Each Tuesday from today through the season's opening week, Irish Eyes will feature a set of predictions regarding the upcoming season.
Prediction #1: The Secondary Will Record the Third-Highest Team Interception Total of the last 20 Years
In 1988, the Irish defense intercepted 19 passes (Safeties George Streeter and Pat Terrell along with Defensive Lineman Jeff Alm tied for the team lead with 3 picks each) en route to the nation's No. 12-ranked scoring defense and a 12-0 National Championship season. Since that title season, two Notre Dame teams have surpassed that total: The '89 squad with 24 and the '02 squad with 21.
Due to a less-than-inspiring slate of opposing quarterbacks; consistent defensive pressure; and one of the nation's 10 best defensive backfields, the Irish defense will pick off at least 19 passes in 13 contests (including the bowl game) this season.
Prediction #2: DE/DT Ethan Johnson Will Lead the Defense in Tackles-For-Loss
Generally, the ND team leader has produced a number in the 10-13 range, with the low point (not unexpectedly) occurring in 2007 and 2008 when Joe Brockington and Harrison Smith paced their respective defenses with 8.5 TFLs apiece.
The individual team record for a season is likely untouchable (ever): Ross Browner with 28 in 1976. Regardless, look for sophomore Ethan Johnson to pace the squad this season with a final total somewhere in the 11-12 range (distancing himself from Darius Fleming and Brian Smith who both could produce 8-10 TFLs).
Prediction #3: The Irish Offense Will Approach 4.0 Yards-Per-Carry
The four-year Weis era has produced team rushing averages of 3.3; 2.1 (not a misprint); 3.9; and 3.6 yards-per-carry. Previous seasons weren't much better, with a 3.3 average in '04; an even 4.0 in '03 (despite the presence of Julius Jones); a surprisingly low 3.4 ypc average in '02; and 3.9 for the option offense of 2001.
Not since the 9-3 squad of 2000 (which finished at 4.4) has the Irish offense produced a respectable yards-per-carry average.
After 100 combined starts the Irish O-Line should approach respectability. Look for the Irish rushing attack to reach a high point in the Weis era with a robust 4.0 to (dare to dream) 4.1 ypc season average.
Prediction #4: LB Steve Filer Will Rank as the Team's Most Improved Player Between the Opening Kick-Off and the Bowl Game
Remember, the team's most improved player for the 2009 season (vs. 2008) is a different category. If you're looking for a player that might not meet your expectations in September, but still exceed them in November and especially after the season's final gun sounds, sophomore LB Steve Filer is a top candidate. It will be difficult for Filer to win an opening day starting job, which means his initial foray into live (non-special teams) action will be in a limited role…a situation that could stunt his learning curve. Filer's natural ability won't have a chance to take over until he becomes more comfortable with what is asked of him in various schemes and down-and-distance situations...a familiarity that should reach its (sophomore) peak after 12 games and the extra practices of bowl season.
I don't think he'll start in '09, but the Tenuta/Brown defense needs 10-12 front seven contributors to reach its potential.
Prediction #5: Raeshon McNeil Will See More Playing Time in the Nickel Defense than Sergio Brown
I'm an unabashed Sergio Brown fan. The energy, athleticism, and aggressive effort he brings to the field are a key aspect of the defense. And I think he'll lead the Irish in big plays per minute played. But the site of marginal tight ends and slot receivers running freely down the seams and into the (end zone) corners last season is one that's difficult to shake.
Brown won't lose his nickel DB role as much as he'll be forced to share it, because senior CB Raeshon McNeil can better take away the key third-and-8 conversion and be trusted more in solo coverage vs. the slot than can Brown – a player who excels attacking forward rather than in his backpedal.