Honestly I could write an entire article on what went wrong with the Irish offense this season. We've talked about the issues of youth and inexperience. Those are legitimate issues. It's one thing to start freshmen or inexperienced players on your offense. It's another to start inexperienced players at every position except tight end and fullback. I've also already discussed the scheduling issues that I feel never allowed this young unit to get anything going this season. The leadership issues also plagued this unit as well. Add this all up and you have the makings for disaster.
There is one area where I feel coach Weis and the staff made a serious misjudgment. That misjudgment is the practice style of this football team this season. I am not a believer that physical practices are the only way to go in college football. If you do it right you can tone down the full pad/full contact aspect of your practices. If you are going to have that kind of practice you have to be sure you are teaching the right techniques, having fast/up tempo practices, and making sure your players get enough contact to keep them fresh. But you don't need to have full pad/full tackle practices all the time.
There is a time where you have to adjust to that style and be more physical. When you have a young or inexperienced football team you
The Irish eventually adjusted their stance and moved to a more physical style, but by that point it was far too late. This is something the staff should have recognized and established from the beginning. It's far easier to start off hard and pull back than the other way around. Hopefully coach Weis won't make this mistake again. When you are young and lack leadership the coaches must step up to fill that void, that didn't happen this year on offense.
Another criticism of Charlie Weis is his supposed lack of commitment to the run game. As a fellow member of the "Pass to set up the run" club, I have no issues with his philosophy. Coach Weis has shown, as supported by the 2005 season, that his ideal offense will be balanced between the run and pass. I know there are some who don't like this philosophy and never will, but it is a philosophy that works. The first two seasons I never really questioned the Irish game plans or the play calling. There will always be times where you will say "I wouldn't make that call there". This season was the first where I actually had problems with Weis and his play-calling.
I like the pro-style offense that Weis brings to the Notre Dame program, but I would also like to see him get a little creative offensively. There is more room for creativity in college than there is in the NFL. I'd love to see the Irish run more inside screens to the wide receivers. With Golden Tate and Duval Kamara now on board you have two players who are perfect candidates for this play, especially Tate. It's an easy way to get the ball in the hands of one of your young playmakers. I'd like to see Weis get more creative with his personnel. I can understand not doing it this season, as you want to make sure your young guys actually get the basics down, but I hope in the future he takes better advantage of the speed he has on offense (Allen and Tate).
There were also plenty of situations this season where I wondered why the Irish never attacked the middle of the field in the pass game. Why didn't the Irish do more combination routes? Why didn't the Irish run more high-low combinations? It also took some time this season for the Irish to begin to call more misdirection run plays, and I still didn't see as much of that as I would have liked. A part of me understands that decision. The offensive line struggled to consistently block an "Iso" play, I would imagine the counter would pose serious problems.
The problem with really getting into criticism here is the fact I don't have inside access to the program. I don't know the reasons why Weis went that direction. Was it lack of faith in his quarterbacks? Was it lack of faith in the line? Was it lack of faith in the backs? Was it lack of faith in the wide receivers? Or was it a combination of all of the above? Whatever the case I'd like to see Weis spend the last four weeks making a serious commitment to get James Aldridge, Armando Allen, and Robert Hughes established on the ground. I'd also like to see him make a serious commitment to getting the ball each week into the hands of Golden Tate and Duval Kamara. However he decides to do it is fine with me, but I believe that has to be done. Those are your playmakers and they need the touches.
A brief note on the idea of "50/50". Every football coach has used that expression and every one of those coaches knows that it's junk. No one game plans for a "50/50" play call balance. But that's what I see fans discuss and want. What coaches mean by that isn't a split in play calls, but rather they want their offenses to be efficient and effective in both areas.
There will be games where the run will be more dominant. There will be games where the pass will be more dominant. There will be games where you will dominate through the air and on the ground. What you want to do is take what the defense gives you (run or pass) and then find ways to be effective doing what they are trying to take away. That's what Charlie Weis has always been about, whether you agree with that or not.
This season has been different. I don't know why this is the case, but it has been different. There was no unit on the offense you could rely on. As a coach when you have no confidence in any particular player or unit it drastically affects your play-calling. Fans keep calling for an "identity." Well, I ask you this, what would you hang your hat on this season? If you say the pass game go back and watch the struggles of the line to protect and the receivers to get open. If you say the run game go back and watch the line fail to consistently open up holes, or the receivers to block on the perimeter, and notice the eight man boxes that defenses uses due to their lack of respect for the pass game. This was not a situation I would have enjoyed as a coach.
QUARTERBACK : Any team coached by Charlie Weis will have a scrutinized quarterback. This is especially true when the quarterback is the most highly regarded high school recruit of the last decade. No matter who has lined up under center the quarterback under center has struggled. The struggles of the other units have contributed to the quarterback woes, but the quarterbacks are responsible for plenty of their own problems. My one criticism of how the quarterbacks are coached at Notre Dame is the fact they appear to be taught to be too perfect. The quarterbacks, and Brady was the same way, are so afraid of turnovers that they won't take any chances. There is a happy medium between being too aggressive and too fine. With a veteran like Brady Quinn you'll see more of this, but with young players like Clausen and Sharpley this can be a problem. As Clausen gains more experience I'd like to see him learn to know when to take a chance on a throw.
There is no debating the talent of Jimmy Clausen. I am very excited about his future under center for the Irish. Although the flashes aren't in abundance, there have been plenty of moments that give me great hope. Clausen hasn't shown the arm strength we saw from him as a junior in high school, but it looks better than it did at the end of his senior year. As he gets healthy and continues to develop physically we'll see a strong arm. Clausen has all the tools, he just needs to consistently put it together, which we did not see this season. Where Clausen struggled was getting rid of the football in time consistently and having the confidence to make the tough throw over the middle of the field. I feel that as the season wore on Clausen got more and more tentative. This will get better with time.
Evan Sharpley was great at times coming off the bench, but he struggled in his one start against USC. Sharpley is the ultimate gunslinger when he comes off the bench. His attitude this season has been great. Even when he was on the bench you could see him involved and helping out Clausen. He has shown to be a great team player. His toughness can never be questioned and Evan has shown he can make plays with his feet and arm. There are things that Evan lacks as a quarterback that will prevent him from making a serious run at the starting job in 2008. This is obviously just my opinion, but his inconsistency as a thrower and his inability to pick up the pressure will limit him as a starter.
RUNNING BACK: This is the most talented and deepest unit on the offensive roster. That makes the lack of production even more frustrating. When you have a stable like this the first thing you have to do is find a niche for each player and stick with it. As those players, especially the young guys, get more comfortable in that role, you expand what they do. I don't feel the Irish staff did a great job of that early in the season.
You would see Armando Allen, a player with great talent and potential but not used to running from the I formation, trying to be the feature back. You could see how uncomfortable he was running basic run plays from the I. Against USC he looked much more comfortable, but early on he was struggling here. I feel the Irish should have been more creative with Allen. With James Aldridge, he is a guy who needs carries. You can't just give him 5-10 touches and expect him to do much. He needs to carry the football. The only game where they were consistent in using him he ripped off over 100 yards. James is the one horse the Irish have right now and they should have ridden him more. The constant shuffling of the backs never gave Aldridge the opportunity to get into any rhythm. I would have liked to see Robert Hughes worked in early into a "Power" package and be the goal line back. I'd give Robert about three plays to run and that is it.
The backs also all struggled this season in the pass game and in pass protection. Early in the season the screen game was horrible. That was partly due to the poor open field blocking by the linemen, but another reason it struggled was the timing of the backs was off. Allen has shown flashes in the screen game the last two games and it will be nice to see the Irish do more with him in the last four games. Hughes really struggled in pass protection. The only back who was consistent in protection was Junior Jabbie. Allen has come on a bit as a blocker, as has Aldridge, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.
One area where they must improve is recognizing they don't have a guy to block and release more quickly into a pass route. They are often late getting into the pass route and aren't options. The longer the back waits to release the more difficult it is for the quarterback to deliver the ball. Even if the quarterback is pressured, as long as the back releases on time he can dump the ball to him. Darius Walker was masterful at this, but the young backs this season have struggled. They should get better, but up to this point they have struggled.
The fullback position has been a rough area all season. If the Irish are going to continue to trot a fullback onto the field they must be more productive. There were far too many missed blocks and out-right whiffs this season. Asaph Schwapp needs to lose weight, there is no nice way to put that. He is strong as an ox, but he is as stiff as one as well. He needs to be more flexible and learn to drive through defenders. Right now he tends to hit guys and stop his feet. If he doesn't hit them square he will miss the block. I'm not sure why Luke Schmidt hasn't been given a chance, but whoever the fullback is must get better. Right now I'm sure Weis is having a hard time justifying putting a fullback on the field. I know I would be.
Despite the problems here the future is very bright. James Aldridge might never be the player he was before the knee injuries, but he is still a horse. Aldridge has shown in flashes this season the ability to hammer away at a defense with just enough speed to break off a big run if given a crease. He has to stay healthy. If he does he should be the feature back for the Irish. Armando Allen is beginning to come into his own. He didn't run very often from the I in high school and this offense is quite a big adjustment for him. He struggled early and was tentative. The last two games he has looked much more comfortable running from the I. I expect to see him have a couple of big games as this season comes to an end.
Robert Hughes has talent but needs time. Hughes is another guy, like Aldridge, who needs carries. This season there simply weren't enough carries for him. I would expect that to change next season. Where Hughes will have to do a better job is protecting the passer. With his size and his ability to catch the ball he's an ideal candidate to be in the game on pass downs, but as a coach you can't put him in there if you don't trust he'll make the pickup. Hughes also needs to be more patient as a runner. He is looking to make a play every time he carries the ball rather than just taking what is there. Even though his carries are limited he can't get into this bad habit.
WIDE RECEIVER : This has been the most disappointing position for me. The offensive line has struggled, but they have not struggled as much as this unit. All season the wide receivers have failed to consistently get open. The only times they really have been open are when the play call frees them up. With the exception of Golden Tate just running by defenders, I can't remember a time where an Irish receiver simply beat a guy. That spells disaster. This unit has also blocked poorly. This is true for every receiver. I don't doubt the effort of any of these players, but their production has been poor.
The big problem I see is that each player makes many of the same mistakes. The first thing you should notice is that often times you can actually tell if it is a run play or a pass play by how the receivers are lined up. When it's a run they basically stand straight up. If it's a pass they are in a bit better stance, although most of their stances are still relatively poor. This can't happen. Good football teams will see this and jump all over it.
The second aspect of their game that drives me a bit nutty is that they don't play fast. The only time the Irish receivers come off the ball fast is if they are running a "Go" route or a "Post" route. When they are running any kind of three step route, an "In" route, an "Out" route, or a "Comeback" route they come off the ball noticeably less than full speed. If you watch the cornerbacks of most teams they sit on everything. That's a big reason why the receivers aren't getting open. The receivers should be taught to come off the ball fast. They should be taught to run everything like a "Go" route. By that I mean at the snap they should come off fast, make the defender think they are about to run by them which causes them to pedal, and then break off into your route. This is how you create separation. If the defenders don't respect the "Go" route at this point you will have a touchdown because they won't be able to open and run with them.
In the blocking arena the Irish defenders struggle cutting and also they struggle taking poor routes to defenders. Too many times I've seen the Irish receivers run at a noticeable inside takeoff in the run game. This allows the cornerbacks to easily get outside and either make the tackle or force the action back inside. What the receivers should do is attack the defenders squarely. Its okay to aim at their inside or outside shoulder, but they need to attack the defenders square. As the ball carrier gets to the perimeter the defender will have to try to get off the block to the ball carrier. At that point whatever direction he chooses to go the receivers should then ride them that way and out of the play.
Now that we have a few of the criticisms out of the way let me assure you that this unit is not without game-breakers or talented football player. Robby Parris is the one consistent player the Irish have had this season. I couldn't be happier with his production this season. After the spring I had some concerns about Parris, but he was a much different player this season. He has plenty of work to do but Parris shows a real knack for working out of the slot. He also has shown an ability to make a play after the catch as well as work the first down marker.
Golden Tate has shown his speed this season as a wide receiver. Tate has a ton of work to do but he also has a ton of talent. Not only has he shown speed, but he has shown tremendous concentration and hands as well as real good timing on going up after the ball. As he develops into a better route runner he'll be very hard to defend. I would like to see the Irish staff use him more the last four games. Whether it's with screens, reverses, hand offs, or direct snaps they have to do something to get this young man the football. Even if he only knows how to run two routes, let him run those routes but also figure out how to get him the ball at least five times a game.
Duval Kamara is the complete package at wide receiver. He has a chance to be a real good one but must learn to use his size and speed. Until he learns to play fast he won't be as good as he can be. He's fast enough to run by defenders, but right now he gives his routes away so when he goes deep the defenders know it. When he runs short they know it as well and jump his routes. I'm confident Kamara is going to be a big timer for the Irish. I envision Kamara being a big-play threat, a chain-mover, as well as the top red zone threat for the Irish.
The Irish don't have any veterans to really take the two freshmen under their wing so it's imperative that Coach Ianello really work to develop these two young men. It's hard to judge David Grimes performance this season based on his injuries. George West is another guy who needs to find his niche and be used at it. Asking him to be an every down receiver who runs all downfield routes is asking him to be something that he is not. The coaches need to do a better job recognizing this and take advantage of what West does well. The same can be said for a player like Barry Gallup, who I actually think has a chance to do a few things before his career is over.
TIGHT END: The saddest part of the 2007 season is that the Irish were never able to establish John Carlson. Carlson is a young man who I feel for, and I don't have that kind of emotion very often. Carlson is such a great kid. He has great grades, he works his tail off, gives you great effort, and he is a talented football player. The bad thing is this season the coaches didn't use him well. Whether that was out of necessity or not, the fact is they didn't use him. When he was used vertically the quarterbacks struggled to consistently get him the ball. Carlson also wasn't as consistent as he needed to be early as a run blocker.
Will Yeatman really developed into a fine run blocker this season. He is hands down the best blocker among the skill players. Yeatman has shown the ability to make tough catches to move the chains as well. I would love to see the Irish get Carlson and Mike Ragone heavily involved in the pass game down the stretch. Carlson is still your best weapon offensively, and he has to play, but using Ragone a bit more, as we are starting to see, could help open things up a bit in the run game and pass game.
OFFENSIVE LINE: I will be honest here, I expected much more from the offensive line this season. After watching them in the spring I felt confident that although they would have some early season struggles that this unit would eventually turn into a real dominant group. I was way off. This unit has struggled all season long. They haven't been physically beaten this year, which makes it that much more confusing and frustrating. There have been times when Paul Duncan has struggled with physical ends but for the most part teams haven't been able to beat up the Irish line. Where they have struggled is with the mental part of the game and they have not come close to playing as a unit. It seems that every time they start to gain momentum, start to run the football, start to give the quarterback time, someone just completely blows up.
Sometimes it's your 5th year senior captain snapping the ball over the quarterbacks head or at his feet. Sometimes it's that same center and a guard just not blocking a guy. I couldn't believe what I saw against Boston College. On at least three occasions they simply let the nose guard go. That should never happen at the University of Notre Dame. Then you would see your sophomore All-American candidate offensive tackle use poor footwork and get beat off the ball. After five snaps of dominating his opponent he would just get sloppy and get beat. This can't happen. This unit struggled to consistently block four defenders. When you have to keep in your backs and tight ends to block four defenders, as they did against UCLA, you are going to struggle to complete many passes.
I don't know what the problem is. I don't know if they are being taught the wrong things. I don't know if they are being taught the right things but just not picking it up. I don't know if they are being asked to do too much. Or if some of the guys on the unit just aren't good football players. You can be big, you can be athletic, and you can be strong and still not be a very good football player.
There is a mental requirement and a toughness requirement that if you don't have you won't effective, especially in this complex of an offense. I honestly can't tell you for sure what the root of the problem is. I can simply tell you where this unit has failed on the field.
What really upset me this year watching this unit was their lack of fire and passion. There seemed to be no pride. They'd get beat for a sack and just stroll back to the huddle. The center would snap the ball over the quarterbacks head and then start fussing at the quarterback. There just seemed to be no pride as a unit. There were individuals who showed it at times, but they never played as a unit that way. The play that sent me over the edge was against Boston College. Late in the first half Jimmy Clausen scrambled, slid, and was hit late by a Boston College defender. This happened right in front of John Sullivan and Paul Duncan. They just stood there. They didn't defend their quarterback or even help him up. I couldn't believe it. In that one instance the sickness that ailed the Notre Dame offensive line were summed up…..no heart.
There is hope for the future. Sam Young is still the same talented kid who was a five-star high school recruit and a freshman All-American. Sam needs a kick in the pants this off-season. If the Irish coaches can motivate him he will be a dominant player in future seasons.
Dan Wenger showed talent but mentally he struggled this season. I liked what I saw from him against Southern Cal, especially when he moved from center. I'm encouraged by his potential. Wenger is a tough kid and a good athlete. If he can get the mental part down he has a chance to be a good one.
Eric Olsen is a throwback. He isn't a great athlete--he's not a bad athlete--he's just not a great athlete, but the kid is tough and shows a nasty streak. If he can be more consistent with his technique and playing with that nasty streak he could be a real solid guard for Notre Dame. He doesn't have the upside of Young and Wenger but he could be a solid player.
I'm not sure whether or not young guys like Matt Romine, Chris Stewart, Taylor Dever, Andrew Nuss or Thomas Bemenderfer will get a chance to play the last four weeks. I loved what I saw out of the sophomore line against USC. It will be interesting to see what those youngsters can do as this season comes to a close.
Tomorrow we'll take a look at the defensive personnel.