The Irish are losing a lot of offensive linemen this year. Jeff Faine, Jordan Black, Sean Mahan and possibly Brennan Curtin are all focusing on NFL draft day. The Irish have only one returning starter in Sean Milligan. Dan Stevenson and Jim Molinaro both played quality minutes and started in the bowl game. Both performed well when inserted into the game so the Irish should be able to count on them. That takes care of one guard position and the two tackle slots. What about the other two positions?
Losing Jeff Faine will hurt. The center is responsible for all of the offensive line calls and Zach Giles has very little experience and Bob Morton has none. Both players will have to improve quickly. This position will be a priority this spring. The other guard position will also be important, as they don't have a clear starter at this point. It won't matter how much Holiday improves over the spring if he is not given time to get rid of the football.
Offensive line play will be very important and I expect the staff will spend a lot of time coaching and working on the proper techniques in both run blocking and pass blocking. The staff will be looking for a starter first but will also be looking for reserve players that can give them quality minutes. Offensive success in the fall will be directly affected by the play of the offensive line.
Another area I expect the staff to focus on is blocking by the backs. The running backs were not very efficient in picking up the blitz and making key blocks to give Holiday time to throw the football. With the loss of Lopienski and McNair, the Irish have zero experience returning at fullback. They also don't have a single player who has spent considerable time playing fullback. The Irish cannot be successful in this offense without the backs picking up the blitz or their assignments. Expect the staff to spend considerable time with this. I also expect the Irish to stress vision with the tailbacks. They need to look for cutback opportunities and finding space to run.
Quarterback is an area I expect them to focus on as well. Physical conditioning is important but I hope the Irish quarterbacks have been doing some mental preparation as well. Knowing the right reads and making quicker decisions will be the focus. Just giving the quarterbacks confidence that they will have time to make a play will help their development a great deal. Can Carlyle Holiday become a great quarterback in a version of the west coast offense? I think he can and will given time to throw the football.
The Irish staff will look for consistency in the tight end position. They have plenty of bodies but a clear tendency was apparent with the Notre Dame tight ends last year. When Gary Godsey or Billy Palmer was in the game, they were going to run. When Jared Clark was in the game, they were going to pass. Clark improving in his blocking assignments will certainly help. Will Godsey be back? He won't for spring and I am not sure he will be available in the fall at this point.
Trent Miles is fortunate to have Omar Jenkins back for another year. Jenkins is the classic team player and works very hard. His leadership and work ethic will set the standard for the Irish receiving corps. Jenkins does everything well including all the little things. Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight should take a big step forward this year in becoming playmakers. Ronnie Rodamer should add some experienced depth as the 4th receiver. The unit as a whole needs to improve on the little things and I am sure that will be the focus this year. They have the talent and have been in the system for a year so the mental part of the game is where improvement needs to be made.
Defensively, the Irish should be very strong. Hopefully the defense will play with the same passion as they did in 2002. The attitude and aggressiveness was the best in many years. The staff will try to find that same attitude again this year and should have plenty of leadership to continue on the success of last year.
The defensive line is stacked with talent and I can't remember the last time anyone could say that. Cedric Hilliard, Darrell Campbell and Kyle Budinscak all return as starters. Justin Tuck was essentially a starter last year. Greg Mattison will be looking for depth to keep his starters fresh. It appears Greg Pauly will be one player to add depth. They will need to find three other players to give quality minutes behind the starters.
Linebacker is going to be very thin for spring practice. Mike Goolsby and Corey Mays will not be available for spring practice due to injury. Courtney Watson probably won't play a great deal in the spring. They will want to keep him healthy. Brandon Hoyte will get a crash-course in pass coverage and probably learning multiple positions. Derek Curry will also get a lot of attention. The Irish will likely only have three scholarship players healthy at linebacker this year. Expect to see a freshman get some playing time next year.
The weak position on the defense is the secondary. Replacing Shane Walton and Gerome Sapp will not be easy. Glenn Earl and Vontez Duff should be star players for the Irish in the secondary in the fall. The other two positions will be wide open. Trent Walters will have to find two starters, a nickel back and a dime back. He will also have to prepare this unit to be picked on a great deal. The starting corner opposite Duff will have a lot of action come his way next year so confidence will be important. The Irish have plenty of candidates in Preston Jackson, Jason Beckstrom, Dwight Ellick and Mike Richardson. They also have some talented freshmen reporting in August. Trent Walters will have the most difficult job this year out of the defensive coaches.
Spring practice is a time for teaching. After watching this staff in fall practice, they are good teachers. I was very impressed with Trent Walters and his attention to detail so that gives me hope for the secondary. Offensive line play will be very critical to the success of the 2003 Irish football team. If the Irish can get solid offensive line play, the rest should fall in place for a great season.