Notre Dame, IN (UHND.com) – As Notre Dame kicks off spring practice later today, the Irish will be looking to answer plenty of questions which plagued them during last year’s disappointing season. Plenty of changes have been made to the makeup and dynamic of the coaching staff this off-season. Now the work of fixing the problems that turned a once promising season into a rather disappointing one for Notre Dame are about to begin. Here are a few of the questions which the staff will be looking for answers to starting today.
1. Will the Offensive Line Improve?
Notre Dame’s success, or lack thereof, in 2009 will depend on how much the Irish offensive line can improve from last year’s under-performing unit. In 2008 the offensive line could not consistently open up holes for Notre Dame’s running backs. Pass protection was greatly improved from 2007 when the Irish gave up 58 sacks. Last season that number fell to just 22, but run blocking was still a major issue. Notre Dame ran for just 109.7 yards/game and failed to top 100 yards as a team in seven games – five of which were losses – last year.
The lack of success from the line ended up costing John Latina his job so the responsibility of fixing the Irish offensive line will fall on the shoulders of Frank Verducci. Verducci spent the past two seasons coaching the offensive line for the Cleveland Browns, but became available once Romeo Crennel was fired by the Browns following the 2008 season. He will certainly have his hands full trying to fix the Notre Dame running game and won’t be able to do it all this spring, but the work Verducci gets done will be vital to whatever improvements the offensive line can make in 2009.
2. How Will Charlie Weis Handle Being the Offensive Coordinator and Head Coach
Charlie Weis named himself the offensive coordinator after Mike Haywood left Notre Dame for the head coaching position at Miami of Ohio. Considering the pressure that is on Weis to win this year, this was probably the smartest move since he doesn’t have time for the offense to experience any growing pains with a new offensive coordinator.
The problem facing Weis with his new responsibilities, however, will be managing his role as head coach with his duties as the offensive coordinator. Last season Weis made it a point of emphasis to remove himself from day to day coaching duties so that he could focus on his role as the head coach. This spring will be a complete 180 degree shift from that philosophy, and it will be a delicate balancing act for Weis to be an effective offensive coordinator while still managing his head coaching duties.
How will the players react to another change in head coaching philosophy from Weis? The answer to that question will have more of an impact on the success of Notre Dame in 2009 than some might think. Weis has made Corwin Brown the associate head coach and given Brown more overall managerial duties to help ease the transition and free him up so that he can devote his time to improving what was an inconsistent offense in 2008.
3. Can Notre Dame Improve its Red Zone Offense?
One of the biggest issues facing the Notre Dame offense in 2008 was a lack of production in the red zone. The Irish offense would put itself in a position to score points, but would find new ways of shooting itself in the foot each week. Notre Dame’s lack of a reliable rushing attack, turnovers, and poor special teams were the main culprits for the red zone woes which plagued Notre Dame all season long.
With Charlie Weis taking over the offensive coordinating duties, one of his biggest challenges outside of finding a reliable ground game with Verducci will be finding ways for the offense to capitalize on more of its scoring opportunities. With Mike Ragone coming back from an injury and the development Kyle Rudolph, Weis will have more weapons to work with in the red zone; but that will only be the start of improving the red zone offense.
4. How Will the Defense Adjust to Playing a 4-3?
After spending the past two seasons playing a hybrid 3-4 defense, Notre Dame will move back to a more traditional 4-3 defense this spring with Jon Tenuta taking over defensive play calling duties. Because Tenuta was an integral part of the defensive game plans and philosophy last year the transition should be somewhat smooth for the defense, but there will still be some adjusting to be done.
What will be the most difficult will be finding the right personnel for each position. Notre Dame’s best defensive recruiting haul during the Charlie Weis era came in 2008 and was recruited mainly for a 3-4 defense. Finding roles for some of those players within the defense this year will be a challenge for Tenuta and Brown this spring.
5. How Quickly with the Coaching Staff Mesh?
There are three new coaches on the staff this year in Verducci (OL), Tony Alford (RB), and Randy Hart (DL). How quickly these new coaches can mesh this spring will determine how much improvement can be made over the next month – specifically on the offensive side of the ball. Fixing the running game with a new offensive line coach, new running backs coach, and a new offensive coordinator will be a major challenge for the staff this spring.
On the defensive side of the ball, Hart will be responsible with finding a defensive tackle to start next to Ian Williams and a pair of defensive ends who can excel within Tenuta’s defense.
Jimmy Clausen is definitely the starting quarterback and no one thinks that there is a reasonable chance that Crist will unseat him this spring, but his ability to challenge Clausen in practice will be vital to the success of the offense. Having someone behind Clausen pushing him in practice will only make him better and keep from reaching a comfort zone.
Don’t expect Weis to publically say that the quarterback position is up for grabs, but hopefully Crist’s performance during the spring will let Clausen know that Crist is fully capable of being the starter if he slumps or is unable to move the Irish offense consistently.
7. Who Will Emerge Along the Defensive Line?
Randy Hart will have a difficult task identifying a pair of defensive ends and a defensive tackle to start next to Ian Williams this spring. With Notre Dame playing a more traditional 4-3 defense this season, Hart will have to work with Tenuta to figure out which outside linebackers from last year will remain at linebacker and which will play at defensive end.
One player to keep an eye on this spring is Morrice Richardson. He made some noise last spring, but was always undersized for a defensive end in 3-4 defense and wasn’t able to translate last spring into much playing time in the fall. The switch back to the 4-3 benefits Richardson, maybe more than any other defender.
Notre Dame’s defensive line has been inconsistent over the past few seasons and has been unable to generate a pass rush without the aid of the blitz. Hart and Tenuta will need to find a couple players ready to be regular contributors at both end spots who can get pressure on the quarterback without the help of blitzing linebackers.
8. Who Are the Leaders of this Team?
The last few years Notre Dame’s captains have almost been selected by default. The last few senior classes have been low on numbers so selecting captains was pretty easy. This year there aren’t as many obvious leaders on the team with the graduation of Maurice Crum, David Bruton, and David Grimes. This spring Notre Dame will need find out who the leaders for the 2009 Irish will be. Sam Young has expressed a desire to be a leader in the past which makes him the most obvious, but outside of him, it will be interesting to see who emerges as the leaders. Some of the true leaders appear to be in the talent junior class. Brian Smith was the emotional leader of the defense last year, and now that Jimmy Clausen will be entering his third year as the starting quarterback he has to be looked at as one of the leaders of this team as well. Brady Quinn was a captain as a junior in 2005, and I would expect Clausen to be one this year as well. Could Notre Dame have two juniors among the captains this year?
9. Is There a Fullback in the House?
The only fullback on the roster for the spring is converted linebacker Steve Paskorz. Paskorz has yet to see the field as a fullback for the Irish so it remains to be seen whether or not he is capable of taking over for Asaph Schwapp who will not be back in 2009. Paskorz played some running back in high school so the position should not be completely foreign to him, but with no one behind him, the margin for error is very low at this position.
With the emergence of Armando Allen as the starting running back in 2008 and the development of Jonas Gray, might Weis and Alford give Robert Hughes a look at fullback in an effort to get the most talented 11 players on the field on offense? Hughes is a big back and could certainly fill the role, but his blocking has been inconsistent over his first two seasons.
If Weis and Alford can’t find a fullback on the roster look for Notre Dame to run out of more double tight end sets. With the talent at tight end this fall that might not a bad option even if a fullback does emerge.
10. Will Brandon Walker Continue His Strong Kicking?
Brandon Walker had a very up and down 2008 season. Saying Walker was inconsistent at the beginning of the season would be putting it kindly. Walker came on strong at the end of the season, however, and was as close to a reliable option at kicker as Notre Dame’s had in a few years. Will he be able to continue that momentum this spring and put the lockdown on the starting place kicking duties or will he revert back to the form that forced Weis to hold competitions in practice multiple times throughout the season? The lack of a reliable kicker were a major component to the red zone woes in 2008. The inconsistencies from the kicking game altered play calling and forced Notre Dame to go for fourth downs when they were within field goal range. If Walker can provide a steady, reliable option for Weis in 2009, Notre Dame’s red zone offense should be much more effective.
These are a few of the questions Weis and his reworked staff will be looking to answer this spring. They won’t find all of the answers they are looking for with just 15 practices, but will hopefully be able to lay the groundwork for finding those answers by the start of the season over the next month.