There were many unknowns for the Notre Dame football team heading into spring practice in March. Would Jimmy Clausen start to live up to lofty expectations? What are the Irish getting in newly-hired linebacker coach Jon Tenuta? Would we see many of the same problems along the offensive line? Who will be the starting halfback in September? Who will replace Trevor Laws?
After 15 practices, I think some of those questions have been answered, but not all, and some others still remain.
The Golden Boy
Notre Dame's fortunes, and probably Charlie Weis' as well, largely rest on the shoulders of quarterback Jimmy Clausen. The sophomore-to-be limped through a frustrating 2007 season, but there were always glimpses of brilliance in his play.
Those flashes are starting to become true moments in time, such as the beautiful ball he threw to Golden Tate with time expiring to set up the game-winning touchdown throw to Duval Kamara on fourth and goal in the spring game. Clausen is clearly much stronger, both mentally and physically, and is playing with confidence and swagger. He's making all the throws, and they're usually right on the money. He might not be "the LeBron James of college football" yet, but he certainly looks as talented and polished as Brady Quinn did at this same time in his career. In fact, I think he looks better, but that's just my personal opinion. The sky is the limit, but a solid offensive line is the key.
One could suggest head coach Charlie Weis clearly saw a problem with the intensity of his team in 2007. Why? He held an "Irish Eyes" drill pretty much every practice of the spring. The spirited, physical, and team-bonding drill is considered vital by many in developing the type of intensity needed to perform at a high level on game day.
The drill proved to be a success as the entire team appeared to play much more physical the few times we were able to watch them go 11-on-11 against each other. There were rumored to be a number of physical battles in practice as well, and that intensity showed up again in the spring game, and not just the skirmish after the Harrison Smith defensive touchdown, either.
Most important, I saw the Irish offensive line play with a pride and intensity I haven't witnessed for awhile. The Irish appear to be very sound in the interior offensive line. They play well at the tackle position at times, but will need to play better than what we witnessed this spring to have a chance to beat the better teams on their schedule.
It's hard to simulate the speed of the game in practice, and it's also very difficult to simulate the intensity needed in a game if you don't practice it. Weis did practice it, but did it the smart way. Instead of having lengthy and intense scrimmages where a good number of players are bunch inside falling all over each other, where an injury could occur, they held a number of Irish Eyes drills, where it's less likely a key player would get injured. The question is: Will this carry over to the fall? I believe it has to if they want to match intensity with the better teams in college football.
Who is No. 1
The Irish have three quality running backs in James Aldridge, Robert Hughes and Armando Allen. All three have great potential and could easily be a quality starter for the Irish at halfback. But one guy likely will get the majority of carries come spring, and so far that guy appears to be Robert Hughes.
Why? Because every time we watch him he appears to be the most productive runner of the three. Aldridge certainly has proven he can carry the load, and Allen has plenty of promise, but when it comes to productivity, Hughes almost always has the best day when we're allowed to view things. It could be that Hughes is just effective that day, but the 5-foot-11, 240-pound running back seems to find the most creases and makes the most out of the opportunities he has. The race is far from over at this point, but I'd have to say Hughes looks like the most likely candidate heading into fall's competition.
It's Been Awhile
The best thing a team who struggles against the run could wish for is a strong secondary, and the Irish have just that. This appears to be the most talented and deepest secondary in at least a decade, if not longer. The Irish can truly run four corners out onto the field and all four will be as good as about anyone who has played the position for the Irish in the past 10 years. I don't remember the last time that happened.
The nice thing is this unit is starting to develop an attitude as well. Corner Terrail Lambert had the hit of the day in the spring game, and Armando Allen might still be feeling it today. Free safety David Bruton made a vicious hit on Duval Kamara to save a potential touchdown. Strong safety Kyle McCarthy is probably the best tackler on the entire team. This unit can definitely cover, and they also are showing that they want to play physical as well. This will certainly help in limiting some of the weaknesses up front. If the Irish can show that they're tough to throw on, teams will back off and try to run on Notre Dame. The Irish can then commit another guy to the run, which will help what many expect to be a suspect front seven against the run.
Wide Open Race
One negative I saw was the wide receiver position. David Grimes clearly is a proven player, and a sound one at that. He'll definitely be on the field in most situations, but after Grimes, I don't think you can say that definitively about anyone else in the receiving corps.
Freshmen Duval Kamara and Golden Tate had a great opportunity to nail down some playing this spring, and while I do believe they've both improved, I don't see the consistency and intensity they need to be great players currently. Both certainly have a wealth of talent. Both probably will develop into good or great players at Notre Dame eventually, but it will have to happen sooner rather than later as there are plenty of talented freshmen reporting this summer. One has to believe Michael Floyd has a legitimate shot to start the first game of his freshman career if he comes in ready to play. And by looking at him on Saturday, I think he'll be ready to play.
Notre Dame will need at least four receivers they can count on this fall. Right now the only player I think they can count on is Grimes, but Kamara and Tate certainly can get there before the season, and George West appears to have improved as well. Still, the Irish have a ways to go before they'll have a solid receiving corps.
Two Main Concerns
I have two main concerns heading into fall on defense—defensive line and inside linebacker. Notre Dame has plenty of options at inside linebacker, but we did see a lot of shuffling of the starting unit throughout the spring. This is usually a good indication that they haven't found answers they're happy with. For instance, we didn't see a single change in the secondary all spring. Why? Because they're happy with that lineup. We saw a lot of things being tried at the linebacker position.
My other main concern is defensive line. The return of 2007 starter Pat Kuntz will certainly help this team, but the 2008 Notre Dame defensive line is lacking in both numbers, experience, and I hate to say it, top-shelf talent.
Sophomore-to-be Ian Williams shows plenty of ability, but who will spell him? So far there doesn't appear to be a solid answer to that question. Who will play opposite of Kuntz? Emeka Nwankwo looks to be the most likely candidate. Fifth-year senior Justin Brown returns, but intensity still seems to be an issue with him, and if that's the case as a fifth-year senior, he may never reach that level needed. Notre Dame will need at least two more defensive ends to rise to the occasion, and they'll need another nose tackle to also lift their level of play. This could be a lunch-pail type of unit, and you can win with that type of unit as long as you play smart, physical and disciplined football. I'd say this unit is still a ways away of being there.
Keys to the Season
There are a lot of things that have to fall into place for the Irish to have a good season. I think one of the most important is the play of the two corners and David Bruton. If Lambert, Walls and Bruton can show they can cover, that will allow Kyle McCarthy to play closer to the line of scrimmage this fall to help out in run support. I think that will be very important.
Another key is finding the right group at linebacker. Tenuta loves to dictate to the offense, and I'm not sure he can do that with the lineup many expect. I wouldn't doubt if you see some more tinkering before the season. Could we see Brian Smith playing inside? Where will Harrison Smith fit into this team? Tenuta likes to play fast, and I'm going to guess you'll see the Irish go with guys who can run in 2008, whoever that might be. They'll need to find some players who can make some negative plays at linebacker, and some freshmen may find themselves a role this fall doing just that.
One offense, I see two things that need to happen. One, Notre Dame has to find some consistent play at the wide receiver position…whether that would be with the current group or some talented freshmen. Clausen won't have a large window of time to get rid of the football each play so this unit will have to run crisp routes and get open early. This hurt Notre Dame last year, and it will again this year if they can't find some answers soon.
Finally, it's all about the tackles. Jimmy Clausen needs time to set his feet, find the open receiver and distribute the ball. If he can do that, the offense should have a better than expected season. If he can't, they'll struggle again. The Irish have to show they can protect the quarterback or it will be open season on Clausen once again. It's not all on the tackles, but they simply have to play better than 2007 to be a good offensive unit.
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