From the Ashes

The junior class will begin to determine its Irish legacy in 2009.

The 18 football players in the graduating class of 2011 have something to prove. They walked onto campus and were immediately thrust into difficult circumstances – thrown to the wolves and forced to survive through the darkness of a 3-9 debacle as freshmen, most of which were not yet ready for the extended roles they inherited. Their sophomore campaign provided a ray of light, but that 2008 season was ultimately mired in mediocrity (three steps up from miserable does not announce a team's arrival).

As juniors there's finally a visible light at the end of the tunnel. The group consists of seven certain starters and five more players that should garner starter-level playing time. Another five provide depth on the team's two-deep chart while yet another is a key component of the team's nationally-ranked coverage units.

If all continue to develop, the recruiting class of 2007 and graduating class of 2011 will be remembered as 18 players that helped carry the Irish program back to the top of the college football world.

But that rosy projection belies the reality of the present: A 10-15 record with (an unexpected) seven more losses over the next two seasons matching the worst four-year mark for a class since 1963.

Of course, not all losses are created equal. The graduating class of 1986 is widely recognized as a group of seniors that helped Lou Holtz turn the program around, and they finished with (a now four-decade high) 22 total defeats. Nearly two decades later, the class of 2004 suffered an equal number of losses and never earned such a place in the hearts of Irish fans.

And consider the differences among the classes of 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2005, and 2006 which suffered 19 apiece. Irish greats Jarious Jackon and Anthony Weaver, leaders of the classes of '99 and '01 respectively, are remembered for individual excellence despite the futility of the era while the '00, '02, '05, and '06 groups were each part of perceived turnarounds in program history and have the benefit of producing fond memories among the Irish faithful.

The class of 2011 has chance to achieve much more than "Irish Moments." National recognition awaits along with the chance to produce the greatest turnaround in the history of the school (or at least since the class of '66 that straddled the Kuharich/DeVore/Parseghian eras and produced a National Championship).

Below is our first of three looks at this class, beginning with the players expected to shine in 2009:

Golden Tate (Wide Receiver)

Current Situation: Tate's the junior with the least to prove and he's cemented his spot in the Irish lineup and was arguably the team's MVP last season. He ranks among the most exciting receivers (with the ball in the air) to play the position at the University. Tate rivals both Tim Brown and Derrick Mayes in terms of the ability to catch the ball in traffic and at its highest point.

Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Tate has been both indifferent and ineffective as a downfield and in-line blocker.

Eligibility: Through next season.

Expectations for Tate in '09: Pair with sophomore wide receiver Michael Floyd to form the best wide-out tandem in the country.

Harrison Smith (Free Safety)

Current Situation: Smith led the Irish in tackles for loss as a strong side linebacker (playing out of position) last season. He's a top tier athlete and most fans, media (and coaches) have assumed he'll make a seamless transition back to free safety. It's safe to say that, other than Golden Tate, Smith is the junior class member in which fans are most confident entering '09.

Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: This is a bit more speculative as Smith will see his first action as a college-level free safety this fall, but the false steps afforded to a strong side linebacker covering lumbering tight ends will often result in touchdowns when committed at free safety.

Eligibility: Through the 2011 season. Smith was held out of game action as a freshman during in 2007.

Expectations for Smith in '09: To make a seamless transition back to his natural safety position and match the high level of play from departed NFL Draft Pick David Bruton over the last two seasons.

Jimmy Clausen (Quarterback)

Current Situation: He's the team's unquestioned signal-caller for the next two seasons and must prove to be the unquestioned team leader by September 5 (if not early August). Clausen took two steps forward early last season but followed that progress with three steps back by the time Thanksgiving leftovers had been consumed. He then took a giant step forward on Christmas Eve (Holiday theme unintended) and enters 2009 as a confident junior passer looking to emerge as one of the top 10 (or 5) quarterbacks in college football.

Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: A quarterback is easily (and often) deconstructed, but casual fans can agree that reducing the number of (costly) interceptions ranks as the key to Clausen's season.

Eligibility: Through next season.

Expectations for Clausen in '09: Lead the Irish to a BCS Game victory.

Armando Allen (Running Back)

Current Situation: Allen became the team's (version of a) feature back in 2008 and cemented that status with a strong spring practice. Failing any other aspect of his game you can expect Allen to be heavily involved in the Irish passing game (with a probable third-place finish in total receptions) and he should be in the vicinity of, if not lead the Irish in rushing attempts again this season.

Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Making the second defender miss. Allen has been the quickest Irish back to and through the hole over the last few seasons but he has just one career run in excess of 19 yards (vs. Purdue last season). His purported blazing speed can't be utilized if he's consistently tripped up at the second level. The same criticism holds true in the screen game.

Eligibility: Through next season.

Expectations for Allen in '09: Become the explosive backfield element the Irish offense has lacked since the graduation of Julius Jones after the 2003 season. Allen need not lead the team in yards, attempts, or touchdowns this season. But if he can up his yards-per-carry and yards-per-reception averages, and still lead the team in total touches from scrimmage, you'll likely see a more explosive (and consistent) Irish offense in '09.

Brian Smith (Linebacker)

Current Situation: Smith has moved to weak side linebacker (at least entering fall camp) after manning the middle as a sophomore last season. His natural playmaking skills are expected to be featured now that Smith is once again able to play in space, away from the traffic of the MLB role.

Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Engaging and shedding blocks rather than running around them. Call it a refusal to be blocked if you must, but a linebacker's ability to get off the initial block is perhaps the most crucial aspect of his game.

Eligibility: Through next season.

Expectations for Smith in '09: Continue to produce big plays and cement his role as the defense/team's leader through his consistent play on the field. Smith is already an emotional voice for the Irish and it appears that his teammates would run through a wall for him. But he's been an up-and-down football player over the last two seasons (with several great and a few head-scratching moments intermixed) on an improved but inconsistent defense – one that surrenders far too many tough yards vs. physical running attacks. Smith needs to at least scratch the surface of All-American contention for the Irish defense to fulfill its potential this season.

Robert Hughes (Running Back)

Current Situation: Part II of the tailback tandem with classmate Armando Allen. Hughes did not meet expectations in his sophomore season though he looked like a new man in the first-half destruction of Hawaii on Christmas Eve, deftly handling screen passes and running through arm tackles. Ideally, Hughes will develop into a runner that becomes stronger as the game progresses and can be counted upon to keep the chains moving in short-yardage situations.

Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Hitting the hole with authority.

Eligibility: Through next season.

Expectations for Hughes in '09: Finally become the thunder to (finally) Allen's lightning. It's easy to say (after the fact) that Hughes was over-hyped entering 2008, but in reality he just didn't improve from the end of his freshman season (as was reasonably expected). Hughes appears lower on most fans' radar than does Allen but I believe the junior from Chicago is the key to the Irish offense this season.

Overview

The six players listed above should have breakout seasons (it would be Tate's second) for the Irish. Each has shown the ability to succeed at a high level but only Tate (and to a lesser extent, Harrison Smith) has brought that level of execution on a consistent basis.

Our next segment will highlight six players that must take a major step forward for the Irish to return to the BCS in '09.


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