As the college football season is upon us, Notre Dame still has plenty of questions to answer on both sides of the ball before next weekend’s season opener against San Diego State. Here’s a look at five burning questions which could decide the fate of the 2008 offense.
1. What will the Irish run/pass ration be this year and how much control will Mike Haywood really have?
Charlie Weis has developed the reputation for being a pass first play caller even though Notre Dame has actually run the ball more than they’ve passed the ball two out of three years with him in control of the play calling (2005 and 2007). When Weis gave play calling duties over to Michael Haywood this off-season, most felt it meant the Irish would become a run first team considering the depth the Irish have at tailback and Haywood’s experience as a running backs coach. Given Notre Dame’s problems moving the ball in the air last year though, how much will opposing defenses allow the Irish to run the ball early on in the season is a big question.
If you are an opposing defensive coordinator looking at Notre Dame this year and you see the potential for a strong interior OL and a couple of very promising running backs, you are likely to stack the line of scrimmage and force Notre Dame pass – especially since Weis has said multiple times the Irish want to “pound” the ball this year.
For that reason I think we’ll see Notre Dame pass the ball a little more than they’d like to early on till they prove they can move the ball in the air. Once that happens , though, I think we’ll see Notre Dame try and develop a more smash mouth style mentality. A run/pass ratio of 55/45 seems pretty reasonable for Notre Dame this year with a closer to 50/50 ratio very early on.
As for the control Haywood will have on the play calling, I would imagine that Weis will still have a lot of input on the type of play called. If Weis wants to run, I think they’ll run. If he wants to pass, I think they’ll pass. I don’t think we’ll see Weis dialing in individual plays though unless it’s a huge play – something like a 4th and 7 with less than two minutes to go in a tie game.
2. Can the offensive line keep Jimmy Clausen on his feet this year?
This is the million dollar question when it comes to the Notre Dame offense this year. Notre Dame quarterbacks were sacked 58 times and there wasn’t a whole lot of daylight for Irish running backs either. In order for the offense to see any substantial improvement this year, that will have to change in a hurry.
Early reports out of camp are that the interior offensive line is looking much better than a year ago. Chris Stewart and Eric Olsen at the guard spots bookending Dan Wenger appears to be a trio the Irish will be able to run behind, but what about the guys on the outside at the tackle positions? Will they be able to handle the pass rush and keep Clausen on his feet?
Michael Turkovich has won the starting LT position running away over incumbent starter Paul Duncan this week and Sam Young will return for a third season as the starting RT, but so far neither are proven commodities at the position. Turkovich spent most of last season as the starting LG and Young struggled as a sophomore while playing through some injuries. Young has also had to deal with flipping back and forth between left and right tackle.
Can a converted guard and a guy who’s been flip-flopped back and forth between LT and RT give the Irish some stability on the exterior offensive line this year? That remains to be seen. If they can’t, young linemen Matt Romine and Taylor Dever will be waiting in the wings.
3. Speaking of Clausen, just how improved will he be in his sophomore year?
Jimmy Clausen reported to Notre Dame with very unreasonable expectations as the #1 high school quarterback recruit in a number of years so nothing short of a 20+ touchdown type performance would have been labeled as a bust by skeptics. While playing with an arm that was at less than 100% for most of the season, Clausen played pretty well. Whenever a true freshman throws more touchdowns than interceptions as Clausen did, it’s hard to call their performance a disappointment.
For all of the good Clausen produced though, there was also some bad. At times he held onto the ball entirely too long and took sacks that weren’t necessary. He also ran the ball out of bounds for losses on a number of occasions when he should have simply threw the ball away. It was also clear that Clausen’s arm was not at 100% for much of the year as he struggled with the deep ball.
What Clausen did show was a very accurate arm with the ability to thread the ball into tight spots. His touchdown pass to David Grimes which was perfectly placed between two Duke defenders was a prime example of the type of throws Clausen is capable of. Sure it was against the Dukies who were even worse than the Irish last year, but it was still a very impressive throw. Go back and watch his touchdown pass to Grimes against Air Force too and tell me that it could have been thrown better. I’ll save you the trouble – it couldn’t have.
It is entirely reasonable to expect Clausen to increase his touchdown total of 7 substantially this year while also improving on his touchdown to interception ratio this season. It is also very reasonable to expect Clausen to start getting the ball out quicker and taking fewer sacks that should be easily avoided.
4. How will the carries be split amongst the three headed monster at running back?
Notre Dame will have three talented running backs vying for carries in 2008 with James Aldridge, Robert Hughes, and Armando Allen competing for playing time in the backfield, but for as much as Charlie Weis says he will be using all his backs, conventional wisdom suggests he will look to feature a back – even if that feature back changes week to week.
Each of the Notre Dame running backs brings some unique skills to the table so I would look for Notre Dame to feature a running back each week based on the strength of the opposing defense. At the end of the day though, look for Hughes to get the bulk of the carries this year.
Weis has never been on to really equally divide carries and I don’t expect to see him start doing so now. Whoever he and Haywood decide on being the main back will probably get 60% or so of the carries this year with the other two splitting the remaining 40%.
5. Who steps up at tight end after the loss of Mike Ragone?
Even before Mike Ragone was lost for the season with a partial tear of his ACL, the tight end position was a bit of a question mark for the Irish. The last two starting tight ends for Notre Dame ended up being second round draft picks and Notre Dame was going to enter the season with a true sophomore as the starting tight end in Ragone. When he was lost to an injury last week, the tight end position became even more of a question mark.
True freshman Kyle Rudolph is currently listed as the starting tight end on the depth chart released by Weis on Monday with junior Will Yeatman backing him up. Yeatman is the more accomplished blocker at this point after being in the system for a full two years, but he also missed the entire spring after being suspended. Rudolph on the other hand offers the better down field passing threat of the two. Luke Schmidt will be playing a h-back role this year and figures to be in the mix as well.
Can Rudolph or Yeatman fill the void left by Carlson well enough to make the tight end position a dangerous weapon in the passing game again this year? Last year Carlson’s effectiveness was limited by staying in to block on some passing downs due to the ineffectiveness of the offensive line. The follow up question here is whether or not the offensive line will be improved enough to allow the tight ends more freedom in the passing game, but then again what question regarding the Irish offense in 2008 doesn’t revolve around the improvement of the offensive line?