The media will get a chance to talk with Notre Dame's Recruiting Class of 2008 for the first time on Friday morning. Charlie Weis limits interaction between his freshmen and the media by only allowing contributing players to speak with the media during the season, making today's session the only time we will hear from many of the first-year players for a bit.
Notre Dame's freshman class is high on talent, ranking second in the country behind only Alabama. The Irish signed 23 players, while the Tide got credit in the rankings for 32 signees despite the fact that only 27 actually joined the team.
As talented as the Irish's latest recruiting class is the thing that has Notre Dame fans most excited is the apparent character of this group. With most of the recruits committing before or early on in the difficult 2007 season, the Notre Dame staff spent as much time trying to keep the guys that it already had as it did in trying to add new ones.
Quarterback Dayne Crist and offensive lineman Braxston Cave served as unofficial recruiting coordinators, making sure that everyone was still on board. It was clear that this group had formed a tight bond and in the end all but one were true to their words.
"They're a tight group of kids and as they started falling in recruiting they started calling and texting each other, there's been a great bonding relationship that has taken place," Weis said. "That kind of defined their character because before they even got here you knew you had a very special group because they were getting hammered everyday. They were getting hammered everywhere they went, by their peers, in school, in the grocery store and certainly by every other college in America. That's one of the reasons why you know they're special."
Weis said that the bond has carried through to the start of their first season in South Bend with the offensive players sacrificing their hair just as school is set to begin to show their unity.
"I've never seen, in my four years here, a class as close. All of the offensive freshmen shaved their heads. I mean who does that?," Weis laughed. "They're a really tight-knit group and they're a good bunch of kids and I really like them."
Last season Notre Dame was forced to throw freshmen onto the field right away because it really had nobody else. Eight first-year players – Jimmy Clausen, Duval Kamara, Golden Tate, Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, Ian Williams, Kerry Neal and Brian Smith – started at some point in 2007.
This year will be different and while this freshmen class is probably a bit more talented than the group ahead of it, they won't be asked to do as much right away just because there is not as a great of a need.
"I don't see eight players starting, but I could see eight players getting into the two-deep," Weis said. "They might not be starting but there's a lot of guys that I think are playing themselves into contention to be on the field."
One player that most Irish fans fully expect to see a lot of the field is five-star receiver Michael Floyd, who leads a talented group of rookie receivers that also includes John Goodman and Deion Walker. Weis has made it clear that Floyd is closer to playing than the other two.
"We just go by what we see out there. All three of these freshmen receivers are very good football players, all three of them are," Weis said. "They're all practicing legitimate reps, all three of them are. It's just that Michael right now on the depth chart is ahead of the other two. It's not because the other two are playing bad, it's just that he's playing really, really well. He's pretty good."
Defensive end Ethan Johnson is another freshman that has a chance at playing right away.
"He is 275 and he looks like he weighs 250, so you can see just looking on the hoof, his growth potential body-wise is big," Weis said. "But right now, he has very good quickness and very good instincts and he has pass rush-ability. Anytime you have a defensive lineman who has pass rush-ability, they usually can find a way to get on the field before it is all said and done."
Weis is also coaching some of his friends' children in center Mike Golic, Jr. and walk-on quarterback Nate Montana. Weis was at Notre Dame at the same time as Joe Montana and has known Mike Golic Sr., who played eight seasons in the NFL, for years.
"I don't talk to (Mike Jr. or Nate) any different than the rest of the guys, pro or con. I make sure not only do I not favor them, I also don't pick on them either. I think it's important to treat them just like everybody else which is exactly what I do," Weis said. "The bigger issue, it's kind of humorous, is making sure that I don't talk to (their dads) to break a compliance issue because these are guys that I've known for 30 years. We talk about pre-existing relationships, there's always that fine line into what makes common sense and what doesn't."
D-BACKS SET TO TAKE IT AWAY: The Irish were second in the country against pass in 2007, but defensive coordinator Corwin Brown wants more. Brown wants the Irish secondary to turn deflections into interceptions and tackles into forced fumbles this year.
"We've got to create more," safety David Bruton said. "We can't be dropping interceptions. When we got an interception in the red zone we've got to take it and possibly get to the other end zone. We've got to strip the ball more. I feel that we need to make more plays, myself included."
Brown has implemented drills that focus on takeaways, but ultimately it will be the scheme that could make the difference.
"We're doing a lot of things different with the coverages, trying to get jumps on receivers and jumps on routes," cornerback Raeshon McNeil said. "I think that's going to help out."
The Irish are expected to turn up the heat on opposing quarterbacks in 2008, which should result in more turnover opportunities. The style also calls on the secondary to play more one-on-one coverage and to move around before the snap so that quarterbacks don't get an idea of what is coming.
"We have to be more alert because the ball is going to come out a lot quicker. We've got to move and shift and disguise a lot more so you don't know where the blitz is coming from," Bruton said.
DEFENSE LIKES PHYSICAL CAMP: Earlier in the week, we got some thoughts on the new physicality in fall camp from some of the offensive players and later caught up with the defensive unit.
New linebackers coach John Tenuta loves the contact saying, "No question, that's what football is about."
Cornerback Terrail Lambert is in his fifth year on the squad and has noticed the difference between this season and past ones.
"Definitely. That's something that the coaches are really trying to facilitate," said Lambert. "It's something that we strive for everyday on both sides of the ball. Coach Weis has made a concerted effort to make every situation on the field as competitive as possible and I think that's healthy for us."
Sophomore cornerback Gary Gray sat out last year with a shoulder injury and said that the contact in camp is helping him to get back into football shape.
"It's getting me back in the groove, not playing last year, but coming in the spring and having it physical then is getting me adjusted to game situations," Gray said.
Bruton is another veteran who has seen the change and gives the credit to the staff.
"We're always intense, the coaches are intense. We are a reflection of the coaches and our coaches are all intense," Bruton said. "We're intense and we're motivated and we're high strung and we're everywhere, moving. We're just trying to do everything right."
BRUTON STAYS IN SECONDARY: Bruton was asked who was the most intense coach and it was a little surprising to hear him represent the secondary.
"I'm going to go with Coach Brown," Bruton said. "Coach Tenuta is a little more laid back than Coach Brown. Coach Brown will get up in you so quick."