Notre Dame, IN (UHND.com) – Coming off a 3-7 season which saw Notre Dame snap its 43 game winning streak against Navy, win just one game in Notre Dame Stadium, and rank dead last in the NCAA in many offensive categories; the Irish and head coach Charlie Weis have plenty of questions in front of them. With spring practice for Notre Dame starting on Wednesday, answer to those questions will hopefully begin to appear.
Will the offensive line improve?
In a word, Notre Dame’s offensive line in 2007 was dreadful. The Irish entered last season with three new starters and very few experienced players competing for those positions. The result was an offensive line that was on the wrong side of the highlights week in and week out. John Sullivan is the only loss along the offensive line for 2008 and with the way Sullivan struggled snapping the ball in the shotgun in 2007, some might argue that is not much of a loss.
Will returning more experience in 2008 by itself be enough for vast improvements in the line play for the Irish? Probably not. In order for Notre Dame to really improve in the trenches, there will have to be some serious strides made in the weight room and on the sidelines.
It has been reported that Sam Young has bulked up to 330 lbs this off-season. If this is true, it is a good sign that there’s been a renewed emphasis on bulking up amongst the offensive linemen. Last year the Notre Dame line was overpowered just as often as they were out of assignment and the lackluster performances by Irish offensive linemen at the last few NFL combines backs that up.
It will take more than just hitting the weights and experience to fix the offensive line though. The coaching staff is going to need to improve as well. Whether it’s having more physical practices, simplifying the offense, or changing their teaching methods, its clear that the staff will have to change their approach in some manner. There was entirely too much talent along the line for Notre Dame’s problems to not to be at least partly coaching related.
Who will play along the defensive line?
With Trevor Laws graduating and Pat Kuntz not around for spring ball, Notre Dame will be without two of its starters from a year ago along the defensive line. Ian Williams, however, was a Freshman All American and will be the first team nose tackle this spring. Justin Brown will be back for a 5th year and will man one of the defensive end positions, but the other end position will be up for grabs with a group of inexperienced candidates hoping to fill it.
Juniors Kallen Wade and Paddy Mullen, sophomore Emeka Nwankwo, and early enroller Sean Cwyanr will compete for time at the position, but none have seen much action. Trevor Laws told us in an interview we posted yesterday that he expected Nwankwo to emerge of that group this spring, but all four are still very much question marks.
How will Mike Haywood handle play calling abilities?
Charlie Weis surprised a lot of people when he announced he was relinquishing play calling duties to offensive coordinator Mike Haywood last month. No one expected Weis to hand over the play calling duties at this point, but he said he did it so that he can focus on the entire team this spring and fall rather than just mainly the offense as he has the past three years.
Haywood has never been in charge of play calling on any level so how he responds will be something to watch play out this spring and into the fall. Will Haywood, as a long time running backs coach, be more inclined to run the ball more – something Notre Dame fans have been wishing Weis would have done the past few seasons? No one really knows at this point.
How much input Weis still has in the playcalling will also be something to watch for. As a renowned playcaller, Weis will still have an affect on what Haywood is calling.
How will Jon Tenuta and Corwin Brown work together?
Getting Jo Tenuta to come to Notre Dame as the linebackers and assistant head coach might have been the biggest recruiting win for Notre Dame this past year. Tenuta rumored to be in the running for multiple defensive coordinator positions yet Weis was able to get him to join the Notre Dame staff anyway.
It’ll be interesting to see how Tenuta works together with Corwin Brown though. Brown will only be entering his second season as a defensive coordinator and Tenuta is one of the most highly regarded defensive minds in the college game. He said at his introductory press conference that he will be spending the spring getting to know his player’s skills and capabilities more so than install any of his blitz schemes into the defensive package, but I’m sure Tenuta’s influence on the defense will begin to show this spring regardless.
Notre Dame’s linebacker play last year left a lot to be desired. Part of the problem last year was personnel related as the Irish switched to the 3-4 defense, but it was not the only problem. Having someone with Tenuta’s experience and talent coaching the backers this year should pay off immediate dividends. The quicker he gets acquainted with his players and begins implementing his blitz packages, the sooner we will start seeing more of that “nasty” defense we’ve been hearing about for so long.
Does Notre Dame have a kicker? Or a return man?
It’s been years since Notre Dame has had a consistent kicking game. Everyone remembers Weis going for it on 4th and long against Navy instead of attempting a 48 yard field goal for the win in regulation and while Weis may still claim his decision had something to do with the wind, everyone knows why he didn’t kick it.
Neither Brandon Walker or Nate Whitaker established themselves as the front runner based on their performance last year. Ryan Burkhart is also still on the roster, but in two season has not shown much to suggest he will emerge as the answer for the Irish in the kicking department. Walker hit a 48 yarder against UCLA, but struggled from anything over 40 yards the rest of the season.
In the return game, Notre Dame went another season without returning a kickoff for a touchdown and Vontez Duff is still the last Notre Dame player to take a kickoff all the way. With the likes of Golden Tate and Armando Allen returning kicks again this year, there is really no reason why Notre Dame shouldn’t at least come close to returning one this year.
The graduation of Tom Zbikowski has created a void in the punt return department as well. Zibby was one of the best punt returners in the country the past three seasons so replacing him will be no small order. Fortunately for the Irish, there are a number of gifted athletes capable of taking his place currently on the roster.
Every coach had their hands on the special teams last year and it was a mess. To remedy this, Weis has made Brian Polian’s sole focus coaching the special teams and will even assist him. Having a single voice should help matters, but that is not to say that the one voice Weis has placed in charged will automatically improve the special teams just because he is solely in charge.
Who will be the leaders?
Notre Dame’s senior class is not as thin as it was a year ago, but it is still pretty small. The Irish lost a couple of great leaders in Zbikowski, Laws, and the rest of the 5th year seniors from 2007 and will need to find some leaders in the junior class to help fill the void. Maurice Crum will likely reprise his role as captain as he comes back for a fifth season, but with very few seniors on offense, Notre Dame will be even harder pressed to find leaders on that side of the ball.
Sam Young asked Weis what he had to do to become a better leader last year and it appears he is taking the first steps in that process by taking charge in the weight room. Jimmy Clausen was forced into a leadership role last year as a true freshman as the starting quarterback and will be looked to again as he enters his sophomore season.
How much improvement can we expect from Jimmy Clausen?
Speaking of Clausen, how much can we expect to see him improve with a full off-season of being 100% healthy? His lifting was limited last year because of his elbow procedure causing him to fall behind in his physical development. Building the strength in his arm this off-season should improve his deep passes as well as build the kind of stamina his arm will need to handle a full season as the starter.
Health and strength aside, Clausen will need to make strides in the mental aspect of the game. He didn’t make a whole lot of freshman mistakes last year, but he did hold onto the ball too long on many occasions and at times forced passes. A full spring practice at 100% health should lead to a greater understanding of the offense.