The Questions About This Year's Offense

Notre Dame will start the season hosting San Diego State in Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish will take on the Aztecs in the first meeting between the two teams. Like any new season that comes on the heels of a poor season hope springs eternal, but it also brings out wariness. Many a Notre Dame fan, me included, have several pressing questions about the Irish offense.

No matter which viewpoint you have, the totally optimistic view, the totally pessimistic view, or something in between you have to admit some questions need be answered after last year. I don't see where one game will answer any of the questions I'm going to pose here. To me it'll take the first three games to answer the major questions and the questions that go deeper into the Irish offense for 2008. September will be a very important month for the future of Irish football.

Last year Notre Dame tied Temple and Syracuse for the next to last position of NCAA statistics in offensive scoring, averaging a paltry 16.4 points per game. The combined record of these three teams was nine and twenty-seven. That's hardly surprising in this era of college football where offense rules.

Last year Notre Dame was dead last in the nation in total offense averaging 242 yards per game. That's three hundred yards less than the number one team in total offense. The Irish rushing game averaged only seventy-five yards a game to finish 115th in the nation. The average yards per rush was two yards per carry. The passing game finished 110th and averaged 167 yards per game with an average of five yards per attempt. Finally, the most dismal stat of all was a national worst in sacks allowed where Notre Dame gave up fifty-eight sacks. So, with the above in mind I have several major questions about the Irish offense this year going into the first part of the schedule.

Question: How much better will the offense be this year unit by unit?

As I see it quarterback and running back are the strengths of the Notre Dame offense.

Jimmy Clausen, given time, will get the job done. It's my profound belief we didn't get to see the talent Clausen possesses last year due to his injuries and his being the object of too many sacks, too many hits, and too many hurries. Hopefully, he'll have the time to showcase his ability this year. I still believe Jimmy Clausen is more accurate than Brady Quinn, has that knack for throwing the ball where only the receiver can get it, and still has the time to rewrite the record books at Notre Dame. The question is will he be aided by his supporting cast? Will he be given time by the offensive line and will the receivers get open more often?

Evan Sharpley, should the worst happen to JC, is no wide-eyed freshman, has game experience when it counts, and if called upon won't be handicapped by a lack of game experience and a more limited offense that often goes with younger backups. Sharpley is a backup that many teams would love to have. If it becomes necessary for Evan to play will the offensive supporting cast make things easier for him? Making it easier for Evan would be rising to the occasion or being so competent it doesn't matter who the quarterback is, the Irish will always be in it.

Simply stated, Robert Hughes is a stud. He's not a back that carries the constant threat of going all the way, but he's a very hard runner, has the best feet among the running backs, exhibits a fierce desire, and runs hard. James Aldridge can pound the opposition, and I hope to see Armando Allen exhibit a bit of the Rocket's skills this year. No problems here. The question in the backfield is whether the Irish fullbacks, Asaph Schwapp, Luke Schmidt, and Steve Paskorz can elevate the play that the Irish have seen from that position the past few years?

Question: What will the offensive line be like this year?

The offensive line was, in a word, horrible last year. Many fans are taking it for granted that they'll be much better this year, mostly because they are a year older. Not so fast, my friends. Does a D student always get better his next year in school? Does a drought get better after a year's time? Not necessarily in either case. The same applies to the Irish big guys. Last year the offensive line was flawed in terms of strength, speed, experience, footwork, and cohesiveness, which makes for a poor season offensively, no matter the ability of the skill players. Weaknesses were apparent, in many cases due to injury, but when things went bad, it was often four guys doing their job and one guy not doing his job. Will that change this year?

Obviously the offensive line will be more experienced, obviously the strength has been elevated, and obviously the coaching staff has spent time analyzing and planning ways to correct last year's offensive line woes. However, the onus is on Sam Young, Chris Stewart, Dan Wenger, Eric Olsen, Mike Turkovich, and their backups to turn it around. Can they do so?

A lot of ink and discussion flowed last season when Sam Young went to Coach Weis and talked to him about wanting to be a leader. As the most experienced, veteran lineman his leadership is definitely needed. What is also needed is the implementation of the oft worn cliché that the offensive line needs to be a unit that works together, that each guy knows what the guy next to him is thinking, and trusts the guys next to him to do their job. We know that these things have been talked about and addressed on the practice field. The practice reports and interviews offer hope for vast improvement, but the line must produce the desired results on the game field.

Question: Will the receiving corps step it up?

The receiving corps has to get open. Too many times, when the offensive line did their job, no one was open. It can't be stated any plainer than that. The last depth chart I saw showed a freshman, Duval Kamara, starting at one wide receiver spot, backed up by a sophomore, Golden Tate. A senior, David Grimes, starts at the other spot backed up by a freshman, Michael Floyd. The talent upgrade is evident, but sans experience. Hope for vast improvement resides in the fact that wide receiver is the area where younger players traditionally contribute sooner than other positions. It's obvious that the staff has addressed ways to get more receivers open and more often. The question is will that happen?

Another concern in the receiving corps is the season ending injury to Mike Ragone. Hopefully, freshman Kyle Rudolph, and Will Yeatman step in and provide the quality tight end play fans have become accustomed to under Weis.

Question: What identity will the offense have?

During Lou Holtz's reign as the head coach of Notre Dame many Irish fans were clamoring for more passing period. Then out came the cry for more passing to the tight end. Now many demand a rushing game to equal the Holtz years, some fans even wanting plain old smash mouth football. Neither extreme will get the Irish to where they and their fan base want to be again, back in the hunt for national titles.

There needs to be some offensive identity that springs from design, commitment, and execution, and not an identity forced upon the Irish by opposing defenses. Last year, with a paltry rushing game, the Irish were forced to the air all too often placing more stress on a freshman quarterback, an inexperienced offensive line, and a young receiving corps as well. Rushing the ball against Duke and Stanford does not constitute a rushing game if you are stuffed by most of the other teams on your schedule. The Irish need to prove they can run against anyone. The old axiom of being able to run the ball to set up the pass will be critical to Irish fortunes this year.

Question: How will Coach Haywood emerge as a play caller?

Traditionally the one coach who is under the most scrutiny by Notre Dame fans, aside from the head coach, is the offensive coordinator, or quite simply the guy calling the plays. Irish fans await the first game wondering how Coach Haywood is going to be as a play-caller. How much input will Coach Weis give Coach Haywood during the game is also something all Irish fans are wondering about. Personally, I don't hold with the party line that prepping under an offensive guru will make for a good offensive coordinator. I've seen it work out that way and I've seen it not work out for the apprentice. I've seen coaches prepped under some lousy play callers as young coaches that became good play-callers in their own right. I do know that Coach Haywood will be prepared, but he is, after all, assuming a new role.

Has Coach Haywood ever called an offense in college, or at any level? If so I couldn't find it in his bio. If Saturday is the first time the pressure will be enormous, especially if adversity occurs. I've seen Coach Haywood coach. I know he'll be prepared and he's not the type to get flustered, not to mention his playing back round and twenty-one years of coaching experience, yet clichéd as it sounds, the proof is in the pudding. On paper the Irish should perform well offensively against the Aztecs on Saturday. The next two games against Michigan and Michigan State should be more telling in evaluating Coach Haywood's play calling abilities.

. Another concern for many a fan, is whether Coach Weis will be looming over the shoulder of his offensive coordinator too much. I doubt that happens because the ramifications are confusion and a lack of confidence in the OC by the players. That would spell more problems than I want to go into. Coach Haywood will be under enough pressure as it is, so I'm sure Coach Weis will save the bulk of his critique for behind closed doors. That's not to say there might not be a word or two, possibly harshly delivered, for such is the nature of coaching. My fervent hope is that Coach Weis, answering questions at the presser for the Purdue, can say that Coach Haywood is doing an impressive job.

This Saturday's game will be the first step toward answering the questions about the Notre Dame offense, but even a convincing win won't bring the jury in to deliver a verdict. Michigan and Michigan State loom ahead. Michigan won't be as bad as they were this past Saturday, and Michigan State has shown they won't quit, even when outmanned by superior speed. Both teams take a particular delight in beating Notre Dame as well. Both teams present different challenges. The answers to my and other Irish fans' questions ought to be answered by the end of the third Saturday in September. Top Stories