Some fans believe that Notre Dame at least needs to lighten the early portion of the slate when other national championship contenders routinely schedule Football Championship Subdivision (D-IAA) teams. That philosophy will be put to the test in 2008 – at least for the season opener.
With the San Diego State game on Sept. 6, the Irish will open with their first non-BCS opponent since that forgettable 2004 season-opening loss at Brigham Young in Tyrone Willingham's final year. The Aztecs finished the 2007 campaign 4-8 and their best argument for improvement in 2008 is a lighter schedule.
While the Aztecs lost three of their first four games last year – the only win coming against FCS Portland State – they could reasonably win three of their first four this year. Fortunately for Irish fans, the most difficult game of those four will be in South Bend. The Aztecs will have a game under their belt by the time they come into town after taking on FCS Cal-Poly. After the Notre Dame game, the Aztecs will play San Jose St. and Idaho.
Third-year coach Chuck Long was brought in after being the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma and although his offenses have flourished at times, a 7-17 record after two seasons has the former Heisman Trophy runner-up looking for a solid turnaround to stay off the hot seat.
In 2007, San Diego St. ranked second in the Mountain West in passing yards (272.7), fifth in total yards (376.6) and sixth in scoring (25.1), but lost key components of that unit to the NFL, including four-year captain and starting quarterback Kevin O'Connell.
O'Connell completed 257 of his 439 pass attempts (58.5%) for 3,063 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior. O'Connell also led the team in rushing with 408 yards to account for 77% of the Aztecs' total offense last year. The New England Patriots thought highly enough of him to merit a third-round draft pick even though the Pats feel pretty good about where they stand at the position.
O'Connell's top two targets, receivers Brett Swain and Chaz Schillens, had their names called during the seventh round of April's NFL Draft. Swain, who was selected by the Packers, had 58 catches for 973 yards while Schillens, who was taken by the Raiders, had 35 grabs for 679 yards.
Throw in the graduations of three offensive linemen (Mike Kravetz, Brandyn Dombrowski and Will Robinson) who each started at least 25 career games and the Aztecs are looking at replacing their top contributors from an offense that averaged a respectable, but not eye-popping 22.5 points against Bowl Subdivision defenses.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Lindley won a three-way race to replace O'Connell over junior college transfer Drew Westling and sophomore Kelsey Sokoloski. None of the three have any significant playing time in college.
The trio struggled in the spring game, combining to complete nine of their 24 passes for 79 yards. Lindsey threw a touchdown and was also picked off.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Lindley was listed 46 spots below Jimmy Clausen on Scout's Class of 2007 quarterback rankings coming out of El Capitan High School in Lakeside (Calif.) Lindley has a strong arm and completed 235 of 385 passes (61.0%) his senior year at El Capitan for 3,521 yards and 35 scores.
Despite losing his leader in O'Connell, Long has said that he wants to open up the offense and commit to the spread more under Lindley. Westling, who played at Tulsa before transferring to Southwestern College, was second on the post-spring depth chart.
The Aztecs' top rusher outside of O'Connell in 2007 was running back Brandon Bornes, who had just 354 yards and three scores as a senior. Not surprisingly, San Diego St. ranked 105th nationally in rush offense with 104 yards per game; still well ahead of Notre Dame's 75.3 rush yards per game.
Junior Atiyyah Henderson had an impressive start to his college career, earning all-conference honorable mention as a freshman, but has since been plagued by injuries and been passed by sophomore Brandon Sullivan on the depth chart.
The 5-11, 220-pound Sullivan started three games last year, rushing for 220 yards on 58 carries. The 5-9, 175-pound Henderson brings home run speed if he is healthy, but look for Sullivan to carry the bulk of the load. If Henderson is not able to play up to his ability, 5-9, 175-pound sophomore Davon Brown will step into that role. Long and his staff were impressed by what they saw out of Brown during the spring.
San Diego State's offensive line looks likes it will be good - in a year or two. With eight of the 12 offensive linemen on the depth chart freshmen or sophomores, the Aztecs have depth, but little experience. 6-2, 310-pound senior Mike Schmidt has the most game experience and will start at left guard.
Schmidt is the only senior listed as a starter on the post-spring depth chart with redshirt freshmen Mike Matamua (6-4, 280) and Kurtis Gunther (6-8, 270) listed at tackles, redshirt freshman Tommie Draheim (6-4, 275) at center and junior Ikaika Aken-Moleta (6-2, 325) at right guard. Sophomore Trask Iosefa (6-0, 300) started all 12 games at center last year but was beaten out by Draheim in the spring.
If there is a position of strength on the offense it would have to be wide receiver, even with the losses of Swain and Schillens. 6-0, 175-pound Vincent Brown had an impressive freshman season, snaring 31 passes for 349 yards. Converted quarterback Darren Mougey will give Lindley a big target to throw to at 6-6, 220 pounds. Mougey was third on the squad last year 32 receptions for 368 yards.
5-10, 175-pound junior Mekell Wesley didn't have much of an impact offensively last year, but did break an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against UNLV and is listed as the third wideout. Senior Justin Shaw, junior Jon Toledo and junior Roberto Wallace are listed behind Brown, Mougey and Wesley respectively.
While the San Diego St. offensive may have more question marks than its defense, that is not necessarily a good thing for the Aztecs. The Aztec defense returns eight starters from a group that ranked as the worst in the Mountain West by virtually every measure.
If the Notre Dame offense, particularly the offensive line, wants to gain some early confidence after an abysmal 2007 season, there would be few better opponents to go up against than the Aztecs.
The 241.5 rushing yards the Aztecs allowed per game would be difficult to comprehend had the Irish not surrendered 195.4 yards of their own. Another thing that has to be attractive, at least to Clausen, is the pass rush, or lack thereof for the Aztecs. The 15 sacks that San Diego St. had last year were fewer than all but 10 teams in the nation.
It's no surprise then that with six of the starting front seven back, the depth chart is being made out in pencil. The one player that they did lose was defensive end Nick Osborn, who led the team with 8.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and four of those 15 sacks.
New defensive line coach Mike Nelson has moved 6-3, 265-pound junior Jonathan Soto from inside to outside and has flip-flopped 6-foot-4, 250-pound senior Siaosi Fifita from end to tackle. The moves are designed to improve the Aztecs' ability to get after the quarterback, but that is yet to be seen.
San Diego St. returns all three starting linebackers led by senior Russell Allen (6-3, 235) at the Sam. Allen led the team with 119 tackles last year, including 22 against Utah, and was an all-conference honorable mention selection.
Junior Luke Laolagi (6-1, 230), who had 94 tackles as a sophomore, will man the middle while sophomore Andrew Preston (6-1, 220) and junior Jerry Milling (5-10, 230) will compete for the Will position. Milling was expected to be the starter last year but missed seven games with a broken foot and Preston filled in.
In the secondary, the Aztecs return three of their four starters, including free safety Corey Boudreaux (6-1, 220) who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing the 2004 and 2005 season to care for his siblings in the aftermath of his father's death.
San Diego St. returns both starting cornerbacks in senior Vonnie Holmes (6-0, 170) and junior Aaron Moore (6-0, 190). Holmes and Moore led the team with four interceptions apiece in 2007 and will be backed up by sophomores Romeo Horn (6-0, 180) and Jose Perez (6-1, 180).
The defense handled the offense relatively easily during a controlled spring game, which could mean that the defense is better or the offense is worse or both.
On special teams, Wesley and Brown have the potential to be impact players in the return game. The Aztecs have freshman Brian Stahovich coming in at punter. Scout ranked Stahovich as the fifth-best high school punter in the nation last year. Utah State transfer sophomore Bryan Shields replaces Garrett Palmer, who was one of the strengths of the team last year.
While Long will likely leave it all on the table in what could be his final season with the Aztecs, if the Irish are unable to handle their first opponent in 2008 with some ease, it could be another long season. On the other hand, if Notre Dame can take care of business in its opener, it could be just the start that this team needs.