As you can tell from our season predictions, we’re a pretty bullish bunch heading into the 2006 season. Of course, at this time last year, our 2005 predictions seemed pretty optimistic to those who had not been following the program as closely. At the time, Jay (and Mister Señor Love Daddy) tried to temper our enthusiasm by recounting the upcoming season’s potential landmines. With national championship fervor gripping Notre Dame Nation, it seemed appropriate to once again catalog some of the reasons Notre Dame might fall short of our predictions.
This will also give Notre Dame haters plausible reasons to downgrade Notre Dame’s chances this year, rather than resorting to arguments that make their author look foolish, such as that Notre Dame can’t win because “Tyrone Willingham had a better first year in South Bend than Charlie Weis did” or "Brady Quinn isn't good."
Can We Kick It? Unfortunately, I’m still a long way from asserting, “Yes, we can!” Last year, the departed D.J. Fitzpatrick handled almost all the kicking duties – placekicking, punting, and kicking off – despite Weis’s statements that he preferred to divide these duties among several guys. That Fitzpatrick carried this load says something about Weis’s confidence level in the other kickers on the roster. Freshman placekicker Ryan Burkhart arrived in August and punter Geoff Price has reportedly made considerable strides this offseason after consulting with Hunter Smith. Nonetheless, neither is game-tested, and at this point Carl Gioia and Bobby Renkes appear to have won the placekicking and kickoff duties, respectively.
I know many believe that Notre Dame’s explosive offense will diminish the importance of the kicking game this year. I’m not so sure. Although I am usually loathe to accord much weight to unquantifiable factors, I am a big believer in momentum in college football. Missed and blocked kicks are often the triggers for decisive momentum shifts.
Just last season, we witnessed how an ineffective kicking game can transform what could have been a walkover into a last-minute victory. In the second to last game of the regular season, Fitzpatrick was injured while punting on a late hit that drew a roughing flag. Although Fitzpatrick was clearly still showing the effects of the injury the following week against Stanford, Weis apparently believed Fitzpatrick remained his best option. The ensuing kicking problems kept the game in doubt until the final minute despite the fact that Notre Dame outgained Stanford 663 yards to 336 yards. (In other words, Notre Dame outgained Stanford by 58 more yards than OSU outgained Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.) In the second half, Fitzpatrick missed an extra point and two field goals. On a fourth-quarter kickoff, Gioia managed only 52 yards, a contributing factor in T.J. Rushing’s kickoff-return touchdown. Notre Dame’s weaknesses in the kicking game contributed to a 14-point swing in Stanford’s favor and reveal why Notre Dame could not pull away from Stanford during a fourth quarter that saw Quinn throw just one incomplete pass.
If Fitzpatrick’s successors cannot approach Fitzpatrick’s 2005 performance, there could be a game or two where the special teams create a deficit that even Notre Dame’s potent offense cannot erase.
Beneath The Surface. While Notre Dame can trot out a starting lineup full of former high-school All Americans and blue-chip recruits, questions abound regarding the backups. That nine freshman already find their names on the two-deep says as much about Notre Dame’s pressing depth concerns as it does about the talent of Weis’s first full class. A dearth of depth can cause problems a couple of different ways.
- Hurt. The most obvious way depth issues can derail Notre Dame’s season is injuries. At several positions, losing a starter leaves the Irish with extremely limited options. Last year, Notre Dame was relatively injury-free, though there were certainly times when the absences of injured starters Rhema McKnight and Chris Frome were felt. I’d like to think the team’s health is attributable to Strength & Conditioning Coach Ruben Mendoza and Weis’s practice regime. I’ve been told of how certain changes the two have instituted have helped in this regard, but I must confess that I lack the expertise to evaluate these claims. If Notre Dame is to make a run at the national championship, there are several positions where the Irish simply cannot afford significant injuries.
- Over Your Shoulder. Another area in which depth helps is motivation. During Southern Cal’s recent 34-game winning streak, the Trojans played most of the games with huge targets on their backs. With but a few exceptions, their opponents were undoubtedly more excited about playing Southern Cal than the Trojans were about facing their opponent. This disparity gave Southern Cal’s opponents a motivational edge. However, Southern Cal players had their own source of motivation. Pete Carroll’s recruiting successes left Southern Cal with plentiful depth. Some of Southern Cal’s backups would probably have started for several other top-25 teams. This depth meant that the Trojans were constantly fighting for playing time. Though at times they may have taken their opponents lightly, Southern Cal players had to know that if they didn’t make the most of their time on the field, they would be replaced. This pressure mitigated opponents’ motivational edge. While Notre Dame is not in the middle of a 34-game winning streak, the Irish’s lofty ranking and the caterwauling about Notre Dame’s media presence mean that Notre Dame will be playing with a bigger-than-usual target on its back this season. Looking at the schedule, several teams will be a good deal more excited about playing Notre Dame than Notre Dame will be about playing them. Unfortunately, at this point I don’t believe that the Irish are so talented that internal competition will provide them with their own source of motivation.
A Time To Be So Small. While many in the media have pointed to the secondary as the defense’s weak link, I am more concerned about the linebackers. Of the starting linebackers, only Maurice Crum, Jr. has seen significant playing time as a linebacker. However, that experience did not come at MLB, where Crum will be playing this year. At 220 lbs., Crum is smaller than the prototypical MLB. Newly minted linebacker Travis Thomas clearly exhibited a “defensive mentality” on special teams, but has not seen the field on defense in college. He also checks in at 215 lbs. At this point, Mitchell Thomas and Anthony Vernaglia are set to split time at strongside linebacker. Thomas and Vernaglia bring more size at 232 and 230 lbs., respectively. However, I can’t help but recall Lou Holtz's saying that when you don’t have a clear starter you really have two backups. I am concerned how Notre Dame’s undersized linebackers will fare against power rushing attacks.
Weis specifically addressed the size of the linebackers in a recent press conference, appearing unconcerned:
"Size is a factor in a 3-4 defense," Weis said. "In a four-man front, size is not a factor. It lets (linebackers) run to the ball."Additionally, this year’s schedule does not feature many teams likely to try to cram the ball down the defense’s throat. Michigan would be the most likely candidate, particularly with a quality between-the-tackles running back like Mike Hart. However, Michigan’s offensive line does not appear very frightening on paper and recent history suggests Michigan needs several games to figure out what they want to do with their offensive line.
While the Irish may dodge the kind of power running attack that could exploit the linebackers’ size during the regular season, this could be an issue in the bowl game. During the regular season, the bigger concern will probably be wear and tear on the linebackers.
Rushed and Rushed and Attacked. It’s hard – if not impossible – to be a successful defense without an effective pass rush. While Jappy Oliver expects Victor Abiamiri to make plays this year even when double teamed, Notre Dame simply needs more production from the weakside defensive end position. Chris Frome is technically sound but coming off an injury. Ronald Talley made plays at times filling in for the injured Frome, but at other times his inexperience showed. Has Frome fully recovered? Will a more experienced Talley improve significantly on his 2005 performance? If the Irish can’t get more production at WDE, the lack of pass rush could cancel out any improvements in the secondary.
All We Have Is Now. This year will be the last campaign for many key players. Quinn, Harris, Morton, Santucci, Samardzija, McKnight, Freeman, Abiamiri, Landri, Frome, Richardson, and Ndukwe are all in their final year of eligibility. Zbikowski is almost certain to forego a fifth-year of eligibility, and Sullivan and Laws are also candidates to enter the NFL after this year. Following this massive outflow of talent, 2006 will be the year Notre Dame really suffers for the sins of Tyrone Willingham’s recruiting seasons past. As previously detailed, next year’s senior class will have just nine members. (Since that post, Junior Jabbie has returned to the team as a backup running back, but medical issues ended Abdel Banda’s playing career.) Notre Dame will have fewer seniors than it will have departing starters. Note that there is not a single offensive lineman in that class. Thus Notre Dame will be breaking in an inexperienced quarterback behind an offensive line that is not only inexperienced but also quite young. There will be considerable pressure to win now. Should the Irish drop a September game, will the team be able to maintain focus and work their way back in to the national title hunt?