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June 22, 2008
THE SCHEME: The Irish run a pro set.
STAR POWER:You're not going to find much star power on an offense that gained the fewest yards of any team in the nation last year, but sophomore tailback Robert Hughes offers the greatest reason for optimism. Hughes rushed for 115 yards against Duke and 139 against Stanford in the final two games of his freshman season. He followed that up with a 100-yard effort in the Blue-Gold Game.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: True freshman wide receiver Michael Floyd is a five-star prospect who should immediately establish himself as one of Jimmy Clausen's favorite targets. Aside from the occasional big play by Golden Tate, the Irish didn't have many long completions last season. Floyd ought to emerge as the deep threat that Notre Dame is sorely missing.
IT'S HIS TIME: Notre Dame's chances of bouncing back depend on how well the line fares after a woeful 2007 performance. And the line probably won't establish itself as a force until right tackle Sam Young lives up to expectations. An injured right wrist bothered Young throughout his sophomore season. Young is entering his third year as a starter, so it's a bit unfair to call him a disappointment, but he hasn't delivered the consistency you'd expect from a five-star prospect.
STRONGEST AREA: Notre Dame has plenty of young talent at tailback. Hughes' late-season surge probably gives him the upper hand to open the season as the starter, but former five-star prospect James Aldridge and four-star prospect Armando Allen have upside. While neither Aldridge nor Allen has delivered many big plays, both certainly are capable of big things – assuming they have room to run. The line's ineffectiveness made it tough to run the ball last season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: What more can be said about the line? After giving up a school-record and NCAA-leading 58 sacks last season and "paving" the way for a running game that gained just 2.1 yards per carry, there's really nowhere to go but up. The Irish return five linemen who made at least five starts last season. Whether that's a good thing remains to be seen.
OVERVIEW: Notre Dame has plenty of experienced players on offense, but the Irish also have plenty of questions. Will Clausen live up to his potential after a freshman season full of growing pains? Will the offensive line finally give Clausen time to throw the ball? Was Hughes' late-season surge a mirage or a sign of things to come? We're guessing Notre Dame won't have to wait until the fourth game to score its first offensive touchdown this season, but everything rides on the line's performance. If they perform like a typical Notre Dame offensive line, the Irish should regain respectability. If they remain at their 2007 form, it's going to be another long season in South Bend.
THE SCHEME: The Irish have multiple sets and can alternate between a 4-3 and a 3-4.
STAR POWER: While he often was overshadowed by teammate Tom Zbikowski, senior free safety David Bruton had emerged as the best performer in the secondary by the end of the 2007 season. Bruton had three interceptions and 55 solo tackles to rank first on the team in both categories. He finished the season with 85 total tackles, including 28 stops in Notre Dame's final three games.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Notre Dame's severe lack of depth on the line should allow freshman Ethan Johnson to make an immediate impact as a pass-rushing end. Although a sprained knee caused the four-star prospect to miss almost his entire senior season at Portland (Ore.) Lincoln High, Johnson had a combined 24 sacks his sophomore and junior seasons while playing defensive tackle.
IT'S HIS TIME: After patiently waiting behind Zbikowski the past three years, senior strong safety Kyle McCarthy finally gets a chance to open a season in the starting lineup. McCarthy's solid performance in spring practice suggests he's ready to make the most of that opportunity.
STRONGEST AREA: Remember when the secondary annually was considered Notre Dame's biggest weakness? That's not the case anymore. The Irish have upgraded their recruiting at this position so much that you can make a case they're stronger in the secondary than anywhere else on the field. Bruton has star potential at free safety, while cornerbacks Darrin Walls and Terrail Lambert performed well enough last season to help the Irish rank second in the nation in pass defense and 22nd in pass efficiency defense. While the Irish will miss Zbikowski at strong safety, their secondary still features plenty of playmakers.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: You can make a good argument that no defensive player meant more to his team last season than Trevor Laws, who led all defensive linemen in the nation with 112 tackles while alternating between tackle and end. His departure leaves Notre Dame desperately thin on the line. The Irish need nose tackle Ian Williams to take a giant step forward in his sophomore year and have to hope that someone (Morrice Richardson or converted Pat Kuntz?) has a breakthrough season at end.
OVERVIEW: The back seven should be fine. The secondary is deep and talented, and fifth-year senior Maurice Crum is a solid player who leads a talented linebacking corps. The Irish would love to see Crum deliver more dominant performances that resemble his effort against UCLA last year, but they're not going to complain about a guy who has delivered 184 tackles over the past two seasons. Notre Dame doesn't offer much of a pass rush, but the secondary is good enough to frustrate opposing teams if the Irish's offense ever could give them an early lead. As for the run defense, considering that the Irish ranked 97th in the nation in run defense with Laws, it's tough to imagine them stopping many running backs without him.
Irish special teams have been a mess the last few years, which explains why coach Charlie Weis visited Virginia Tech this spring. Weis also named himself Notre Dame's assistant special teams coach. If we had to single out one part of the kicking game that needs the most improvement, we'd probably cite sophomore kicker Brandon Walker's inconsistency. He could struggle to keep his job after going 6-for-12 on field-goal attempts last season, including 1-for-7 from at least 30 yards out. Junior Nate Whitaker likely will get a shot at the job. Junior Eric Maust averaged 42.1 yards per punt last year as a backup to Geoff Price. The Irish will miss Zbikowski, an explosive punt returner who averaged 10.2 yards per return last year.
Weis probably deserves an "A" for his first two seasons on the job and a "D" or "F" for his performance last season, but we're not merely grading the head coach here. Weis has assembled a talented group of assistants that garnered even more star power with the acquisition of former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta as the new linebacker coach. Tenuta's blitzing schemes certainly bothered Notre Dame during the Irish's season-opening 33-3 loss to Georgia Tech last season. It will be interesting to see how the offense responds now that Weis has handed the play-calling responsibilities to Mike Haywood. And how will second-year defensive coordinator Corwin Brown co-exist with Tenuta?
If you've looked at the letter grades we've handed out, you're probably wondering how we can have the Irish at No. 40. The schedule is a major reason. As much as last season's schedule was the worst possible for an inexperienced team struggling to gain confidence, this season's is ideal for a squad attempting to bounce back from a disappointing season. The Irish have a near-certain victory against San Diego State to open the season and follow that up with a golden opportunity for an eye-opening home victory against a Michigan team that has to replace plenty of key players on offense. Don't be surprised if USC is the only Notre Dame opponent to appear in The Associated Press preseason rankings.
Don't expect a repeat of last season's 3-9 disaster. The Irish learned too many lessons to let that happen again. Then again, it's also probably asking too much to believe Notre Dame can make it back to BCS contention one year after delivering one of the worst seasons in school history. Clausen still has to prove he's as good as advertised, and he won't get that chance unless the offensive line makes major strides. Even if Notre Dame's offense regains its footing, it might not get on the field if a suspect defensive line fails to stop teams from running the ball. Last season, we figured the Irish would go 7-5 and end their postseason losing streak by winning a second-tier bowl. We were way off the mark with that prediction, but it seems like a legit forecast for 2008.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.