Heading into spring practice there were a number of questions Irish fans had about their team. How would the offensive line respond to the coaching of Frank Verducci? How would the D-line respond to Randy Hart? Will junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen progress? Do we have an answer at left tackle? There were many more. The good news is some of these questions appear to have been answered.
First and foremost, left tackle was a big concern. It only takes one person to make a mistake along the offensive line to turn a would-be touchdown into a sack. Left tackle is a critical position along the offensive line because the left tackle often lines up against the opposition's best pass rusher. Fifth-year senior Paul Duncan, by all accounts, appears to have made a significant jump from his previous play, and that's good news for the Irish.
Duncan has always had the athletic ability to play the position, and now it appears he has the strength and aggressive attitude as well. Duncan likely won't be the top left tackle in the NFL draft next season, but if he continues to improve he could be the answer to a very critical piece of the puzzle for the Irish in 2009, and maybe and NFL career on the horizon. Thus far we've heard Duncan has been a very pleasant surprise, and that's great news for the Irish and for Clausen.
There's also been very positive news in regards to the Irish running game……much more running room for Irish running backs this spring, and much more production. However, we're quick to caution that this could also be a sign of a weaker run defense in regards to the Irish defense.
Having witnessed a practice, and from other "inside" sources, the Irish appear to be much more physical up front in the running game---a good sign of progress for both the unit and new offensive line coach Verducci. It's been our belief that this unit has lacked that nastiness many Irish fans were promised when Weis arrived at Notre Dame. Can Verducci bring that out of this talented and veteran unit? Spring practice results thus far are pointing to a positive trend in this regard. For the Irish to be a great offense this season they'll need a much better running game. Clausen and the receiving corps can't do it alone.
Speaking of Clausen, the word has been he's had a very strong spring thus far. Recognition, going through progressions quicker, and yes, pocket awareness has improved. However, I wouldn't say the pass protection has been great, and this is still a concern heading into fall. The Irish O-line are learning some new things from Verducci, but they shouldn't have as many breakdowns in pass protection as they appear to have for such a veteran offensive line. This will need to be fixed before the start of the season.
The other good quarterback news we've heard is Dayne Crist will at least be a very solid backup for the Irish this season and is developing into quite a talent in his own right. Notre Dame appears to be in good shape if Clausen becomes injured, and in the future when Crist gets the opportunity to play.
It's also very clear that the Irish have one of the most talented defensive backfields in many years. Notre Dame has both a wealth of talent and experience returning in the back end, and this unit should be the strength of the defense.
Still Some Questions
While there has been a lot of good news leaking out from practice, there still are some concerns.
Previously we mentioned pass protection being a concern and it likely should be small concern heading into fall. The Irish offensive line did protect Clausen better in 2008 compared to 2007, but we have heard there are still some concerns here. But again, this unit has a new coach, who is teaching some new things, and it likely will just take some time for this unit to put it all together. The good news is this unit has vast experience playing together, and that is a big plus for any offensive line. I just think there are some wrinkles here that need to be ironed out, but they should be solid come the start of the season. They'll likely never be great in this department, but they should be more than serviceable.
Probably the main concern right now for the defensive is the defensive line. The Irish will be playing with some new players along the front three (four), and a lot of them are very young. For example, in the starting four-man look for the Irish that we've seen thus far in practice, three of the starters are true sophomores. While that sure sounds promising for the future, this unit may lack the physical strength and experience needed to hold up against the better teams. They'll learn a lot quickly, but it's probably too much to ask for three true sophomores to win consistently against some talented and veteran offensive linemen. This will be a concern heading into fall, and it may end up being a problem versus the better teams. The good news here is Randy Hart is a veteran coach with a lot of fire to him. He should have them properly motivated and playing with sound technique in no time.
The other concern on defense right now would be at WILL linebacker. Sophomore Steve Filer started off the depth chart as the starter, but since then it appears that Toryan Smith has taken over the MIKE backer position and former starting MIKE backer Brian Smith has moved to WILL. Is this a sign that Filer isn't quite ready? Or does it mean that Toryan Smith has just improved that much? I think it's safe to say that this position is very much up for grabs this fall, and freshman Manti Te'o will certainly have a shot to win it along with Filer and a few other linebackers. The good news is Brian Smith is a versatile linebacker and can move to a number of positions, which gives linebackers coach Jon Tenuta a lot of flexibility with this unit. The Irish will need to find an answer quickly in fall for this position.
Finally, and this is fairly minor, but I think Notre Dame would've loved to find a third receiver that stood out head and shoulders above the rest this spring. With Golden Tate out most practices due to baseball, and Michael Floyd slowed with a minor injury, the competition has had a great number of reps and opportunities. The word has been that all the hopefuls have had numerous good days this spring, but not has been the consistent and clear winner here. All are have said to have improved from the previous year, but there hasn't been one to clearly separate from the pack. We've heard Robby Paris has had a very good spring. Duval Kamara has been banged up for a lot of spring, but since he's been back has played quite well. We've heard a lot of good things about John Goodman. Deion Walker has been slowed most of spring but also has had some good days despite the injury.
The good news is the Irish have plenty of talented options here. However, at this point you'd hope one would separate from the pack as the Irish need a third player who can be counted on to make plays and take some pressure off Tate and Floyd.
Overall the news from spring has been pretty positive even though there have been a lot of Notre Dame's top talent on the sidelines due to minor injuries. It's quite obvious that the sophomore class is vastly talented and we could see a very large number of true sophomores playing considerable minutes for the Irish in the fall. Again, that's a great sign for the future, but that inexperience can also cause a few problems throughout the year, especially early in the year. However, there's no question that this team will faster and more talented than previous teams under Weis and may be his most talented yet.
Some Questions Answered This Spring
IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories
Beyond the NumbersA look at the numbers of note for Notre Dame as it prepares to take on Miami.
IrishIllustrated.comYesterday at 11:57 AM
What Kelly’s self-scout should showMost years Brian Kelly’s bye week film review would confirm what he already knew. This time the Irish head coach was searching for solutions, both statistically and within…
IrishIllustrated.comYesterday at 6:24 AM
Irish Illustrated hits the Lone Star StateNo state does high school football quite like Texas. Irish Illustrated will get a firsthand look this week with visits to a trio of Notre Dame pledges: cornerback Paulson Adebo,…
IrishIllustrated.comYesterday at 6:08 AM
Get Sports Illustrated with annual membershipStarting today, new annual IrishIllustrated.com memberships now include a 1 Year Print + Digital subscription to Sports Illustrated Magazine (a $39.00 Value)!
IrishIllustrated.comTuesday at 11:29 AM