One of the reasons that Notre Dame struggled as a football team in 2007 is because it played way too many freshmen, but the Irish really had few other options. Last year's group of freshmen made freshmen mistakes because they were, well, freshmen.
Now those freshmen are sophomores, and sophomores with valuable game experience. While last year's errors could be excused away as first-year mistakes, those errors are now inexcusable.
The offensive skill positions are laced with talent from Notre Dame's 2007 recruiting class. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen was instrumental in last week's comeback and showed flashes of why he was the country's top recruit while Armando Allen and Robert Hughes have to be considered 1A and 1B at running back at this point.
"We've grown up a lot," Clausen said. "Last year was our first year in college playing big-time football. We took baby steps last year. The team needed us to step up this year as a sophomore class."
The upperclassmen have noticed.
"The sophomore class, they're playing with more confidence," senior wide receiver David Grimes said. "Guys obviously know what they're doing. We have a lot of sophomores that are in the mix that we count on. I think they realize that, too. They've definitely have stepped their games up."
"We were thrown into the fire early last year. It made us better, we grew up a lot with it and we're taking it and using it for a strength for the upcoming year," Williams said.
"It's tremendous the talent we have in the class," Neal said. "You've got Harrison Smith, who didn't play last year he's a pretty good player, one of the best players on the team I think."
Harrison Smith is of the few sophomores that will play a big role this season that did not see the field as a freshman.
"Just being in college for a year, being together for a year we've all gotten closer and we've all matured," he said. "We just deal with situations easily whereas last year we didn't really know what we were doing. This year we're just kind of closer and ready to get everything done."
Neal said that 2007 was beneficial for the sophomores that did play.
"A year helped us out a lot," he said. "Last year you're a freshman, you're out there on the field, you're just playing off your athletic ability and adrenaline."
For Brian Smith, he sees the class coming together.
"We're growing up as becoming one unit more than just a bunch of individuals," he said. "It's good to be a part of a sophomore class that has a lot of contributors on the team. At the end of the day we're all making this time better."
Defensive coordinator Corwin Brown said that he doesn't even think about what year his players are unless they're freshman, which could say a lot about this group of sophomores.
"I don't even think of those guys as sophomores or juniors. If I don't sit down and really think about what year they are, it's hard for me to pick," said Brown. "Those are things that you really don't worry about as a coach at least not right. You just worry about the execution of your players and are they doing what you ask them to do."
Throw in Allen as the team's top returner, Gary Gray as the team's third corner and Brandon Walker as the placekicker and it's easy to see that the sophomores will have as much impact on this year's team as any other class and its value to the future of the program cannot be overstated.
CORWIN EVALUATES UNIT: Brown said that he was relatively pleased with the play of his group last week.
"We did some things well, there's some other things that we want to do better, keep points off the board, be more consistent on third down," he said. "For the most part, we tackled well, I thought we did a pretty decent job of communicating minus a few glitches here and there. It was OK."
Charlie Weis and offensive coordinator Michael Haywood admitted that they held back a little bit from the offensive gameplan last week and Brown said that the defense did the same thing.
"No, we didn't (put it all out there). But there are a number of reasons why. Sometimes you want to hold things for other opponents," he said. "Sometimes there are calls that you don't make because you're anticipating one thing and then all of a sudden you don't get what you anticipated. Or something works and then you just stick with it because you don't really have to go into your bag much more.
"Of course there are things that we didn't get through. We're just kind of scratching the surface."
While San Diego State runs a spread offense, the one Rich Rodriguez and Michigan bring to town is different from the Aztecs.
"It's a different challenge, but every week is going to be a different challenge," he said. "You can't get mesmerized by there's 100 receivers over here, there's 100 ball fakes over here. You just have to do what you're supposed to do and then it's easier than you would think. There are a lot of variables that come into play. The offense, they've got rules too and there are things that they do that make it difficult or somewhat difficult."
Weis said on Tuesday that he expects to see as many as three different quarterbacks from the Wolverines, but Brown said that the preparation is virtually the same.
"Anybody who has the football we like to gang up on him and try to tackle him," he said. "You've got to know who you're dealing with and the type of guy he is. You have to be aware of it, but at the end of the day you have to apply your rules."
Brown graduated from Michigan in 1994 so this rivalry means something different to him, but he insists that any of those feelings were exhausted when the Irish traveled to Ann Arbor last season.
"Last year probably was a little more because it was my first time through it. I knew Lloyd (Carr) and all of those guys, they recruited me and coached me. Now we just focus on playing our opponent and doing what we have to do to win the game," he said. "It's different. It's different now because I'm a year removed and we've got a job to do here."
DEFENSE SEES FEW DIFFERENCES: Although the Michigan offense differs from San Diego State's in the fact that the Wolverines use the quarterback more in the run game, the Irish defenders will be treating both similarly.
"It's a lot of run, we just can't get lured to sleep when they do want to pass," Sergio Brown said.
Preparing for three quarterbacks is one difference.
"It's a lot more to think of, you have to know how each other quarterbacks play, their playing style," said Brown.
Ian Williams said the biggest difference is talent.
"They're a good team and they're going to bring a lot of speed and power," he said. "I wouldn't say it's that much different (from San Diego State), probably just a better team."
Brian Smith respects the threat of the Wolverines offense but thinks that the way to defend it is simple.
"They can pass the ball, they can run the ball," he said. "You've just got to keep everything in front of you and remember your rules."
WHO'S THE BEST ATHLETE?: David Bruton still has the unofficial crown as the best athlete on the team, but Harrison Smith thinks he could challenge him and with good reason.
"I'd like to think I could. I'm not going to brag because Bruton is definitely a great athlete, but I'd like to think I could at least stay close with him," said Smith.
After Smith's senior football and basketball seasons at Knoxville (TN) Catholic ended without state championships he decided to go and get one on his own by doing the decathlon.
"It was because I didn't win a state championship my whole career in high school so I thought I had a shot at it," he said.
Smith took home the state crown in the decathlon and his top high jump of 6-feet, 8-inches earned him another state individual title. Smith did not have as much success in the mile.
"I got dead last in the mile by like 200 yards," said Smith, who admits that he didn't really practice for the distance run. "Not really because we knew it was my worst event so we focused on the other ones."
BRIAN SMITH ENJOYS PRE-SNAP GAMES: Brian Smith and Maurice Crum spent much of time before the snap against San Diego State stemming around and trying to confuse the Aztec offense. Smith particularly enjoyed seeing the reactions from the opposition.
"When you look at the quarterback and the running back and they're looking at you trying to figure out what you're going to do. You can just see the confusion on their face thinking, ‘OK, well he's right there so he must be coming,'" he said. "They get that look on their face, they might shift a running back over here to pick me up when I'm not even coming on a blitz. I'm doing my job and it's freeing up another guy coming from the other side."
Smith said that it is important to understand the protection scheme of the offense so that he is not caught out of position.
"I try to bluff in spots where I'm not going to be too out of position when they snap the ball," he said.