NOTRE DAME, IN (UHND.com) – As the team walked off the field Saturday after suffering a rather humbling 38-0 loss at the hands of Michigan, Charlie Weis was looking into the eyes of his players and coaches as they made their exits. He wasn’t trying to send a message, but rather he was looking for the players who were still willing to keep fighting and keep working to fix the mess an 0-3 start has created.
“I was looking at their eyes to see if they threw in the towel or not,” Weis explained. That’s exactly what I was doing with everyone who came by, and that included the coaching staff too. “I wanted to see whose eyes were up, whose eyes were down, and I wasn’t sending a message, I was just observing.”
Perhaps one of the more troubling issues surrounding this year’s Irish is the lack of emotion and fire being displayed on the field throughout the games with Saturday’s game being a prime example.
Down 31-0 at halftime, Weis knew Notre Dame’s chances of mounting a comeback on the road at Michigan weren’t great, but he wanted to see which players were still leaving it all on the field in the second half. “I wanted to see which guys were going to be fighting and which guys weren’t,” he told the media.
With the Irish returning to a training camp mentality this week, all position are up for grabs according to Weis as he tries to identify those players that are willing go slug it out and keep chipping at the wall the Irish offense has been stuck behind.
“Right now you have to establish a work ethic and you have to come out swinging,” Weis said. “That’s what I’m going to do, figuratively because I don’t play, and I’m going to find enough guys that want to come out swinging with me.”
Finding those guys who are willing to come out swinging with him, could involve some personnel changes with Weis’s statements that no position is safe right now. “Everything is even steven like it’s the first day out there and everything’s up for grabs because obviously with what we’re doing it doesn’t make any difference if it’s a 5th year senior or a freshman, and that includes the head coach right through every assistant,” Weis said. “It’s not getting done the right way so we have to do something to fix it.”
When asked if he would consider wholesale personnel changes during a game, Weis responded saying, “We played eight linemen almost on a regular basis in that game right there when we’ve been playing five. Would I consider playing guys? You bet ya.”
The first change we Weis made during the Michigan game was moving Sam Young over to left tackle, a move many thought would have taken place this past off-season and a move Weis plans on sticking with. “I don’t see changing that for the foreseeable future,” he responded when asked if Young would be staying at left tackle.
Other changes are bound to be made this week as well. Starting on the offensive side of the ball, how about getting a guy like James Aldridge involved early and often? Aldridge has been the only back to show any real tackle breaking abilitiy this year and started to establish himself in the fourth quarter again Michigan. Yes, his carries came against the Michigan backups, but even though the Irish trailed 38-0, Aldridge was out there running hard and with purpose as though the game was tied. Right now, Aldridge is the best option for the Irish as the every down back because he has the size and strength to get tough yards.
Armando Allen has a bright future for the Irish, but right now he doesn’t have the strength in his legs to run through the arm tackles that have been tripping him up. He could be a dangerous weapon for this offense on third downs and passing situations, but right now, the best thing for the ailing Notre Dame ground game might be giving Aldridge 20-25 carries and seeing if he can be the work horse back for this offense.
Along the offensive line, Weis already started testing out different groupings by sending out guys like Eric Olsen, Matt Romine, and Thomas Bemenderfer, but no group stood out. Romine and Bemenderfer, however, both played hard and showed the kind of toughness the offensive line has been lacking. In 2003, Willingham inserted true freshman Ryan Harris into the starting lineup at right tackle after the Irish offensive stumbled out of the games, could a similar move with Romine be in the cards for Weis?
At the wide receiver position, it would not surprise me to see Weis insert some of his bigger, more physical wide receivers into the starting lineup in an effort to improve the blocking and help open up the running game. Robby Parris has come a long way with his blocking and could be ready to step in. DJ Hord is another possibility as he has also shown the ability to get open downfield this year – he just hasn’t had a ball thrown well to him when he has. I’d also like to see what George West could do with a couple more balls thrown his way. the sophomore from Oklahoma has looked great with the ball in his hands in the open field on the few touches he’s had.
Defensively, it’s really tough to tell what the Irish have and don’t have since the defense has been hung out to dry by turnovers and terrible starting field position. The unit has to do a better job of keeping teams out of the endzone, but it’s really hard to say how good this unit could be with a capable offense backing it up.
Guys like Pat Kuntz, Trevor Laws, Justin Brown, and Darrin Walls need to be on the field as much as possible though. There might not be a single player on the team giving more effort right now than Kuntz who has left everything he’s had on the field each week. As a group, the entire defensive line has played very tough and fought each down.
I doubt we’ll see any changes to the defensive line, but changes to the linebacking corps could be possible. As a unit, the linebackers have not tackled well and have been inconsistent to say the least. Kerry Neal seems to be getting more and more playing time, and it would not be surprising at all to see him start at outside linebacker next week. Physically, he has the strength to play and he’s shown some good pass rushing skills. Morrice Richardson is another guy who’s played hard when he’s been in there and has shown some glimpses of having the type of pass rushing skills an outside linebacker needs in this defense. Freshman Brian Smith could also see more playing time in the foreseeable future.
In the secondary, there probably won’t be many changes, although I would be shocked if Raeshon McNeil was not worked into more nickel situations in the near future.
There are still nine games left in this season and Weis’s message to his players was pretty clear. “I told them, no matter how many times you get punched in the mouth, you’ve got to get up and keep swinging,” he said to the media Saturday. “ That’s basically figuratively how I feel right now – I feel like I got punched in the mouth with a pretty good right cross.”
The other area the Irish must show some vast improvement in this weekend is on the sidelines where Weis and his staff need to do a better job of getting their players in position to make plays. Notre Dame’s grab-bag style of offense this year has lead to many of the problems facing the sputtering offense right now and Weis acknowledged as much several times throughout his post game comments. In order for this thing to get turned around, Weis is going to have his best week of practice this week just as his players will. He has not given up yet and there are still plenty of players who have yet to give up as well. Let’s hope Weis can find them along with with the offense he run for two years this week during “training camp.”