Let me assure Notre Dame nation that Charlie Weis didn't suddenly forget how to coach football. For every poster on a faceless internet website who claims "Coach Weis isn't liked by his players" you will find five more who will share stories of how respected and admired he is by current players, former players, and opponents. Charlie Weis is a good football coach and there is no arguing that.
What is up for debate, however, is whether or not Charlie Weis is the guy to lead Notre Dame back to the "Promised Land" of college football. When you sign a contract to become the head coach at the University of Notre Dame being good isn't good enough. Fans of the Fighting Irish don't want an occasional BCS game. They want them every year, they expect to win them, and they expect the Fighting Irish be a national championship contender year in and year out.
Realistic or not that comes with the territory. I am of the belief that Charlie Weis is indeed that man. I believe that Charlie Weis has the ability to restore the shine on the Golden Dome. My optimism isn't without reservation. The Irish can't continue on with the status quo. Adjustments will have to be made in several areas, changes will have to be made in other areas, and the Irish will have to learn from what has been a disastrous 2007 season. How did it get this bad? What has to happen to fix it? Just how good can the Fighting Irish football program be under Charlie Weis? I will do my best to answer these questions and more.
The head man for the Fighting Irish is not without his flaws. People who love to hate the Irish are more than willing to point them out. Those fans will point them out no matter how good or bad the Irish are under Weis. There is no perfect coach and never will be. Charlie Weis is who he is as a man and that is never going to change. You either like him or you don't. You can say the same thing for Lou Holtz, Bobby Bowden, Pete Carroll, or any coach who has paced the sidelines of any major college football field.
The criticism of choice amongst most Notre Dame fans is Charlie's perceived inability to "motivate" this football team. I don't remember this being a problem in 2005. I remember stories and quotes about how well he had the Irish ready to play against the defending champion Trojans that season. The Irish didn't appear to lack motivation when they knocked off the third ranked Wolverines in Ann Arbor; or when they came back from 21 down against Michigan State. The examples from that season are numerous. We started to see a shift at times during the 2006 season and obviously into this season. Has Charlie Weis forgotten how to motivate? Of course not.
Is it nice to have a head coach as your main motivator? Sure. Is it a requirement? Absolutely not. For every Pete Carroll or Lou Holtz I'll show you a Steve Spurrier or Tom Osborne. Players must be self-motivated to a large degree. It's then up to the coaches, especially the position coaches, to push them even further. If you need your head coach to motivate you and get you fired up to take the field against Michigan, Southern Cal, Ohio State, or Penn State your problems as a football team run far deeper than who is your head coach.
I think back to the 1988 season for the Irish. It wasn't the brawl or the "Save Jimmy Johnson for me" speech by Lou Holtz that got that team ready to play. Those events didn't turn a bunch of doubting, un-motivated football players into a team who was ready to go take on the baddest team of that era. It simply helped push them over the edge. But the fact remains that this team, especially on offense, lacks emotion and needs to play with more fire. Coach Weis and his staff will have to address this issue in the off-season, figure out what the problem is, and fix it.
Coach Weis isn't one of those coaches who had tried to re-invent the wheel. He doesn't come up with schemes, plays, or a system that no one else runs. Where Coach Weis is as good as anyone is in his ability to develop a game plan and his ability to call a game. There is also no debating how well he has coached quarterbacks. His work with Tom Brady and Brady Quinn is well documented. But let's not forget that Vinny Testaverde had by far his best year as a pro in 1998 while leading the Jets to the AFC Championship. The offensive coordinator of that team was Charlie Weis.
Now the niceties are out of the way, when your football team is 1-7 after eight games the responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of the head football coach and Charlie Weis has said as much. So obviously something went wrong. What went wrong will be discussed later. Whether or not it can be fixed will be determined this off-season and into future seasons.
There are lessons that Coach Weis must learn from this season. The first is obvious. He must learn how to deal with, develop, and prepare a young football team. When his football teams are dominated by veterans we know that Coach Weis will have his athletes ready to play. What we learned this season is that when his roster isn't full of veterans his football team struggled. Coach Weis tried to do what he felt would help prepare a young football team to win. That plan obviously didn't work. The Irish head man showed a willingness to make changes during the season. We saw an attempt at an attitude adjustment and we saw an attempt to be more physical during the week of practice. But once the season starts there isn't much you can do. By that point it's too late.
The best self-evaluation as a football staff and program has to happen in the off-season. We saw it after the 2006 season when Coach Weis made a decision to hire Corwin Brown and Ron Powlus. The Corwin Brown hire has paid immediate dividends on the field and on the recruiting trail. We can't see as directly what the Powlus hire has done but I feel that it indeed a good move for Notre Dame. Once Ron Powlus finds his niche as a coach and recruiter I believe he will be a good one. There were other adjustments that were made this off-season. Some worked and some didn't. So we know that Coach Weis will make changes if he feels it will improve his football team.
There is one main adjustment/change that Coach Weis must do immediately. We have seen him already begin to make this adjustment and that is to change the way they practice and prepare a young football team. I'm not one who feels you have to have ultra-physical football practices each week, but I do believe that the younger your football team the more physical your practices should be. As I read a former Nebraska linemen say this season, you have to teach young players how to be physical.
I'll be honest; I felt this football team had enough talent to potentially win eight or nine ball games. If the youth caught up to them I thought the Irish would go 6-6 or 7-5 at the very least. To me there is no excuse for this football team to be 1-7. So what happened?
I still remain excited for the future, but am left scratching my head at what went wrong in the present. I will attempt to address the several areas that I feel resulted in the Irish under-achieving and resulting in the current state we find ourselves.
YOUTH/INEXPERIENCE: Many have mentioned that Notre Dame lacks the talent to compete with the teams on their schedule. While I will not try to claim that the present roster has as much talent as USC, Florida, or LSU, I do not buy into the argument that Notre Dame is lacking in elite talent. With the exception of Southern Cal and Michigan the Irish have as many four and five-star players in their starting lineup as anyone in the country. The difference between Notre Dame and those programs is that the highest ranked recruits for the Irish are freshmen and sophomores. The Irish started 13 juniors and seniors. Compare that to the 18 starters for USC, the 22 starters for LSU, the 19 starters for Ohio State, the 19 starters for Boston College, the 19 starters for Penn State, the 21 starters for Texas, the 21 starters for Oklahoma, and the 19 starters for Virginia Tech.
Out of respect for the juniors and seniors at Notre Dame, who I believe give good effort, I won't get into the "lack of talent" debate in the upper classes. We all know the rankings of those classes and there is no need to spend further time discussing it. But it's an issue we as fans must keep in mind when assessing this football team and the Notre Dame program.
The offense is where the Irish were hit the hardest with youth and inexperience. I'll discuss later the specific issues of the offense. It's not a bad thing to start a couple of freshmen and sophomores on offense. What really hurt the Irish, however, is that they start young players at every position. Their quarterback (Jimmy Clausen) is a freshman. Their starting running back (James Aldridge) is a sophomore with only 37 career carries coming into this season. His top backup is a freshman (Armando Allen). The Irish now start a freshman at wide receiver (Duval Kamara) and a sophomore, who caught 1 pass as a freshman (Robby Parris). The top guy off the bench is a freshman (Golden Tate), who played running back in high school. Along the offensive line you began the year with a fifth-year senior (Sullivan) at center. After that your most experienced guy was a sophomore (Sam Young). Paul Duncan and Mike Turkovich came into this season with little experience. This is especially true of Turkovich. Sophomores Dan Wenger and Eric Olsen rotate at the right guard position. Wenger didn't play at all as a freshman and Olsen played a few snaps in mop up duty in 2006. Get the point?
Defensively the Irish were also inexperienced but relied far less on that youth to carry them. There is no freshman on defense who has the same burden to bear as guys like Jimmy Clausen, Armando Allen, and Duval Kamara have on offense. Corwin was able to find a niche for Kerry Neal and Brian Smith while they adjusted to college football. There were players like Darrin Walls, John Ryan, and David Bruton, who had played few minutes on defense in 2006, but those players were surrounded by vets like Trevor Laws, Tom Zbikowski, Maurice Crum, Joe Brockington, Terrail Lambert, and even Patrick Kuntz. There was a much more experienced supporting cast on defense, which is why we have seen the defense play more consistent football this season.
Youth and inexperience isn't the only reason the Irish started this season 1-7, but it's where you need to start if you want to objectively evaluate this football team.
POOR SCHEDULE: Much has been made of the ridiculous schedule the Irish faced this season. I don't think the Irish schedule was too hard. The teams they played aren't too tough, or too talented for ND to have won more games. The issue that I have is how the schedule was formatted. Imagine if the Irish could have started the season off with Duke, then Navy, and then Stanford. Then sprinkle in the good teams. Would this season be any different? I believe it would.
I just discussed the youth issues the Irish had going into this season. They start the season off with three outstanding defenses. At no time was this young football team ever able to establish any rhythm, build any confidence, or gain any momentum. Fans talk about a "lack of identity." Well how do you establish an identity under these circumstances? There is a reason most schools come out of the gate with inferior opponents. I'm not advocating that the Irish schedule teams like Youngstown State, Utah State, Idaho, or Florida International. I don't think playing those teams does anything for Notre Dame. I am advocating, however, for the Irish to have at least one, preferably two games at the beginning of their season where you expect the Irish to roll.
Imagine what Notre Dame's record would be right now if their schedule up to this point contained a home game against Youngstown State, a home game against Akron, a road game against Washington, a home game against Northwestern, a road game against Minnesota, a road game against Purdue, a home game against Kent State, and a home game against Michigan State. I imagine we would be looking at a 5-3 record at worst. Schedule does matter. It's not just about who you play but when you play them. Hopefully the decision makers in the athletic department keep that in mind in future seasons.
LEADERSHIP ISSUES: This is a difficult topic to discuss. There is no way to avoid ripping various players and coaches and that is something I don't like to do very often. The lack of leadership shown on this football team, especially on the offensive side of the ball and on special teams, is a big reason why this football team is 1-7. When their backs were against the wall during the 2005 and 2006 football seasons there were players you could count on to step up and make a play. Whether it was Brady Quinn, Maurice Stovall, Jeff Samardzija, Darius Walker, or even Tom Zbikowski on a punt return, you knew someone would make a play. We haven't seen that this season. No player has stepped up to assume a leadership role on offense. In fact two of the fifth-year seniors, John Sullivan and Travis Thomas, have at times been the main culprits of the Irish woes with bad snaps and blown assignments (Sullivan) as well as killer penalties and fumbles (Thomas).
These issues started to rear their ugly head late in the 2006 season. It became a full blown problem this season. What needs to happen is the young players on the offense need to take over. Players like Jimmy Clausen, Armando Allen, Duval Kamara, Robby Parris, Sam Young, etc. need to realize this is now their football team. It's a new era at Notre Dame, and it's up to these young men to take this program where it needs to be. They will determine what kind of football team the Irish will be. As coaches the Irish staff must foster this attitude adjustment and fill the leadership void while these youngsters learn exactly what this requires.
COACHING ISSUES/LACK OF EXECUTION: The players' inability to execute on a consistent basis has to be tied into questions about the coaching. Every good coach will be the first one to tell you that if their players aren't executing they are ultimately responsible. Every position on this football team has had their moments of poor execution. What has also been disconcerting are the constant mental mistakes that have hurt this team on the offensive line and on special teams. The offense isn't the sole reason the Irish have lost seven games this season. Virginia Tech has offensive statistics very similar to the Irish. But Virginia Tech is 6-2. What makes them a better football team than Notre Dame? The Hokies have scored six, count them six, defensive and special teams touchdowns this season. If the Irish want to truly become a dominant program their special teams is one area that has to get vastly better than it is right now.
Considering I'm not at practice every day and I'm not in meetings I can't address what the issues are. Coach Weis needs to figure out what they are and fix them. I'm not advocating firing any coaches, I'm simply advocating that the problems be fixed. The players, especially at wide receiver, need to play with better technique. The players, especially the offensive linemen, need to be much more consistent in executing their assignments. The players, especially the linebackers, need to tackle better. The players need to play with better technique and execute more consistently. The coaches need to make sure that they are doing everything they can to make this happen.
PART II – What needs to happen, continued / Offensive overview
PART III – Defensive overview / Where will Notre Dame be in five years