Non-Conference Preview -- Part 5

This is the last in a five part preseason tour of the non-conference opponents. I'll continue with a look at tarnished Notre Dame. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.

 

NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH PREVIEW 

How the mighty have fallen.  A 9-2 2001 season with an overachieving team provided Notre Dame fans with the illusion of a return to national prominence when the undeserving Irish were gift-wrapped a BCS Fiesta Bowl bid.  But a 41-9 dismantling at the hands of upstart Oregon State proved that the 9-2 record was not indicative that the echoes had awaken.  Former Head Coach Bob Davie could not sustain the success of a team built upon defense, special teams, powerful running, and mistake-free quarterbacking.  The 2001 season was a disaster as Notre Dame stumbled to a 5-6 record.  Notre Dame jettisoned Davie after extending his contract at the end of the 2000 season. 

The coaching search was more reminiscent of Rutgers than the Golden Dome as top candidates repeatedly declined the Notre Dame job.  Digressing from the sexy candidates, Notre Dame hired former Georgia Tech Head Coach George O'Leary.  But O'Leary resigned less than a week later after reports surfaced that his resume was part fact, part fiction.  Notre Dame-haters reveled in the humiliation of the program that plays with a stacked deck.  More coaching rejections followed before Notre Dame hired an obvious choice – former Stanford Head Coach Tyrone Willingham.  Willingham is still cleaning up the mess – rape allegations, academic ineligibility, and transfers.  Here's a look at the tarnished Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.   

 

OFFENSE

Once known for high-powered offenses loaded with blue-chip players, the Irish exhibited one of the most anemic offenses in the country – a travesty of mismanagement given Notre Dame's inherent recruiting advantages including their own television network and their own national recruiting analyst.  Willingham has scrapped the multiple offense (i.e., wishbone to 3WR sets) that former Offensive Coordinator Kevin Rogers employed and has installed the west coast offense.  Unfortunately, Willingham doesn't yet have the talent at QB or WR to run this system.  Notre Dame lost 5 starters from a unit that likely will be a bigger mess this season: 

  • 20 points per game (#99 of 115 in Division 1A)
  • 290 yards per game (#110 in Division 1A)
  • 188 rushing yards per game (#30 in Division 1A)
  • 102 passing yards per game (#114 in Division 1A)

Notre Dame lost only one starter off an OLine that pulled its weight last season – RT Kurt Vollers.  The Irish return 3-year starter RS Jr C Jeff Faines, 4-year starter RS Sr LT/RG Jordan Black, RS Sr LG Sean Mahan, co-starter RS Jr RG Sean Milligan, and co-starter RS Jr LT Brennan Curtin.  Milligan will likely start at RG and Black will likely return to LT, thus allowing Willingham to switch Curtin to RT.  The backups include RS Sr OG Ryan Scarola, RS Jr OG Ryan Gillis, RS Fr C Zach Giles, RS Fr OT Mark LeVoir, and RS Fr OT Dan Stevenson.  The OLine again will be the strength of the offense but the backups are mostly young and inexperienced. 

Unexpected attrition has decimated a once-promising backfield.  Backup TBs Tony Fisher (78 carries for 384 yards and 4 TDs) and Terrence Howard (48 carries for 160 yards and 3 TDs) departed.  Then, backup TB/FB RS Fr Corey Jones transferred to Washington after spring camp.  The coup de grace occurred when leading rusher and starter Sr TB Julius Jones (168 carries for 718 yards and 6 TDs plus 9 receptions for 57 yards) was dismissed from Notre Dame after the spring semester because of academics.  TB So Ryan Grant (29 carries for 110 yards and one TD) likely will replace Jones, by default.  True Fr TBs Jeff Jenkins and Nate Shiccatano will likely backup Grant.  Starting FB RS Sr Tom Lopienski (10 carries for 63 yards) and backup FB RS Sr Mike McNair (5 carries for 15 yards) return but both are primarily blockers.  A deep backfield a year ago is now anorexic and compounds the woes of an impotent passing game. 

Unexpected attrition also hurt the QB position as So QB Matt LoVecchio (34 of 69 for 287 yards, one TD, and 4 INTs), perhaps the returning QB most suited to run the west coast offense, transferred to Indiana after spring camp.  Starting QB RS So Carlyle Holiday (73 of 144 for 784 yards, 3 TDs, and 7 INTs plus 156 carries for 666 yards and 2 TDs) returns but is an option QB.  True Fr QB Chris Olsen from New Jersey will likely backup Holiday and is the heir apparent at QB.  Don't be surprised to see a true Fr at QB for the second time in three years. 

Notre Dame lost its starting receivers, who accounted for 70% of the production of a terrible passing offense.  Starters WR Javin Hunter (37 receptions for 387 yards and one TD), WR David Givens (33 receptions for 317 yards), and TE John Owens (6 receptions for 79 yards and one TD) departed.  Jr WR Omar Jenkins (7 receptions for 111 yards and one TD), RS Sr WR Arnaz Battle (5 receptions for 40 yards), RS Jr TE Gary Godsey (2 receptions for 50 yards) will likely replace the departed starters.  True Fr WRs Rhema McKnight and Maurice Stovall will likely backup Jenkins and Battle and could crack the starting lineup.  Converted QB RS So Jared Clark will likely backup Godsey at TE.  However, as at QB, don't be surprised to see true freshmen starting.  No returning receiver averaged even one catch per game.  Furthermore, three of the top returning backups – Battle, Godsey, and Clark – are converted QBs.  Given the Irish's problems at QB, the problems are receiver are doubly damning of Notre Dame's past recruiting.   

 

DEFENSE

Under Davie, Notre Dame played on offset 4-3 defense with a NT over the opposing C, two ILBs, and an OLB over the opposing TE.  Willingham apparently hasn't altered the scheme.  Notre Dame lost only 4 starters from a squad that kept the Irish in games but simply didn't get any help from the offense:

  • 20 points per game (#22 in Division 1A)
  • 305 yards per game (#14 in Division 1A)
  • 132 rushing yards per game (#39 in Division 1A)
  • 173 passing yards per game (#10 in Division 1A)

Despite the unexpected loss of two contributors from the two-deep, the Irish secondary is still deep and experienced.  Starting FS RS Sr Donald Dykes (48 tackles and one sack) and backup SS RS So Abram Elam (28 tackles and 2 INTs) were dismissed from school amid rape accusations.  Backup CB Clifford Jefferson (23 tackles and 2 INTs) also departed.  Starting CBs RS Sr Shane Walton (43 tackles, one sack, and 2 INTs) and Jr Vontez Duff (25 tackles and 3 INTs) plus starting SS Sr Gerome Sapp (36 tackles) return.  Former backup FS RS Jr Glenn Earl (33 tackles and 2 sacks) should replace Dykes.  Sr CB Jason Beckstrom (13 tackles and one INT), RS So CB Preston Jackson (3 tackles), RS So SS Garron Bible (4 tackles), and RS Fr Lionel Bolen will be the likely backups.

Notre Dame lost half of 6-man DLine rotation but the changing of the guard started late last season.  RS Sr DE Ryan Roberts (20 tackles and 3 sacks) displaced former starting and now departed DE Grant Irons (22 tackles and 2 sacks).  The loss of All-American DE Anthony Weaver (59 tackles and 7 sacks) from a thin unit will be especially devastating.  Backup DT Andy Wisne (16 tackles) also departed.  Starting DTs RS Jr Cedric Hilliard (27 tackles and 2 sacks) and RS Jr Darrell Campbell (25 tackles and 2 sacks) return.  Former backup DT RS So Kyle Budinscak (13 tackles) will be switched to DE where he will start opposite Roberts.  RS So DE Jason Sapp, RS So DT Greg Pauly, RS Fr DT Jeff Thompson, and RS Fr DE Brian Beidatsch will likely be the backups.  The starters are experienced but the backups are young and totally unproven. 

Notre Dame lost two of its three starting LBs, including leading tackler ILB Tyreo Harrison (97 tackles and 2 sacks).  Starting OLB Rocky Boiman (42 tackles and 4 sacks) also departed.  Second-leading tackler RS Jr ILB Courtney Watson (76 tackles, 2 sacks, and one INT) returns to anchor the LB corps.  Either RS Sr ILB Carlos Pierre-Antoine (6 tackles) or Jr ILB Mike Goolsby (4 tackles) will replace Harrison.  RS So OLB Derek Curry (2 tackles) likely will replace Boiman.  RS Fr LBs Brandon Hoyte from New Jersey and Corey Mays will be the other likely backups, although either could break the starting lineup.  As with the DLine, Notre Dame suffered heavy losses to a thin LB unit and returns a two-deep that sorely lacks experience.   

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Irish were poised to field another strong special teams unit but the unexpected departure of Sr TB/PR/KOR Julius Jones (11 yards per PR and 23 yards per KOR) was a triple whammy for Notre Dame.  Fortunately, Jr CB Vontez Duff (9 yards per PR and 30 yards per KOR) provides an experienced replacement for Jones.  Two-time Ray Guy Award finalist Sr P Joey Hildbold (42 yards per punt) and three-year starter RS Jr PK Nicholas Setta (15 of 17 FGAs and 23 of 23 XPAs) return.  Even with the unplanned loss of Jones, the Notre Dame special teams should help a weak offense and complement a strong defense.   

 

SCHEDULE

Notre Dame has a full 12 game schedule with 6 home games.  Two other games (Maryland and Navy) will be played on neutral fields that may tilt towards the Golden Domers.  Rutgers is one of three Big East teams that Notre Dame hosts.  The others are Pittsburgh and Boston College in games that will have crucial implications for the Big East bowl bids because a bowl-eligible Notre Dame will take a bowl bid otherwise designated for the Big East.  National publications are divided in their predictions for Notre Dame's bowl eligibility prospects.  Personally, I don't think it will be close.  I predict that the Fighting Irish will finish 3-9 and won't impact the Big East bowl lineup this year.  But that won't be the case in future years as Willingham is simply too good a coach to allow Notre Dame to stay down.  Notre Dame's rushing offense will overwhelm the Rutgers defense and the Irish defense, though thin, is still far superior to the Rutgers offense.  Notre Dame will control the ball and beat Rutgers comfortably.  

 

August 31

Maryland (East Rutherford, NJ)

September 7

Purdue

September 14

Michigan

September 21

@ Michigan State

October 5

Stanford

October 12

Pittsburgh

October 19

@ Air Force

October 26

@ Florida State

November 2

Boston College

November 9

@ Navy (Baltimore, MD)

November 23

Rutgers

November 30

@ Southern California

 

Coming Next:  "Villanova Scouting Report – Special Teams."  I reviewed the tape of the 2000 Rutgers-Villanova matchup.  I'll break down the Wildcat special teams. 

Please send any comments to bump86@earthlink.net.  I welcome and appreciate your feedback.


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