Offense Loaded for 2009

There haven't been a lot of things to look forward to lately in regards to Notre Dame football, but there really are some exciting times coming for Irish fans starting next season. The rewards of strong recruiting over the last few years should start to surface in 2009.

I know, I know, some will say "it doesn't matter if they're not coached well," but that's a defeatist's attitude, and there's plenty to be excited about in 2009.

Most of the focus will be along the offensive side of the football this spring and fall, but there are plenty of things to look forward to on the defensive side. However, let's take a look at some interesting storylines for 2009 on the offensive side of the ball.

A quick note before I start. I'm assuming the Irish will sign those high school seniors currently committed to Notre Dame. Nothing is final until signing day, so some of these thoughts would obviously change if someone didn't sign as expected in February.

One of the more intriguing battles this spring might come at quarterback. Sophomore Jimmy Clausen has looked very good at times this season while completing 60 percent of his passes and 20 touchdowns, but his 17 interceptions have been a problem for the Irish offense. Clausen has thrown for just two touchdowns in the last four games, while throwing eight interceptions—not a good trend for the talented quarterback.

Will freshman quarterback Dayne Crist get a serious look this spring? Some might suggest Weis is married to Clausen as he's played every meaningful snap this season. However, the Irish offense is sorely lacking in strong leadership, and that is one thing Crist certainly brings to the table.

If Crist is going to challenge Clausen, he'll have to be his equal on the field in production and understanding the offense. That will be a tall task, but don't discount Crist's leadership ability. Don't be surprised if Crist makes a strong push, and I'm very serious in saying that. The Irish offense desperately needs leadership and I just haven't seen that in Clausen up to this point. Maybe that will change heading into the spring.

I don't know about you but I really liked what little I saw in freshman running back Jonas Gray. Gray showed a nice burst that I didn't expect, and toughness that I did. He also showed some good vision in limited carries. He's got great size already for a freshman back, and I've got to think he'll get better and push for time next fall.

The Irish backfield could be crowded next season with all of James Aldridge, Armando Allen and Robert Hughes expected back. Again, I don't know about you but I'm also interested in seeing what Aldridge can do with 20 carries in a game. Maybe we'll see that in the bowl game. He appears to be the best back out of the bunch at this point. Adding Gray to the mix will complicate things, and the Irish are also adding two other players to the mix who may deserve some immediate playing time in freshmen Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick.

Both Riddick and Wood bring some speed to the position to go with the power already on the roster. But what I've yet to see out of this group is a great inside runner with excellent vision. The Irish really need to find a back with good vision and hopefully he'll have some holes to run through next year.

I expect both Wood and Riddick to get strong looks on special teams if nothing else, but with the loaded backfield currently, I sure wonder what Wood would look like lined up in the slot on certain downs? He's a very good receiver out of the backfield, and I think the Irish can find all kinds of ways to get him the football if he's ready to play when he enrolls. It's going to be hard to keep Wood off the field, and he brings explosiveness and playmaking ability. Also, don't discount Theo Riddick. He's going to surprise a lot of people when he enrolls.

The Irish should also be loaded at wide receiver next year as well. Both Golden Tate and Michael Floyd will return, as will junior-to-be Duval Kamara. All three have shown play-making ability and put a lot of pressure on a defense. All three should see a lot of action next season.

The good news is all three will be pushed hard for playing time, and competition is a great thing. Sophomores John Goodman and Deion Walker will have added some much needed weight and spent the year fine tuning their game. Both are said to be talented. Watching freshmen Shaquelle Evans will be the exciting in fall camp. Like Floyd, I strongly believe Evans can have an immediate impact as he's already physically ready to play at this level, and appears to be as talented at Floyd. I don't think most ND fans know how good Evans is going to be. He's going to be special.

A very important piece to this puzzle, however, was adding Nayshier Oliver to the mix. Oliver brings some speed to the physical receivers Notre Dame currently has. Both he and Golden Tate have the speed to stretch the field, and that's important to opening up the Irish offense. The Irish are loaded at receiver if both Evans and Oliver do sign with the Irish in February. I really think Oliver can be a hidden gem in this class if he develops as a receiver.

The return of junior tight end Mike Ragone will be very important to the Irish offense next year. Ragone's injury hurt Notre Dame in a lot of ways this season, but it did allow freshmen Kyle Rudolph to develop into a very good player quickly. Other than Floyd, I think Rudolph has come the most distance out of all the freshmen and has really developed into a solid tight end for Notre Dame. If Irish fans are looking for good coaching out of this staff, tight ends coach Bernie Parmalee has done an excellent job in coaching his unit. Rudolph is a shining example of that.

Rudolph needed to develop because the Irish are very thin at tight end. I suspect Luke Schmidt's career is over due to concussions, and I'm not sure what to expect from suspended tight end Will Yeatman. Will he be back? I'm not certain on that.

The Irish are adding two freshmen in Jake Golic and Tyler Eifert, but both will need time to add some strength and weight before they're ready for serious action. Ragone's return is vital, especially if Yeatman doesn't return.

Lastly, pretty much the entire season rests on the play of the offensive line next year. If the offensive line performs to the level of the capability, it won't matter how the defense plays because this offense should score over 30 points a game next year given solid offensive line play. But that's a big "if" at this point.

The Irish will return four starters along the offensive line---with both Paul Duncan and Trevor Robinson also having considerable playing time under their belt—essentially six players who have considerable starting and playing experience return. Finding a left tackle will be the biggest challenge. Is there anyone on the squad who is quick enough to handle the outside speed rushers? I'm not sure anyone can point to that guy right now. The Irish will have to find a guy, and hopefully this spring as the unit will need time to gel to become a solid unit this fall.

Maybe more important is what happens with the offensive line in both leadership and scheme. Will John Latina return as line coach next season? If not, what scheme will the next guy run? Does he have a choice or is that head coach Charlie Weis' call? What kind of a coach would the replacement be? If Latina were to be replaced, the hiring of the next coach could be critical to the success of the 2009 season.

It should be obvious to everyone that Notre Dame is loaded with talent on offense. But a sputtering offensive line has really hamstrung the offensive production. Can Latina fix the problems at offensive line? Does Weis go in another direction? What's obvious is something has to change or Irish fans will likely see a repeat of 2008…..something everyone would like to forget. Top Stories