What's Next?

The 41-14 drubbing by LSU of Notre Dame leaves a sour taste for many. The return of so many starters on both sides of the ball sent the pre-season hopes for this team through the roof. Some thought the turnaround process under Charlie Weis was going to be complete at the end of the second year. As the Tigers showed on Wednesday, there is still some heavy lifting to reach elite status.

The blowout bowl defeat left some serious questions for this football team that should look a lot different in 2007. The first, and most pressing, is the defense. In the six losses under Weis, opponents have scored 44, 34, 34, 47, 44 and 41 points. That's good for an average of 40.67 points per game for the winners. Consistent teams cannot repeatedly allow this many points and expect to compete at a high level. And in the last two bowl losses, a combined 1,194 yards of total offense has been surrendered.

The high point total goes hand-in-hand with another troubling aspect: why do players seem to have career days against Notre Dame? Yes, the defense had some major flaws. But Hakeem Nicks from North Carolina sets a new freshman Tar Heel record for receiving yards. Selwyn Lymon's huge outing was the best single game ever yardage wise by a Purdue wideout. Big stars turn into superheroes. Dwayne Jarrett and Mario Manningham each torched the Irish for three scores. Notre Dame set into motion Troy Smith's Heisman run. Is there any doubt if JaMarcus Russell comes back, the LSU star would be front and center after his Sugar Bowl outing?

Some could speculate on what needs to be fixed. Does their need to be a change on the defensive staff? Should be depth chart be rearranged? Weis should spend the vast majority of his time this off-season on figuring out how best to fix the glaring problem on the defensive side of the ball. It's tough to win when highly ranked teams routinely put 40 up on the board.

Another question that needs answering: if Mississippi can take the Tigers into overtime or UCLA can upset USC or Ball State takes Michigan down to the wire in the Big House, why can't Notre Dame stay within 20 points of any of these teams? The Irish haven't even been close and entered the fourth quarter in each loss this year down by at least 10 points. The schedule wasn't as tough as many thought in the beginning. Notre Dame had few and precious moments to show the nation they were worthy of competing with the big boys. For a team with multiple first round picks in next April's NFL Draft according to several mock scenarios, they fell way short and unless Penn State vaults a few spots will not record a victory over a team that ends ranked in the top-25.

Despite the loss, Weis will push his program forward. There's still a month left in the recruiting process for high school seniors and securing a top-10 class would help ease the pain of the stinging Sugar Bowl defeat. It appears as if Weis is well on his way to achieving this task and his relentless and tireless approach towards this aspect of college football will soon fill the roster with athletic and gifted players.

There were some positives this season. Notre Dame was in the double digit mark for wins and went to a BCS bowl for the second straight year. Darius Walker eclipsed the 1,100-yard mark for the second straight year and now is in sight of the all-time rushing yard mark of 4,318 held by Autry Denson. He currently has 3,141 yards through three seasons. Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight end their days at Notre Dame 1-2 on the career reception list.

After Signing Day, spring practice is the next big thing to look forward to for Irish fans. And what a spring it should be. Last year, there were precious few jobs up for grabs because of the returning starters being back in South Bend. This spring, competition will be everywhere on both sides of the ball and players can make a name for themselves with a strong showing.

The focal point is the quarterback position. Weis must replace Brady Quinn, the holder of 36 school records. He brought not only experience to the huddle but leadership as well. Quinn has been the captain for two straight years. Everyone will assume incoming freshman Jimmy Clausen to take over the duties. The nation's No. 1 senior high school quarterback is enrolling early and will push to start the opener next year at home against Georgia Tech. But don't count out soon-to-be sophomores Zach Fraser and Demetrius Jones. Both bring a little something different to the table and have a year under their belts in Weis's system. Current backup Evan Sharpley is another option at quarterback for 2007. The attendance at the spring game in April should be one of the highest in Notre Dame's history. The negative for the eventual starter is that two of the first three games next year are on the road at Penn State and at Michigan. Those are tough environments for any quarterback to play in and it'll be trial by fire.

There are other positions to fill. Samardzija and McKnight, two of the most prolific pass catchers in Notre Dame history, will be gone. David Grimes is almost a lock for one of the spots. D.J. Hord, who sat out this year with a torn Achilles tendon, might be the choice for the second. Current freshman Robby Parris, Richard Jackson and George West should get ample reps in spring ball to impress the coaching staff.

The offensive line loses at least three starters and possibly a fourth if John Sullivan decides to leave. The group must find a way to protect the new starting quarterback. This year, they were 92nd nationally in sacks allowed. The defensive line might be the question mark of the team, losing three starters and maybe four depending on what defensive tackle Trevor Laws does. The unit must also find some way to pressure the quarterback and help the beleaguered secondary. The linebacker depth chart must be finalized along with replacing two members from the defensive backfield. Lots of questions and position races should make for an interesting spring.

Is 10-3 good enough? Not for Weis, who stated after the Sugar Bowl that he's got to get his players from not being complacent. He wants to go from a nice, solid team to a perennial powerhouse capable of competing with LSU, USC and Michigan. Presently, they are not in the same league as these three teams. Patience, solid recruiting and buying into Weis's system should remedy this problem sooner rather than later. By that, 2008 should be the year when the ball gets rolling each and every year.


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