The 2002 Irish certainly impressed Irish fans. At that point, Irish fans would've been happy to see a disciplined huddle and called it a success. The 2002 Irish came out of the gate against Maryland and made a statement—this team was going to be different. We celebrated a new attitude, a new coach and a new beginning. The bar will be raised for Willingham this year and Irish fans now want to celebrate a BCS bid.
Now that the pleasantries are over, it's time to get to work and there is plenty of work to do. Willingham will have to find an answer on offense. The 2003 Irish won't be able to win 10 games with timely big plays on defense. The offense will have to carry their weight in order to get a BCS bid. The defense will have to find a way to shut down the many potent offenses they will face and avoid the mental breakdowns that victimized them in the final two games in 2002.
Somebody will have to step up and be the playmaker on offense. As I walked around the Irish spring practices, I didn't see that guy. I didn't see anything however so that means little. Still, I don't see a guy on this offensive roster that will keep defensive coordinators up at night. There is no Tim Brown, Raghib Ismail, Charles Rogers or Carson Palmer on the Irish offensive roster, at least not one that is clear.
Not having a star player isn't necessarily a bad thing however. The Irish do have a lot of very good players and execution and attention to detail can make any good player look like a star. The Irish can be a very good offensive team if they do two things--they need to execute at a very high level and they have to want it more than the other team. It all sounds so simple but they will be successful if they do these two things.
Two major concerns surround the offense this year—pass protection and the maturation of Carlyle Holiday. The wide receivers will be solid if not spectacular. The return of Julius Jones and a healthy Ryan Grant will certainly bolster the Irish rushing attack. Gary Godsey returns at tight end as does every tight end. The Irish should be fine on offense if they can protect Holiday and Holiday has improved in his ability to execute plays and make the right decisions quickly.
Pass protection doesn't just involve the offensive line. The running backs also have to pick up their assignment for any play to be successful. The Irish backs didn't always do that last year and for the Irish to be successful, they will need to execute their assignment this year.
The insertion of Bill Diedrick's west coast offense hasn't changed much. Opposing defenses still line up with eight or nine men in the box on first down. They still line up with eight or nine men in the box on second down. Changing your formations to three or four wide receiver sets or a pro set backfield doesn't change anything. The Irish still have to execute the offense before anything changes.
Half of the problem for the offense in 2002 was that the Irish had half of an offense. Diedrick simply didn't have time to implement his entire offense. They were basic and they focused on what they could. The offense should—in theory—be more effective because they will have more plays to choose from and more ways to challenge a defense. This doesn't mean they will be more effective however.
How can Diedrick stop other teams from lining up with eight or nine men in the box?
Defenses have cheated against the Notre Dame offense for years—this is nothing new. Their linebackers will be lined up closer to the line of scrimmage than normal. Their safeties are also lined up closer to the line of scrimmage than normal. They do this to stop the Irish rushing attack with more men in a small area making it harder for the Irish running backs to find space or holes. They cheat because they want the Irish in a third-and-long situation and to throw the ball on third down when they expect them to throw. The percentages of success are considerably less in third-and-long situations.
How will Diedrick battle this? By spreading the field and using all areas of the field on any down. Watching USC challenge the Irish defense last year was textbook offense and the Irish defense had no answer. USC went deep moving the Irish corners and safeties back vertically. They went into the flat with their backs spreading the Irish linebackers and safeties out horizontally. They went middle to the tight end moving the Irish linebackers back and then they ran it right at them. They were successful with motion and showing a look to the Irish defense and then moving out of that look into something different. They did it with three step drops from Carson Palmer as he got rid of the ball quicker than the defensive line could reach him and took away any chance of blitzing him. They played, called and executed about as perfectly as any coach could hope for. They were successful because of two key pieces to the puzzle—the quarterback and the offensive line.
Unfortunately, these two areas are the biggest concern for Diedrick's offense. Still, the Irish can be successful. Carson Palmer wasn't the same quarterback we'd seen the previous years and their offensive line was fairly inexperienced. The same thing can happen for the Irish offense this year.
What will be different : Expect to see a different offense. Throwing to the backs in the flat will certainly help slow down the rush as will some misdirection plays in the running game. Sending receivers and backs in motion will force the defense to switch out of certain alignments. The Irish didn't use a lot of motion last year but expect to see a lot more motion between the backs and receivers in 2003.
The tight end also will play a larger role. Diedrick will be looking for anyone that can get past the linebackers and exploit the middle of the field. This will certainly move opposing linebackers away from the line of scrimmage and give them another threat for the linebackers to think about.
I also expect to see the Irish throw more deep passes. Carlyle Holiday has shown—when given time—that he can throw the deep ball. Omar Jenkins, Maurice Stovall and Ronnie Rodamer are inviting targets because of their size. Rhema McKnight and Matt Shelton have the speed to get deep and may become deep threats as well. I do expect the Irish to throw the ball more this year and I also expect this receiving corps to develop into one of the best in recent memory. I keep saying Omar Jenkins is going to have a big year and I bet I'm right.
A good running game will always help a passing game. Ryan Grant is healthy, Julius Jones returns and the Irish have two quality backs to call upon. I'm going to bet that the Irish will run the ball much more effectively this year compared to last year. This offensive line appears much more focused and motivated than previous years. I think they want it, it might take a few games to get rolling but, I do think this offensive line will open the holes for both backs.
The final piece of the puzzle is Carlyle Holiday. Indecision has been his main weakness. Carson Palmer was successful against the Irish because he knew where to go with the ball and made that decision and throw long before the Irish pass rush could get to him. For any west coast offense to be effective, the quarterback will have to be able to make those decisions automatically and without thought. Can Holiday do this?
If the Irish can protect Holiday, I think you will see drastic improvement in his decision-making ability. If he is picking himself up off the ground every play, I think he'll improve but continue to struggle at times. There is no question that the guy is tough and he can take a hit. Everything I've heard has been positive about his progression as a quarterback and it's now a matter of doing it in a game.
Diedrick and the offense can have a much more productive season this year. I believe they will but how much more productive will be the question. The Irish will need to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally in the passing game and the return of an effective running game will certainly help them in that quest. I don't think we've seen half of the Diedrick offense yet and hopefully we'll get to see all of this year.