It all starts with the offense. As a unit they really need a couple of games where they just roll over an opponent. I believe it would give this group of guys a much needed confidence boost.
This is especially true for the freshmen and sophomores. Most players remember how they finish a season far more than how they started one. I personally expected more from some of the freshmen, especially Jimmy Clausen, Armando Allen, and Duval Kamara. Looking back I realize that my expectations were too high when you add all the various factors together. But these are three immensely talented young football players. They need to finish strong. I started to see it from Allen at the end of the USC game. It seems to be clicking with him. Kamara has shown flashes but needs a big game or two where he really breaks out. Same goes for Clausen. A big offensive game would also do wonders for a young and apparently fragile offensive line.
As the season has progressed the defensive unit has gotten better and better. You can see the confidence of that unit growing each week. They seem to be feeding off of Corwin Brown. They've begun to force turnovers and play with fire. There is work to be done before this defense is a dominant one, but much progress has been made this season. That needs to continue.
The off-season truly sets up the greatest possibility for new leadership. With graduation you have a natural "changing of the guard" so to speak. This season I actually view it as a bit of "addition by subtraction." That's not to say that Notre Dame won't miss Trevor Laws, John Carlson, or Tom Zbikowski. What I'm referring to is simply as those guys leave a natural attitude adjustment takes place. When you are coming off of a season such as this a bit of a youth movement in leadership can be a very good thing.
Some names of players who I believe need to step up and take charge the day after the Stanford game. Jimmy Clausen, James Aldridge, Sam Young, Dan Wenger, David Grimes, Justin Brown, Patrick Kuntz, Kerry Neal, Toryan Smith, Darrin Walls, David Bruton, and Brian Smith. I'm not saying each of these guys has to be a vocal leader. There are many ways to lead, but someone of that group MUST become a vocal leader on each side of the football; someone who isn't afraid to rip a teammate who isn't doing what is expected and them some. There are too many "nice guys" on this team. At some point someone with some fire needs to take charge of each unit.
What also needs to happen is each player taking a good, hard, long look in the mirror. At the end of each season coaches sit down individually with each player and direct them to what that player needs to do to improve. Each individual on this football team, coaches included, needs to realize how he played and how he prepared wasn't good enough. It wasn't good enough during the off-season, it wasn't good enough on the practice field, it wasn't good enough in the film room, and it wasn't good enough on the field on Saturdays. I'm not saying that every player and coach on this team underachieved. What I am saying how is that each player and coach on this team was a part of a football team that underachieved. Every player and coach must be hungrier, must work harder, must prepare better, and must prepare, practice, play, and coach with greater fire.
This football team needs a big-time attitude adjustment. It starts with the coaches and carries over to the players. This isn't an NFL team, it's a college team. I believe that requires a bit more of an edge. The Irish had it in 2005, they lost it in 2006, and never got it back this season. They need it in 2008.
There are many givens that must and will occur, but those changes and adjustments happen every off-season within every program. Every program that I know of does a "self-scout" during each off-season. Initially you analyze your plays. What were you good at, what weren't you good at? It's amazing that every off-season we'll sit down and look at the computer print outs of each play. It never fails that at some point, usually with a few plays, where we are shocked at how statistically successful certain plays were. At other times we are shocked at how a statistic wasn't nearly as good as we felt it was during the season. It seemed to work when we needed it to, but maybe it wasn't all that great on average. You scour over those printouts for awhile. The next step is figuring out how you can get better at each play. You break down the tapes after you analyze the data. You tweak some things, get rid of others, and come up with new ways to run others.
Then you begin to go over your personnel and how that ties into those changes. Your personnel also might dictate how you do things to a degree as well. After all this self-analyzing you begin to formulate where you will want to go as you head into the spring. Depending on how drastic the changes you decide to make are, you might even consider changing the way you train in the off-season.
As I've discussed, there are changes that need to be made amongst the coaching staff, the players, perhaps even in the training staff. But there is one person responsible for all of this and that is Charlie Weis. As we discussed earlier the buck stops with coach Weis. As the head of the program he must be the first to step up to the plate and make a determination on what needs to happen for the Irish to build into an elite program. I'm not into people needing to admit failure publicly before they can begin the healing process. The changes alone speak to the fact that what was being done wasn't good enough.
We should know very early in the 2008 season how much change has occurred, how much of that change the players have bought into, how hard the players have worked, how much the players have matured, and whether or not a real attitude adjustment has taken place. All those things are great but there is one thing that MUST happen in 2008. With a new team, mostly new players, and coming off of a rough 2007 season, this will be a football team who obviously doesn't know how to put away opponents. Will they be too shell shocked from the 2007 season to really come out and bury teams? Will they respond negatively when things go bad? Those are questions that will have to be answered emphatically in 2008. It begins in the off-season but must be acted out on the field during the 2008 season.
It begins with San Diego State. More than any other season the 2008 season must be a "one game at a time" type of attitude for the Irish. That's what their focus needs to be. Fortunately for us fans we are allowed to be a bit more forward thinking. Beating Michigan will be HUGE for Notre Dame. This is a football team who has skunked the Irish two years in a row. Beating them early in the season will be a huge mental boost for the Irish football team. There will be a bunch of starters who never played in a victory over Michigan. You can't underestimate that.
The more impressive the victory the better I feel the season will go. I think the Michigan game is truly that big. I don't expect the Irish to run the table in 2008, as they will still be relatively young, but I do believe the Irish must win at least 8 games next season. The schedule is much more favorable in 2008. The Irish start off at home against a poor San Diego State team. The Irish then play three of their next four games at home. The Irish need to get off to a fast start to quickly erase any memories from the 2007 season. The road games are all winnable. I'm not guaranteeing victory in all of those games, I'm simply saying they are all winnable. Boston College and Southern Cal both lose a ton of talent off of their teams this season.
Winning a minimum of 8 games would do so much for Notre Dame. Discussed already are the benefits it does for the players. It also will ease a bit of the burden on the staff, who are under immense pressure when the Irish lose. It also would improve how they are viewed nationally. This helps with recruiting quite a bit. As a staff you can really hammer home being in a positive direction if you win a bunch of games in 2008. The Irish will still be young class-wise in 2008. It also would give the Irish some momentum heading into the following off-season and set up a chance to really make a run for a championship in 2009.
BECOMING A DOMINANT PROGRAM
Despite a rough season on the field the Irish have made big strides in what is the first step towards becoming a dominant program--recruiting. It's been truly amazing, really. So many people, including myself, were worried about losing players. Not only has Notre Dame not lost players but they have continued to add. After watching Notre Dame lose 38-0 to Southern Cal, knowing Michael Floyd and Jonas Gray were at the game, I thought for sure they weren't going to get those players. Low and behold the very next day Floyd commits and Gray follows suit soon after. This current class is outstanding. If the Irish finish with a couple of key players, guys like Trevor Robinson, Deion Walker, Cyrus Gray, and Kenneth Page, the Irish could have arguably their best recruiting class in the last two decades. That's saying something when you ponder some of the classes Lou Holtz and Vinny Cerrato were able to put together in the late 80's and early 90's.
While we marvel at how good this class might be lets not forget that when truly evaluating your recruiting success you have to put classes together. The last two recruiting classes were also filled with some outstanding football players, although they didn't have the overall depth of this current class. Combine those three classes together and the Irish will have assembled some of the best talent in the nation. That's a great first step and it needs to continue.
The Irish must be able to go toe to toe with programs like USC, Florida, Texas, and Ohio State every season. Top five to ten recruiting classes are a requirement, an occasional number one class would be ideal. It will be hard for Notre Dame, without the regional advantages of USC, Texas, and Florida to finish in the top two or three every year, but they have to be close and pull in the occasional top class. If the Irish are able to do every year what they are doing this year I'll be a bit surprised.
I truly believe in order to be a dominant program you have to have an elite coaching staff as well as elite talent. People talk about how talented USC is and was. That is true, the Trojans are very talented, arguably the nation's most talented team, but why don't they win as much as they did from 2003 to 2005? I believe it's coaching. Losing guys like Norm Chow and Ed Orgeron has hurt that team.
I'm not saying that the Irish don't have a great staff right now. I will stay away from calling for changes on the staff as I don't know exactly what is being taught, how it's being taught, or whether or not it's working. This is something Coach Weis will have to address. He needs to put together the best staff possible. Whether that's keeping the guys on the staff he has now and having them all make adjustments; or whether that means changes need to be made, he has to feel like his staff is the best there is and have it proven on Saturdays.
Whoever is in charge of scheduling also has to up their game a bit. I'm all for playing an elite schedule. In fact I expect the Irish to have a top schedule every year. As I stated before, who they play isn't as big of an issue as when they play those teams. Playing a front loaded schedule is foolish. Playing a front loaded away schedule against those top teams is even sillier. The Irish have taken steps for the 2008 and 2009 seasons by scheduling San Diego State and Nevada and not having a great number of road games early. There is still some room for improvement.
Note: Tomorrow we'll take a look at the offense and break down the personnel position-by-position and see where the Irish need to improve for 2008.
State of the Union, Part II
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