Obviously the first order of business is offensive line. It is no secret this unit has underperformed for the past two seasons. The talent is there to be a good, if not great, offensive line. They have not reached their potential yet, and some would argue they are not even close.
Weis addressed this problem by hiring Frank Verducci. In Verducci he has found a tough guy, a guy who understands the scheme he wants to run, and a new voice and face for the offensive linemen to take instruction from. All three things should have a positive influence on this offensive line group. This unit has plenty of talent, experience and depth to do a very good job this season. There are no excuses for them not to at this point.
But one key point worries me—left tackle. Who is the guy? Is it Paul Duncan? Is it Trevor Robinson? Is it Matt Romine? As we've seen so many times over the past two years, it only takes one guy to blow an assignment to derail the entire offense. Even if the other four do their job, one guy missing a block can destroy an otherwise perfectly executed play. I think the other four positions will play well. I'm just worried about this one spot.
Freshman Michael Floyd had an amazing first season for the Irish and I expect we will see much of the same in 2009. Golden Tate also stepped up his game to have a great season for Notre Dame. However, the Irish really need a third player to become a factor as a receiver. There are plenty of candidates, but so far nobody has really grabbed the bull by the horns.
Junior Duval Kamara obviously has the talent, and he could definitely become a factor this season. I also think sophomore John Goodman is going to surprise a lot of people this year. I have heard very good things about Goodman.
Two true freshmen could also be in the mix in Shaquelle Evans and Roby Toma. But what about this? With a crowded backfield, and a very talented Cierre Wood enrolling this fall, might we see Wood play a little receiver? He's got fantastic hands, and he brings something that the Irish are lacking----the ability to make people miss. If I am Weis, I at least explore this possibility this fall. He could be that third dimension that the Irish are lacking.
Last season Irish fans got a glimpse of the potential of sophomore Kyle Rudolph. Rudolph caught 29 passes, averaged almost 12 yards per reception and caught two touchdowns. I expect those numbers to increase dramatically next season. Rudolph has as much talent (if not more) than any of the tight ends that have played under Weis, and probably many more before him. I expect to see him explode this season on the field.
Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen will learn that the tight end can be his best friend, and I expect you will see Clausen look more for Rudolph this season. The "X" factor is how much Joseph Fauria and Mike Ragone fit into the mix in 2009. Ragone has as much talent at Rudolph, but coming off a second knee surgery, some of his skills may have diminished. Fauria also has some impressive skills, so both could factor into the offense and takes some opportunities away from Rudolph.
The signing of Manti Te'o a few weeks brings an interesting twist to Notre Dame's defense. There is no question that Brian Smith is a good player and a good leader for the Irish, but he was not a very productive Mike backer for ND last season. Smith played in 11 games and only finished with 54 tackles. Obviously he was learning a bit on the job, but he was much more productive and disruptive outside. Could Smith be moving back to an outside backer position?
That largely depends on the development of Steve Filer and Te'o. The ND staff is very high on Steve Filer. He has got off-the-charts athletic ability, and he loves to hit. If he can play Mike, and Te'o can play Will, there's a chance you will see Smith outside again where he was very disruptive as a freshmen.
If that change were to happen, the Irish have a load of talent at outside backer with Smith competing with classmate Kerry Neal and sophomore Darius Fleming for playing time. What an impressive rotation that would be.
It has been since 2003 since the Irish had a double-digit sack leader in former great Justin Tuck. True freshman Ethan Johnson led the team in sacks last season with 3.5. Both he, and fellow sophomore Kapron Lewis-Moore, will be heavily counted on, along with some outside backers, to lead the charge in the pass rush this season. Notre Dame finished with just 26 sacks on the season last year, and they need to improve upon that number to become a dominating defense.
But more importantly, these two will be counted on heavily against the run as both should see considerable minutes. They are going to need to hold up well on first and second down in order to have the opportunity to shine in rushing the passer.
Notre Dame has not stopped the run well the past few seasons, but do appear to be improving. To become a good or great defense they will need to improve against the run first in order to become the aggressive defense everyone hopes to see this season and for years to come. Good defenses usually hold the opposition to under 100 yards rushing per game. That needs to be the norm in 2009 for the Irish to have a successful season.
Two key elements in stopping the run next season will be Brandon Newman and Hafis Williams. Both will be needed to provide some quality depth inside behind junior Ian Williams. The Irish defense wore down late in critical games last season, and the lack of quality depth along the defensive line was a large contributing factor. Both Williams and Newman have the size. They will need to add the strength and conditioning this winter. Both should be very key components to the success of the Irish defense in 2009.
The Irish are very close to becoming a very good football team. If they can find answers to the above questions heading into the fall, they will be on their way to a great season. Most of these questions need to be answered or addressed this spring, but for some, like freshmen Te'o and Wood, we will have to wait until fall to figure out exactly what they can bring to the table next season.