Building Blocks

A young Notre Dame football team proved something to themselves over the final two weeks of the season.

That they can win a game.

Over that same span, the Irish showed they have some pieces to work with in the near future, as they now turn the focus to quickly rebounding from the worst season in program history.

Something they'll certainly be capable of in 2008.

Freshman running back Robert Hughes continues to impress, running for 136 yards and the game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter, and classmate Duval Kamara hauled in six passes for 92 yards in Notre Dame's ugly 21-14 victory over host Stanford (3-8).

The game had six turnovers, five missed field goals and several flags. But a few bright spots.

For the first time since 1992, Notre Dame (3-9) finishes a season with two victories, beating Duke 28-7, in South Bend last Saturday. The Irish haven't finished a season with a win since 2001, when they beat Purdue in Bob Davie's last game as head coach. You have to back to the 1993 season for the time before that, when the Irish defeated Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, staking a claim to a National Championship that was unjustifiably given to Florida State.

Though the 2008 Irish likely won't be competing for the nation's No. 1 ranking, they will definitely be much more competitive. Wins over the Blue Devils and the Cardinal serve as two building blocks.

Defensive coordinator Corwin Brown appears to have the Irish defense heading in the right direction. The loss of potential All-American Trevor Laws will leave a huge void along the defensive line, but the unit is getting bigger, stronger and faster by the recruiting class.

Freshmen Brian Smith and Kerry Neal become the face of the defense now, replacing Laws and Tom Zbikowski. Both outside linebackers have had their moments as playmakers this fall, while playing with a spirit and fire that will have viewers at home revved up on game day.

Freshman nose tackle Ian Williams is just a tackling machine. Sophomore cornerback Darrin Walls and junior safety David Bruton will be back to lead one of the nation's best returning defensive backfields. Freshman cornerback Gary Gray, an early enrollee that missed the season with a broken arm, will push for a starting job at one of Notre Dame's deepest positions.

Then there is the nation's top-ranked recruiting class on the way, with defensive end Ethan Johnson, nose tackle Omar Hunter and linebacker Steve Filer to name a few, itching to make an instant impact like Neal, Smith and Williams have done this season.

The Irish defense will return eight guys who have started a game next fall.

The offense has skill players. They have speed and versatility, and a leader at quarterback. Everything will hinge on the development of the offensive line. The Irish gave up a program record 56 sacks this season, though all of those can't be blamed on the guys in the trenches.

With fifth-year senior center John Sullivan not playing the final two games, Notre Dame returns all five starters from the two victories. But for the line to get better, one or two of the three freshmen, Matt Romine, Taylor Dever or Andrew Nuss will have to step up and make an impact.

Just like the team, an offense that ranked dead last in the nation for much of the season, doesn't really seem that far away.

Quarterback Jimmy Clausen is clearly no bust. The 6-foot-3, 207-pound Westlake Village, Calif., product has a long way to go until he is an All-American, but he has all the tools. Good arm, accurate passer, savvy player, and a natural-born leader, it wouldn't be surprising if Clausen is the team's most improved player from this season to the next. He won't be taking the same kind of sacks he was this fall, because the ball will be coming out even quicker.

Given the first extended playing time of his career, Hughes ran for over 100 yards in the last two games of the season. He will be pushed by sophomore James Aldridge in the off-season, while speedy classmate Armando Allen provides the perfect change of pace to the 5-foot-11, 230-pound Hughes.

All the receivers are back, led by the 6-foot-4 Kamara, who looks like a guy that will play on Sundays. Freshman Golden Tate will definitely figure more into the mix by getting a spring practice under his belt.

Tight end John Carlson will be missed, but Will Yeatman and Mike Ragone combined should fill the void.

Then there is receiver Michael Floyd, running back Jonas Gray and other freshmen vying for time.

The Irish have over 11 guys returning to the offense, who've started a game during their young careers.

Next season, instead of playing a bunch of 19-year olds against 21-year olds, the Irish will be a much more seasoned football team with all the experience returning.

The schedule next season is also much softer than the one played this season. Notre Dame could win every game on the schedule before heading out to USC for the season finale. That likely won't happen, but seven or eight wins isn't out of the question. And that could set up something special for 2009.

The players know they're going to see a different Charlie Weis when he returns from the road recruiting in a few weeks. They'll be getting a heavy dose of mean Charlie. Weis is going to resemble the man who guided the Irish to a Bowl Championship Series appearance in his first season at Notre Dame three years ago.

And building off these two wins, maybe this team will resemble that team a little bit as well.


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