State of the Union, Part V

The Irish special teams have been a big disappointment each of the last three seasons. There have been bright spots along the way. Tom Zbikowski was an electric punt returner in 2005. Geoffrey Price was one of the nation's top punters in 2006. David Bruton has been a special teams star for the Irish each of the last two seasons.


Take away those players and the Irish special teams have been average at best. Price, for as great as he was during the 2006 season, has been a big disappointment during the 2007 season.

It's difficult to evaluate the X's and O's of the special teams off of the television. There is still plenty to see and plenty to judge. One thing that is very clear is that the Irish special teams aren't aggressive enough. There is no creativity in any aspect of the special teams at Notre Dame. Take the punt return/block teams. On most snaps it doesn't appear they are going hard after the kicker or doing a very good job setting up the return. Do one or the other please! The Irish special teams need to get creative. You don't have great special teams by doing a large number of reverses, fakes, bluffs, overloads, or any other trickery. But one way to make your special teams even more effective is to do enough with these various curveballs to keep teams guessing and on their heels. I don't see this at Notre Dame.

I mentioned earlier about the punt return/block team. There is very little variation to what the Irish do here. I once coached a football team that blocked 11 kicks during one ten game season. Five of those kicks were punts. Each week our special teams' coordinator would devise a scheme that specifically attacked the opponent's weaknesses. If a team was in a spread set we would bring all eight players. If they were in a tight punt we brought ten. Our schemes were very aggressive but varied enough to where teams weren't sure when they could fake us. As the season wore on we blocked fewer and fewer kicks. But our field position kept getting better and better. The reason was our opponents had to spend so much effort protecting that they couldn't do a very good job covering the kick. It freed our returners up to make more catches and have more room to run. The Irish have the athletes to be this aggressive but for some reason choose not to. The block against USC had more to do with a great effort by David Bruton than it did a scheme designed to get the punt. I believe the Irish must get more creative and aggressive in this area of the special teams.

The kick return game has also struggled mightily the last three seasons. There have been very few returns where you thought there was even a remote chance of the Irish breaking a long run. Part of the problem is there is no timing in the Irish return game. I have seen times where a hole would open up but it was either open too early, open too late, or the returner was so close to the wedge that he was never able to gain enough speed to hit the crease. You can't hold blocks on the return forever. It's imperative that your blocking schemes be designed to where your front line gains enough depth, gets proper timing, and your wedge is able to hit the first wave of cover guys as a cohesive unit. It has to go together. It doesn't have to be perfect timing but it has to be good enough for the crease to actually be there when the returner gets up field. The Irish have too much speed and big play ability out of their returners not to be better here.

For the most part the Irish coverage teams have been solid. It just seems that when they do give up a big return it is at the worst possible time. The punt coverage unit has been the best coverage unit. The biggest reason for that is the play of David Bruton. David Bruton has a chance to play in the NFL as a safety. If for some reason he doesn't pan out there he will be a 10 year veteran as a special teams player. His gives tremendous effort, makes big plays, and has a passion that needs to spread to his teammates. Even though he is now a starter on defense he still has shown the same aggressiveness and fire on special teams. That speaks volumes about Bruton as a player.

One problem I sense on the Irish special teams is a lack of pride and intensity. Outside of David Bruton and Sergio Brown the players who show the most heart and intensity are walk-ons like Mike Anello and former walk-on J.J. Jansen. I'm not saying there aren't other players who give great effort, but there has to be more intensity. Your special teams players have to be a bit nutty. They must play with a reckless abandon. Often times they'll get between two and four opportunities to make a play each game. That's all they get. They need to be hungry to go make a big play each time they take the field. Coaches speak all the time about special teams being just as important as offense and defense, or that special teams is 1/3 of the game. I believe that. But if your players don't believe that they won't have the necessary intensity required to be great on special teams. The Irish players also need to play with better technique and sound fundamentals.

I'm not advocating benching the walk-ons. The last few weeks Anello has been great on punt coverage. But overall I don't feel the Irish do a great job of getting the best players on the field. I'm not talking about the best offensive or defensive players being on the field. Being a great wide receiver, cornerback, or safety doesn't automatically translate into being a great special teams player. The Irish must find the right fits on each of these units. I don't know who those players but I don't feel right now the Irish have their best players on the field on special teams. As the younger classes get older, stronger, and ready to play I see the special teams improving. Guys like Jashaad Gaines, Harrison Smith, Steve Paskorz, and Aaron Nagel are guys who have the size and athletic ability to be real good special teams players. I hope they have the attitude.

It's obvious that I believe the Irish offense is going to regain its form and dominate college football. The Irish have the skill and depth in the younger classes to make it happen. The same goes for the defense. There is plenty of work to be done with both units, but the talent and potential is there. If the Irish are able to get their special teams to be as productive, or even in the same ballpark the Irish will have a chance to be special. Pun intended.


This is the heart and soul of any great program. If you don't recruit well every year you can't be a dominant program every year. By well I don't mean Top 15 finishes. The Irish must finish in the Top 10 every year. The closer to the Top 5 the better, but the Irish must have legit Top 10 every year. This year has been a tremendous year, but I don't expect the Irish to be like USC has been from a rankings standpoint. I believe the talent level can and will be just as high but I doubt the Irish will be able to have their ranking as consistently high. I haven't done this study, but I would guess that the number of California, Texas, and Florida players in the Top 100 is far greater than other states combined. I should do that study. But this gives USC, Texas, and Florida a built in advantage when it comes to rankings. That doesn't mean the Irish classes can't and shouldn't be just as talented and deep as those classes.

The class of 2006 was a great depth class. With the exception of Darrin Walls and a healthy (if possible) James Aldridge there isn't much star power in this class. There are plenty of athletes in this class and good football players, but only Walls and Aldridge to me have the potential to be stars. Robby Parris has emerged much sooner than I expected at wide receiver. He is a player. The offensive line was well served in this class with Sam Young, Dan Wenger, and Eric Olsen having emerged as starters for the Irish. Young, if he gets motivated, has a chance to be a stud. Wenger, if he can stay healthy, has a chance to be one of the country's best centers. The linebacker core in this class was solid as well with Toryan Smith, John Ryan, and Morrice Richardson. Ryan has emerged as a starter already; Smith and Richardson have also seen plenty of action this season and have plenty of good football ahead of them. The safeties are intriguing. Jashaad Gaines and Sergio Brown both have potential to be solid starters on defense. Both also show great promise on special teams. Brown has already begun to emerge here. The 2008 season will hopefully be the year that players such as Raeshon McNeil, Kallen Wade, Jashaad Gaines, and Munir Prince develop and begin to contribute more.

The class of 2007 lacked depth. The one exception would be the linebacker position. What the 2007 class has, that the 2006 class lacked, is star power. The 2007 class was loaded with players who have the talent and potential to be stars at the collegiate level. It begins with Jimmy Clausen, who in my view is the best high school quarterback I've seen. I firmly believe if Armando Allen would have played his senior year he would have shot up the rankings. He's arguably Notre Dame's fastest player and will be a big time home run threat for the Irish. I can't wait to see him these last four weeks. Robert Hughes is the thunder to Allen's lighting. But Hughes is more than a power back. He has great feet for a big guy and has a chance to have a real good career at Notre Dame. If Allen isn't Notre Dame's fastest player I would imagine it would be Golden Tate. Tate has a long way to go as a receiver but his speed, elusiveness, and big play ability is what got me excited about his signature on signing day. The more comfortable he gets hopefully the more comfortable the staff will be to use him more often. Duval Kamara is the total package at wide receiver. He's tall, has good speed, has good hands, and should develop into a big play receiver. What I said about Kamara at the receiver position applies to Mike Ragone at the tight end position. Matt Romine and Taylor Dever both have big upside at tackle. Romine is the technician and Dever is the mauler. Don't count out Andrew Nuss making an impact on the offensive line. Ian Williams has shown flashes as a freshman and is perfect for the nose guard position. He will only get better. Kerry Neal has great speed and athleticism off the edge. Brian Smith also brings an athletic upgrade at the position. Two players we haven't seen this season but also have a ton of talent and upside is Gary Gray and Harrison Smith. I can't wait to see these two young men in the spring. If he is healthy and gets stronger Gray should compete for playing time next fall. The same is true for Smith. Smith has the speed and range to play free safety and the size, hitting ability, and playmaking skills to be a strong safety. This class lost some players and wasn't as good as it could have been, but the players the Irish did land have talent. If they are developed they will be the class that carries this team to greatness.

The class of 2008 could be the best of all the classes. This class not only has star power in the front seven and at the skill positions, but it also has great depth. The defensive haul the Irish are bringing in is the best collection of talent, on paper, I've ever seen come into Notre Dame. Omar Hunter is the type of player Notre Dame rarely gets. He's an absolute monster. Ethan Johnson is just as talented at the end position. He and Sean Cwyner are perfect for the end position in the 3-4. Anthony McDonald and Steve Filer bring big time size and skill to the inside linebacker spot. Darius Fleming fits the mold of Smith and Neal. Robert Blanton and Jamoris Slaughter bring a size and physical nature to the cornerback position that lacks from the current roster. Dan McCarthy might be as talented of a player as there is in this class. That is saying something. That's just the defense. We haven't begun to talk about the offense yet. Dayne Crist is arguably the best quarterback prospect in the nation. Jonas Gray brings a solid combination of power and speed to the running back position. John Goodman is a very smooth and athletic wide receiver. Michael Floyd is arguably the nation's top wide receiver prospect. He's a big time playmaker and should be able to help out right away. Kyle Rudolph might need time but is the most talented high school tight end the Irish have had in the last decade. That's saying something when you consider the players they have brought in at this position. Lane Clelland has a chance to be a very good tackle prospect. This class is absolutely loaded.

These are the reasons I'm the most excited about the future of the Notre Dame program.


Is the Notre Dame program headed in the right direction? Will Charlie Weis be the guy who takes the Irish back to the top of the college football world? Will the talented younger players for the Irish ever live up to their high school press clippings?

Those questions can't be answered today with any certainty. Some will answer yes, some will answer no, and others will admit they honestly have no idea. It's no secret that I'm a supporter of Charlie Weis. I do believe the answer to all of the above questions will be yes. With that in mind, I'm also aware that unless some changes are made the Irish won't be able to climb that mountain. The status quo isn't good enough. They will get close, as they did in 2005 and 2006. The Irish will make more BCS games. They'll beat USC some years. They might even have a magical season where everything falls into place and the Irish win a championship.

Would that be good enough? For me it would not. To me it goes beyond just championships and BCS games. To me, when Notre Dame will have reached its peak, the Irish will be the premier program in the nation. They will be the program teams have to adjust to, have to model themselves after, and set the "golden" standard for college football. It's not about winning championships every year. But it is about being a legit Top 5 team every season and competing for championships every season. For that to happen Coach Weis needs to recognize where the program is, where the program needs to be, and make some bold decisions. If this happens I look to join my fellow Irish fans in celebrating the rise of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish back to its rightful place atop the mountain of college football. Top Stories