. Our running backs have done a poor job of breaking tackles in recent years, but Gray is a guy who seems to run through those arm tackles. He's sort of a Tony Fisher type player.

But can we slow down on the "Gray should be getting the bulk of the carries this year" talk?? Cmon, he played well, but it was the spring game. For the most part, he was running against 2nd and 3rd stringers. There's a big difference between running over the scout teamers and the real games. We've seen this in the past with guys like Junior Jabbie who dominated in the spring and then disappeared under the bright lights.

I'm not knocking Jonas Gray by the way. I'm knocking the fans who are reading too much into his performance in the Blue Gold game. I definitely want to keep an eye on him, and he may very well play his way onto the field this year. But for now, I don't expect to see him much this year.

Joseph Fauria - Fauria is another guy who I've been targeting as a possible sleeper, but now I'm worried that people are expecting too much out of him after his impressive showing in the spring game. Fauria is a big time athlete, and he seems to be a really coachable young player with good technique. I think he has the ability to be a great tight end someday.

But right now?? Fauria is a string bean!! He is the skinniest football player I've ever seen. He's listed at 245, but I don't see how he could possibly weigh that much. When he runs out on the field, it looks like the wind is going to blow him over. I cannot see him getting a ton of playing time this year with that body. He'll get killed.

The ND strength coaches need to get Fauria on some sort of insane high calorie diet or something to put some meat on those bones. Get him some extra helpings of Blazing Sea Nuggets and Yo Creme at the South Dining Hall to pack on an extra 20 pounds.

Nate Montana - You could see this coming from a mile away. A guy named Montana runs out onto the field with P.A. guy Mike Collins announcing in his classic voice "Nate Montana checking into the game at quarterback," and everyone in the stadium sort of perks up and pays closer attention. And then what do you know, he completes a 17 yarder over the middle to Deion Walker and then a 34 yarder to Mike Ragone. Suddenly, there's a little buzz in the stadium. "Wow, Nate Montana!! Get him some more snaps!" I would be willing to bet that there were some old school fans/alums in the stadium who thought it was getting a little dusty in the stadium. Nothing like some Montana nostalgia.

Anyway, it was great to see him have a little success, but he's still a 3rd quarterback type guy. That pass to Ragone was wobbling like crazy.

The Jeff Samardzija award for "unexpected breakout star": Mike Ragone

I didn't expect much from Ragone this year after an injury-riddled start to his career, but then he goes out and plays great in the spring game and has me thinking differently. Ragone looked real good out there and had probably the biggest play of the game with that long pass from Nate Montana.

If I had to name two position groups that were most impressive on Saturday, I would probably name the secondary and the tight ends. I think we have elite DB and TE groups this year that could go toe to toe with just about anyone. Ragone and Rudolph and maybe even Fauria all seem like NFL type tight ends with big bodies and good hands. We've had some good ones in the recent past, but this might be the deepest TE group we've had in the Weis era.

And honestly, why would a top TE prospect not want to play for Weis?? We throw the ball to the tight end more than any major power in the country. The only teams that are even in our neighborhood are probably Oklahoma, Missouri, BYU, Wisconsin, and Purdue. I think the tight end is a great weapon in an offense, and Weis has a good understanding of how to use these guys in the passing game. Now we just need to make sure they work equally hard at run blocking and pass blocking when it is needed.

The Justin Tuck Awards for "breakout stars who everyone knew would be breakout stars someday": Kyle Rudolph, Ethan Johnson, and Armando Allen

Kyle Rudolph - Staying on the tight ends theme, Rudolph looked like I thought he would look like. He's a stud. If Clausen wants to have a big year, he needs to be finding Rudolph over the middle as often as possible. Rudolph is his safety valve. Get him the ball, especially on those critical third downs to keep a drive alive. This offense really fell apart in 2007 and 2008 when the tight ends stopped getting the ball.

Ethan Johnson - As for Ethan Johnson, he might end up being the best overall player on this roster not named Michael Floyd by the end of the year. Ethan Johnson is a beast and a disruptive force. It seemed like he was exploding through our o-line all day on Saturday.

In the last 5-6 years, we've had some really good d-linemen come through the program (Laws, Abiamiri, Tuck, Weaver, etc), and Ethan Johnson has a chance to be as good as any of them.

Armando Allen - Finally, we might finally be seeing the emergence of Armando Allen as a legitimate feature back. He might be the Russell Carter of the football program. You know he's got the talent, but he never seemed to play with the level of focus and determination that you need.

That was until I saw him on Saturday. He looks noticeably better this year. His cuts are quicker, he's more assertive, and he's more explosive. I would like to see Weis tailor the running game to get him going up the field as soon as possible. None of the slow developing stuff. Just get it and go. That's where Allen is at his best. I don't think Allen is a gamebreaking back, but there's no reason he can't be a Darius Walker with a little more top end speed.

Plus, he's turned into a really solid receiver. It would be nice if we can work an effective screen game back into the mix this year.

The Anthony Vernaglia Award for "player who got a lot of buzz in the preseason but didn't really impress me": John Goodman

Before I say anything negative about Goodman, I'm qualifying this statement by acknowledging that he's only a sophomore and that it might take some time for him to develop. Samardzija wasn't exactly burning up the depth chart as a true sophomore either.

But I can't really see any way that John Goodman should be getting signficant playing time this year. He's not physically ready to be a major college football player.

I hate to bang the guy for one play alone, but that Clausen "interception" for a touchdown was about 90% the fault of Goodman. Goodman got shoved off his route and couldn't get to the spot where the ball was on a little comeback route. A guy like Floyd makes that play, but Goodman got shoved around. The play made Clausen look bad, but he was just throwing to a spot and the receiver wasn't there.

And that wasn't the only time it happened. Granted, our secondary is really good, but Goodman could not get open at all. He was either getting pushed around or he was blanketed. It reminded me of the Richard Jackson debacle in the 2007 spring game. Goodman isn't physically ready at this point to get open against good corners.

Maybe he'd be a better fit as a 3rd receiver in the slot where he'd be going against linebackers and roaming the middle of the field, but I think there are better options on the roster.

The Nick Setta Award for "special teams player of the game": Brandon Walker

Ok, so he missed an extra point. A little concerning, but he made up for it with that 49 yard beauty later in the game. The kicker position is one that we probably still need to keep an eye on, but I think Walker will emerge as a solid kicker this year.

One other special teams note while I'm here. I am curious to see who our return men are this year. If I had my druthers, I think I'd give the punt return job to Golden Tate. While I would ordinarily love to have the fastest guy possible back there, there isn't really a Percy Harvin or Ted Ginn type gamebreaker on this roster to return kicks. So in the absence of one of those types of guys, I want a guy who is going to fight like crazy and never give up on a return. There's just something about Golden Tate with the ball that makes you think he could go the distance at any time. Tate has a lot of Zibby in him when he gets the ball. When he's back there, he fights and scraps and claws and keeps the play alive until he finds a seem to break on. That was always Zibby's best quality. Armando Allen is not that type of runner.

The Julius Jones Award for "comeback player of the year": Robert Hughes

I went with Hughes here because he looked like a whole new man on Saturday. He had his little sophomore slump last year, but he looked like the player that showed a ton of promise as a freshman at the end of the 2007 season. It's becoming more and more obvious that Hughes' injury early in the year limited his effectiveness. He was running with a level of power and speed on Saturday that we didn't see much last year, and all of it was between the tackles. If he could be an effective short yardage back, that would be huge for this team. Weis hasn't really had a good short yardage guy in his first four years. And Hughes even showed good hands on Saturday with a nice catch over the middle.

It also looks like Hughes has lost a little weight, and he even made a little uniform change by adding one of those flapping Warrick Dunn-esque back pads to his look. I thought he was looking solid in the uni.

I don't want to go overboard on the running backs because they looked pretty good in the spring game last year too, but I do think that we will see better production out of Hughes and Allen now that they are juniors. If Weis and company can use them properly, we're fine at running back.

The Rocky Boiman Award for "men of mystery who apparently are going to be important contributors on this team": Kapron Lewis-Moore and Steve Filer

Kapron Lewis-Moore - I named this category after Rocky Boiman because a) he's the man and b) he shot up the depth chart out of nowhere as a sophomore and suddenly was starting even though he hadn't played a down the year before. That's basically what we have with Kapron Lewis-Moore and Steve Filer this year. And after the spring game, the general public still doesn't know a thing about either of them.

I didn't realize that KLM was not even playing in the Blue Gold game, so I briefly had him confused with Emeka Nwankwo (#91). Once I found out that KLM was #89, I was both disappointed and relieved. Disappointed because I had been looking forward to seeing him and seeing what all the fuss was about, but also relieved because Nwankwo is not all that physically impressive.

Anyway, not only is KLM going to probably start this year, he's being talked about as our key passrusher. The man of mystery! I don't even know what he looks like. It will be very interesting to see what he looks like against Nevada. He could be the difference between this d-line being really good and this d-line being mediocre.

This is how our d-line looked on Saturday:

DE - John Ryan
DT - Ethan Johnson
DT - Ian Williams
DE - Morrice Richardson
Super sub: Hafis Williams
Bench rotation: Brandon Newman, Tyler Stockton, Nwankwo

Keep in mind that Kerry Neal, Darius Fleming, and KLM all did not play in this game. Suffice to say, those three guys are all key players this year. We cannot afford to have a d-line with the likes of John Ryan and Morrice Richardson playing prominent roles. I can't really evaluate the d-line as a whole until we see Neal, Fleming, and KLM in there.

Besides Ethan Johnson, I thought Hafis Williams was probably the best of the bunch. He's got a nice power and size combination and had one really good bull rush to get to Clausen. I'm a believer in Hafis.

Steve Filer - The other man of mystery is Steve Filer. This guy has been talked about as an athletic marvel, but I didn't see enough of him on Saturday to really get a feel for him. Maybe he was out there more than I thought he was, but I barely noticed him. Did he make a tackle?? Anyway, he was pretty quiet on Saturday, but he's apparently going to play a prominent role on this team. Stay tuned I guess.

The Ron Powlus Award for "player who could not possibly live up to the unrealistic expectations that I had for him before watching him play": Dayne Crist

It was almost surreal when Dayne Crist ran onto the field for the first time at the spring game. I hadn't really thought about it until then, but then it hit me. "Wait, Dayne Crist is in the game!! THE DAYNE CRIST!! The guy who we've been saying "In Crist I Trust" about for years or joking "put Crist in the game" whenever Clausen throws a pick." I get to see this guy play for the first time. This is kind of exciting." We've been reading about this guy for 2-3 years and watching highlights, and there he was lining up behind center. A guy who may very well be the future of Notre Dame football someday. Even though it's just a spring game, it was sort of a big opportunity for him to make a big splash and a huge first impression.

I won't say that I was disappointed, but I will say that any perception of a quarterback controversy ended at around 2:10 EST on Saturday. Crist is still a work in progress. Physically, he's got the kind of size that you want, but Crist is much more raw than I had imagined. His throwing motion was kind of awkward, and apparently he is still working on the mechanics of throwing the ball more over the top instead of sidearming it. He also seemed a little unsure of himself, and he was overthrowing on a lot of balls.

I'm not jumping to any conclusions on Crist based on what I saw. He's a redshirt freshman who is getting backup type reps. We won't really know what we have with him until Clausen has graduated. He may very well end up becoming a superstar, but he's not ready to compete with Clausen at this point. And if Clausen goes down at any point, we're in big big trouble.

The Mike McNair Award for "player who gets talked up every year but still hasn't put it together": Robby Parris

I think it's probably time to accept Robby Parris for what he is. We keep waiting for him to break out, and I'm not sure it's going to happen. He didn't really stand out on Saturday, and he had a bad drop on a play where he could have probably taken it for big yardage. I don't even remotely trust Robby Parris to be a key guy on this team next year.

I haven't had a lot of positive things to say about the wide receivers, but it was really more because they didn't get a lot of balls thrown to them. Tate and Floyd are all we really need, and I think we can get away with a pupu platter of Kamara/Walker/Goodman/Parris until we get a closer look at Shaq Evans. Another name to keep an eye on as a possible slot receiver: Cierre Wood. I could definitely see that.

The Bob Davie "Foootbawwwwwwwwwwwwl player award": Harrison Smith

I can't wait for Bob Davie to announce his first ND game this year just to hear him say the words:

"I'll tell you whaaaaat. HARRRRRRRRRison SMITHHHHHH is a HECKuva foooootbawwwl player. Watch him DEEEEEEE-liver this hit right here."

Just pencil it in for about the 3rd quarter of the Purdue game if he's doing that one.


You know that's coming!! He might take a minute just to get through those seven words.

The Clifford Jefferson award for "the possible Achilles Heel of this team": Offensive Line

Uh oh. I know it was just the spring game, but I thought our o-line play still seemed a little bit shaky. We were moving the pile in the ground game, but there were still a bunch of breakdowns up front. Guys like Morrice Richardson were getting to Clausen. Yes, we had some nice moments like that giant hole that Sam Young and company opened up for Armando Allen on a long run, but I still don't see a dominating unit up front.

I don't know what it is about this o-line, but it's just sort of a lethargic unit at times. Slow and plodding and never completely in synch. There's always somebody getting blown off the ball.

The o-line was the one area that I really wanted to see a big change, and I can't say that I saw that. You can't always tell the whole story from the spring game, but the inconsistent play from the o-line is the one thing that really tempers my enthusiasm from the spring game.

As the game was going on, I was never really feeling great about what I was seeing, and I think that was due to the start and stop nature of our drives. Maybe the defense is just that much better, but I was surprised to see the first team offense going three and out on a couple of drives early in the game.

Maybe it's still a work in progress, so I'm giving up on this unit entirely. And if they can just get to the point where it is a serviceable group, that would help out the offense a lot.

The Charlie Weis Award for "most pressure": Jimmy Clausen and Charlie Weis

Were there really any other people who could win this award?? The two key figures in this program remain Charlie Weis and Jimmy Clausen. Nine times out of ten, all eyes are on them, and they are going to get the credit if we win and the blame if we lose. The pressure coming into this season is going to be entirely on the shoulders of Clausen and Weis. Clausen staked his NFL future on coming to ND and playing for Weis, and Weis has essentially put his future employment at ND entirely in the hands of Jimmy Clausen. Those are the stakes, and there's no turning back at this point.

And with all that lurking in the background, Clausen throws a pick six on the very first drive. Was it his fault?? Absolutely not. Did Robert Blanton make a spectacular play?? Definitely. But you could sense a little bit of a "here we go again" feeling in the stands when it happened. We've been all waiting all offseason to see him, and then the first possession is a pick six going the other way. Just adds to the pressure heading into this season.

I thought Clausen looked fine for the most part, so I'll start with some positives. He looks a little bigger this year and seems to have filled out a little more. He's a little bit quicker and had a nice 15 or so yard run on a scramble at one point. I don't think I've seen that out of him yet this year. He even had a couple nice plays where he moved in the pocket and found a receiver breaking open over the middle of the field. It was almost a Brady Quinn-esque play.

But I still get the lurking feeling that the game hasn't entirely slowed down for him yet and that he's still not quite comfortable playing under pressure in the pocket. I started to think that maybe I was being a little hard on Clausen and needed to have some perspective until I talked to a guy who works down at the courthouse who is a diehard ND fan and went up to the game on Saturday. He had the same feeling about Clausen. Clausen has all the arm strength and accuracy and mechanical things that you could ever want in a quarterback, but there's just something about him that's missing when you compare him to the elite quarterbacks in the game. He doesn't have that "it" factor. If you put him in a QB drill with no linemen and asked him to throw balls, I bet he'd be as impressive as anyone. But playing quarterback is not always like that. I still get nervous every time Clausen goes back to pass. I never used to have that feeling with Brady Quinn.

I think ND can win plenty of games with Jimmy Clausen. He's got the tools, he knows the offense, and he's got the experience. He is clearly our best option at quarterback. But when the pressure is on and it's the fourth quarter against USC or he's facing a monster rush in a bowl game against somebody like LSU, how is he going to respond?? I really have no idea.

My feelings on Weis have been well-documented thus far, so I'm going positive here. I don't know how things will turn out with Charlie Weis, but I give him credit for throwing the kitchen sink at this problem. He is doing everything he possibly can to make this team better. There's a lot of pressure on him, but at least he's out there working. It's certainly more than we could say about Ty Willingham.

The Grab-bagging award for "buzz word of the season": Brooks Brothers Talent

Time for another buzz word!! If there was one defining word for the 2008 season, it would probably be the word "grab-bagging." Between the "pound it" stuff, the playcalling switch to Haywood and then switch back to Weis, the brief flirtation with a Texas Tech spread, the evolution back to the 4-3 defense, the Wildcat formation experiment, and even the "head coach in the booth" thing, the 2008 season was probably the most inconsistent ND season in a number of years. We'd go into a game with a plan to do one thing, and then suddenly we'd be doing the complete opposite by the second drive. The only thing we could even slightly count on through the course of the season was the jump ball and the "scramble mode" two minute drill. Not exactly bread and butter type stuff there that you can hang your hat on.

Anyway, I get the impression that the goal Charlie Weis had for this program in the offseason was to introduce some level of consistency. He brought in some new coaches who can hopefully coax better production out of the offensive and defensive lines, he is really preaching the idea of running the football this year to bring more balance and consistency to this offense, he took back the playcalling for good, and I think he made the right decision to turn the defense over to Jon Tenuta and go back to the 4-3. I think all of these moves were good ones, and I think they will produce an improved football team. Even some of the weaker units (o-line, d-line) will hopefully be stable enough to let this team take advantage of our other strengths. I really have no complaints about how Weis has handled this team in the offseason, and I could tell from the spring game that they are a better team with more depth.

But here's where the disconnect comes in and here's where the buzz word of 2009 comes in. The perception from our fans is that the great recruiting classes of the last few years mean that we now have as much talent as the USCs and Floridas of the world, and that anything less than a national championship run or at least a BCS bowl game would be a failure. In other words, if Weis wins 9 games next year, there are people who want him run out of town because he would be "underachieving" with all of the talent on the ND roster. These same people want ND to bring in Nick Saban or Urban Meyer next year because those guys can presumably take this loaded ND roster and churn out 11 wins and big wins over USC and BCS bowl wins.

But here's the thing about the ND roster. When you watch this team, does anyone really believe that we have as much talent as USC or Florida or Texas?? REALLY???!?!?!? Forget the recruiting rankings for a minute. Just use those two things sticking out from under your forehead and watch our team play. And then turn on a Florida game or an LSU game. Where is the Percy Harvin on this roster who can take a punt return or a screen pass and go 60 yards in the blink of an eye?? Where is the manchild DE like Tyson Jackson who can plow through an o-lineman and blow up a play but also has the athleticism to go sideline to sideline to chase down a running back?? Where is the Rey Maulauga savage in the middle of your defense who lays people out and can cover the field?? Where is the Major Wright on this roster?? Where is the Brandon Spikes?? Where is the physical freak on the offensive line like Andre Smith who can just maul people ten yards down the field but also has the athleticism to take on the lightning quick defensive ends and outside linebackers in the SEC?? Seriously, go search "Andre Smith is a MAN" on Youtube some time if you want to see what a big time offensive lineman looks like. I'll go ahead and link to it. Added bonus is that you get a "MY GOSH!!!!" from Verne Lundquist. I'm already giddy about this guy as the right tackle for the Bengals for the next ten years. More on that later in the week though as we get closer to the NFL Draft.

And then there's this. This clip has been circulating on the ND message boards all week and for good reason.

I want to ask this question for our readers, especially for those who attended the spring game. Where is the BJ Raji on the ND roster??? If you attended the game, did you see anyone who did that kind of stuff out there?? A guy who completely collapses a pocket or blows his man ten yards off the ball?? How many physical freaks did you see out there??

By my count, I see three physically gifted freaks on the ND roster (Ethan Johnson, Darrin Walls, and Golden Tate), two guys who are so highly skilled that they are superior football players (Floyd and Rudolph), and one guy who plays with so much confidence that he could probably play for just about anyone (Blanton). Other than that, when you watch this team, do you see the same types of players that you would see at some of the other big time schools??

I know the recruiting rankings have put ND right into the conversation with the USCs and Floridas and Georgias of the world, but I feel like I'm watching a different sport when I watch those teams. I watch our guys, and I see a different level of athleticism and speed. I talk myself into this notion that ND is loaded with talent, and then I'm reminded every year when I go up to the spring game or go to the home opener that we don't look as talented as our recruiting rankings seem to indicate. I couldn't shake that feeling yet again this year at the Blue Gold game. I see guys like Sam Young and Dan Wenger and compare them in my head to Andre Smith. I see a guy like Hafis Williams or Ian Williams on the d-line. Nice players and all, but would either of them see the field at LSU?? I see guys like McCarthy and Harrison Smith. Love both those guys, but do you think of Major Wright or Taylor Mays when you see either of them?? I watch a guy like Steve Filer get touted for all of this athleticism, but then I think back to how athletic guys like Rey Maulauga and Keith Rivers were at USC and how physically dominant a guy like Brandon Spikes is at Florida.

And that's where this "Brooks Brothers talent" phrase comes in. Maybe we're getting just as many four and five star players as the big boys, but it's quarterbacks and tight ends and white linemen. And I don't mean it as a derogatory thing. It's where we are as a school and as a football program. We are very attractive to two parent family kids, 4.0 kids, student body president kids who want to get an ND degree and know that they are going to get a great education for free. They KNOW the moment they sign with ND that they will get their degree. When you look at the deplorable graduation rates down at Tennessee and Bama and Oklahoma and other schools, getting that degree isn't always a guarantee at other big name schools. The guys on our team are great guys who have a lot more going for them than just football. When we saw Rhema McKnight walking out of the Brooks Brothers store on Canal Street in New Orleans the day before the Sugar Bowl with two bags full of stuff, I didn't even bat an eye. That's the types of guys who ND usually attracts, and I'm totally fine with it.

But when people use the recruiting rankings to trump up some argument that ND has just as much talent as Florida and that anything less than a national title run is unacceptable and that Weis should be fired if he doesn't get us to that level, it's a complete misrepresentation of the level of talent in this program. And I think it's unfair to Charlie Weis. He has talent without question to win plenty of games, and I'm not going to sit here and say that 3-9 and 7-6 are somehow acceptable. They aren't. But any discussion of firing a coach who wins 9 or 10 games and wins the Gator Bowl or goes to a BCS bowl is completely absurd. In the world where ND stands today, that's who we are as a program in terms of our talent level.

ND has talent, but this notion that we have overwhelming talent like the USCs and Floridas of the world is not what I am seeing out there on a weekly basis. The reality is that our talent is only marginally better than the Michigan States and BCs and Pitts of the world. And that's not the fault of Weis who has been working his butt off on the recruiting trail to upgrade this program. Do we have more depth and more guys with big name pedigree?? I think we do. But you are only starting 22 guys at a time. If you watch our 22 against Pitt's 22, the gap is a lot closer than people are willing to admit even if the star rankings say differently. I watched that Pitt-ND game last year and felt like the two teams were evenly matched in terms of talent. The only area where we had a major advantage was at quarterback and maybe wide receiver, but the rest of their team was every bit as talented as our guys. There are a lot of guys on the Pitt roster who were maybe three star players but maybe had more upside when they got to college.

When you start to think about it that way, I think it adds some perspective. Does that justify losing to ALL of those teams like we did last year?? No, not at all. Last year was unacceptable. But if this team goes 9-3 and loses a close game to USC, Michigan State, and Pitt, am I going to stand from the mountaintop and demand that Weis be fired?? No.

A lot of the problems at ND are higher up than the head coach. Our efforts to turn into more of an academic school are commendable, but it's not some coincidence that the talent level on the football and basketball teams have dipped alongside that rise in the US News and World Report rankings.

The Dr. Kevin White Award for "possible program flaw that continues to haunt us": STEROIDS

There's been a lot of talk lately about the ND strength and conditioning program and some recent comments from former ND players about the overall level of conditioning on our team right now. I mentioned this on two different occasions during last season, and I absolutely think it was a huge problem last year. Tired teams don't finish games. They wilt. We wilted down the stretch in games and in the season in general. When you lose four of your last five games in the regular season after starting out 5-2, you probably have a conditioning problem.

I asked this last week, but it comes up in my head again. Would this program be in better shape if more guys were using performance enhancing drugs?? Is this team soft because of a lack of toughness and accountability in the program, or is this team soft because going natural doesn't work in 2008 when so many other teams are featuring these ripped-up Adonis types with bulging muscles and amped up athleticism??

Just something to consider. I think it's too early to tell on the conditioning thing. Weis has said that this team is in much better shape. I don't think we'll really know until the real games start.

So where do we stand??

I walked out of the stadium on Saturday with a mixed review for the team's performance. On the one hand, this team is better than last year's team. The defense is absolutely going to be better. Instead of trotting out the Pat Kuntzs and Justin Browns for 60+ snaps every game, we're going 8-9 deep on the defensive line now with big bodies. Ethan Johnson is a really big dude, Brandon Newman is really big (too big in fact...drop some pounds this summer big fella), Hafis is big, and Ian Williams is big. We have some beef in the interior this year. The switch to the 4-3 gets more of those guys on the field. That will help against the run. And the versatility of using guys like KLM and Neal and Fleming at defensive end in a 4-3 will definitely help with the pass rush.

The back seven is also better overall than they were last year. The Maurice Crums and Terrail Lamberts of the world are now being replaced by more talented players. There aren't many guys you can pick on back there any more. The secondary is really good and has the potential to be among the best in the nation.

Offensively, we were running the ball and Clausen looks like he'll be even more productive in this offense. There are two really good tight ends on this roster now, and we still have a host of talented receivers.

I also think this team is more confident and hungrier this year. When you have a team that knows what they're doing and really has a burning desire to make up for some disappointing years, good things can happen. Look at the 2005 and 2002 teams as evidence of that. Do not discount the possibility that emotion and revenge will play big factors in the 2009 season now that these guys know what they're doing and have been around in college football for a few years.

But with all that said, I still feel like THE TEAM is a little deficient in some areas. While there were some impressive individual performances, I can't sit here and say that I saw a dominant team the other day. I didn't. I think we might see some of the same things pop up that we saw last year. Teams with good defensive lines are going to give our offensive line problems, and teams with good running games are going to be able to run the football on us. When guys like John Ryan are creating pressure on the quarterback in the spring game, it's hard to convince me that we won't have some issues protecting the passer again this year. And while I like the look of our defense, I think a lot of these guys are still feeling their way into college football and haven't quite developed the comfort level yet to shut down a good running attack. Teams are going to have some success on the ground against us again next year.

If I had to put a number on this team, I walked out of the stadium feeling like we were a 9-ish win team similar to the 2006 team. That doesn't mean we'll only win 9 games. The schedule is unusually easy with Michigan and Washington both down this year, and sometimes motivated and hungry teams with good veteran leadership will play beyond the talent or experience on the roster. We saw that in 2005 and 2002 with ND teams that got off to great starts that carried us through the year. Those teams had good senior leaders and rode a wave of momentum that took us beyond what we were expected to do. We've seen that at a place like Penn State where they seemingly out of nowhere to win the Big Ten in 2005 and 2008 behind strong play from their veterans. This team might get some breaks and fortunate bounces, get the ball rolling, and push the win total into the 10 or even 11 range and a top 10 finish. I could definitely see a 10-2 finish this year.

But just like the 2006 team that finished 10-2, there are a number of games that I would mark as toss ups right now that could end up as wins but also could go down as heartbreaking losses. The 2006 team got to 10 wins, but we very easily could have ended up 8-4. That's sort of how I feel about this team. Based on what I saw the other day, the BCs and MSUs and Pitts and Stanfords of the world are going to be the types of toss up games that have haunted this program for years. We may catch some breaks and win all of those games, but I would also not be shocked if we dropped a couple of them. And if that happens and we end up at 9-3 and go to the Gator Bowl, I'm not going to stomp up and down and proclaim that Weis needs to be fired.

Anyway, spring ball is over, and I'm excited for the start of the season. Go Irish.

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.