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.
Herre’s a list of expectations:
1. Blowout wins ( 30 pt plus margin ) – Nevada, Purdue, Washington, Washington State, Navy
2. Dominating ( 10-30 pt margin ) Michigan, Boston College, UCONN, Stanford
3. Revenge Wins – Michigan St. USC, Pitt
Michigan is an indicator for the season. They will be improved and defending home turf. ND needs to handle them.
Mich St. – We need to run on them. That defense will still be stout. Our defense needs to disrupt and confuse them
USC – just win baby. I’d love to see a convincing one with defensive dominance.
BC, Stanford, and UCONN scare me. To me they are still relatively unknown.
Pitt – we blew that game. They never should have had a chance.
The Irish need to show character by taking care of the should wins without stress. Put those games away by the 2nd quarter and keep the hand around the opponent’s throat. Any of the question mark games, well that’s a matter of also looking inward and not worrying about the opponent. But most of that also comes down to already having taken care of the details in the offseason and the preseason. After the necessary prep work has been mastered, they just need the attitude of the 1988 team, especially when USC comes into town all smug and looking to laugh at an upright program. I’d hate to see them choke against anyone else, but just beat USC.
Indeed – reality is the Irish still have to play the games. It is very important they get every ounce of benefit from each game and the idea is to win and to do so convincingly without let up for 60 minutes. The other reality is being an independent and having the schedule they have this year, they could go undefeated and not get the nod for the dance. That is not in their control however playing with character, tenacity, courage, fight and a wee bit of anger this year is within their control and needs to be their mantra. Wake up the echos in their hearts, on the gridiron and for their fans and let the rest take care of itself. GO IRISH!
You got it right. Lou used to allow the offense to stand down or turn to the scrubs and kind of tank it in certain games when they were up by 30 or more. But if the defense let a late 4th quarter touchdown happen, even if it was 3rd stringers, you’d see him yelling at them about disgracing the “Lady on top of the Dome” He was almost fanatical about the defense of Mary’s honor. Last year’s defense was about 1/2 to 1 step away. If they get that step, look out because there will be the kind of havock that we all want to see.
Let’s face it, Corwin Brown is a great coach in training. He’s got the talent, but needs more experience and mentoring. Tenuta provides that and is helping groom Corwin for bigger things. Nothing wrong with that. I just hope ND keeps one of those two around for at least 5 more years.
Yes indeed, we’re close to seeing if there is hope beyond just an easy schedule. But this team still needs to establish itself and I will not take any opponent for granted.
Admittedly I did not read the article itself however I have already seen enough capitulation from bloggers and so called “fans” regarding an 11-1- season. Some say be realistic – I prefer just being a fan of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.
I fully expect the Tenuta led defense to lead the charge this season. Any reflection on past glory for the Irish entails a stout defense. It is like getting the first strike over the plate. The majority of my optimism resides in knowing Tenuta is calling the shots on D. No disrepect for Corwin Brown but Tenuta has 25 years on the lad and knows college football and knows how to slay the giants.
Should the defense lead the charge out of the blocks a short 10 days away…get excited – get very excited! This is the wild card, the sleeping giant that will rekindle the embers of a tradition and glory that has no equal in college football. GO IRISH!!
Chris, your comments inspire me and bring goose bumps. I was there when they published Jimmy ( without a ) Johnson’s telephone number. People really did call him to tell him, ” I’m beating the rush, I hate you now.” The fire in the Irish and the attitude and chip on that team that year was felt every day of every week all fall until the Fiesta bowl. Taking down the Cocaines, having a future MD, beat Michigan, making Rodney Peete eat half the turf in the Collesium. Yeah, they knew they werer there to prove a point.
I’d like to see this team stand up against cheaters and coaches who harass women. USC is a dirty rotten program that reflects the sell out values of a society that created Enron, MCI Worldcom, and AIG. Notre Dame needs to stand up for what’s right and beat them down. Don’t let up boys until the final whistle ends the game. Run them over and keep running them over.
Nothing can stop this Irish team if the players have the heart and soul to make it happen. We can rally too. It’s time for the Irish!
After having watched Ara P and Lou Houltz come in and take the Irish to fame after a year or two, I would say that Charlie really needs to show something this season. Lets face it ND has just as good players as anybody else. They need to play as a team and have a desire to win. Remember Rudy!!!. Go Irish!!!
P.S. I still think it was a mistake, not playing Montana. Also I wonder what Frank Leahey would have to say if he took over as head coach today.
Remember Johnny Lattner,Joe Heap and Tim Brown. There were many more great ones,Joe Montana, Reggie Brooks, Jerome Bettis and The Rocket. Wake up the echos. Go Irish!!!!!
ND 27 USC 15
I have one question for the Irish and true Irish fans reading this board. Will these Irish finally step up and end the drought against USC?
Very disheartening to hear even Lou conceeds a defeat although I did not read the article another person mentioned. A true player or coach or fan will never and I mean never conceed defeat to any one team before the game is played. College football is the epitome of it aint over till its over. It remains the most exciting sport on TV due mainly to the unexpectedness of play from week to week resulting in more times than not from the emotion of these young players in this great atmosphere.
There are in fact no more excuses in Charlies 5th year – the talent finally seems to be emerging and it is time to recapture the spirit that once embodied Notre Dame. They used to eat highly ranked teams like USC for breakfast – that was their fortay. They relished this role as was their nature being the team that faced and answered adversity with a punishing fight that ended more often than not in victory. Even against all odds – even against better talent yes even back then.
No more talk of being unevenly matched against SC – it is way past time to even the score. Rekindle the rivalry once more – hang a Pete Carroll in effigy like the Anthony Davis’ of old – wake up the echos that have long been silent and with one united voice respond in play and character and a bit of vicious in your face blocking and tackling and make the statement on the field – NOT IN MY HOUSE!!! Irish – arise and defend our honor!
that comment reminded me of a video I first saw on this site. It’s been my guiding light this offseason. I’ve watched it so many times (seriously 50+).
I’m just saying, I’m ready, I’m with you.
This type of stuff gets me hyped for the season:
I’m not conceding defeat. I fully expect Charlie to beat USC if he plans to get a sixth year. Are you sure Lou predicted a loss to USC? He also predicted a FL-ND title game…
This years team has a lot going for it. The offence is healthy and loaded.
They improved in pass protection last year and will improve in their run blocking this year. They have the quarterbacks, running backs, and recievers to make the plays. The defence has shown steady improvement and were able to keep the score respectable enough to give the team a chance in almost every game last year. Special teams showed steady improvement as well. I expect all three phases to be even better this year. All that might be missing is a ralling point, a fire, an attitude. Some of these players where here when Navy won, most all these players never enjoyed victory over USC or BC. They have put up with all the bad press, taunting from opposing fans, beatdown losses, home losses, no respect, and their coach has come under fire. Somewhere in there, SOMETHING should strike a nerve, light a fire, or bring forthe an attitude that drives this team like no other. If they find that, I pitty Nevada, the first to feel their rath. And for the rest of the teams on their schedule… notice served!