10 For 2009

With the 2008 season now over and finished, Irish Eyes takes a look ahead to the 2009 campaign and 10 things that fans can hope to expect.

1. ADDING MORE TOP-END TALENT: Charlie Weis and his staff are in good position to sign another Top 10 recruiting class in February. Running back Cierre Wood, wide receiver Shaquelle Evans and offensive lineman Chris Watt are the verbal commits that highlight this year's group with the nation's top linebacker, Manti Te'o still deciding between the Irish, USC and BYU.

The addition of Te'o would surely give the Irish a Top 10 class, but even without the Hawai'i star, Notre Dame will bring another great group of student-athletes to South Bend.

Looking down the road, the Irish are way ahead of schedule for what is going to be a great group of prospects in the 2010 class, especially in the Midwest.

2. SPIRITED SPRING: Look for Weis and his staff, whatever it ends up looking like, to dial it up a notch in spring workouts. Before the Hawai'i Bowl, the players talked about carrying a win over to the offseason and this will be their first chance to show that they can do just that.

Specifically, Weis needs to concentrate on developing a tougher mentality at the line of scrimmage, especially on offense. The return of Mike Ragone should help a bit in the running game, but the problems were much larger than the tight end spot.

The defense will be able to get more comfortable with the attacking approach that the Irish installed last offseason and try to figure out a way to get to the quarterback more consistently. Another spring will benefit the entire roster: the defense, last year's top-ranked recruiting class and Jimmy Clausen included.

3. NEW FACES, NEW PLACES: Even with a majority of the starters coming back from last season, expect to see a number of players making a larger impact in 2009. We should see new names start to emerge during the spring, but we won't know for sure who they are going to be until the season starts.

The defense should have plenty of players who did not see the field in 2008 getting a chance to make a difference in 2009, especially on the defensive line with Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams, Brandon Newman and Kapron Lewis-Moore. There will be some reshuffling at linebacker with the graduation of Maurice Crum and Harrison Smith moving back to free safety. Could Steve Filer jump into Crum's spot? Will freshman Zeke Motta get any time filling in for Smith? The secondary will be experienced, especially with the addition of Smith and the return of cornerback Darrin Walls.

On offense, the Irish bring back virtually all of their skill position talent, but John Goodman and Deion Walker should get a chance to play at receiver along with newcomer Evans. The offensive line returns six players with plenty of experience, but will be looking for someone to replace Michael Turkovich at left tackle.

4. RUNNING GAME HITS STRIDE: The only complaint that anyone could have had about the Irish's Hawai'i Bowl romp was that they rushed for just 65 yards on 34 carries, but the running game was at least respectable enough early on to open up the Warrior secondary.

Don't expect Weis to come out and boast that Notre Dame will ‘pound the ball' in 2009, but with Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, James Aldridge and Jonas Gray coming back along with Wood and classmate Theo Riddick, the Irish have an exceptionally strong stable of running backs.

With Clausen and the receivers displaying elite-level talent, Notre Dame needs only to keep defenses honest with the running game and develop a consistency in short-yardage attempts to get the offense moving. But that is easier said than done. Notre Dame proved that in 2008 by averaging just 113.4 rushing yards per game.

5. OFFENSIVE EXPLOSION: If the running game can get going, Notre Dame's offense will be capable of putting up huge numbers. Golden Tate and Michael Floyd have proven that neither can be left in one-on-one coverage. Throw in Goodman and Walker along with Duval Kamara and Kyle Rudolph and the return of Ragone at tight end and the Irish passing attack will be able to carry the offense.

After the Irish switched to a pass-dominant approach in the third game of the season, they were able to move the ball up and down the field until defenses adjusted and forced Notre Dame to prove it could run the ball.

The Notre Dame defense ended up being the strength of the 2008 unit, but a running attack and the continued progress of the passing game could switch things around in 2009.

6. CLAUSEN CONTINUES BREAKOUT: Clausen's 401-yard, five-touchdown performance in the Hawai'i Bowl silenced critics, but those doubters are sure to return before 2009.

Clausen's arm has never been a question and he has shown that he can make all of the throws, but he needs to make better decisions and become the true leader of the offense. Before the 2008 season, Clausen said that leadership comes by proving to teammates that he can lead them, but he will need to become the guy his teammates look to before the 2009 opener.

If that running game can get going, expect Clausen to look like the player he was against Purdue, Stanford and in the first half of the North Carolina game. The performance he had against Hawai'i won't be the norm, but Clausen should have more games like that than the one he had at Boston College.

Look for Clausen to make another big jump as a junior and get into the discussions of best quarterbacks in the country.

7. SKY-WALKER: Maybe no player had to overcome as much in 2008 as sophomore kicker Brandon Walker. Walker was the target of most fans' abuse when he missed six of his first seven field goal attempts, but he responded by making 13 of his final 17 field goals.

Almost as impressive as his turnaround was the way that Walker handled missing kicks at the end of the Pittsburgh game and the Syracuse contest. Walker proved that he had overcome his early struggles by showing the maturity to move past both of those disappointing endings.

By season's end, Walker was one of the Irish's most consistent performers and he will get the chance to continue that as a junior in 2009. Expect Walker to put the first couple months of 2008 in the past and be a reliable weapon for the Irish in 2009.

8. BACK IN THE RANKS: Notre Dame has not been seen in the Top 25 polls since Brady Quinn and company departed, but the Irish will put an end to that streak in 2009.

In all likelihood, the Irish missed out on three opportunities to join the rankings in 2008. If Notre Dame had been able to beat Michigan State and move to 3-0 in September, the Irish would have probably jumped into the Top 25 at that point. Notre Dame lost another chance to join the rankings by blowing the second half of the North Carolina game that would have put the Irish at 5-1.

Notre Dame had its third chance to jump into the Top 25 with a win over Pittsburgh that would have given them a 6-2 record and its first true quality win, but another second-half collapse prevented that from happening.

Depending on where they start in the 2009 preseason rankings, the Irish could jump into the Top 25 by the third week if not sooner.

9. HYPED-UP OCT. 17: It is doubtful that the 2009 home game against USC will generate the kind of buzz that the 2005 matchup did, but with a fairly light early season schedule, Notre Dame should have people talking about the Irish turning things around.

Notre Dame opens with Nevada, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Washington before bye week leading up to the Trojans' visit. The Irish figure to be heavy favorites in the opener against Nevada and while matchups with the Wolverines and Spartans are always tough, neither will be games that Irish fans expect to lose.

Even a split against the teams from the Wolverine State coupled with wins over the Boilermakers and the Huskies will have college football fans from across the country paying close attention to South Bend on Oct. 17.

Can Weis push the same buttons that he pushed in his first matchup against USC and get his team to play its best against the Trojans? We'll see.

10. NEW YEAR'S DAY BOWL: While the Hawai'i Bowl performance following the 2008 season was a memorable one, the Irish will be hoping to be at home for Christmas in 2009 before returning to campus to wrap up bowl preparations for a New Year's Day game, if not a BCS matchup.

Again, the youth of the roster and the schedule makes the goal an attainable one and with the discussion that Weis had with Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick following the 2008 season, quite possibly a necessary one.

It's unlikely that the Irish will make a total turnaround and jump into the National Championship discussion in less than a year, but the schedule allows for 10 wins, if not more, and that should be good enough to get Notre Dame into BCS talks.

We hope.

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