Questions for Spring: Offense

The fun begins again on Wednesday as the Irish kick of 15 days of practice for their spring practice session. Irish head coach Charlie Weis has a lot of work to do to improve on their last place finish on offense in 2007.

It's hard to look at the numbers again.

No. 119 in total offense.

242 yards of total offense per game.

16.4 points per game.

75 yards rushing per game.

Time has passed and many Notre Dame fans have likely forgotten how inept the Irish were on offense last season. The why has been discussed to death, but inexperience was the most important factor. That will no longer be the case for Charlie Weis this season, and many expect dramatic improvement in 2008. What are the main questions for the offense heading into spring football?

Is the clocking ticking on Jimmy Clausen?

Weis seems sold on Clausen and his talent, even despite some heroics last season at the hands of senior Evan Sharpley. Clausen certainly had some bright spots, but many Irish fans remember Sharpley entering the games and moving the team more efficiently. Is Sharpley the better quarterback? It appears Weis doesn't believe him to be because Clausen started every game he was healthy enough to start.

Weis and Clausen are kind of tied together at this point. They'll either sink or swim together-- at least to kick off the season--but what happens if the Irish start slow again in 2008?

The most important thing Weis has to do this spring is develop his young quarterback and get him performing at a much higher level. Maybe that's why we're seeing Weis step back from his play calling coordinator duties. Weis knows that the future success of this offense depends on his quarterback, and for the Irish to turn this thing around they'll need better play out of whoever is starting at the position.

One man show?

Weis and offensive coordinator Mike Haywood are going to have a very difficult decision to make at running back. The Irish have a great deal of talent at the position, but which guy is the best? It appeared at the end of the season that sophomore-to-be Robert Hughes was the best back. Hughes, despite being the biggest back, found the most running room, showed the best feet, and had a number of impressive runs and games. Hughes averaged 5.5 yards per carry in 2007. The next closest back was Armando Allen at 4.0 yards per carry.

If the best back is Hughes, some great talent may have to sit. Robert Hughes isn't the type of back that will be highly productive with 10 carries a game. Robert Hughes needs 25 carries a game to get the most out of him. He's the type of back that will wear down a defense, and if he's the best guy, Weis and Haywood are going to have to let him carry the load despite great talent sitting on the sidelines. Productivity should always win over potential. Will Weis and Haywood build an offense around Hughes? It might be a great idea to consider.

Will someone stand up, please?

Notre Dame used a stable of wide receivers last fall but none really stood out. Freshmen Duval Kamara and Golden Tate certainly had their moments. Tate averaged almost 22 yards per catch, but only grabbed six passes total last season. Kamara led the team in touchdowns with four and in catches with 32. Both players showed a lot of promise in 2007, but both were inconsistent catching the ball. The two appear to be the most talented receivers on the squad, but potential needs to be turned into production here.

Jimmy Clausen needs to find a guy he can count on to get open. There didn't appear to be anyone in the receiver corps who filled that role for Clausen last year. Someone has to step up. This should be a highly competitive spring for playing time at the wide receiver position. The question is will it be?

Same old, same old or time to move on?

Nothing written above will matter unless the Irish can fix their problems at offensive line. A good place to start would be to protect the quarterback. Notre Dame allowed 58 sacks last season. That's almost five sacks per game. I went back to check the NCAA stats for most sacks allowed in a season. Unfortunately the NCAA has only been tracking this for the past three seasons. 2006's winner was Stanford with 50. 2005 was Buffalo with 43. Notre Dame crushed that with 58!

It won't matter who is open, or if Jimmy Clausen has improved as a quarterback if he's on his back all game. Improvement at the skill position will certainly be maximized with solid offensive line play.

Seniors Paul Duncan and Mike Turkovich played a lot of minutes last year and both had their moments of fine play. They also had their moments of poor play. Both now should have the strength and the knowledge to perform at a very high level. There's no reason for either of them to be anything but good offensive linemen at this point if they do indeed have the talent to be such a player. But what if they don't show that this spring? Is it time to move on?

The Irish have a lot of young talent at offensive line just waiting for their shot. Their shot is now. Irish fans have to hope that there's some serious competition for playing time along the offensive line this spring because this unit has a long way to go before they'll even be average. Is it time for a youth movement? Will Duncan and Turkovich up their game? Something needs to change.

To fullback or not to Fullback?

That decision will likely be made by Irish fullback Asaph Schwapp. Schwapp played a lot for the Irish last year, but I think most would agree he wasn't highly productive in the minutes he played. Weis likes to use multiple tight ends often, but with only one scholarship tight end on the roster for spring practice, Schwapp will get a number of looks this spring by default. What he does with those looks will likely determine how much we see out of the fullback next season. In fairness to Schwapp, he was injured the previous year and was probably too heavy last season. We expect to see a leaner Schwapp this spring, and hopefully a much more athletic Schwapp as well.

The lone man standing

Freshman Mike Ragone was given a big gift by sophomore Will Yeatman when Yeatman was suspended from the team earlier this year. Ragone is the only scholarship tight end on the roster for this spring. That's great news for Ragone, not so great news for the Irish. Ragone is a fiery guy, but everyone needs competition to make them better. Ragone won't have much competition this spring, and that could hurt the development of both him and Yeatmen next season most likely. Knowing Ragone, I doubt it hurts him much as he's a highly competitive guy. Still, it would've been nice for the two to compete for the starting position. That competition will have to be put off until the fall. Look for sophomore Luke Schmidt to get a long look in a tight end—H-back role this spring.

Mike's picks to shine this spring.

Dan Wenger—I've been a big fan of Wenger for a long time. I love his tenacity and his nastiness on the field. The Irish need more players with his disposition on the field. If he's fully healthy this spring you should hear a lot about Wenger this spring. In fact, I think he'll be the most consistent linemen they'll have next season.

Duval Kamara—I believe Kamara has the most talent out of any wide receiver on the roster currently. We should hear his name often this spring, but I think you'll see him improve the most next fall—when a few players with equal talent (or more) compete with him. I think you'll see Kamara really start to shine this spring and next fall.

Mike Ragone—a fully healthy Ragone means a deep threat tight end who can cause a defense problems. His attitude on the field is great. He's a hard worker. He's finally healthy. It's time for Ragone to break out this spring.

Robert Hughes—if there's one thing that I know about Robert Hughes it's that nobody will out-work Robert Hughes. He's arguably the best back on the roster, and nobody will work harder. That, to me, equals winner. Will he win the starting job? I doubt it will be decided this spring, at least not publicly. But I do expect him to have a great spring after some hard work this winter. I also expect to see James Aldridge up his game as well as Armando Allen.

Jimmy Clausen—Yeah, I said it. I'm a believer in Clausen. I do think he has a lot to improve upon. I do think he needs to get stronger. But Clausen does two things very well that a lot of quarterbacks struggle with. One: He's highly accurate as a quarterback. Two: He doesn't make bad decisions (other than running out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage). Now he has to prove he can move the team. I think that starts to happen this spring.

We'll take a look at the defense tomorrow. Top Stories