Pre-season magazine predictions; combines; rampant speculation; pre-camp assessments; the dawn of the summer semester…mid-June is not a time for absolutes in the college football world. Most team-related message board threads are rooted in works of near-fiction – assumptions, leaps of faith, and sure-to-be-proven-wrong statistical projections. None of us are immune or able to save ourselves from illustrating just how wrong seemingly educated fans can be (I predicted an 8-4 record for the Irish...in 2007).
But in neither of the previous two off-seasons were Irish fans equipped with as many reasonable assumptions or even plausible leaps of faith as they are in the Summer of '09.
There aren't many guarantees for a team that won 7 of 13 games last season but there are a few aspects of the game in which the intelligent Irish fan can see signs of improvement, hope, or, believe it or not, consistency contained within the '09 roster.
Below is our first look at the Reasonable Assumption Irish fans have made for the upcoming season. Though not all will come to fruition, none should be considered wildly off-base knowing what we know now.If you have more questions (or more questions than answers) after reading the column, tune in tomorrow for the Leaps of Faith for Irish Fans in 2009.
The Offensive Line Will Be the Program's Best Since 2005:Last off-season, it was reasonable to assume the Offensive Line would improve significantly (from '07 to '08) simply because the '07 unit was historically poor. Though the unit had nowhere to go but up (after allowing an unthinkable 58 sacks and at least that many more QB hurries in '07), it would be inaccurate to think the '08 O-Line performed at any level other than "solid" solely in its mission to protect Jimmy Clausen, yielding just 22 sacks in 13 games with nearly 450 pass attempts (by comparison, Weis' best O-Line, the 2005 unit, allowed 21 sacks in 12 games in 454 pass attempts).
Unfortunately, the '08 O-line was only marginally better (than in '07) in terms of opening holes for a trio of running backs, finishing with the second-worst rushing-yards-per-game effort in school history. And "better" is a relative term.
Regardless of its unresolved issues as a run-blocking unit, it's reasonable to assume that six seasoned offensive linemen: Sam Young (38 career starts); Eric Olsen (19 career starts/32 games played); Dan Wenger (18 starts/21 games); Paul Duncan (12 starts/29 games); Chris Stewart (10 starts/17 games); and sophomore Trevor Robinson (3 starts and 11 games) along with new running game coordinator/offensive line coach coordinator Frank Verducci, will improve and grow enough at this point in their college careers to field a unit that gives the Irish a chance to win each week.
100 aggregate starts – a statistic that suggests familiarity in the overall scheme of the offense – and a new, experienced position coach that gives the unit, if nothing else, a fresh start…yes, it's reasonable to assume the Offensive Line will play better than it has over the last two, and likely three seasons, in '09. And if not now, when?
Ethan Johnson Will Emerge as the Team's Best Defensive LinemanIt might be a leap of faith to refer to Johnson as the DL's best player at this point (that's my personal belief after what is admittedly a small sample of work), but it's reasonable to assume a freshman who appreciably improved from Sept. 5 through Christmas Eve of his first season (half of his total tackles and four of Johnson's five tackles for loss occurred over the last five games) will continue on that pace for his sophomore year.
Johnson is the most talented and versatile down lineman on the team as well as the (enrolled) front seven member that possesses the most pro potential. The presence of experienced and improved junior NT Ian Williams, the reported emergence of sophomore Hafis Williams as a competitive interior defender, and a host of pass-rushing candidates should allow the coaching staff the freedom to use Johnson in a variety of looks, both as a DE and DT.
Its unreasonable to assume national stardom (as I have) for the talented sophomore, but it would be a surprise if Ethan Johnson is not a solid football player this fall, and the unit's top player by season's end.
The Secondary Will be Notre Dame's Best Position GroupTwo proven seniors with 26 combined starts; a highly touted sophomore with four starts of his own (in ‘08's final four contests) as well as the talent level and confidence to hold off any challenger; a likely senior captain at strong safety; a battle-tested defender returning to his natural free safety role; a fourth CB with the potential to earn a starting job; a backup strong safety that has proven ability in the nickel role; a 5th year senior safety who's appeared in 39 career games and three redshirt sophomore DBs waiting in the wings (and teasing the two-deep).
We've come a long way from the days of "Highway 15" in the Irish secondary.
There's no doubt a defensive backfield is only as good as its pass rush and as sound as the seven guys in front of it, but the 2009 Notre Dame secondary should be, at worst, solid, and rank as the favorite to be the team's best unit, both in September and at season's end. (It has an outside chance to be dominant, but this column's focus is baby steps after an uneven 2008.)
Neither tomorrow, nor shut-down coverage is guaranteed to anyone … but has a Notre Dame fan ever wondered if the team's two backup cornerbacks should actually rank as its starters? That's not out of the realm of possibility when we revisit this in November.
Jimmy Clausen Will be a Sound QB for 13 GamesThis assumption isn't asking Clausen to channel Brady Quinn's junior season. It's not asking him to throw for 35 touchdowns or single-digit interceptions. Rather, it merely assumes that after the ups and downs of 22 starts (during nearly half of which he was forced to stop, drop, and roll) Clausen will emerge as a solid, sometimes explosive signal-caller for a talent-laden Irish offense.
There are admittedly several factors that could again contribute to the mistakes that plagued Clausen in the second half of last season: The Irish might not be able to establish a running game; the offense might struggle to convert in 3rd and short yardage situations; the defense might not win on first down, too often leading to long stretches on the field; but Clausen should be at the stage of his college career in which the game-killing mistakes of October and November '08 are behind him (if you recall, a harried, inexperienced, and still-ailing Clausen did not often make those same mistakes as a true freshman starter in '07).
We have two months (not to mention tomorrow) to analyze Clausen's potential contribution to the '09 team, but it's reasonable to assume Clausen's junior season will be his best to date, both statistically and in the Win/Loss column.
Jon Tenuta and Corwin Brown Will Find Four Bona Fide Players from a Group of Nine Irish LinebackersThe number (9) isn't intentionally dismissive of incoming freshman Dan Fox or Carlos Calabrese, but we're focusing on reasonable projections at this point. The '09 linebacker corps can walk onto the field tomorrow and rank as the 2nd best group of the Weis Era. Exactly how good the unit can become will be determined from August through New Year's, but it appears the pieces are in place for the defensive minds of Tenuta and Brown to field a reliable group in the fall.
The trio of Smiths (Brian, Toryan, and Scott) each have a viable niche – a role in which they'll be able to succeed in '09, with Brian Smith capable of much, much more. SLB/DE Darius Fleming appears on the verge (as either an advanced sophomore player or future star); early enrollee freshman Zeke Motta has already mixed it up with players at this level; sophomore Steve Filer has huge potential and a year in the program (as well as extensive field experience); fellow sophomores David Posluszny and Anthony McDonald have assimilated to the program; and freshman Manti Te'o is a likely first-year contributor.
Technicalities of the 4-3 defense aside, the Irish need, at minimum, four dependable (healthy) linebackers to make the defense work. Whether that number is derived from the talents of the nine (eleven)-man unit, or simply from four players that emerge as the team's unquestioned best is irrelevant. But the defensive staff is no longer trying to fit square pegs into round holes; is no longer void of depth; and most importantly, appears to have at least two, if not four/five playmakers in place heading into fall camp.
Later Today: Reasonable Assumptions by Irish Fans – Part II