Cautious But Optimisitic

When the clock wound down on the 2007 Notre Dame season, the young Irish football team celebrated a much deserved road victory against Stanford.

Momentum is an amazing thing. Despite finishing with a 3-9 record, the least amount of wins for a Notre Dame team since 1963, the Irish went into the off-season on a winning streak.

It was the first time in the Charlie Weis era, and the first time since 2001, that the Irish finished the season with a victory. But instead of dismay, the Irish football program looks to the 2008 season with optimism and excitement. Not what you would expect from a team with the record and statistics of the 2007 Irish football team. As I said before momentum is an amazing thing.

The key question is whether or not that optimism is warranted. Is this really a football team with the coaching and talent to turn things around in just one season? Do they have the coaching and talent to turn it around at all? Well those questions won't be fully answered until November 29th at the earliest, but there are good reasons to be optimistic about the 2008 Irish football team. I am cautious with my optimism, but I'm optimistic none-the-less.

In these articles, I will discuss what I believe needs to happen for the Irish to turn things around in 2008. It remains to be seen whether or not the Irish will have a repeat of 2007, challenge for a major bowl game, or finish somewhere in between. But there are encouraging pieces to the puzzle that lead me to believe that if things go well and the Irish catch a few breaks, Notre Dame will have a relatively happy fan base after this season.

The 2008 Irish will be a talented football, but still a very young football team. They will be talented enough to be competitive in every football game, but still aren't good enough to just go out there and beat opponents on talent alone. What do the Irish need to do to win?

Here are my thoughts:

OVERALL

The first thing this team needs is an attitude change. Not an adjustment, but a complete overhaul. I didn't see a hungry football team in 2007.

It's okay to be business-like in your approach as a football team. There are successful programs around the country (Ohio State) that are business-like in their approach to the game of football. What those teams have that Notre Dame lacked is the ability to still be hungry and play with an energy level that week in and week out overwhelms opponents.

It was a rare occasion last year that the Irish football team appeared to be the hungrier team, the more passionate team, the more aggressive team, the team that seemed to want to win that game more. I do not believe for one second that the Irish coaches and players didn't care about winning. They do. But they didn't play with the energy and attitude to make it happen. When Notre Dame steps on the field, it doesn't matter if they are 12-0 or 0-12, they are going to get a little something extra from every team on their schedule. Notre Dame is still Notre Dame in this regard. This football team needs to match and surpass that energy level.

Notre Dame also needs to take the field in 2008 with a chip on their shoulder. Opposing coaches, players, rival fan bases, and media members have had a full year to enjoy kicking the Irish program while it is down. Coach Weis did a good job in 2005 using negative attention to rally his team. There needs to be some of that this season and it needs to start the first day of camp. This football team needs to take an "Us against the world" mentality. Not only will that add much needed energy to the players, but also will play a big role in bringing this football team together.

This football team needs to play with one heartbeat. The offense needs to charge the defense, the defense needs to charge the offense, and the special teams need to charge both sides of the ball. No one is going to do the Irish football team any favors. They need to earn everything they'll get this season. Playing with a collective chip on their shoulder won't hurt at all.

When a good football team steps on the field, they know they have a chance to win that game. When a great football team steps on the field they expect to win. In 2007, it looked like the Irish thought they could win, but they played like a team that wasn't quite sure of itself. That needs to change in 2008. When the Irish take the field in 2008, they need to know that there isn't a team on their schedule they can't beat. Then they need to take the field and play with the attitude discussed earlier, execute, and take the fight to their opponents. Just because you know you are going to win that game doesn't mean your opponents are going to lie down and let you have it. You have to take the fight to them from the first snap to the last. The Irish opponents set the tone and the tempo in 2007 and for large parts of 2006. That needs to change in 2008, and the Irish need to begin setting the tempo from the outset.

This football team also needs to have fun. When it's all said and done, this is still just a game. As the 2007 season wore on, and the younger players began to get the majority of the minutes, I started to see a group of players who looked like they truly loved playing the game. The coaches need to take that and run with it. Having fun on the football field also helps energize players and allows them to play loose.

CAMP

I believe that the team you break camp with will be the team you will have all season. It's rare that you see a team completely change gears, or change schemes, or change practice habits, or change the attitude of the program once the season started. Once the first game kicks off, you are what you are. It's imperative that the tone for the 2008 season be set on the day the players report for camp. If the Irish want to be a physical football team they need to practice like that during camp. I'm not advocating beating your team down, but there has to be an aggressiveness and physicality instilled into this football team that we haven't seen since 2005.

The Irish coaches must also structure practice in a way that promotes the speed that this football team has. If you want to play fast you have to practice fast. You can't practice at 3/4 speed and all of a sudden turn it on when Saturday comes. Demand speed every rep and every day of practice. Whether it's running from drill to drill, going through one-on-one periods, routes on air, or any other drill the Irish coaches must demand this football go fast.

At the same time the coaches have to hammer fundamentals. The 2007 Irish football team was not a fundamentally sound football. There were certain players and units who played with good techniques, but by and large the Irish were a below average fundamental football team. While that wasn't entirely unexpected based on their youth and inexperience, in order to win more games in 2008 this must change. The Irish coaches need to preach playing the game the right way from day one. Never let players slide on the fundamentals.

There will be days where you back the players off tempo wise, or back them off from contact. When your team is going hard for a long period of time, easing up on them is a good thing. It allows them to recharge their batteries. But the Irish coaches can never let the players slide on doing things right. It has to be hammered into their heads each and every day of camp and throughout the season. Fundamentals never get a day off.

The final important aspect of fall camp is to start small. Last year it appeared that the Irish, especially on offense, had too much going on. None of the young players could get into a groove. There didn't appear to be a bread-and-butter the team could hang their hat on. That needs to change this season offensively and defensively.

Despite the fact they have so many returning players, this is still a very young football squad, especially on offense. The Irish coaches need to install the base and pound it until the players have it down and as a staff you feel good that you can execute these base schemes against any team, any look, and in any situation. When you get to that point, expand your package. But having that base is a safety net for young football players when they are struggling. When that particular play, scheme, or defense is called during the game, they gain confidence knowing that they can execute. As camp wears on and the season wears on, you can push the envelope, but not until you feel your team has the basic fundamentals and basic schemes down.

COACHING

The Notre Dame football coaches didn't suddenly forget how to coach football. For the most part, this is still the same staff that led the Irish to 19 wins over their first two seasons. This is still the same offensive staff that oversaw the record breaking 2005 and 2006 units.

The mistakes made by the staff last season have been beaten to death. Everyone has an opinion on what was done or what should have been done. It's time to move on, which is one of the great things about a new season. In order to have success in 2008, it's up to the coaches to not only come up with successful schemes but also get their players prepared to execute at a high level.

In order to do that, the Irish coaches must be demanding of their players. But with a young team that can be tricky. They also need to build the players up. They can come into the season with all the confidence in the world, but after a 3-9 football season the psyche of this football team is still somewhat fragile.

How will this team respond if early in the season things start to go bad? This is especially true with a team that is still young and finding their way. There is a fine line between demanding a great deal from your players and asking too much of them or tearing them down. This team needs to be prepared to handle adversity that comes their way without having memories of 2007 come back into their minds. This is a hard thing to do for a coaching staff and will be one of the Notre Dame staff's biggest challenges.

LEADERSHIP

The 2007 Notre Dame football team appeared to be a team lacking leadership. There were players like John Carlson who appeared to do all they could to get things turned around and lead the younger players. Late in the year there was a payoff, but it took far too long to set in.

Leaders must emerge on the first day of camp if they haven't already emerged. It's up to the coaches to fill the leadership void until the players rise to that position. Leaders aren't appointed by coaches. Just being named a captain doesn't make you a leader. This football team needs players to emerge and take the leadership mantle based on their actions and deeds.

Leaders must emerge on both sides of the football. A quarterback can be a leader of a football team, but on Saturday's he isn't going to be in the defensive huddle on a 4th and goal revving up the defense. Same thing goes for a leader at linebacker who can't be on the field when the offense is in the huddle on a 4th-and-goal situation. At least one player, preferably more, needs to emerge on both sides of the ball.

There were positions on the football field in 2007 where you had no experience in the entire depth chart. This was especially true on offense. The quarterback, running back, and wide receiver positions had no players on their unit who had a great deal of experience. Even the guys who had played in previous years were not starters and were fighting for jobs. That should change this fall.

There also needs to be a player(s) that sets the tone for each position. This is one area where a leader doesn't need to be a vocal guy. It's a guy who goes out and practices and plays the right way. It's the guy who finishes first in each drill and demands his teammates raise their game to another level. This will make the 2008 Irish a much more prepared and effective football team.

HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE

Right now I don't believe there is any team who comes into South Bend, Indiana who fears Notre Dame. This didn't just start happening in 2007. In Coach Weis' first two years, the Irish lost six games. Two of those losses were bowl games on neutral fields. They lost three home games in that time, which are half the losses. Over the first two years of this regime the Irish were 11-3 at home while going 8-1 on the road.

During the 2007 season, the Irish went 1-6 at home while going a respectable 2-3 on the road. In order for the Irish to get back to the top they need to regain their home field advantage.

The last time the Notre Dame program was considered a truly elite program was at the end of the 1980's and the early 1990's. The Irish lost some home games during that period. But when teams came to Notre Dame Stadium during that time, they knew they were in for a battle. Win or lose, they were going to leave South Bend battered, bruised, and most often beaten. The 2008 Irish football team needs to get back to that point. Teams need to once again fear coming to South Bend to take on the Irish football team. San Diego State needs to be where this starts.


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