The Irish Defense Will Pressure the QuarterbackQuestions still remain regarding the defense's ability to line up and stop the run (we'll get to that later), but this Irish front seven will likely apply consistent (effective) pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Acknowledging that the level of this success will be determined by the first down run defense, it's nonetheless reasonable to predict the Brown/Tenuta attack will post one of the top 5 sack totals (or at least extensive pressure) of the last 15 years. (Both the '05 and '06 team finished in the low 30s in total sacks while the team record is 41, set in 1996. The statistic has only been tracked since the early 80s).
The unit has three players possessing impressive pass rushing potential( DE/DT Ethan Johnson, SLB/rusher Darius Fleming, and DE Kerry Neal) while three others, WLB Brian Smith, nickel LB/SS Sergio Brown, and FS Harrison Smith excel in space and should shine in the team's blitzing scheme. Wildcards who appear to have the necessary athleticism to succeed at applying more pressure include sophomore Kapron Lewis-Moore, sophomore Steve Filer, freshman LB Manti Te'o, and early enrollee (freshman) Zeke Motta.
We'll delve deeper into the team's predicted sack totals at a later date, but given the defense's philosophy and increased athleticism, it'd be a major surprise if the Irish don't harass opposing quarterbacks in the fall.
Notre Dame's Tight End Production Will Double from 2008As a true freshman last year, Kyle Rudolph contributed 29 receptions for 340 yards and two touchdowns. He scored his final touchdown of his rookie year in Week Five vs. Stanford, and outside of a few plays vs. Syracuse (including one that was called back for holding), Rudolph clearly wore down as the season progressed. He had little to no relief at the position after junior TE Will Yeatman's suspension (Yeatman had just two receptions for six yards, but provided much more reliable blocking than did the freshman Rudolph), and only a 25-day break between the conclusion of the regular season and the Hawaii Bowl provided any respite for the teenage tight end. (Not unexpectedly, Rudolph played well vs. Hawaii , setting up two touchdowns with four receptions and 78 yards in the first half.)
With Rudolph a year stronger and now well-versed in the college game, and the addition of massive but raw sophomore TE Joseph Fauria as well as returning redshirt junior TE Mike Ragone, Notre Dame's tight end production could reach its high point of the Weis era. The standard was set in 2005, when Anthony Fasano and John Carlson combined for 54-682-3 while providing the most consistent blocking at the point of attack – mainly due to Fasano – of the Weis regime. As a senior in 2006, Carlson shined on his own, totaling 47 receptions for 634 yards and four scores, but the Irish running game was not as effective without Fasano securing an edge.
The Notre Dame Kick Coverage Will Continue to ShineThe nation's No. 1 kick coverage unit returns all but two of its key components (David Bruton and Steve Quinn), and while both were hugely valuable to the cause, the '08 roster has ample replacements (and pieces in place) to ensure there is little drop-off in '09.
It starts, of course, with all-time gunner extraordinaire Mike Anello (who will never again have his name preceded by the phrase "former walk-on" in this space…get over it, he's a football player). Anello is on the short list of weekly impact gunners in recent (college football) history. Replacing Bruton on the other side is a difficult task (Bruton was actually underrated as a gunner due to Anello's well-deserved accolades and there aren't many players in college football – outside of Anello – who can move as fast yet come under control to make the tackle, as did Bruton in '07 and ‘08). The role will likely go to punt-blocking demon Sergio Brown, who appears to possess the necessary traits to succeed as a college gunner. If Brown struggles on the outside, he'll nonetheless remain a valuable member of the coverage unit in another capacity.
Steve Filer, Harrison Smith, Scott Smith, Kyle McCarthy, and Raeshon McNeil return as headliners of the coverage units as do reserve DBs Leonard Gordon and Ray Herring. Junior FB Steve Paskorz, sophomore Jamoris Slaughter and freshmen Manti Te'o, Carlos Calabrese, and Zeke Motta appear to be natural candidates to join one or both of the coverage brigades. Senior CB Darrin Walls represents more "new" blood.
Whether the kick coverage group can repeat its number one ranking is probably irrelevant, as both coverage units represent near-certain strengths for the '09 Irish.
The Notre Dame Passing Tree Will (Re)Open its BranchesIn the early 80s, the running joke that attempted to sum up head coach Gerry Faust's offense read: "Pinkett; Pinkett; Pass; Punt."
The Weis offense of 2007, while not quite as pleasing from an alliteration standpoint, but easily summarized nonetheless, was something along the lines of "No Gain; Sack; Fade/Quick Look for a Yard; Punt."
And the Jekyll/Hyde attack of 2008 included, for most Irish fans, too heavy a reliance on pass attempts outside the hash marks. In short, we longed for the days of Brady Quinn slicing up the soft underbelly (and deep middle) of opposing defenses.
It's reasonable to assume you'll see an attack similar to that of the '05 and '06 seasons again in '09. With two months to explore the passing game, we'll focus on three quick reasonable assumptions for improvement:
- Less of a Fear that His QB Will Be Ritually Sacrificed by the Pass Rush: I've always assumed that Weis' over-reliance on the periphery last season was to protect Clausen from the pass rush (and possibly from his own faulty progressions). As a junior QB with an experienced offensive line that should be able to protect him, we're likely to see Weis reinstitute a passing attack that attacks every inch of the field.
- Communication, Hot Reads and Quicker Progressions: Golden Tate is in his third year (call it 2.5 if you'd like); Floyd and Rudolph both in their second; Kamara, Hughes, and Allen also in their third. That collective familiarity with the system, coupled with Clausen's expected development should allow for much quicker progressions (from the quarterback) in the pocket and much more natural adjustments and communication between Clausen and his receivers.
- It's easier to attack the whole field when the offense isn't consistently facing 3rd and 7: This part should be self-explanatory.