The development of Jimmy Clausen has come along faster than anyone could have hoped after being banged around as a freshman. The sophomore has become the team's premier offensive player and just midway through his sophomore season has already developed into one of the nation's upper-echelon quarterbacks. Clausen has completed 135 of 219 pass for 1,631 yards and 14 touchdowns. His 137.99 pass efficiency rating is 37th in the country and is averaging 268.5 yards in total offense per game, 21st in the country. The one knock on Clausen has been ball security and this mark would have been an A before Clausen's three-turnover performance against North Carolina.
Offensive line: B-
The offensive line was not able to grasp the ‘pound it' identity that Charlie Weis had hoped for, but it has been able to give Clausen sufficient time to win the games that he has. The Irish rushing offense is averaging 3.2 yards a carry and is ranked 109th in the country with 101.17 yards per game, up from last year's 75.2 mark, but still far from acceptable. After rushing for 201 yards against Purdue, Notre Dame failed to reach the century mark against Stanford or North Carolina. To be fair, one of the reasons for the low output has been the shift in focus to the pass, but the shift to the pass was a result of an inability to run. Fortunately for Notre Dame, the offensive line has improved dramatically in pass blocking and have allowed just nine sacks midway through the season after giving up 58 a year ago. The Irish will need to be able to run the ball in order to finish games out, but as long as they can keep Clausen upright, he'll keep them in games.
Running backs: C+
When a team's running game struggles, it's difficult to determine whether it is the fault of the running backs or the offensive line or both. But the Notre Dame backfield gets a lower mark than the offensive line because the backs have been less productive in the passing game than the line. Sophomore Armando Allen has become the team's top back and he is averaging less than 50 yards a game. Allen had a breakout game against Purdue and came back with solid games versus Stanford and North Carolina, but has been most successful as a receiver. Robert Hughes had 133 rushing yards in the first two games, but has accounted for just 61 since while James Aldridge has 107 rushing yards over six games. Receiver Golden Tate still has the longest carry of the season with a 24-yarder on an end around against Michigan State. The grade would have been even lower if not for the emergence of Allen in the last three games, but if he continues to progress the mark could be higher by the end of the season.
Wide receivers: A
After the offensive line, wide receiver was probably the position with the most question marks coming into the season. Many wondered if the wideouts would be able to create separation and if they could be depended upon if they did, especially after a number of drops in the spring game. But the wide receivers, in conjunction with Clausen, have carried the Notre Dame offense. Sophomore Golden Tate and freshman Michael Floyd have emerged as the team's top threats, but senior David Grimes and sophomore Duval Kamara have also made some big plays in the passing game. Floyd and Tate have combined for 55 receptions for 944 yards and have caught four touchdowns each. Grimes has caught a pair of scores and Kamara had some struggles early but had his best game yet with five grabs for 58 yards against North Carolina. With the offensive line protecting the passer and Clausen slinging it, the receivers have done their job in producing a potent passing attack.
Tight ends: B-
This grade is a bit circumstantial considering the preseason position of depth has been left to a freshman in Kyle Rudolph and a couple of fullbacks and offensive lineman. Rudolph struggled in the running game early, but has proven to be an adequate blocker lately. Where he has really excelled though is as a receiver in the new shotgun offense that spreads the field with four wide receivers and Rudolph split out. After having three catches in the first three games, the freshman has made 11 grabs for 132 yards and two touchdowns in the last three. The only other scholarship tight end on the roster is Joseph Fauria, but Notre Dame coaches seem to be trying to preserve a year of eligibility for the freshman. As long as the Irish are able to succeed with the shotgun-spread attack they should be able to get away with using offensive linemen Trevor Robinson and Matt Romine at tight end when they need a tough yard.
Defensive line: C
The Notre Dame defensive line has been OK. Not great, but OK. The Irish are giving up 136.3 rushing yards per game, 63rd in the country. The linemen are not going to accumulate great sack numbers in the defense that Notre Dame is running, but they are still counted on to open up lanes for linebackers to get through to the quarterback and that is just not happening enough. Despite the new aggressive defensive scheme, Notre Dame has just seven sacks in six games with defensive tackle Patrick Kuntz accounting for three of them. The Irish defensive line has not been terrible, but even Charlie Weis admitted after the North Carolina game that he was nervous about the Tar Heels pounding the ball at the defense to end the game.
The linebackers are similar to the Notre Dame defensive front, respectable, but far from dominant. Fans expected to see the Irish linebackers flying around, rushing into the backfield and getting sacks. They have done the first two, but the sacks have been hard to come by. The pressure has been a good thing though, even without the sack numbers to back it up. Notre Dame's defense has dictated most of the play to its opponents, forcing them almost exclusively into a three-step passing game. Inside linebackers Maurice Crum and Brian Smith are tied for third on the team with 34 tackles and Smith had a scoop-and-score to clinch the win against Michigan. The unit has been a big part of the reason that the Notre Dame defense has gotten off the field 63% of the time on third down, but will need to have more success getting to the quarterback and stopping the run.
Defensive backs: B
The Irish secondary has allowed 231.3 passing yards per game, 91st in the country, but like the linebackers, the defensive backs have made the plays they needed to in order to get off the field. Despite the high yardage numbers, the Irish rank 30th nationally in pass efficiency defense, holding opponents to just a 108.48 rating. Safeties Kyle McCarthy and David Bruton rank in the top 50 nationally in tackles with 56 and 53 stops respectively. Bruton has been at his best in the red zone, picking off two passes and forcing two fumbles inside Notre Dame's own 20-yard line, including a game-saving play on the goal line against San Diego State. Notre Dame's secondary has played well enough to keep the Irish in every game of the season, although Purdue's Desmond Tardy and North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks did put up some numbers.
Special Teams: C+
The Irish kick coverage units have been brilliant this year led by the play of Bruton and Mike Anello. Notre Dame ranks fourth in kickoff return defense, allowing just 16.4 yards per return, and are 40th in punt coverage, giving up only 6.4 yards a return. Punter Eric Maust is 35th in the country in punting, averaging 41.7 yards per boot. Allen has led the Notre Dame return units that have been respectable, averaging 21.3 yards a kick return and 8.3 yards a punt return. But sophomore placekicker Brandon Walker, who has converted just 2 of his 8 field goal attempts, has bogged down the Irish special teams. Walker has made two of his last four attempts, but he is still far from getting out of his struggles. If Walker can somehow overcome such a poor start the special teams units will be a strength for the Irish heading down the stretch.