I think the first thing you need to become a championship quality team is confidence. The Irish had that confidence in the first eight games of 2002. They have since lost that confidence, and this should be Willingham's No. 1 priority in the off-season. You can't play at that level of football, and not have confidence (real confidence) that you will win every single game you play. You need confidence most when things aren't going well, and the Irish looked defeated in most situations when things weren't going well in 2003.
Where does that confidence come from? Well, two things must happen. You either believe in yourself straight away, or you build confidence. How many times have we seen lesser teams stay in the game and upset teams with far more talent in any given game? How does this happen?
It happens with coaching and a solid game plan. The Irish need a solid game plan in every game, and they need to execute that game plan. They need to start games playing at a high level instead of waiting to fix things at half time. I wonder how many games would've been different if they punched the ball in the end zone on their first drive, and did it again on their second drive in their many losses this season. That didn't work against USC, but they sure had confidence. The problem was the Irish defense couldn't stop USC, they didn't execute at a very high level early. The Irish need to start every game executing at a high level on offense, defense, and special teams to build that confidence.
Leadership is also very important. The senior leadership sets the tone for the rest of the team. I can't say they didn't have senior leadership in 2003, I will say it was lacking at times in 2003.
The Irish need someone on both offense and defense that will take that leadership role--someone who will stand up and make others accountable for their play (or lack there of) when things aren't going well. You can't just name leaders, they have to earn it, and playing with confidence will quickly make leaders emerge, just as it did in 2002.
The Irish also need to fill some holes in starting talent and depth. With Quinn being the only quarterback next year who's had a lot of time with this offense, can you imagine what will happen if he gets hurt?
We saw in the Syracuse game what injuries can do to a team with little depth. With Justin Tuck hurt, Courtney Watson limping, and Vontez Duff out, the Orangemen offense ripped through the Irish defense like they were standing still. I mean no disrespect to their replacements, my point is that the Irish haven't built quality depth at every position, and injuries do happen.
The same thing can be said along the offensive line. With Stevenson and Ryan out, the Irish running game was non-existent, and the Irish looked a lot like the team that played USC, Florida State, and Michigan.
The Irish will need to fix their problems along the offensive line. It appears they have a nice group of potential candidates inside. Bob Morton, John Sullivan, Zach Giles, Mark LeVoir, Dan Stevenson, and Jamie Ryan have all seen playing time. Many speculate that Morton will move to guard, and Stevenson will be back at right tackle. Stevenson struggled at right tackle earlier, but the lack of depth at tackle might force him back into that position.
Ryan Harris is the only tackle returning with any experience. I doubt the Irish will get lucky again and find another freshman ready to play in recruiting. Brian Mattes appears to be close to being ready. Still, Notre Dame will have to find at least one more offensive tackle that can be counted on next season.
Running back is also a concern. We know what Ryan Grant can bring. After Grant, I don't think they have a proven running back, and certainly nobody that resembles Julius Jones. Travis Thomas is said to be a star in the waiting. The Irish need to find another back to compliment Grant's running style. I do know that the Irish do not have anything close to resembling the talent of Reggie Bush, Lendale White, and Herschell Dennis. This is a stable of backs the Irish would love to have.
Regardless, the Irish backs must do all the little things like blocking next year. They need to be solid in pass protection to help this offense when they don't carry the ball, and they need to be able to catch the ball out of the backfield—they've been very average at best in this area.
At fullback, the Irish have some problems. Josh Schmidt did an admirable job stepping in, but he's a walk-on. Notre Dame has two former scholarship half backs trying to learn to play fullback. To play the position, you need to be physical. So far, they haven't shown that on a consistent basis. Ashley McConnell was recruited as a fullback. The numbers and athletic ability appear to be there. So far, nobody has stepped up to the challenge, other than Schmidt.
I love Rhema McKnight and I think he has star written all over him. What the Irish are lacking, however, is that consistent; go-to guy that makes plays in every game, and often. Part of the reason could be an inexperienced quarterback. The best teams have that go-to receiver. Mike Williams for USC, Mark Clayton for Oklahoma, Braylon Edwards for Michigan, Michael Clayton for USC are all these type of receivers.Michael Clayton for USC are all these type of receivers.
Again, no disrespect to McKnight, I think he has all those qualities. It should be a matter of him and Quinn getting on the right page every game. Maurice Stovall also has that ability, as does many of the wide receivers currently on the Notre Dame roster. This unit probably has the most potential, they just need some experience.
Tight end has plenty of players, just not a lot of experience in making plays. They also need to block on a more consistent basis. They also need to find someone who can become a consistent factor in the passing game. Plenty of talent and options, just need to find the right guy.
On defense, the Irish lose both Hilliard and Campbell up front. Pauly has been a solid contributor. To get to that level, however, you need defensive tackles and nose guards who get penetration at the line of scrimmage. Too many times this season we saw the front four getting blown off the ball. The Irish need to find players who can produce a stalemate with double-teams, and shoot the gaps when going one-on-one. All the great defenses have these types of players.
Landri was a five star recruit and has shown some ability, Laws is another that shows that ability. Brian Beidatsch will probably move inside to add depth; Dan Santucci is a strong guy inside. Budinscak could play some inside. To be strong against the run, the Irish will need to hold their ground up front, and let the linebackers make some tackles. The Irish don't appear to be there yet.
The Irish look pretty good at defensive end. Tuck is obviously a great pass rusher, but his play against the run has really improved. Abiamiri also is strong versus the run, and his pass rush should improve next season. Budinscak is a steady player. Leitko and Frome look to be emerging. The Irish look pretty solid with this group, and I don't see a great need for improvement on the current roster—recruiting is another story.
Linebacker should be strong with the return of Mike Goolsby. Goolsby plays with attitude, can run, and hits well. Hoyte and Curry return to shore up the starters. The problem has been the linebackers in coverage against tight ends and running backs. The Irish linebackers will have to play more consistent in pass coverage to get to that level. Hopefully they can work on that this spring.
Corey Mays and Jerome Collins should return to add depth, but they will need more players to emerge, and for them to give quality minutes when playing. Injuries could become a factor. The Irish appear to have enough athleticism; they just need to fix a few problems in the off-season. A priority should be put on speed at linebacker. They appear to be doing that.
The secondary is a real concern. The Irish struggled with Vontez Duff and Glenn Earl this year. Without them, they could really struggle. We can't single out one corner that we believe will give the Irish consistent play all season at this point, but players start to emerge once they see possible playing time. They are going to need three emerge considering the nickel and dime situations the Irish will find themselves in next year with their schedule.
Quentin Burrell has really stepped up his game, and looks like a great college free safety. We expect him to shine in 2004, just as he did at the end of 2003. Strong safety is a concern at this point in coverage. Garron Bible hits well, and he might be back. If not, Lionel Bolen and Freddie Parish will battle it out for this spot. The strong safety is usually at least the third-leading tackler on the team, so sound tackling ability will be important.
The secondary as a whole is a long ways off from being championship quality. I think it's more of a matter of confidence than talent for the most part. I do believe they could use an influx of talent at corner, however.
When you look at it, the Irish have a ways to go before they are at that level. They need a second quarterback who can perform at a solid level, at least two solid running backs, a true fullback, a receiver to step up to be the guy, a tight end to do the same.
On defense, they need two interior players to rise to the occasion, their linebackers to improve in pass coverage, and add some depth, and a lot of learning and confidence in the secondary.
The Irish do have a solid nucleus. It's time for the coaching to take over and turn potential into stars and solid contributors. Until that happens, the Irish will continue to struggle.