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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of Notre Dame

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A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about Notre Dame...
2006 Record
Past Five Years
Returning Starters, Roughly
10 (4 Offense, 6 Defense)
Best Player
At the risk of drawing the thunder-fisted ire of Tom Zbikowski, the ongoing secondary issues and lack of a single pick in ’06 leads me instead to the only recognizable figure on the offense, for those not obsessing over grainy Spring video: tight end John Carlson, who averaged five catches and 69 yards over the first nine games before missing all or most of the final four. Fans might remember Carlson from his wide open touchdown gallop against Michigan State, one of four on the year, and one of the reasons he’ll be the go-to guy for the new quarterback early on in a very tight end-friendly system.
Bizarre Tradition
Other than losing in bowl games - zing! - since the 1960s, it seems Notre Dame is the school more than any other that claims "tradition" as its tradition. As Joe Paterno once told his players (or twice, or 30 times, who’s counting?), Knute Rockne is not going to crawl out of the ground and tackle anyone, but the sublime hokum of Notre Dame Football is its own informal industry: the Web is full of preservation efforts, Irish video archives, Notre Dame Football Weekends in conjunction with the College Football Hall of Fame and innumerable paeans to the Four Horsemen, helmet flecks, green jerseys, Beano Cook, etc., which everybody knows. And because everyone hates Notre Dame, which is a tradition all its own. But two very weird, related rituals I didn’t know until I started snooping around the ND wormhole: the post-third quarter rendition of the 1812 Overture, sans cannon, followed by very respectful silence during the run-of-the-mill safety announcement, as demonstrated during last fall’s win over Army:

There is a deep sociological lesson to be assessed – and thesis to be written, no doubt - when contrasting this arcane behavior with Wisconsin’s raucous between-quarters "Jump Around," for example, but sidebars are only so long.

What's Changed: Offensive numbers here havebeen pretty stout of late, and are of such little consequence for predictive purposes, since the android-like precision of Manchurian Candidate Brady Quinn, Darius Walker, Jeff Samardzijaifasza, Rhema McKnight and four senior offensive linemen, obliterated by eligibility, begets at best a sort of ominous spark flashing in a smoldering stack of indistinguishable scrap. There is no defensible reason to fear this fall's potentially freshman-laden offense, no hidden indicator of strength or danger. And yet... and yet...

Weis has his depth chart, but just lost his appetite.
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Charlie Weis' molding of the eminently lackluster Quinn into something that so closely resembled a Most Outstanding finalist and top ten draft pick over two years was the work of a first-rate mad scientist, topped only by the conversion of the piddling, cloud-of-dust offense into a West Coast-y, multi-receiver passing threat, and where did it get him? No championships, no BCS wins, and now no quarterbacks, no running backs, one and a half receivers (David Grimes is borderline) and two linemen with a little experience. Square one.

Man for man, this offense will be more talented than either of the last two versions, if recruiting data is to be believed, but the only reliable faces are tight end John Carlson and tackle Sam Young, and it will be a year at least before Jimmeh Clausen or Evan Sharpley or whoever acquires the assembly line mechanics required to carry the offense without the support of a running game most often deployed as a change of pace - with Darius Walker and a veteran line working against defenses attuned to Quinn and the receivers, the Irish still only averaged a little under four yards per carry, and just 3.3 against winning teams. If this offense is going to succeed, it will have to improve that rate and become desperately possessive and sticky-fingered with the ball.

There is a big defensive change, too, in coordinator Corwin Brown, but we're coming that...

What's the Same: Three secondary holdovers - Terrail Lambert, Ambrose Wooden and Tom Zbikowski - return, the latter two as third-year starters severely maligned for their perceived tendency to give up big plays against the best receivers the past two years. A warranted perception? We can compare the Irish secondary's performance against those of its desired peer group last year:

Notre Dame Pass Defense vs. Top Ten, 2006
Comp. % 15+ 25+ Yds./Att. TD % Eff. Rank
Florida 53.3 69 15 5.6 2.2 4
Ohio State 58.3 50 12 5.7 2.4 10
LSU 47.3 47 15 5.2 3.0 3
Southern Cal 54.6 66 21 6.1 2.9 22
Boise State 57.2 56 21 6.4 4.3 33
Louisville 50.2 59 31 6.8 2.9 23
Wisconsin 47.8 35 11 4.7 1.6 1
Michigan 53.7 62 25 6.0 3.9 25
Auburn 54.8 47 19 6.5 3.8 30
West Virginia 57.4 81 31 7.4 4.0 63
Top 10 Avg. 53.5 57.2 20.1 6.1 3.1 21.4
Notre Dame 55.2 54 25 7.8 7.1 90

I'm not going to call Notre Dame "slow" back there, because Phil Steele lists Wooden as sub-4.3 and Zbikowski can be a blur with the ball in his hands in addition to knocking your cuticles off. He's listed at 4.3, too, while Lambert was a top 20 corner prospect out of high school and therefore, one would assume, a sufficient athlete. Simple foot speed does not appear to be the culprit. The defensive line also had 31 sacks last year, close to the top ten average (35) and better than Wisconsin, for example, whose significantly more lightly-recruited DBs were about as impenetrable as modern rules allow. The Irish didn't have to cover people for an unusually long time, in other words, or defend unusually confident, measured throws.

It's about taking the next step: from "in the picture" to "got a hand on him."
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But the big play knock clearly has legs beyond the anecdotal. A couple things stand out from the numbers above, aside from Notre Dame's ghastly pass efficiency defense rank - for one, opponents weren't really throwing at will, as evidenced by their perfectly mediocre completion percentage (55 percent), and weren't hitting a terribly large number of "explosive" plays (Louisville, Michigan and especially West Virginia gave up as many or more 25-plus-yard passes, yet came out way ahead in terms of efficiency). The two areas that really show up as problems are yards per attempt, where ND allowed a full yard more than any other team here except West Virginia, and opponents' touchdown percentage (the Irish allowed touchdowns on 7.1 percent of passes they faced), which is not even in the ballpark of anyone else on this list and ranks alongside the absolute worst in the country. Yards per completion (14.1, a good three yards above the average of the top ten above) kept the same company, with the likes of Buffalo, Utah State and Louisiana Tech. That's a lot of receivers running open, and it doesn't take so much research to remember who they were:
Calvin Johnson: 7 catches, 111 yds. (15.9), 1 TD
Mario Manningham: 4 catches, 137 yds. (34.3), 3 TD
Kerry Reed: 2 catches, 49 yards (24.5), 2 TD
Selwyn Lymon: 8 catches, 238 yds. (29.8), 2 TD
Marcus Everett: 6 catches, 102 yds. (17.0), 1 TD
Dwayne Jarrett: 7 catches, 132 yds. (18.9), 3 TD
Dwayne Bowe: 5 catches, 78 yds. (15.6), 1 TD (JaMarcus Russell also happened to complete two 58-yard passes in this game to Brandon LaFell and Early Doucet, respectively)

Four of those big games came in Notre Dame wins, three of them (Georgia Tech, Michigan State, UCLA) of the dramatic, come-from-behind variety. The variety that, given the wholesale lack of experience offensively, are more likely to go the other way without a significant reversal of this trend - and, per the game-saving Leinart-Jarrett fourth down bomb in South Bend in '05 and the Fiesta Bowl later that year, it's very safe to note the big play bug is more than a one-year anomaly. The experience here is a positive sign for improvement, but Brown's influence will have to be on par with DeWayne Walker's similarly NFL-infused overhaul against the run at UCLA if ND is supposed to have any hope of keeping those situations in its favor, and he will have to find a way to shore up the scheme without the significant pass rushing talents of Victor Abiamiri and the underrated Derek Landri. That could mean more blitzing, with a capital 'B,' and that stands for `burned.'

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter: Whatever Jeff Samardzijasifarama may think of the situation from his perspective in the minor leagues, the Spring game introduced one improbably-named Junior Jabby as the clubhouse leader for the starting running back job. Or at least, you know, he's in contention with yo-yo'd, sometime-linebacker Travis Thomas and highly prized '06 recruit James Aldridge.

That's more than we know about the quarterbacks, about whom Charlie Weis would say at the end of drills, "None of the four I would say ever played themselves out of contention." So as far as an endorsement, there you go. Every pass during camp was recorded, its path to be traced in infrared with jeweler's glasses, until the final two are announced, possibly some time next week. The only relevant information about the competition to date for non-obsessives: G-Code disciple and recently arrested/cleared Demetrius Jones is the runner of the bunch, which is antithetical to the offense to date if he can't throw as well, but Weis is afraid enough of the current passing situation to gear the scheme towards "establishing toughness," etc., which the offense "started to get away from" last year, mainly because it didn't need it. And wasn't particularly good at it, unless you count games against the service academies.

Notre Dame on YouTube: Rudy is not a great movie, but perhaps it could have been with this five-year-old in place of Charles Dutton's groundskeeper:

Alas, child labor laws.

See Also: The real Rudy, and his one anti-climatic play against Georgia Tech in 1975 ... The four quarterbacks toss it around in the Spring, along with an, um, interesting exchange of ideas between Tom Zbikowski and John Carlson ... A couple Heisman winners, John Huarte and Roger Staubach, duel in 1964 ... And, of course, Knute Rockne fires 'em up.

Jimmy's got some new moves...Check Jimmy out...
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Best-Case: The first eight games are pretty unrelenting: at Penn State, at Michigan, at UCLA and against suspected juggernaut USC in South Bend, without even getting into Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Boston College and Purdue. That's a hell of a two-month run, and even in most optimistic terms, it's not reasonable to expect such a young team to do much better than breaking even. If Weis can coax one better than that out of them heading into a suspiciously easy November (Navy, Air Force, Duke, Stanford), he'll have earned new respect from this space with a 9-3 mark. A BCS bowl is not on the radar, but the Gator, maybe.

Worst-Case: It's so much easier to envision new guys being awful than good, and when thrust into an opening eight-game stretch in which they could be the underdog every week, it's easy to see things going very wrong, very fast. Michigan State and Purdue probably represent the best opportunities to avoid going completely winless before the process softens considerably, and ND might have to take both of them, or upset somebody else, to even have a bowl bid on the line down the stretch. The Irish were .500 or worse four of the six years prior to Weis' arrival, and could easily make a temporary stop back in 5-7 purgatory before expectations rise again.

Non-Binding Forecast: I don't see any way the bubble around a pair of BCS teams doesn't burst here in fairly spectacular fashion. Again, Notre Dame has taken so many of its close games the last two years - 3-0 in games decided by one score in '06 - but hasn't been nearly as competitive in losses. That's a potentially ugly trade-off: two or three close, come-from-behind wins can become losses with such little experience on hand, but there are no corresponding close losses to "turn" that might balance that. Even given a very likely 4-0 finish, a final line of 7-5 - meaning three wins among the first eight - seems rather generous at this point to power of the brand.

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Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments...

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida April 20: Southern Miss April 25: Southern Cal May 1: North Texas
May 3: SMU May 8: Nevada May 14: Tennessee May 21: TCU
May 24: Notre Dame May 29: UAB May 30: Georgia