Hyams on Game

It was Dec. 28 of last year. David Cutcliffe hadn't been officially hired at Notre Dame, but it was just a matter of time.

Cutcliffe was watching his future team play Oregon State in the Insight Bowl in Phoenix, Ariz.

``I didn't see a lot of speed or a lot of play makers,'' Cutcliffe said.

Notre Dame lost to Oregon State 38-21. The Fighting Irish had 276 total yards. Earlier in the season, they lost 41-10 to Southern Cal. They had only 216 yards in a victory at Tennessee.

They appeared to lack weapons.

That's what Cutcliffe thought, until he got to campus. Watching film, he realized the Irish did a nice job last season of hiding their talent.

Cutcliffe was impressed with quarterback Brady Quinn, running back Darius Walker, 6-5 receivers Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija, and tight end Anthon Fasano. And he liked an offensive line that returned all five regulars and had 99 starts under its belt. He saw potential.

That potential has been turned into production by Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, who helped the New England Patriots win three Super Bowls. Weis, a Notre Dame alum who never played college football, installed a system that has taken advantage of his players' skills.

Quinn has gone from a decent quarterback to a Heisman Trophy candidate. Stovall and Samardzija combined to catch 38 passes for one touchdown last season. They've combined for 84 catches and 16 touchdowns thus far this season. Fasano had 27 catches last season; he's got 32 this season.

While Cutcliffe's tenure on the Notre Dame staff lasted only a couple of months before his heart surgery forced him to eventually resign, the former UT offensive coordinator had an impact on the Irish. Cutcliffe talked to Weis about an offensive plan with the wider college hash marks. The NFL hash marks are close together.

``There is no wide field and no short field in the pro game,'' Cutcliffe said. ``That's why some people don't adjust (from the NFL to college).''

Cutcliffe spent days talking with Weis about hash marks and receiver splits.

``Charlie's really smart and he understood it would be different,'' Cutcliffe said. ``He had to adjust all the things formation wise he'd done with the Patriots to fit the college game field. The formations affect route running, so splits are really critical.''

Weis has adapted quite well, thank you.

Notre Dame is averaging 37.9 points and 492.7 yards per game compared to UT's averages of 16.1 points and 315 yards per game.

Weis has not only adapted to the hash marks, his players have adapted to wide-ranging game plans. One week, the Irish might line up in a three tight-end set and run right at you. The next week, they might spread the field with five wide receivers.

``That's probably the biggest, drastic change of any team I've seen since I've been here,'' said UT defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell.

``We'll see a number of different things. We've got to have our kids prepared to adjust to anything they put on the field. You don't know exactly what to work on.''

Notre Dame has to have smart players to run that many different formations. UT has to be equally smart on defense to counter.

``We've got to do a good job as coaches trying to see personnel groupings,'' Caldwell said. ``(Defensive coordinator) John Chavis does a great job with game plan calling according to personnel. We'll be OK.''

Larry Slade, UT's secondary coach, said he talked with a friend who was on the Notre Dame staff last year who said Quinn and his receivers are simply ``really hot.''

Said Slade: ``Quinn is doing a great job making throws, and he makes them anywhere on the field. He does a great job reading. . This offense fits him better and he's playing with a lot of confidence.''

While UT's defense has been outstanding this season, it will be hard for the Vols to hold Notre Dame to fewer than 24 points. The Irish scored 31 against Southern Cal and have averaged 41.2 points over the last five games.

That means Tennessee will have to do something it's done in just one half this season - score some points. The Vols scored 30 points in the second half and overtime against LSU. They've failed to score in a half in five games. Notre Dame has scored 103 points in the second quarter. UT's offense has scored 93 points all season.

Tennessee is banking on quarterback Erik Ainge making some plays in the passing game. That means UT's receivers have to make some plays, a lot of plays - something they haven't done all season.

Receivers coach Pat Washington knows his unit hasn't played up to par, in part because of injuries to Robert Meachem and C.J. Fayton.

``We're not 100 percent, but we're not complaining,'' Washington said.

Asked to rate his receivers on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being the highest, Washington said: ``We're probably medium range, five or six. We've done some good things, but there are some things we haven't capitalized on like I thought we would.''

Washington said he's not sure if the receivers are overrated.

``We had experience coming back,'' he said. ``To me that was the key to being successful. I can't pinpoint one particular thing that's happened. It just hasn't gone right.''

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