With the 2008 Michigan Notre Dame showdown in less than three days it's preview time. CW, the proprietor of Rakes of Mallow (SBNation's awesome, awesome, awesome Notre Dame Blog), and I agreed to exchange previews prior to the season.
CW was on time, I was a tad late. So CW's 2008 Notre Dame Football preview doesn't include the SDSU game in it's analysis. You can find my 2008 Michigan Football preview (well, two games into the season preview anyway) over at Rakes. We'll also do a snarky Q&A in the next two days as gameday approaches. For now, enjoy CW's Fightin' Irish preview. - Maize n Brew Dave
2008 Notre Dame Football Preview Courtesy of Rakes of Mallow
Greetings from your friends to the south, denizens of Ann Arbor. Your fantastic steward of Wolverine blogging and I decided to write up updates for each other, mainly because it puts off the copious amounts of research we'll be doing leading up to September 13th and the showdown in South Bend. I will forewarn you that there are even more "If's" involved in this preview than your normal look ahead, mainly because last season's 3-9 disaster left so many holes smoking in the depth chart that while we have some idea who might be on the field, there's no way to tell whether things will be any better than last year.
The general expectations for the program from Irish fans seem to be in the area of 6 to 7 wins, which I would be comfortable signing off on after the over exuberance of some prognosticators last summer. The schedule got a little easier - Notre Dame started the season with ten straight opponents who went to bowl games in 2007 - and because I'm pretty sure when you hit rock bottom, there's nowhere to go but up. On the sidelines, Charlie Weis has passed on the play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Mike Haywood, while Jon Tenuta has joined Corwin Brown in running the defense. The legend of Tenuta grew significantly in his time at Georgia Tech, and Irish fans are hoping that he's able to coax some big plays out of a defense that will be missing its best player (and perhaps the best defensive player in the nation last season), Trevor Laws.
On offense, Jimmy Clausen has added some muscle and a ridiculous haircut over the summer, apparently not taking any cues from the devilishly handsome Brady Quinn. After an offseason last summer where the health of his elbow was always in question, his arm appears to be near a hundred percent, with early reports from practice saying his throws have some nice zip to them. Evan Sharpley will be backing him up after a successful season for Notre Dame baseball, with freshman Dayne Christ, a top recruit out of southern California, lurking in the background should things start off with a 2007ish flavor to them.
There are a lot of weapons surrounding Clausen, both in the backfield and on the outside. There's a stable of running backs, with sophomore Robert Hughes and junior James Aldridge battling for the starting spot, with speedster Armando Allen already deemed option 1A as the change-of-pace, third down back. Hughes was one of the few bright spots for the Irish offense last year, ripping off consecutive hundred yard games to end the season. Also joining them will be highly-touted freshman Jonas Gray, although there are obviously only so many carries to go around. Should a fullback enter the mix, Asaph Schwapp will most likely be the lead blocker, although he struggled clearing the way for the tailbacks last season.
The wide receiver position is also one that's very talented but very raw. David Grimes is the old man of the group, a consistent but smaller receiver who may end up in the slot as the season goes on. Sophomores Duval Kamara and Golden Tate, who showed flashes of having big play potential last season, both have issues to overcome to take the next step. Kamara had some trouble with his hands from time to time, while Tate seemed to only know how to run a fly route. Junior Robby Parris will also see some time after a solid season last year, but everyone's expectations turn, per usual, to the youth. Freshman Michael Floyd, an all-world recruit from Minnesota, and surprise commit Deion Walker have Irish fans dreaming of 2005, when Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija combined for a historically potent season for Notre Dame receivers. Both their pedigree and camp performances are stellar at this point, but that doesn't necessarily mean we'll be seeing anything on the field. Mike Ragone, a big-time recruit who has very little in regards of actual production, Will Yeatman, more blocker than receiver, and freshman Kyle Rudolph will line up at tight end.
None of the skill positions matter if nobody is blocking, and I think the 2007 season confirmed that you do indeed have to field an offensive line in order to compete. Unless Weis decides to switch to the A-11 system everyone is buzzing about, there will have to be serious improvements up front for the system to work. The line got bigger (everyone is over 300 pounds, with tackle Sam Young topping out at 330), but whether they're better is the number one question in regards to this season. The only player not returning from last season is center John Sullivan, whose vendetta of snapping the ball over the head of Clausen at every opportunity last season annoyed most Irish fans, but who knows whether that's a good thing or not. There seems to be more depth and the collective Notre Dame rushing effort improved towards the end of last season (that may have had something to do with the competition), but I cannot possibly tell you how the offensive line is going to perform in 2008.
(Yeah. I don't think anyone expected the problems ND had against SDSU. It gives me a single question: How is you OLine coach still employed? - MnB Dave)
The defense, constantly hung out to dry by a cavalcade of three-and-outs in '07, has a mix of old hands and new talent that will try to help blunt the loss of Laws, Tom Zbikowski and Darrin Walls. While the Irish were supposed to be playing in a 3-4 this season, a lot of fall camp has revolved around a 4-3, with a patchwork line of Ian Williams, Morrice Richardson, Justin Brown, Pat Kuntz and some linebackers with a hand or two down trying to get the initial penetration. There's a chance one of the blue-chippers coming onboard - Ethan Johnson, Sean Cwynar or Kapron Lewis-Moore - will be a difference maker, but freshmen defensive linemen aren't known for turning seasons around. This is where having Tenuta around comes in handy, because if you can't get any pressure with your line (which seems like a realistic scenario), just blitz your opponent to holy hell with no heed paid to potential big play repercussions.
Those blitzing linebackers will be composed of captain Mo Crum in the middle alongside productive sophomore Brian Smith. Harrison Smith will be roaming as a safety/linebacker hybrid (I believe he'd be a rover if this was slow pitch softball), with Kerry Neal and John Ryan as blitzing ends, the gentlemen spend a great deal of time on the line. Toryan Smith will be backing them up in the middle, along with potential impact freshmen Darius Fleming and Steve Filer.
The safety position is solid, with last year's starter David Bruton returning alongside Kyle McCarthy, Zbikowski's back-up in '07 who caused some trouble for opposing defenses anytime he saw consistent time. Walls' summer departure leaves veteran Terrail Lambert alongside a lot of youth, as junior Raeshon McNeil and redshirt freshman Gary Gray, who missed last season with a broken arm, try to lock down opposing receivers. My fingers are crossed newcomer Jamoris Slaughter works his way into the defensive back rotation, if only because his name is absolutely fantastic.
The kicking game is still somewhere between a total mystery and a two-year running joke, although Irish fans are all hoping for some excitement in the return game with Armando Allen and Golden Tate slated to make an impact on special teams. I'm not sure how the team will react without captain Travis Thomas there to get his one pointless penalty a game, but I imagine they'll be able to manage sans their former leader.
In regards to the Michigan game, most Irish fans are very exciting at having the chance to avenge the last two years of Yakety Saxing, but expectations are tempered, at least among the sane. San Diego State appears to be really, really bad on paper, meaning that the game against the rebuilding Wolverines might be the first true test of the season for Notre Dame (along with a handful of other schools, the Irish do not play the last weekend of August and start their season on September 6th).
Worst Best of luck against the Utes and RedHawks, and we'll see you on the 13th.
Well, we're 1-1. Can't get too down or too high. Just where we need to be for the game! Thanks CW. See you on Saturday.