Here’s a look at five questions facing the Irish offense in 2009 that will determine how successful the unit will be in 2009.
1. How Improved Will the OL Be?
Hands down, the biggest question facing Notre Dame as a team in 2009 is how improved the offensive line will be under new OL coach Frank Verducci. To say the Irish offensive line has struggled the past few seasons would be a gross understatement. Notre Dame set a NCAA record for sacks allowed in 2007 and despite improvements in pass protection in 2008, the Irish line was still not able to consistently create running room for the backs. The line also wasn’t able to win the battle in the trenches in the fourth quarters of games that slipped away from the Irish.
With virtually the same cast of characters from the past two seasons along the line this year, just how improved the unit can be under Verducci’s tutelage remains to be seen. Despite featuring all familiar faces though, there are some reasons for optimism along the offensive line in 2009.
Notre Dame shuffled the starters around a bit and will feature a three deep made up entirely of scholarship linemen for the first time under Weis. Eric Olsen has moved over to the starting center position, with sophomore Trevor Robinson taking over the right guard spot. Fifth year senior Paul Duncan returns after being injured for the entire 2008 season and has taken over the left tackle spot he controlled for most of 2007.
If the Irish offensive line is truly going to improve in 2009 though it will be largely due to Verducci and the increased depth the Irish possess. Former starting center Dan Wenger and juniors Andrew Nuss and Matt Romine are making serious pushes for playing time. For the first time in years, the starting linemen for the Irish will feel some pressure from the reserves; and, as Wenger found out as camp began, the starters are anything but set in stone.
Notre Dame has the kind of elite talent at the skill positions that could make the Irish offense one of the most explosive in the country in 2009 if the offensive line can make some big strides and allow Jimmy Clausen the time he needs to get the ball downfield to one of the many weapons he has at his disposal. Notre Dame also has a stable of backs capable of closing out games if they have room to run – room that hasn’t been there the past two seasons.
The answer to this question will answer a host of other questions for Notre Dame in 2009 as well. Will Notre Dame be able to convert short yardage situations more frequently? Can Notre Dame close out games by controlling the clock? Will the Irish be able to move the ball in inclement weather conditions when passing the ball is difficult? All of these questions and many more will be determined by how improved the offensive line is this season.
2. Can ND Run a Legit Four Wide Receiver Sets?
Notre Dame hasn’t had the depth at wide receiver to run true four wide receiver sets in past seasons. Even if they had, the offensive line forced Notre Dame to keep extra blockers in the backfield to keep Clausen upright. With the talent Notre Dame has at receiver this year though, the Irish could really spread out opposing defenses with multiple wide receiver packages. The question here is whether or not Notre Dame will be able to do.
Can the offensive line give Clausen enough time in the pocket to find an open receiver if the Irish send out four or even five wide receivers? Given the different skill sets of each of the Irish receivers, Weis could create some very favorable matchups with some four wide receiver sets in 2009.
3. How Will the Fullback Be Used?
In 2005 Rashon Powers-Neal was a legit threat to run the football from the fullback position. In four games, Powers-Neal ran the ball 31 times for 100 yards and reached the end zone 6 times. He also caught 9 passes for 90 yards in those four games.
The past two seasons, starting fullback Asaph Schwapp ran the ball a total of 13 times for 16 yards and failed to reach the end zone even one time. Schwapp was a non-factor in both the running and passing game. As a result, opposing defenses didn’t have to pay any attention to him.
To make the fullback position a weapon in this offense once again, Weis moved former five star running back James Aldridge to fullback in the spring. The senior will enter his final season of eligibility with one last chance to live up to his five star billing and could be a very valuable component to the 2009 offense if he could fill a role similar to that of Powers-Neal in 2005.
Aldridge is a strong runner and a capable receiver who has to be accounted for by opposing defenses. Whether or not he can adjust to the new position and handle the beating of playing fullback with just one spring and fall camp of practice is another question though.
4. Is Mike Ragone Healthy Enough?
Mike Ragone was one of the most highly sought after tight end recruits in the country a few years ago, but after suffering an ACL injury in high school, he suffered another one last summer. He missed all of 2008 after it looked as though he was going to be the starting tight end for the Irish heading into fall camp.
Ragone returned this spring, but looked to still be suffering some lingering effects from his latest injury. Charlie Weis has praised Ragone this summer though and said on Monday that the former prep star has looked as good as he ever has since he’s gotten to Notre Dame.
If he is fully healthy and ready for a major role in 2009, the Notre Dame offense will be much more potent than it was a year ago. Injuries and suspensions put Notre Dame in a major bind at tight last year which kept the Irish from running effective multiple tight ends sets – a staple of the Charlie Weis offenses from 2005 and 2006.
Notre Dame will be relying heavily on Ragone this year with little depth behind him after the departures of Joseph Fauria and Will Yeatman. If Ragone can return to his pre-injury form and give Notre Dame a viable receiving threat from the second tight end set, it should allow for the Irish offense to be much more dynamic.
5. Can Clausen Cut Down on the Turnovers?
Jimmy Clausen’s interception rate jumped from one pick every 40.8 pass attempts in 2007 to one every 25.9 attempts in 2008. Once opposing defenses realized the Irish didn’t have much of a ground game, they dropped extra defenders into coverage and cut down on Clausen’s throwing lanes. Clausen responded like most sophomore quarterbacks would by forcing the ball into areas he shouldn’t have forced it into.
Weis has said multiple times this summer that he fully expects Clausen to cut down on his interceptions this season, and in order for the offense to reach its full potential Clausen will need to do just that.
Untimely interceptions doomed the Irish against North Carolina – a game Notre Dame could have and probably should have easily won a year ago. His worst case of ball security, however, came in the embarrassing 17-0 loss at the hands of Boston College in which Clausen tossed four drive killing interceptions. It seemed every time Notre Dame started gaining some sort of momentum in the shutout loss, Clausen would force a ball into coverage that ended up getting picked off.
If there is one thing Clausen has shown time and again though, it’s that when he has an open receiver, he has the accuracy to get him the ball. His near perfect performance in the Hawaii Bowl showed just what he is capable of when he’s given time to pass and has open receivers to throw the ball to. Whether or not he can do that on a consistent basis from week to week is something that he has yet to prove.
How Notre Dame answers these questions will go a long way in determining how successful the offense will be this season.