When Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis said at a press conference in early January that he had no intention of making any coaching staff changes until after National Signing Day in early February, the reporters present apparently didn’t believe him. So they asked him again. Once again, Weis stonewalled them.
“There’s not even going to be a thought in my mind until we’re done recruiting,” Weis said. “It’s a rhetorical question because I’m not even going to think about it until we’re done with recruiting.” Not only, however, was there a thought, there was an entire thought process, which Weis described in detail at a Feb. 8 press conference, nine days after hiring Jon Tenuta as an assistant head coach in charge of the defense. That move was necessitated when former assistant head coach Bill Lewis left the coaching staff to join the athletics community relations staff.
Once Weis settled on Tenuta, it was a matter of making sure defensive coordinator Corwin Brown was comfortable with his decision.
“The No. 1 thing I wanted to do was make sure that we had an idea guy,” Weis said of his conversations with Brown. “I told Corwin, ‘As long as you’re the defensive coordinator, you’re always running the defense, you’re always calling the defense.'”
Although it didn’t go down in the smoothest way possible for Weis, which has been a theme of his tenure with the Fighting Irish, he appears to have landed a good coach in Tenuta, whose last job was as Georgia Tech’s defensive coordinator. Tenuta’s defenses have the reputation of being blitz-crazy, which Notre Dame found out first-hand in last year’s season-opener. The Yellow Jackets sacked the Fighting Irish nine times on their way to a 33-3 win. Tenuta’s defenses have consistently ranked in the top 25 and have been among the best in tackles for loss. Last year they led the Bowl Subdivision in sacks and finished fourth in tackles for loss.
Tenuta’s reputation as a defensive coach is beyond reproach, but it will bear watching how he and Brown work together. During the spring, Tenuta appeared to approach their relationship as one of mentor and protégée, with him dispensing knowledge of how to fine-tune schemes. Brown happily accepted the advice, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll be so accepting if the Fighting Irish’s defense is as porous as last year, or Tenuta attempts to exert more control.
The other coach-related move that will add spice to the preseason is Weis’ bequeathing of play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Mike Haywood. Weis appeared to relish call-ing the plays, but at the same press conference in which he described Tenuta’s hiring, he admitted he needed to let Haywood have some of the fun.
“I’m going to try to cut the proverbial — figurative — umbilical cord and try to move myself a little bit away from being the sole primary guy on the offensive staff,” Weis said. “So in the springtime, we’ll start with the offensive staff running the offense. That means that all the offensive coaches now won’t have to worry about the ever presence of the head coach breathing down their neck all the time.
“I’m trying to do this; this is a tough one for me to do. But I’m trying to give them an opportunity to run the offense with me interjecting rather than me demanding and telling them everything that we’re going to do.”
If Weis is able to remain true to his promise, he said he’ll spend more time with the rest of the team, getting to know each of his players, not just the offensive ones. Senior cornerback Terrail Lambert noticed the change in Weis during the spring.
“I’d call it a subtle change,” Lambert said. “He’s always been there for us as a coach on and off the field. I just think this one thing he’s kind of experimenting with to see how it works and how we respond.”
There was no dog-and-pony press release at the conclusion of this season’s spring practice, as there was last year, touting the merits of all of Notre Dame’s quarterbacks. In fact, there was no subterfuge at all by Weis and his coaching staff. The 2008 quarterback depth chart is very simple: sophomore Jimmy Clausen (6-3, 207) began spring practice as the starter, ended spring practice as the starter, and will be the starter come Sept. 6, when the Fighting Irish play host to San Diego State. The rest of the quarterbacks on the roster should make sure they have a comfortable baseball hat and clip board.
Weis’ master plan to have Clausen in the starting lineup during his freshman year didn’t work out perfectly, but it worked out. Demetrius Jones started the first game of the season, but was replaced by Clausen in the second. (Jones subsequently transferred to Cincinnati, making him the second quarterback to transfer after Zach Frazier left for Connecticut.)
Clausen started the next six games to mixed reviews, the result of his own collegiate inexperience and a porous offensive line. He missed three games in a row because of a recurring elbow injury but came back looking like the all-star quarterback success-starved Notre Dame fans had been hoping for. Of his seven touchdown passes, Clausen threw six of them in his final three games — a loss to Air Force and wins over Duke and Stanford. He also threw one interception, compared with five before the three-game layoff.
Clausen continued to evolve during spring practice. He arrived with 18 more pounds of muscle than he had at the end of last year, and apparently more poise. Weis continually praised him for better acquainting himself with the intricacies of his complicated passing offense, and building a rapport with the receivers and offensive line, which will be key to his success.
“Jimmy’s getting all the reps,” Weis said at the conclusion of spring practice. “That’s allowed him to start forming a chemistry and bonding with the receivers and allowed him to get more of a leadership role with the offensive linemen.
“I’ve been very, very pleased with his progress, as well as his throwing.”
Although Weis was pleased with Clausen’s throwing, Clausen continued to spray the ball all over the field. He completed 10-of-27 passes for 183 yards in the spring game. His accuracy may improve as the season goes on, or it may be something he fights for the rest of his college career.
Whatever happens, the Irish are going to ride it either way. That’s because senior Evan Sharpley (6-2, 216) might as well be wearing a sign that says “Break Glass for Emergencies.” Sharpley, who some considered the frontrunner for the starting job last year, spent more time on the baseball field than the football field this spring, leading Notre Dame in home runs and slugging percentage.
Adding to the notion that Sharpley will be used sparingly is the fact that Weis said that one of his priorities during the spring was making sure that Clausen remained healthy.
If Clausen and Sharpley are both injured, Weis may turn to freshman Dayne Crist (6-4, 225), the No. 3-rated signal caller in this year’s recruiting class.
Junior James Aldridge (6-0, 222) and sophomores Armando Allen (5-10, 190) and Robert Hughes (5-11, 238) are neck-and-neck-and-neck in the race to be the Fighting Irish’s starting tailback, not because they all shined during the spring, but rather none emerged from the pack.
The spring was an extension of last year, when each one showed glimpses of the immense talent that carried them to Notre Dame, yet not enough to relegate the other two to second string.
“They all had their spurts,” said Weis, whose rushing offense ranked 115th out of 119 teams last season. “But I don’t think any of them established themselves over the course of the year as being the guy.”
Hughes won spring game offensive MVP honors by rushing for 100 yards on 22 carries. That might be impressive if not for the fact that last year’s spring game offensive MVP was Junior Jabbie, who followed that performance by rushing for 35 yards on 10 carries in 12 games.
Hughes, however, might be more than an overnight sensation. After waiting patiently behind Aldridge and Allen for most of last year, he finally received his opportunity in the final two games, and made the most of it. He rushed for 110 yards against Duke, and then went for 136 against Stanford, becoming the first Notre Dame freshman since 1982 to rush for 100 yards in back-to-back games. He finished with 294 yards and four touchdowns, making him the only Fighting Irish running back besides Travis Thomas to score a rushing touchdown.
Allen was impressive as an all-purpose player, gaining a combined 1,176 yards between running back, receiver and kick returner. But he was only average at running back, gaining 348 yards on 86 carries. Allen’s speed has been well documented, and he is one of Notre Dame’s only playmakers. But his inability to fight through tackles may cost him snaps, and could even lead to a position change if Weis can’t find a go-to receiver for Clausen.
Weis stopped short of calling this a critical year for Aldridge, but it is. Aldridge arrived in South Bend as one of the heralded recruits in the country and the gem of Weis’ first recruiting class. Compared to those expectations, he’s been a disappointment. Last year he rushed for a team-high 463 yards on 121 carries, but like Allen, he failed to find the end zone. Part of Aldridge’s problem may be the fact that he’s never recovered from a knee injury he suffered his senior year in high school. He says he’s OK, but some observers say he can’t cut the way he used to and he’s less explosive.
At fullback, senior Asaph Schwapp (6-0, 261) will start for the third season in a row. Junior Luke Schmidt (6-3, 238), a former Indiana Gatorade player of the pear, is listed as his backup but will spend more time at tight end.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
Classmates have connections. Perhaps it’s because they can relate to each other, having gone to high school at the same time and in many cases the same all-star games. Or maybe it’s because they see each other the most, either in classes or around the dorms. Notre Dame is hoping that sophomores Duval Kamara (6-5, 222) and Clausen can continue to connect on at least a couple levels.
A highly touted recruit out of New Jersey, Kamara lived up to those expectations last year, setting school freshman records for receptions (32) and touchdowns (four). His 357 yards receiving were third on the team, but he led the Fighting Irish in yards per game (32.5) and was second in receptions.
Kamara possesses all the vogue attributes of a wide receiver, circa 2008. He’s tall, ruggedly built and goes after the ball in the air. One attribute Weis hopes he’ll grow into is commitment in the classroom. Kamara missed part of spring practice to iron out some academic issues.
While Kamara will be the big-play receiver, senior David Grimes (5-10, 177) will assume the grinder role. Grimes started eight games last year, finishing with a career-high 27 catches for 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Sharing duties with Grimes will be junior Robby Parris (6-4, 209), who led receivers in yardage with 361. Parris has improved tremendously since his freshman year, when he was the understudy to Jeff Samardjiza. If he can continue to make progress, Clausen will have three legitimate receiving options.
Junior George West (5-10, 197) will also be part of the rotation at least in the preseason, but he’s seen his playing time curtailed since his freshman year, when he was one of two freshmen to play in all 13 games.
The wildcard could be sophomore Golden Tate (6-0, 190). Although he missed time during the spring because of his duties with Notre Dame’s baseball team, he returned for the spring game, catching a 57-yard pass from Clausen.
The Fighting Irish weren’t going to replace the tight end production of Jon Carlson, who was drafted in the second round by the Seattle Seahawks. But they would have been in position to come close had junior Will Yeatman (6-6, 263) not been charged with misdemeanor counts of drunken driving and criminal recklessness and indefinitely suspended from the team.
Although Yeatman was reinstated and will be back in the preseason, Notre Dame’s hopes for now appear to ride on sophomore Mike Ragone (6-5, 230), the only scholarship player at his position. Ragone has game experience, having played in 11 of them last year. But all of those minutes came on special teams.
Schmidt worked out at tight end during the spring, but the position is Ragone’s to lose.
Notre Dame’s offensive line was an unmitigated disaster last year. It played a major role in the Fighting Irish possessing the 115th-worst rushing offense in the Bowl Subdivision, and allowed a NCAA-record 58 sacks. From the rubble of that disaster, however, emerges a line that has the potential to be up to the Fighting Irish’s lofty standards.
The line spent a majority of spring practice not only talking about commitment and cohesiveness, but also locking down positions.
Whereas last spring and preseason offensive line practices resembled a game of musical chairs, with lineman practicing at two and three positions to make up for Notre Dame’s lack of depth, this spring’s featured more stability.
Take, for example, junior center Dan Wenger (6-4, 287). Wenger arrived in South Bend as a center, but he began last year as the starting right guard. He started the first three games there but missed the next four with an injury. When he returned, he did so back at center, and started the final two games for an injured John Sullivan.
Junior Sam Young (6-8, 310), who put on more than 40 pounds in the offseason, returned to right tackle during the spring, and Weis hopes he’ll be able to remain their to help with the run game. Young is the only Notre Dame offensive lineman to start every game in his first two years. But that will depend on senior left tackle Paul Duncan (6-7, 308). Duncan started the first two games last year at left tackle but was switched to the right side after Penn State sacked Notre Dame quarterbacks six times.
Weis is hoping the experience of last year will help his linemen maintain their positions.
“Everyone else now is a year more experienced than where they were last year,” Weis said. “And more than any other position on offense, the position where experience counts the most for quarterback [is the offensive line].”
Although the tackle and center positions appear solidified, guard should provide the most heated competition during the preseason. Junior Eric Olsen (6-4, 303) and senior Michael Turkovich (6-6, 301) are penciled in as the starters after starting last year. Turkovich started all 12 games last year at left guard after serving as a backup as a junior. He may have ascended the depth chart faster, but he suffered a neck injury as a sophomore.
Olson entered last preseason squarely on the second team. But because of injuries and poor play by his teammates, he found himself in the starting lineup at right guard by the sixth game at UCLA, and started the final six. During spring practice, Weis made note of Olson’s improved physical condition, which could help him hold onto his job.
Despite their breakout performances, Wenger and Olson will receive the most competition during the preseason, especially Olson. He’ll compete against junior Chris Stewart (6-5, 339), who began his career as a guard but switched to nose tackle last year, and freshman Trevor Robinson (6-5, 304), who arrived early from Elkhorn, Neb., and last year was considered one of the top five guards in the country.
“There’s a lot more competition than we have ever had there before,” Weis said. “We have never been able to line up two deep with guys that are actually contenders for the start-ers. I think any time you can have competition at a position that bodes well.”
For the second year in a row last year, Notre Dame’s kicking game was abysmal.
Sophomore Brandon Walker (6-3, 197) connected on four of his first five field goals, but then went 2-of-7 the rest of the year. Over the last two years, Fighting Irish kickers are 14-of-30.
To be fair to Walker, he arrived at Notre Dame from Findlay, Ohio, as a heralded punter, not kicker. In fact, he attempted only six field goals as a senior. And once he arrived in South Bend, he didn’t receive much in-game experience, because of the fact the Fighting Irish had the worst-ranked offense in the Bowl Subdivision and scored only 26 touchdowns.
Despite his struggles, Notre Dame appears ready to give Walker a second chance, as he is listed atop the depth chart at both place-kicker and kick-off specialist. He will have competition, but juniors Ryan Burkhart (5-11, 196) and Nate Whitaker (5-9, 170) are long shots after last year.
Burkhart exited last year’s spring practice as the favorite to win the place-kicker job, but instead didn’t play at all. Whitaker began last year as the kick-off specialist but lost that job to Walker the last two games. Burkhart could unburden Walker of kickoff specialist duties, because he filled that role as a freshman.
It’s hard to say what was decided regarding the defensive line during spring practice because of a pair of notable absences: senior nose tackle Pat Kuntz (6-2, 272) and junior defensive end John Ryan (6-5, 244).
Ryan, who sat out the spring after undergoing surgeries to repair right shoulder and sports hernia injuries, continued his quixotic journey through Notre Dame’s defense before this spring, when he once again switched positions, this time from outside linebacker to defensive end. Ryan played defensive end as a freshman but switched to linebacker last spring to take advantage of his speed in the 3-4 defense. He saw time at both positions last year, starting eight games at linebacker and two at defensive end. He finished the year with 39 tackles, including five for loss.
Kuntz, who withdrew from school for the spring semester because of personal reasons but was back with the team by the summer, started the first 10 games last year, registering 42 tackles, before succumbing to torn ligaments suffered against Air Force and a cracked bone in his back against Navy.
He was replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore Ian Williams (6-2, 300), who is listed as the No. 1 nose tackle heading into the preseason. If Kuntz returns healthy, he’s perhaps the Fighting Irish’s best defensive linemen. But because of Williams’ production last year, Kuntz could split time between nose tackle and defensive end.
“The way we are looking at it is we have a whole bunch of defensive linemen coming in the summertime,” Weis said about the defensive line’s personnel situation. “So this is the opportunity for them to make a statement and to put themselves in a position to say whether or not we can count on them.”
As for the players who did practice during the spring, senior Justin Brown (6-3, 261), junior Morrice Richardson (6-2, 244), or both will start at defensive end. Like Ryan, Richardson switched from outside linebacker to defensive end prior to this spring. Richardson was used primarily as a pass rusher last year, registering seven tackles, including a sack. Brown has plenty of experience, having played each of the last two years. He made five starts last year, including four in the final five games, finishing with 30 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. But he’s been unable to instill enough confidence in the coaching staff to insert him in the starting lineup on a full-time basis. One could argue that Brown is still developing, considering he played just one season in high school.
It’s a credit to Williams’ talent that he’s pushed Kuntz to the periphery, if only temporarily. Williams played in all 12 games last year and started the final two. He finished sixth on the team with 45 tackles, the third most by a freshman defensive lineman in Notre Dame history.
“Ian, production wise for the volume of plays that he played, was one of the best players on our entire defense last year,” Weis said. “Now, let’s see if we can’t do that for the whole season as a full-time player, because this is his opportunity to become a full-time player.”
The Fighting Irish have a number of talented backups on the defensive line, the most intriguing of whom is freshman Sean Cwynar (6-4, 283), one of two freshmen to enroll early. Cwynar, who was chosen Mr. Football in Illinois, received valuable repetitions during spring practice, which Weis believes will give him an advantage come the preseason.
“Because these guys get so many reps in the springtime, we are going to kind of know what our strengths and weaknesses are by the time we’re done,” Weis said. “We won’t have to wait until August to figure out, hey, we have a problem, or, hey, we are starting to resolve this problem.”
One of the main beneficiaries of Tenuta’s blitzing style will be sophomore outside linebacker Brian Smith (6-3, 233).
Smith impressed the coaching staff so much last year that he started the final three games, and he’s listed atop the depth chart this season.
Although classmate Kerry Neal (6-2, 245), who is No. 1 on the depth chart opposite Smith, made more of an impact, starting five games, it could be argued that Smith was more productive. Smith made 25 tackles, including four for loss, forced a fumble and intercepted a pass against Boston College that he returned for a touchdown.
But what gives Smith the potential to rise higher than Neal is his pass-rushing ability, which will be exploited by Tenuta. Weis even said that Smith could see time at defensive end.
Interchangeability between linebackers and defensive linemen will be the other theme this season, along with blitzing. Already Ryan and Richardson have been moved to the line, but seemingly could wind up back at linebacker. The same goes for junior linebacker Kallen Wade (6-5, 257), who played defensive end last year.
One player who won’t move is senior inside linebacker Maurice Crum, Jr. (6-0, 230). Even when the Fighting Irish’s defense has been bad, Crum has been good. Entering his third year as a starter, Crum needs 54 tackles to become one of Notre Dame’s top-10 all-time tacklers. Crum’s tackling numbers fell last year, from 100 to 84. But he was still productive, finishing with 4.5 tackles for loss and five pass breakups.
Although Crum is safe, junior inside linebacker Toryan Smith (6-1, 245) is not so lucky. Smith is penciled in as the starter opposite Crum after serving as a backup the last two years. But Weis made it clear during spring practice that he’d be quick to use the eraser.
“This is Toryan’s time right now,” Weis said. “He’s had opportunities to get on the field before, and we have not gotten a lot of production out of him, so this is his time. This is his time to step up.
“You know, he’s got some guys behind him that we’re encouraged with, and we’ve got reinforcements coming here in the summertime, so this is his time to make a name for himself.”
Weis and his coaching staff have a phrase they like to use when a player makes significant progress from one year to the next, or even one game to the next: The switch turned on.
Weis says the switch turned on last year for senior cornerback David Bruton (6-2, 207), a Nagurski National Defensive Player-of-the-Year Award candidate.
“He was a skinny kid when he first got here, so you can write off the first year as physically developing from 185 pounds to a 200-plus pound person,” Weis said. “But the difference is now, everything he does — you know how I talked about one of the team goals is confidence and swagger? Well, he already plays with it.”
Bruton earned defensive MVP honors in last year’s spring game, and never looked back. The former special-teams ace, who still serves the role of gunner on kickoffs and punts, finished third on the team in tackles with 85 and picked off three passes.
In order to avoid looking like a one-hit wonder, Bruton entered this season’s spring practice with lower body fat and a higher vertical leap. His work ethic impressed teammates enough that he was voted one of the captains. He’s also apparently impressing NFL scouts, who consider him one of the top prospects on the team.
“If you went into the season with any favorites to be the type of guy that would pull the position with him, he would be the favorite at the defensive back position,” Weis said of Bruton’s leadership skills.
Although Bruton’s the unquestioned leader of the secondary, he’s not its most experienced member. That honor belongs to fifth-year senior cornerback Terrail Lambert (5-11, 196).
Lambert has made 22 consecutive starts at cornerback, and played in more games than any other current player over the last three years. His tackle (34) and interception (one) numbers dropped between his sophomore and junior years, but Lambert was an integral part of a pass defense that ranked second in the country behind Ohio State.
Opposite Lambert for the second year in a row will be junior Darrin Walls (6-0, 180). Walls filled up the stats sheet last year, making 32 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, picking off a pass, and breaking up a team-leading nine passes.
With two of the cornerbacks and free safety settled, the only position competition will occur at strong safety, where Notre Dame must replace Tom Zbikowski. The leading candidate to do so is senior Kyle McCarthy (6-1, 207), who played the best in the spring. McCarthy has been solid during his career, appearing in 25 games, but never spectacular enough to warrant anything but a back-up role. He appeared in 12 games last year, making one start against Navy. His forte is defending the run.
McCarthy’s main competition will come from senior Ray Herring (5-10, 197), who sat out all but four games last year with an injury, junior Sergio Brown (6-1, 196), who played primarily special teams, and sophomore Harrison Smith (6-2, 205), who didn’t play at all.
The only other wildcard in the defensive backfield could be sophomore cornerback Gary Gray (5-11, 180). Gray was one of the top-rated cornerbacks out of high school and enrolled early at Notre Dame, but he was limited because of an arm injury he incurred in the spring and appeared in seven games on special teams.
The loss of Geoff Price, Notre Dame’s second-best punter of all time in terms of yards per punt, hurts. But it’s not Weis’ chief concern.
Price suffered a significant drop-off in production last year, so much he was replaced at times by junior Eric Maust (6-2, 177). When Price was injured against Navy, Maust filled in the final three games and performed well enough that he has the job heading into the preseason.
Maust averaged a team-best 42.1 yards on 21 kicks last year, and landed nine of those inside the 20-yard line. That was compared to 11 on 54 kicks inside the 20 for Price. Maust is also a standout pitcher on the Fighting Irish’s baseball team, compiling a 6-3 record with a 4.52 ERA in the spring.
Maust’s competition will be Brandon Walker, who was a top-10 rated punter in high school. Walker, however, is already handling place-kicking and kickoff duties, and asking him to do all three might be too much.
When it comes to special teams, Weis is like an amateur golfer searching for that one tip that will transform him from a 20-handicap into the club champion. Last year he instructed his coaches to find players who could make an impact on special teams. But that didn’t work, as the Fighting Irish once again struggled in both the kicking and return games. So this spring, Weis and special teams coordinator Brian Polian visited with Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer, a special-teams guru whose teams have turned blocking kicks and punts into a cottage industry.
“The first thing I want to find out is how do you block so many kicks?” Weis said before his visit. “[When] they have been involved in a close football game over the years, almost always they end up winning because of special-teams play. So he must be a heck of a lot smarter than me, so I’m going to tap into that brain of his and find out if I can get a couple of answers.”
Weis came back with some schematic changes that were installed during the spring, and he’ll add a few more in the summer. Weis will also employ an old Beamer trick and start attending special teams meetings with Polian and his players in an effort to hammer home their accountability and the importance of the unit.
Poor kick returning has a trickle-down affect on offense in the form of field position. The Fighting Irish didn’t have great field position last year, considering they averaged 19.7 yards per kick return, which ranked 94th out of 119 teams.
To help improve his team’s return numbers, Weis elevated Walls to first-string kick-returner, ahead of last year’s No. 1, Allen. Walls returned five kicks for 84 yards as a freshman, but took last year off, focusing on cornerback duties. Despite Walls’ promotion, Weis will no doubt explore all his options until something clicks. That includes Allen, who averaged 21.3 yard per return on 33 returns last year, and Tate, who averaged 21.7 yards on 15 returns.
The job of punt returner is up for grabs, as none of the three players on the depth chart returned one last year. Senior David Grimes was the team’s best kickoff returner his freshman and sophomore years, but he took last year off to focus on wide receiver. Allen will also receive a shot, along with junior George West, who returned one kickoff last year for 22 yards.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Grading the Fighting Irish
Special teams B-
Last season Notre Dame suffered through its worst campaign since 1963, when the Fighting Irish went 2-7. It was so disheartening for Notre Dame fans that it’s hard to pick the lowlight. Perhaps it was the back-to-back losses to Air Force and Navy, or the fact that the Fighting Irish’s offense ranked near the bottom of the Bowl Subdivision, despite being loaded with blue-chip prospects and All-America candidates.
The blood letting was so thorough head coach Charlie Weis hired a defensive guru John Tenuta for defensive coordinator Corwin Brown, and demoted himself from offensive czar with full play-calling privileges to just another member of the offensive democracy.
The questions, however, are whether the Fighting Irish learned from their public humiliation, and if Weis’ coaching changes will make an impact.
Clausen should be better, as will his offensive line. But his wide receivers don’t strike fear into the hearts of opponents, unless Kamara can accelerate his progression. And none of the running backs appear willing to seize the starting job. Aldridge will probably receive one more chance before Weis hands it over to Hughes and Allen.
The defense will be better with the return of eight starters and the addition of Tenuta. The only potential problem area will be finding a regular rotation between defensive lineman and linebacker, because so many of them can play both.
Special teams could be a problem area, but will be an afterthought if Notre Dame doesn’t get going on offense.
The schedule is unusually tame, with only a home game against Michigan and road encounter at USC to end the season standing out as nearly impossible wins.
Throw it all together, and Notre Dame will be better than last year, of that there’s no doubt. This season, however, is simply a precursor to next year’s, when the Fighting Irish should excel.