Consider this (2007 statistics):
16.4 points per game
242.2 yards of total offense per game
75.2 rushing yards per game
5.2 yards per passing completion
9.2 yards per passing attempt
23 total offensive touchdowns
31% third down conversion rate
When I look at those numbers, I ask myself how did Notre Dame even win three games? Then I ask myself, how did Notre Dame's offense fall so fast.
Consider this (2005 statistics):
36.7 points per game
477.3 yards of total offense per game
147.1 rushing yards per game
8.7 yards per passing completion
13.5 yards per passing attempt
53 total offensive touchdowns
49% third down conversion rate
When comparing the 2007 Notre Dame offense with the 2005 Notre Dame offense, the numbers speak loudly and boldly. Did the coaches forget how to coach? Are the players at Notre Dame that bad?
No and no.
I'll break it down into three categories. First, I will discuss what I saw last year that made me optimistic. Second, I will discuss the schematic and strategic aspects that I think need to change or improve. Third, I will discuss individual players and units that need to change or improve.
I'm surprised by the optimism surrounding the Notre Dame offense for this upcoming season. It seems to me that most fans and media types expect the Notre Dame offense to rise from the ashes and begin to produce at a much higher level. Most point to the production against Duke and Stanford as the reason for the optimism.
I actually believe it started against Southern Cal. I know, I know, you are wondering how I can say that my reason for optimism started in a game where the Irish were shut out 38-0. Bear with me.
In the fourth quarter of the USC game, I saw something that grabbed my attention. After battling tough for a half on defense, the Irish were in the process of being destroyed by the Trojans in the second half. The offensive coaches decided enough was enough and put in the younger players. We saw Sam Young still out there, Chris Stewart came in the game, Dan Wenger came in the game, and Thomas Bemenderfer came in the game. Armando Allen lined up at halfback for the Irish.
What I saw next made me smile.
The young linemen started firing off and popping the USC players in the mouth. There was no quit in the young linemen. Armando Allen was grinding out positive gain after positive gain. Five yards here, five yards there, seven yards, nine yards, and six yards. It wasn't fancy, it didn't result in any points, and there were no earth shattering revelations that took place on that drive. But I saw something. I saw a bunch of young linemen not backing down from the big, bad Trojans. I saw a running back slamming it in the hole with authority. I saw promise. I saw potential.
It didn't quite kick in fully until the Duke game. The Irish ran well against Navy and early against Air Force, but they weren't consistent, which was one of the themes of the 2007 football team. But against Duke, in a rain soaked stadium, I saw it again.
I saw a young offensive line once again firing off, smacking defenders in the mouth, and setting the tempo. I saw two young running backs chewing up yardage. In barely over a half of football, Robert Hughes officially arrived as a college football player. He finished that game with 17 carries and 110 yards. Armando Allen chipped in with a physical 42 yards on 9 carries.
The following week, Hughes had another big game rushing for 136 yards on 18 carries. What I saw against USC that started to give me hope, was now coming across my TV screen and I couldn't help but smile again. It was the running game. That's what gave me hope.
1. RUN THE FOOTBALL
It's all about the running game. If the Irish want to win games in 2008, if they want to get to a bowl game, and if they want to score a lot of points, they have to come out in September and establish a running game.
When discussing what needs to happen for the Irish to be able to establish the run in 2008, execution has to be at the top of the list. The young offensive line was maddening in their inconsistency last fall. I won't even begin to guess what went wrong. I just know they didn't execute very well.
All the players who started or played significant minutes against Duke and Stanford are back. So continuity shouldn't be a problem. The Irish only lose one returning starter this fall, compared to losing three last season. But with John Sullivan missing the last two games Notre Dame already got a taste of what the center position would look like in the future. In fact, the Irish return all five starters from the offensive line that finished the 2007 season.
The next thing that needs to change is the attitude and aggressiveness of the offensive line. This was a relatively passive unit. There would be guys yelling on the sidelines, but when they were on the field that emotion didn't come with them. The tipping point for me came in a game, and I can't remember which game it was, when Jimmy Clausen was hit late by an opposing player and two Notre Dame offensive players just stood there and watched. That summed it up for me. So an attitude adjustment is needed this fall.
But attitude and continuity only get the Irish so far. I believe we saw a change in strategy later in the year as well. The Irish became, and need to continue to become, a much more aggressive downhill running team. Instead of a lot of misdirection, we saw more straight ahead, smash-mouth style of football. That should help. The current makeup of the offensive line is better suited for this style of run game. All three of the top tailbacks are better suited for this style of run game. The power, counter, and zone running game should be the bread and butter this fall. If the Irish can establish a physical, downhill rushing attack early in the season, it will make it easier on the outside skill players and the quarterback.
I'd like to see a bit more diversity to the running game as well. I won't go as far as saying I knew exactly what play the Irish were going to run. But I will say that based on formations and personnel, you could guess with confidence that the Irish were going to run the football. If I'm seeing that from my television at home, you know opposing defensive coaches, who are able to break down all the film, are seeing this. I'd like to see Notre Dame be able to run the football more often and more effectively from some of their spread sets. They must be able to run the football out of the three and four wide receiver sets. Those formations and personnel groupings will always be a heavier passing formation, but being able to run the football out of those groupings is key. I honestly believe that Robert Hughes and Armando Allen both run better out of single back formations.
2. PROTECT THE QUARTERBACK
When you are sacked 58 times over a 12 game season your offense isn't going to be very good. Saying that the Irish must protect the quarterback a lot better this fall doesn't exactly show great intelligence. It's obvious.
The offensive line gets most of the blame for the high sack totals, and in many regards that is deserved. But the issues went far deeper than just the offensive line struggling to protect. The quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers were also at fault. The first thing that needs to happen, as discussed in the running game, is execution. If the players don't execute their responsibilities mentally and with good technique they will get beat. Man to man the players up front have to be better this fall. With a more experienced unit up front and a more experienced signal caller I believe we'll see the Irish mix up their protections more this fall. That will help alleviate some of the problems.
One way the Irish coaches can help take some of the pressure off the linemen is to move the pocket. For the most part, during the 2007 season, defenses knew where the quarterback would end up, and that was more often than not right behind the center. The incumbent starting quarterback (Clausen) throws the ball well on the run. I believe the coaches should take advantage of this. Mixing in some half rolls, bootlegs, and nakeds, will keep defenses honest and prevent them from teeing off on the quarterback.
The running backs are a big key in protection. For most of the season, the young backs were awful in protection. But as you would expect with any Mike Haywood coached unit, they got better as the season went on. Until he proves it there will be questions about Haywood as a play-caller. But there is no questioning the job he does as a running backs coach. His players got better, much better, in protection last fall. But they still need a lot of work.
Clausen also needs to do a better job recognizing what the defense is bringing and getting the offense in position to block it. Expecting that of him as a freshman was too much, but after being in the program for a full season and two springs means it's time for him to take complete charge of the offense.
Another aspect of protecting the quarterback is the pass game. The Irish quarterbacks and receivers weren't on the same page when the blitz came. Far too often I saw the quarterback look to get rid of the football quickly only to find all his receivers still running deep routes. They didn't recognize the blitz, they didn't break off their routes, and the only option left for the quarterback is to take the hit or throw the ball away. They have to get on the same page.
Getting the running backs more involved in the pass game should as well; so will getting the screen game back on track. With weapons like Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, Golden Tate, Duval Kamara, and Michael Floyd, the Irish have to be more effective with their screen game. An effective screen game will slow down almost any pass rush.
3. THROW THE FOOTBALL EFFECTIVELY......AND DEEP!
Let's be honest with ourselves for a second. As long as Charlie Weis is the Head Coach at the University of Notre Dame, the Irish will throw the football. Yes a strong running game is important, but there is no way Coach Weis abandons the passing attack.
Go back up and look at those numbers again. They are scary aren't they?
The Irish weren't efficient throwing the football, they couldn't throw the ball down field, and they couldn't move the chains. But just like the running game, late in the season there was improvement.
Over the final three weeks, the Irish went 2-1, and their passing numbers showed big improvements. During that stretch the Irish averaged 11.2 yards per catch. Compare that to the 8.6 yards per catch in the previous nine games. They averaged 212 passing yards per game. Compare that with the 152 passing yards per game in the first nine games. Six of the twelve touchdown passes came in that same three game stretch. That number should have been seven (David Grimes caught that ball against Stanford). None of those numbers are earth-shattering. But they are big improvements.
Inefficiency was problem number one for the Irish pass offense last fall. The quarterbacks couldn't consistently make the right reads or make accurate throws. At times when they did, the receivers couldn't come down with the catches consistently. The backs weren't nearly as involved in 2007 as they were the previous two years. The passing game was a mess.
Now that he has a year under his belt, I expect to see Jimmy Clausen a much more efficient quarterback. As the 2007 season wore on, you could see him becoming more confident in his decision making. That needs to continue to improve, hopefully by leaps and bounds, in order for the Irish to be successful on offense. Clausen needs to go through his progressions quicker and make decisions faster. Often times when receivers were getting open he was too late throwing the football, or he wouldn't make it to that receiver in time with his progression. As he gets better at that, the pass offense will be much more efficient and effective.
The second biggest problem I saw with the 2007 pass offense was that certain parts of the field weren't used. The Irish rarely made plays over the middle of the field. They didn't go deep over the middle, short over the middle, or any middle spot in between. When they did go over the middle, bad things usually happened. Whether it was an interception, dropped pass, or a batted ball, the middle of the field wasn't friendly to the Irish. That needs to change.
The tight ends are the first key to improvement here; the running backs are next. But the Irish receivers must also start to earn a living over the middle. The Irish also need to get back to completing deep balls over the middle of the field. In 2005 the Irish made several big plays on post routes and deep digs. They need to get back to that. Again, I saw improvement as the season wore on, but overall it was a weakness.
I'd also like to see the Irish coaches utilize more route combinations on the outside. Far too often the Irish have their receivers spread out in their routes. I believe that more high-low concepts (if you need explanation ask on the boards) on the outside will help.
The final missing ingredient to a successful Irish passing attack is the deep ball. Take away a few go routes by Golden Tate, and the Irish deep game was non-existent. On the season, the Irish only averaged 5.2 yards per completion. Those are awful numbers. Part of the problem is the Irish couldn't complete balls downfield. For most of the season the Irish were relegated to throwing lobs on the outside. Unfortunately the wide outs didn't come down with many of those throws.
Coach Weis and Coach Haywood need to get creative in how they scheme it up, but they need to find ways to throw the deep ball. It has to be more than just running their vertical package. A successful running game will help by taking away one less safety. It will also help by getting the Irish their play-action game back. In 2005, the play action pass was where a lot of the successful deep balls came from. An improved running game will help the Irish regain what was lost.
QUARTERBACK: When Charlie Weis is your head coach, the quarterback will be the heart and soul of his offensive football team. The Irish will only go as far as their quarterback can take them. Jimmy Clausen has all the tools to be an outstanding quarterback at Notre Dame. But he must continue to grow physically, mature on and off the field, and continue to improve the mental part of his game. When he is healthy the arm is there. It's up to Clausen to take the reins of this offense and become the playmaker he is capable of being. It won't happen all at once. At times he'll look like an All-American. At other times he'll look like a sophomore. But progress must be made, and I believe it will. A playmaker in this offense is a quarterback who knows the offense, knows the opposition, knows his players, and can get the ball where it needs to go. Being smart, efficient, and gutsy is how a quarterback is successful at Notre Dame.
RUNNING BACK: There are three guys with the talent to carry the load for the Irish. Robert Hughes finished the season off with a bang so he is fresh on people's minds, and rightfully so. Hughes has great feet, runs with power, and can catch the football.
But let us not forget James Aldridge and the 125 hard earned yards he gained against Navy, or the 104 yards he churned out against Michigan State. Aldridge showed he can run with power, now he needs to show he can make people miss.
Armando Allen showed in 2007 that he can run with power and that he is a more straight line runner. But now he needs to show he can break the big play as well. One thing about Allen that I noticed last year and again in the spring is that he doesn't get outside. There was at least one run in the spring, and I know it happened last fall, where if he would just spring hard outside he could get the edge and be gone. But far too often he either hugs the outside of the line or cuts back far too soon. He needs to get more comfortable using his speed to the outside.
We'll likely see a running back by committee early on which I am fine with. If one guy ends up getting the majority of the touches, that means he earned them, which means the rushing attack will be going very, very well.
A healthy Asaph Schwapp should help the power-run game, but let's hope the fullback run gets ripped out of the playbook this fall when he is in the game. Schwapp needs to be more consistent and play under control more. He whiffed far too often last year. Steve Paskorz might still be a year away but he showed some really nice flashes in the spring. He could have a bright future at fullback.
WIDE RECEIVER: If Notre Dame wants to truly get back to being an elite offense they need some playmakers to emerge here. Duval Kamara is the first guy I'm looking at. In the first eight games of his career Kamara made 19 catches for 188 yards with one touchdown. In his last three games he made 13 catches for 169 yards and three touchdowns. He showed flashes of that talent again in the spring. But whether he is ready or not, he's the best guy the Irish have at wide receiver and he needs to become a playmaker. Consistency will be a huge key for Kamara. Another area where he needs to improve is catching the deep ball. As he learns to explode up for the football rather than drifting up and away he'll make more downfield grabs and red zone grabs.
David Grimes won me over last fall. Against Air Force he made some big time drops that hurt the Irish chances of a comeback. But he bounced back the next two weeks and made two outstanding grabs in the end zone. He is a key on this team working out of the slot. If the coaches can get Grimes freed up in the slot to work the middle of the field he will be more effective and the offense as a whole will be more effective.
But the key is another player stepping up and claiming the third role.
Will it be Golden Tate? He has big time playmaking ability but will he be able to do more than just run go routes? That remains to be seen. I'm hoping the Irish coaches are able to find ways to get Tate at least four or five touches every week.
Will it be Robby Parris? Parris showed some flashes early on last fall but faded down the stretch. He has good hands and can work the chains but hasn't shown he is a down field threat at this point. Like Grimes he is better in the slot working the middle of the field and the zones.
Will it be a freshman? Michael Floyd, Deion Walker, and John Goodman all come with tremendous high school credentials but will that translate into production in college? That remains to be seen. I do expect Michael Floyd to emerge at some point this season as the second wide receiver. If he earns that position, and he will have to earn it, that should take some pressure off of Kamara and Tate outside, and also free up Grimes and Parris to work inside. He could be the missing link on this offense.
One key here, and I've said this before. The Irish receivers absolutely MUST block better this fall. I make this guarantee to you all. If the Irish receivers block well this fall we will see the Irish runners rip off more long runs than we've seen combined the last two or three years.
TIGHT END:This is a position of great intrigue for me. Who will start at tight end for Notre Dame? Will it be the blocker Will Yeatman? Will it be the pass catcher Mike Ragone? Will it be the converted fullback Luke Schmidt? Or will it be the hot shot freshman Kyle Rudolph? That remains to be seen but my guess is Ragone.
Ragone is the complete package. He struggled at times blocking last fall, but it had more to do with his lack of weight and strength than his willingness to battle. A full year recovered from his knee injury and a full year in the weight room should help.
Yeatman being out this spring for disciplinary reasons gave Ragone a great opportunity to seize the job. He didn't disappoint in the spring game. Ragone has the speed to stretch the middle of the field. He could be the weapon the Irish need to regain dominance over the middle.
Yeatman isn't just a blocker. He's a good athlete and while he won't stretch the field like Ragone, he can work the short and intermediate zones. His hands need to be a lot more consistent. If Ragone improves as a blocker, there is no doubt he will win the starting tight end job.
The wild card is incoming freshman Kyle Rudolph. Rudolph comes in with even more pub than Ragone came with. Rudolph was the nation's top high school tight end last fall and brings big time playmaking ability. Like Ragone, he will battle as a blocker but needs work in the weight room. How the coaches work him into the rotation will be one thing I watch for in 2008. I'm trying not to look down the road, but the thought of having Ragone and Rudolph on the field at the same time excites me. Just not sure how much we'll see it in 2008.
OFFENSIVE LINE: What more can be said about this unit that hasn't already been said? Sam Young is the most talented lineman the Irish have and I don't think it's close. Young wasn't the player in 2007 that I thought he would be. Perhaps the expectations were too great for just a sophomore. Perhaps the injuries limited what he could do. One thing is for sure he must improve his footwork.
Far too often he got beat off the edge because of poor technique. As that improves so will his effectiveness as a blocker. But the biggest thing for Young is health. If his upper body is healthy he'll dominate. He is a strong, strong young man and when he's able to give a blow he wins the battle against defensive players.
Dan Wenger will be the leader of this unit. As the center he's the quarterback up front. If he is able to make the right calls and execute his own assignments the unit will be in good shape. He's a nasty player (in a good way) and fights all day. The rest of the unit seemed to feed off of him when he started the last two games at center.
Paul Duncan moves back to the left side after a disappointing 2007 campaign. He needs to have a good season. He's one of the keys to a big 2008 season. If Duncan is able to handle the left side without a great deal of help, the Irish have much greater flexibility offensively. It will allow the coaches to get more receivers out and not make them keep in more backs or tight ends to help Duncan on the left side. He has the length and footwork to get the job done. He just needs to prove it.
Who starts at guard is a mystery to me. Michael Turkovich returns but struggled mightily in 2007. He will have his hands full keeping a starting job. He's a good athlete and a strong kid but mentally he had a very tough season. Eric Olsen should push for a starting position at one of the guard spots. Olsen is probably the least athletic of all the potential starting linemen. But what he lacks in pure athleticism he makes up with toughness and strength. He's a player I think will make big strides between his sophomore and junior campaigns. Chris Stewart is the wild card at guard. No one on the roster combines the size and athletic ability Stewart has. He went from almost transferring early in the season to starting the last two games and impressing in the run game. He still needs work in protection but he has the potential to be a standout at guard. Can he bring the same level of play to the 2008 season that he flashed last fall? We'll see, but if he does that is going to give the Irish one heck of a power unit up front.
It will be interesting to see how the Irish work in young freshman Trevor Robinson. He has the size and strength to play right away but has some talented players ahead of him. For the first time in a long time the Irish have depth up front. Youngsters Matt Romine, Taylor Dever, and Andrew Nuss are big bodies with potential. At the very least they'll push the upper classmen. In Romine's case, if he is healthy, he should challenge for a starting job at left tackle. If Duncan struggles, a healthy Romine should be able to emerge. He's the one pure pass blocker the Irish have up front.
FIVE PLAYERS THAT MUST STEP UP:
1. Jimmy Clausen, QB
2. Sam Young, OT
3. Duval Kamara, WR
4. Dan Wenger, C
5. Mike Ragone, TE
FIVE KEYS TO THE 2008 SEASON (OFFENSE):
1. The offensive line establishing a physical style of play on the first play of the game against San Diego State. A productive and physical offensive line will translate to a lot of touchdowns for the Irish offense.
2. A young receiver emerging. My guess is Michael Floyd. Floyd has tremendous talent and is physically ready to play as a freshman. He plays the game with good technique, he can run past people, he can get up after the football, and he is able to make plays after the catch. If he plays like I believe he can this fall he makes everyone else around him better. Floyd producing takes a lot of the pressure off Duval Kamara.
3. Moving the chains. The Irish only converted 31% of their third down attempts last fall. That's really bad. Moving the chains mean longer drives, more scoring opportunities, and it means yours defense is off the field.
4. Red zone efficiency. I believe Robert Hughes will emerge as the goal line back for the Irish. But who will step up as the red zone threat in the pass game? Clausen needs to be quicker with his decisions in the red zone and someone needs to step up as a playmaker in the red zone. My guess is Duval Kamara but watch out for Mike Ragone.
5. Scoring early. It's imperative that the Irish score early and often. This is especially true against San Diego State and Michigan. It serves three purposes. First of all it should give what is still a very young offense some much needed confidence and momentum. Second it keeps the defense off the field and fresher. Thirdly it should allow Corwin Brown to unleash some nastiness on the offense. Spotting your defense a 14-0 or 21-0 lead allows them to ratchet up the pressure a bit.