(Note: This is a hypothetical preview of what the Notre Dame football team could look like a couple of years from now. It is not meant as a prediction of what will happen. It is just a look at how the talent that the Irish have assembled – and continue to assemble – could set them up for the future and the potential of that the group.)
August 1, 2010
SOUTH BEND - As Notre Dame enters the 2010 season it is amazing to think that just a couple of seasons ago the Irish were a punching bag for critics. But ever since the tail end of the 2007 season, the Fighting Irish have been the ones delivering the blows.
After losing nine of the first 10 games in the 2007 season, Charlie Weis and his troops have won 23 of their last 28 contests. After ending a 15-year bowl win drought in January of 2009, the Irish narrowly missed out on a shot at the National Championship last season, but captured their first Bowl Championship Series victory of the BCS era.
For the first time in years, the Notre Dame offense should be able to match, if not exceed, the firepower of rival Southern California. The Irish have explosive players at every skill position and they all have talent, athleticism and experience. Up front, Notre Dame sports what should be the most dominant offensive line in Weis' tenure.
After being invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy Presentation as a junior, quarterback Jimmy Clausen is at the top of many experts' lists to take home the hardware his final year in South Bend. The 2009 Davey O'Brien Award winner is poised to leave Notre Dame with his name on virtually every school passing record. Clausen bypassed a chance to be selected in the first round of April's 2010 NFL Draft to come back for a shot at winning it all.
The Irish have a dependable backup in junior Dayne Crist. After proving himself in a few situations as a sophomore, the big, strong-armed Crist is clearly next in line for the Irish at quarterback and would be capable of filling in for a time if he is called upon in 2010.
The quarterbacks will have plenty of targets to throw to led by junior wide receiver Michael Floyd and senior wideout Golden Tate. Floyd backed up his Freshman All-American season in 2008 with an All-American campaign as a sophomore while Tate has proven to be one of the most dynamic players in all of college football.
Behind Tate and Floyd, the Irish have plenty of other talented receivers in senior Duval Kamara and juniors Deion Walker and John Goodman. Shaquelle Evans made a ton of plays on special teams as a freshman in 2009 and hopes to have a greater impact with more opportunities as an offensive player this season.
Clausen will also find plenty of options at tight end with senior Mike Ragone and juniors Kyle Rudolph and Joseph Fauria. Ragone is finally healthy after being hampered by injuries his first two seasons while Rudolph will be in his third year as a starter and Fauria showed that he can be a matchup nightmare for defenses in the red zone.
If wide receiver is not the deepest position on the Notre Dame offense than halfback is. The Irish have a great mix of speed, power, youth and experience. Senior Armando Allen will lead the group and, along with sophomore Cierre Wood, has the ability to take it to the house while senior Robert Hughes and junior Jonas Gray will be relied upon to pound the ball inside. All four can also be used as weapons in the passing game out of the backfield.
The Irish figure to have a mix of experience and youth on the offensive line, but both the veterans and the youngsters are talented. Center Dan Wenger is back for his fifth year and will be flanked on the right by junior guard Trevor Robinson and on the left by another fifth-year senior in Chris Stewart. Senior Matt Romine will be in his second year as starter at left tackle while Taylor Dever is the front-runner to earn the right tackle position.
What will be interesting to see is if talented sophomore guard Chris Watt proves to be too good to keep off the field. If Watt turns out to be one of the Irish's five best options on the line than Notre Dame could kick Stewart out to one of the tackle spots and allow the sophomore to play his natural position.
The Notre Dame offense has plenty of weapons and will put up points, but the key will be whether it can continue to develop a running game to give the unit balance. Clausen and the passing attack should keep the Irish in every game and figure to put a few out of reach, but Notre Dame needs to have a ground game to finish out tight ones.
The Irish defense registered more sacks in year two of the Corwin Brown-Jon Tenuta collaboration, but Notre Dame gave up too many big plays to be a championship level unit. Heading into year three of the Brown-Tenuta union, the Irish need to find a balance between attacking the passer and limiting those big plays and they certainly have the talent to do it.
Senior linebacker Brian Smith is the team's unquestioned defensive leader. Smith, a candidate for All-American status and the Butkus Award, can play any of the linebacker spots, but will be listed as the Mike. Smith will be joined inside by either junior Anthony McDonald or junior David Posluszny, who will compete for the Jack linebacker position. Sophomores Jelani Jenkins and Carlo Calabrese will also get a chance to contribute at inside linebacker.
Notre Dame is two-deep at the outside positions with senior Kerry Neal and junior Darius Fleming splitting time at Will while junior Steve Filer will be backed up by sophomore Zeke Motta on the other side. Neal and Fleming each showed the ability to get to the quarterback while Filer could be the most productive defender after Smith.
Smith will guide the unit with his emotion, but the defensive backs will be the strength of the Irish defense.
Along with senior Harrison Smith and junior Dan McCarthy at the safety spots, the Irish have three proven corners in fifth-year senior Darrin Walls, senior Gary Gray and junior Robert Blanton. Walls bounced back with a solid 2009 season after missing 2008 when he was not enrolled in school. Gray and Blanton saw valuable minutes in Walls' absence two years ago which was key for the secondary last season.
Sophomores E.J. Banks and Marlon Pollard will be looking to break into the secondary after seeing some playing time as freshmen, but junior Jamoris Slaughter figures to be the next guy in after the first group.
Notre Dame can also go two-deep along the defensive line with juniors Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore expected to win starting jobs on the outside with senior Ian Williams back after another productive year at nose tackle. Senior Emeka Nwankwo and junior Sean Cwynar figure to be backups at defensive end with juniors Brandon Newman and Hafis Williams battling for reps at nose.
As the Irish have built up their depth in the last few years it has been key to the special teams and that should be the case again in 2010. Wood and Evans developed into legitimate return threats by the end of 2009 and should be joined by classmates Nyshier Oliver and Theo Riddick, who have similar potential.
Senior kicker Brandon Walker put his disastrous 2008 season behind him with a solid year in 2009 and will hold the edge over sophomore Nicholas Tausch, who converted the few attempts that he had as a freshman. Sophomore punter Ben Turk will try to build on a solid rookie year in 2009. With Tausch as insurance behind Walker, the special teams will be a real strength for the Irish as long as the young guns continue to protect the ball.
As always the Irish schedule is laced with formidable opponents, but the Irish figure to be favored in each of their first 11 games, at least until they lose one. There are two games that Irish fans look forward to every year and 2010 will be no different.
The Irish open at home against Purdue before entertaining Michigan on September 11 in what should be their biggest challenge of the first 11 games. In 2009, the Wolverines proved that they could run Rich Rodriguez's spread offense and with running back Sam McGuffie back for his junior year and sophomore Shavodrick Beaver ready to give Rodriguez his run-pass threat at quarterback, this could be the year the Michigan offense takes off.
If Notre Dame is able to get past the Boilermakers and Michigan, the Irish would still have nine contests before what could end up being another ‘Game of the Century' matchup on November 27 in Los Angeles against Southern Cal.
For all of their ‘dominance', the Trojans have won just one BCS National Championship, but nonetheless they are always in the discussion and 2010 will be the same. Senior Aaron Corp will compete with sophomore Matt Barkley for the quarterback job and whoever wins will have plenty of targets to throw to and be able to hand off to another Heisman Presentation invitee in Joe McKnight as well as Marc Tyler, Clausen's former prep teammate.
National titles never come easy and require talent, experience and skill. But championships also rarely come without a fair amount of luck. In order to win it all, a team needs to avoid crucial injuries, get a couple of key bounces and will need to overcome flat performances, bad calls from officials and the best shot from each team it plays.
This team has the talent, experience and skill, but it remains to be seen if the luck of the Irish will be with Notre Dame in 2010.