5 Things I Want to See in 2009

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.

Armando Allen was the talent and experience to make a breakout season in 2009 possible if the Irish offensive line can open up room for him to run. (Photo - Icon SMI)

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.

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  1. Frank, where are the Opponent Rankings? Will there be a pre-season ranking? That was one of my favorite features on UHND last season.

    1. Jimmy, I’ll have the first poll up later this week and plan and doing the rankings each week again this season.

  2. USC is beatable. Just ask Stanford or Oregon St. ND got robbed of a win with Brady Quinn and Co. just a few years back. I’ve been watching ND football for 45 years. I have seen ND beat teams that they had no business beating. All it takes is a good team, some confedence, a good game plan, and a packed Notre Dame Stadium on a crisp October day. Call it Divine Intervention if you like but it’s real and it does exsist at ND. Special days and games like that don’t come around very often, but they do happen.
    I’ve seen it. I believe!

  3. i have hope that we are going to beat USC this year but realistically i dont think we have a shot to beat them, i think we have a good chance at beating them every year and we end up losing by 30 points in most of those contests, i think their defense is just going to be way too good and we have no chance of doing anything on offense unless the ND oline turns everything around magically and we can find a running game against them like we did in 05, they also had a new QB in 06 and 07 when we played them and that didnt make one difference in helping out our situation. so i think we have a chance but i definitely wouldnt bet on it.

  4. my top 5:
    1. competing against USC
    2. beating MSU
    3. beating BC
    4. beating UM
    5. and not losing games where we have double digit leads!

    1. I don’t want to see us just compete with USC. I think it’s time that we start beating them. They replace a ton of starters and we return a ton this year. If we don’t do it this year, when will we?

      1. well its been looking like we wont beat usc until pete carroll leaves, we havent been losing to them the last 7 games, we’ve been completely embarrassed in 6 of those contests, how can we realistically go from what we did in the 08 game to beating them? its not going to matter how many starters they have to replace, they’re going to reload with probably better talent. USC had a horrible defense in 05 and that had a lot to do with us almost coming up with the upset. USC’s defense has only gotten better since Vince Young tore them up, they gave up like 7 ppg last year and i dont see how its going to be any different this year.

      2. Why not? It happens all the time. We went from trashing BC in ’92, to losing to them in ’93 while the #1 team in the country. It provides added motivation for the losing team, and allows the winner to be complacent.

        We got our asses kicked last year, but there was no way we should’ve played so poorly as to not get a first down until the second half. USC obviously intimidated us, and it showed. It’s a new year, and they have a new QB. They’ll be tough, but pointing to last year’s loss isn’t any reason for us to give up on this year.

  5. I love the list, I personally would love to see more nastiness in the OL. All reports out of camp say they’re making the necessary changes but we wont know for sure until the season starts.

  6. The measuring stick is USC – end of story. This is a must win for the Irish this year! Tired of being kicked down by ND haters? Stand and deliver Irish! At home – better be undefeated and better have some friggin attitude this year! GO IRISH! Failure is not a option.

  7. I’ll settle for 3 things in 2009. Wins over USC, Boston College, & Mich.ST
    Loosing to these teams every year is getting old and really starting to piss me off.

  8. I think Notre Dame FINISHING games is just as important than being ready from the start. This is not a young team anymore and think they have grown out of the slow start phase.

  9. Have to agree with number 1. The offensive line is the key to a great season——the more you can run the ball successfully, the less time your defense and the other guys’ offense is on the field.

  10. How about a more aggressive nack for closing out games as well?

    Also, I think a better running game should be 1. 2. & 3.

    Go Irish

  11. You forgot the score. We must outscore the other team. I agree with everything you say, but the end result must result in points and we have to get more than they do.

  12. “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.” THANK YOU for saying. Anybody that doesn’t beleive this…see U$C, every weekend, every practice, every day.

  13. Very well thought out and said Frank. You hit the nails on the head. Jimmy C’s maturity and leadership is #6.

  14. I echo the sentiments on #1.

    I’m surprised to hear that Tate and Allen will be taken off the kick return teams. I’m hoping that means guys like Cierre Wood are stepping up. He’s looked good in the practice video that I’ve seen. But I’d guess it’s probably more of a move to keep Tate and Allen healthy.

  15. All valid points, Frank. The first one is by far the biggest and is most likely the difference between ND returning to elite status and Weis retaining his job.

  16. Frank, I see your point about coming outta that tunnel with ferocity, but I thought their down the stretch (read: fourth quarter) intensity was more in question than anything. The offense flat STALLED in the fourth quarter in many games last season including the Michigan game, Pitt game, Stanford, Syracuse, Navy, and UNC games. I think a lot of that has to do with leadership and experience, and it sounds like a lot of the guys (especially Clausen) have taken it upon themselves to build that leadership this year. We’ll see how it translates into 4th quarter yardage and scores. Another factor in that though is the running game, as you touched upon. There were a lot of fourth quarter 3rd and shorts that weren’t converted, and that needs to change!

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