Turning the Page

Halfway through Ron Shelton's sports classic Bull Durham the young pitcher Ebby "Nuke" Laloosh asks his catcher Crash Davis, played by a whiskey swilling Kevin Costner, to teach him something. "It's time learn your clichés," Crash says "Study them. Know them. They're your friends."

In preseason interviews coaches and players toss out enough clichés to fill a Mickey Spillane novel. Everything from "We'll take it one game at a time" to "I'm just proud to be here" has been spouted by every player and coach in the entirety of NCAA football. Coach Weis's "Dive Right In" isn't a cliché, but it sure sounds like one. In the sensitive ears of Irish fans it rings like a slogan to be slapped on a t-shirt that will end up in a closet next to their green "9-3 Is Not Good Enough" towels and rusty metronomes. And that's just fine. "Dive Right In" is not meant for the fans. It is meant for the players and they are the only ones that need to buy it.

It appears that Weis has finally realized that his job is not just to coach technique and scheme, but he is also the emotional touchstone for the team and as such he has to be a salesman in the locker room. What is he selling? Confidence? Motivation? Desire? How about all three, and unless Weis can get all his players to buy what he's selling "Dive Right In" will be nothing more than an empty jingle bereft any real meaning for the team or the fans.

Weis has done an effective job of curtailing any harping about last season. As much as the press wants to pick over the carcass of the 2007 season Weis shut it down with his best Douglas Macarthur impression saying "It's not what I've done. It's what I'm now going to do." It's hard to argue with that. After all, if this season's results were reliant on last year's performance then football would only be played once every two years. Unfortunately, keeping last year out of the collective conscience of the fans and the players is only part of what Weis has to do this season. He also has to take a relatively young team and pull them out of the doldrums of self-doubt when they are beset on all sides by extremely vocal doubters. Sound familiar?

In a lot of ways the challenges of 2008 echo the same challenges Weis faced in 2005 when he swaggered his way into the hearts of fans by turning Tyrone Willingham's incompetent squad of Keystone Cops into a well oiled machine. Weis's success that season can easily be chalked up to opposing defensive coordinators not knowing what to expect from him. While this certainly helped it must be emphasized that the truly miracle of that season was not in the schemes, but in the hearts of the players. Weis was able to make the players believe they were heirs to a greater fortune than what they had been handed and by the end of the season the players made us believe as well.

Fans should remember the petulant look of exasperation that graced Brady Quinn's face after every play during his first two years. As he whined his way back to the bench it was hard to imagine that he would be a Heisman finalist and a first round draft pick. Weis should have an easier time in creating the same turn around in Jimmy Clausen. Even at the nadir of last season, battling injuries and an ineffective offensive line, Clausen never looked like he had given up. Clausen is at full health this year and that he is "more confident in my knowledge of playbook. I think that's the biggest thing. Like I said, last year I didn't really know everything about the playbook…I think I got a really good handle on that now." With a self-possessed quarterback who knows the system the offense will look more like 2005 than 2007.

This season it is imperative for Weis to offer the same redemptive baptism he gave the team in 2005. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to let new blood pump itself into the veins of the team. Talented young players like wide receiver Michael Floyd are already pressuring the upperclassmen to pour it on to stay at the top of the depth chart. Sophomore linebacker Brian Smith is emerging as the emotional core of the defense. Wes commented on that emotion saying, "I'd rather not keep him under control. I'd rather turn him loose. He has the chance of being something pretty special."

New Assistant Coach and Linebacker Coach Jon Tenuta has also been turned loose. He stalks up and down the field like a tiger hungry for prey, and when he roars he makes the biggest defensive back on the field look like a kindergartener. The practices have been crisp and hard hitting with several concussions to show for it. The lollygagging and going-through-the-motions that infected last year like a lackadaisical virus have been cured through the cure all of necessity and inspiration. The necessity to be great and the inspiration of those that think they can't do it.

Just as new blood invigorates the team the elder players also have their role to play in the rebirth of the team. Upperclassmen like David Bruton, Maurice Crum, and Sam Young have risen to the challenge leading by example. Many of the players who battled through last year to bemoaned the pressure and problems of being a young player learning the system for the first time. Jimmy Clausen said, "I didn't really know…what I should have known to be able to play quarterback at a university like this." Weis has referenced the learning curve of freshman and sophomores several time to explain, not excuse, the problems of last year. Ultimately moving a player past those problems falls at the feet of Weis and his coaches, but they need to use the older players to accomplish this.

David Bruton has been very open about the importance of Maurice Crum's guidance in helping Bruton become the player he is today. Bruton has taken on this mentor role with freshman Robert Blanton who in turn will find find his own protégé in the years to come. This chain of mentor and protégé is crucial in not only a great season but also a great program. It is also something that has been missing in Notre Dame Stadium due to the, all together now, abysmal-recruiting-efforts-of-the-previous-regime.

The lasting effects of Weis's efforts these last few months will not be known until the Irish face elite competition, but their September 6th game against the San Diego State University Aztecs is paramount to setting the correct tone for the season. Running up the score is usually considered gauche or unsportsmanlike, but in their opening game the Irish must, to borrow another line from Bull Durham, announce their presence with authority. The Irish must destroy the Aztecs in such a manner that it is known in San Diego and the around the world that this year's Irish have burned the memory of last season and will cast the ashes out over the hallowed grounds of Notre Dame Stadium. Their enemies will gnash their teeth, eyes stinging with tears of rage, as the Irish march onto the victories that are their birthright. So, a 42 – 0 blow-out would be nice or somewhere around there.

It seems, at least in the abundantly hopeful preseason, that "Dive Right In" is having an impact on the players. All the necessary elements needed to push past mediocrity and onto greatness are present. Whether or not Weis will be able to implement them or not is still a mystery, but looking back at the 2005 season can give fans hope that he knows how to win when the talent is available. Of course, everything about this team will be a mystery until they actually start to play games. After that we can hopefully say good-bye to the clichés; or at the very least ignore them in favor of the purer facts of the scoreboard. Until then "one game at a time" will have to do.

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