I do not think anyone can question if head coach Charlie Weis is close to returning the Irish to the elite of college football. However close is not good enough, at least not at Notre Dame. Weis has done a great job in so many areas at the head coach position, but there are still some things he needs to improve upon, as well as the team itself, for the Irish to get over the hump. What might those things be?
Leadership: One thing I think Notre Dame is sorely lacking, especially on offense, is leadership. I cannot really point to any one guy and say "he's the leader." This season is the season of the 2006 recruiting class. I remember being very excited about this class once all the faxes came in, but thus far the 2006 class has been a disappointment. Eight of the players have transferred out. Most likely three of the commitments have ended their playing days at Notre Dame due to medical issues. And thus far, I cannot point to one star in this class. There are some good football players, including four offensive linemen, Darrin Walls and Sergio Brown, but so far there really has not been any one single player in this 28-man class who has stood out. That is missing pretty badly. Either Weis and his staff did a poor job of evaluating this group, or they haven't coached them very well.
It is hard to be a great leader on the field when you are not making plays yourself, and I think that is why the Irish have struggled offensively. I really see very little leadership, particularly on the offense, and someone has to step up and take that role this season. It is either going to have to be the senior Irish offensive linemen, or it is going to have to be the players who will now be juniors and sophomores.
Offensive line improvement: I hate to be the guy to put the fortunes of a season on one unit, but I really think the success of 2009 will depend on the play of the offensive line. If the Irish offensive line can give Clausen protection, he will surgically dissect a defense. We have seen this countless times before. If Clausen has protection, he is as good a quarterback as you will ever find. It should not be all on the offensive line, but they will play a major factor in the success or failure of the team in 2009, more than any other position. Add a running game and Clausen will be even more effective.
The good news is this unit will have a new face, a new voice, and a new start. A lot of times in fottball change is a good thing when things are going bad. Just having a different voice, a different face, and a different way of teaching can really open the eyes of some players and good things can happen. Newly hired O-line coach Frank Verducci also has a lot of experience in the zone blocking scheme Weis likes to run, so that should make the transition fairly easy.
Running game: At this point I think it is obvious the days of the Irish rushing for over 200 yards per game are likely over, at least under Weis. Weis does run the football, but his offense seems to pass-heavy, so I doubt you will ever see a great rushing team out of the Irish under his leadership. That does not mean ND fans will not see a good rushing team, or even an average rushing team. For Notre Dame to be successful on offense, I believe they need to be at least average. What is average? There are 119 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and ND's rival, Michigan, landed at No. 59 in the country last year in rushing, or 147 yards per game—about average for this Subdivision. I have always stated that if a team can get north of 150 yards rushing per game, they are doing pretty well on the ground. The Irish averaged 110 yards rushing per game last season. That is not getting it done; especially as against the good teams the Irish weren't even rushing for that. Notre Dame usually plays a tougher schedule than most teams, so to truly have an effective running game they will need to get over well over that 150 yards per game hump. I would love to see 175 yards rushing per game, but anything north of 150 yards per game would be an improvement.
I don't know how you fix this. John Latina tried for four years with many of these players and had little success. Verducci will have a tough task on his hands, but this unit is loaded with many five and four-star players. The talent is there to have a successful running game. Somehow Verducci will have to pull it out of them.
Clausen moving better in pocket: If there is a flaw in Jimmy Clausen's game it is pocket awareness and the ability to escape pressure. Watching Ben Roethlisberger in the Super Bowl just cemented that idea for me. Roethlisberger is a big man at 6-foot-5, 241 pounds. He is not the most mobile quarterback, but he has great pocket awareness and the ability to sidestep pressure and find throwing lanes to get rid of the football. Clausen must improve this aspect of his game. I do not know how he would do this, and some players never develop this very important skill, but for Clausen to take that next step as a quarterback, he is going to have to learn how to play well under pressure.
Repetitions will certainly help any quarterback, but this is a skill he really needs to improve upon as he will not get perfect pass protection against the better teams. He has to make plays against the better teams for the Irish to win these games. He has not been doing that thus far in his career. I am not trying to single Clausen out, and I think he has as much ability as any quarterback I have seen, but every player has flaws in their game. He will have to improve in this area for the Irish to have success against the better teams on their schedule this fall.
Strength: Notre Dame lost entirely way too many games in the fourth quarter last season…..way too many games for a team that should have a physical advantage over many of the teams on their schedule. Many times during the season it appeared the Irish were simply getting physically beat at the point of attack---along the lines. Players looked tired. They also did not look as "big" as the opposition.
I do not know if there is a problem with the strength and conditioning at Notre Dame. All I do know are the results. The results were very poor for a team that should have more advantages in this area than almost anyone they play due to talent, facilities, and the ability to pay the top people to come in and develop these players physically.
This should never be a problem for Notre Dame, but I really feel it was last season. I think if one goes back through last season and looks at how the Irish performed in the fourth quarter, they will quickly understand that this is a problem for Notre Dame. I do not know how to address it, or if it is being addressed this winter, but it surely appeared to be a problem last season.
Players take on personal responsibility: Weis took a lot of bullets for this team last season and rightfully so. Ultimately the way his team performs is his responsibility, but I did not see championship effort on the field in 2008. I did not see players playing as hard in 2008 as I have seen during the better seasons at Notre Dame. I did not see them playing as hard as say Florida or Oklahoma last season. I just did not see it. I did not see this team want it more than Syracuse, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and the other teams they lost to on their schedule, and that is a part of the reason they lost those games. Don't shoot the messenger, I am just calling it as I see it.
I think a large part of the problem has been leadership. The Irish need someone to step up and hold everyone accountable……both in the weight room and on the field. Again, I do not know who that person is at this point, but someone needs to take on that role this season. I cannot stress enough how important this is. Say what you want about Tim Tebow, but I will take that guy leading my team any day. That is what the Irish are missing. It does not have to be the quarterback. It can be anyone, but the quarterback would be in the ideal situation.
Weis getting team to believe: If there is one area that Weis needs to improve on as a coach, in my humble opinion, is to keep hold of the team in bad times. Every coach struggles with this, and even the best coaches will "lose" at team at times during the season or his career. Sometimes it is just not in the cards, especially when you lack leadership.
However, that is when the head coach has to come into play and punch all the right buttons. If you lack leadership I do not believe you can be a top 10 team, but this is where the head coach and his staff come into play. In this situation you go from being top 10 to staying in the top 25. The team does not collapse and finish 6-6, they finish 9-3 or 8-4 at worst.
There will be times during 2009 when bad things happen. When a team does not have great leadership on the field they will then turn to the coaching staff. Someone has to make this team believe they can get through the problems. Weis has done this well at times, but he has also "lost" the team at times as well.
Having said that, Weis is a first-time coach. He is learning on the job. This is what you get with a first-time coach. He needs to learn all the nuances, the tricks of the trade, and the mental games one must play to push all the right buttons in situations like these. The good news is Weis seems to learn from his mistakes, so he will only get better at this with time.
Sure, there are other little nits to pick about this team, but making some marked improvement in these areas should get the Irish over the hump. Notre Dame has no excuse for not being a good team next year, but the onus has to be on both the players and the coaches. Both facets of the team have to step up their game to get over that hump. Hopefully Irish fans will see that happen.
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