With the season less than three weeks away, here’s a look at a few things I’d like to see out the Fighting Irish in 2009 that will make the difference between a good season and a great season.
1. An Improved Running Game and Attitude from the OL
Notre Dame’s struggles running the ball the past two seasons have been well documented. Even in 2005 and 2006 when Notre Dame went to back to back BCS bowls, the Irish didn’t have the kind of rushing attack that could close out any opponent. Notre Dame has consistently struggled to convert short yardage third and fourth downs because the offensive line has not been able to get enough of a push to open up any sort of running room.
Former offensive line coach John Latina is no longer with the team and was replaced by Frank Verducci who was also given the title of Running Game Coordinator. The early returns on Verducci have all been very positive, but it still remains to be seen if the line and running game will be improved enough in 2009 for Notre Dame to reach its potential this season.
Over the last couple seasons, the Irish offensive line has also lacked the attitude needed to be an elite, dominating line. Linemen such as Eric Olsen and Trevor Robinson have shown that kind of attitude from time to time, but in order really be a great line, that attitude is going to have to rub off on the other linemen.
Notre Dame has the backs to have a more than solid rushing attack. Armando Allen is the unquestioned starter heading into the season and could be poised for a breakout season if he has room to run. Behind Allen, Notre Dame has a stable of talented backs to rotate into the game if the ground game is clicking with Robert Hughes, Jonas Gray, Cierre Wood, and Theo Riddick.
2. More return touchdowns
We saw the kickoff return touchdown streak end in the Hawaii Bowl with Armando Allen’s 96 yarder at the end of the third quarter. Sadly, that was the first kick return touchdown of the Charlie Weis era and the first since Vontez Duff returned one against Navy in 2002. That’s almost 6 full seasons without a single kick return for a touchdown.
With a host of explosive weapons on the roster this year, hopefully we will not have wait that long for another kick return. Weis said last week that he was more likely to use Armando Allen and Golden Tate on punt returns rather than kick returns so look for some new faces on the kick return units in 2009. Freshman Cierre Wood should factor into the kick return game this year and I still think Jonas Gray could make a good kick returner if given the opportunity.
As for punt returns, Notre Dame had the luxury of Tom Zbikowski returning punts for the first three years under Weis. Zibby was an excellent punt returner during that span, but last year there was a bit of a falloff as the Irish tried to replace him. Zbikowski made a huge difference in the field position game throughout his career – see the 2005 USC game. Notre Dame needs to find someone to provide a similar impact this year.
3. Pressure on opposing quarterbacks
Notre Dame made some improvements in pressuring opposing quarterbacks last year, but the Irish still did not get to the QB enough for as often as they blitzed. Jon Tenuta will have more say on defense this year with and is known for harassing opposing quarterbacks so hopefully Notre Dame will improve on its 27 sacks from 2008 which ranked only 50th nationally. In 2007, Georgia Tech ranked 1st nationally in sacks with 48.
Ethan Johnson showed some real pass rush ability in the Hawaii Bowl and will be a full time starter in 2009. Kerry Neal has shown some pass rush ability throughout his career and will also be a starter along the defensive line. If the Irish are really to improve on their sack total in 2009, it will be the linebackers who will need to really step up. Notre Dame will feature a set of linebackers that is more athletic than any group since Lou Holtz was coach so this should be very doable.
With a defensive backfield that is absolutely loaded with talent and Tenuta will have the luxury of blitzing almost whenever he wants.
4. Notre Dame ready to play from the start of the game
Over the past few seasons Notre Dame has lacked intensity as they ran out of the tunnel to start a game and that’s been evident in they way they’ve played at the start of games as well. There have been a few occasions when Notre Dame came out fired up and ready to go from the start of the game – most notably the Michigan game last season. Notre Dame needs to find a way to come out with more intensity from the start of games in order to put teams away early. There are plenty of teams on the 2009 schedule that Notre Dame should be able to put away fairly early if they come out of the gate with some fire.
Weis and his staff have to find a way to get the team to play with more emotion in 2009 since Irish opponents have been playing with more emotion than Notre Dame has been over the last few years. This goes back to Weis’s philosophy that the “rah-rah” stuff only lasts a couple of minutes. That may be true on the professional level, but on the college level, emotion is very much a part of the game.
5. Consistency in the kicking game
Place kicking has been an issue for Notre Dame for a long, long time. Brandon Walker showed signs of life down the stretch last year after a disastrous start to the season. He ended up hitting just 6 of 13 field goals from 40+ on the season though. Walker’s improvements down the stretch were enough to get his name on the Lou Groza Award watch list.
Incoming freshman Nick Tausch has been impressive so far in camp including a 4 for 4 performance on Saturday during Notre Dame’s open practice and looks like he could seriously challenge Walker for the place kicking duties for this season.
It has been a long time since Notre Dame fans have had any sort of confidence any time a 40 yard field goal has been attempted. With an improving Walker and a talented newcomer in Tausch, could this be the year fans don’t have to cross their fingers any time a field goal is attempted? Let’s hope so.