Monday, April 5, 2010

Irish Blogger Gathering: We Never Graduate Style

Spring means quite a few things in South Bend. The snow on the ground has melted, the Irish basketball season has ended in a disappointing fashion, thousands of students are coming up with inappropriate Bookstore Basketball team names that they can sneak by the committee instead of studying, the Irish swim team is looking into purchasing two, huge, succulent, delicious pigs, and the Irish football team is returning to the practice field.

To celebrate the start of spring practice I've joined the Irish Blogger Gathering coordinated by the blog Subway Domer. These are six questions ND blogs all across the interwebs are breaking down to get back into the swing of thinking pigskin.

One last thing before I start. I'd like to say a quick farewell to the blog Blue-Gray Sky. They decided to call it quits this spring which was a sad day for ND fans everywhere. For five years they provided fantastic insight and coverage of the football team and I think everyone who had the opportunity to stop by the website couldn't help but be impressed. BGS will be sorely missed.

Without further ado, the IBG questions.

1. Notre Dame is looking at vast changes on both sides of the ball. Kelly will implement his version of the "Spread," which is run at an excruciating pace, and the Irish defense will, once again, make the transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4. Asking to pick one side of the ball that intrigues you the most would be a disservice to us all. Instead, list your biggest hope and your biggest fear for both the offense and the defense.

Let's start on the offensive side of the ball. For how incredible our offensive firepower was last year we still had countless mental errors each game where we loaded the gun, aimed down at our feet, and fired. Our heart stopping finishes last year may have been responsible for weakening my heart and taking two to three years off the end of my life, but game in and game out our self-destructive tendencies pushed me closer and closer to an instant brain aneurysm. Stupid false start penalties, holding calls, and embarrassing red zone productivity all consistently sabotaged an offense that was so explosive it should never have come off the field without putting points on the board. My biggest hope is that Brian Kelly's focus on attention to detail and discipline will eradicate a lot of these issues, partially for the team and partially for my own health.

My biggest fear on offense resides under the knee pad of one Dayne Crist. For whatever reason everyone just assumes this kid will be ready to go in the fall. Since you see him running around in drills this spring it's easy to forget this guy blew out his ACL five months ago, an injury that takes at least 9-12 months to heal. Now with Jimmy Clausen in the NFL our depth chart includes 2009 third-string Pasadena Community College quarterback Nate Montana in the two-deep (what in the name of Gary Godsey is going on?!?!).

We're putting all our eggs in the "Dayne will bounce back" basket and frankly that petrifies me. Forget the fact that he's expected to learn and orchestrate a brand new offense; this is an offense that requires the quarterback to run more than any scheme we've employed since Lou left town (the Ty Willingham "Carlyle, run around and make something happen while I adjust my headset" offense of 2002 doesn't apply because they weren't designed runs). I love Dayne Crist's charisma and his potential, but a torn ACL is truly a two-year healing process. I can already picture him saying the knee feels great in August...and then admitting at the beginning of spring practice 2011 that it was probably at about 75% all year.

On defense my biggest hope is that the secondary does another 180 and goes back to being a unit that is one of the strengths of the team rather than the one that underachieves the most. In order to do that Darrin Walls, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton need to start fulfilling the potential they've flashed in spurts, Harrison Smith needs to remember this is tackle football and not two-hand touch, and one or two of the younger guys (Danny McCarthy, Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta) need to emerge as viable options. I really like the talent assembled back there (and quite honestly I like the overall talent of the entire defense); it's just a matter of whether the coaching staff will finally be able to translate potential into production.

The biggest defensive fear is that in spite of a philosophical change (from 4-3 to 3-4 and from the most bullheaded coordinator in history to Bob Diaco) we still have to outscore our opponents because we can't get stops when we need them. Cincinnati had a pretty terrible defense last season but a lot of that had to do with the fact that they had to replace ten starters from the '08 campaign (hell, Demetrius Jones was pressed into a starting role at linebacker, that's really all you need to know about the depth they had). Diaco has a very aggressive style of play (Cincy was at the top of the country in tackles for loss) and my fear is that if the young guys don't come along quickly the entire defense will be exposed and crumble just like Tenuta's did.

2. The mainstream media, and ESPN in particular, have been riding Brian Kelly's jock for about a year now, and were collectively praying for Notre Dame to fire Weis and hire Kelly. Do you agree, or disagree with this statement? What changes in media coverage do you think we will see in 2010 and beyond?

I agree about the Weis part, disagree about the Kelly part. I think a ton of people in the media were looking forward to Weis' eventual demise because he'd made such a terrible impression during his first couple years at Notre Dame. He had an arrogant, condescending attitude and burned bridges with lots of people with column space very quickly (a DC local but nationally known example: John Feinstein). So yes, I believe they were all looking forward to him devour a large slice of humble pie but I think it had more to do with Charlie Weis the person than with Notre Dame.

When it comes to Kelly to ND I don't think the media could have cared less. There are plenty of people that think that when Notre Dame is doing well it is good for college football. There are equally as many people who like nothing more than seeing Notre Dame wallow in mediocrity. I think people at ESPN would have rather seen Urban Meyer or Bob Stoops take the position just because that would've been a mega-story that would've grabbed headlines every day until Geraldo uncovered a Nike sweatshop in the basement of Tiger's mansion.

I don't see many changes in media coverage forthcoming. There will be those that constantly hate on Notre Dame whether it is rational or not (Mark May, Bob Ryan), those that gush about Notre Dame whether it is rational or not (LOOOOOOU), and those that call it how it really is (Kirk Herbstreit). Ordinary columnists will probably be less inclined to write hatchet jobs since Kelly is a more likable guy than Weis, but other than that Notre Dame will be the same polarizing team it's always been.

3. With new regime changes, players that were once lost in the muck sometimes find themselves in a situation to become key members of the team- or even starters. Identify one of those players that will be that "sleeper." Explain, in brief detail, why your guy will rise above and become the proverbial; CREAM. Oh yeah... it must be a junior or older to qualify.

If it has to be a junior or older (in the fall) I'm zeroing in on the safety position with either Jamoris Slaughter (Jr.) or Danny McCarthy (Jr.). I really like McCarthy because he's a more athletic version of his brother with a similarly high football IQ (he's just not as sound a tackler...yet), but if you press me for one I'll go with Slaughter. The biggest reason is in addition to having great quickness and above average cover skills for a safety, he brings a head-hunting, think twice about coming over the middle type hitting ability that we haven't had at the safety position since the Deke Cooper-A'Jani Sanders duo of the late 90's.

4. If you could change the Blue-Gold Game experience in any way- what would it be? Some years, the game can be quite boring and offer no real insight for the upcoming season. Are we all doomed to be underwhelmed every year, or can you make the change that makes spring ball slick like Rick on a pogo stick?

I've been to the past five spring games (four as a student, went back again after I graduated last year). I found the game to be incredibly insightful as to how the season was going to play out. I left Weis' first spring game feeling like we were going to be a transformed offensive unit after watching Brady unleash 40 yard lasers to Rhema McKnight through a blizzard (we were an offensive juggernaut). I left the '07 spring game in utter disbelief that we could be as terrible as we appeared that day (we were the worst team in school history). I'd argue it was a pretty good indicator of what was the come each of the last five years.

The spring game is what it is. Most students opt to go drink their faces off at PigTostal and couldn't care less about what goes on in the Stadium since it's just a scrimmage. Some years it'll hold more people's attention than usual because of certain storylines (like the '07 quarterback derby with guest head coaches Lou Holtz and Ara Parseghian), but most of the time it won't be anything to get worked up about. If you want to focus on something to fix let's turn attention to the pep rally...THAT is something that must be saved and fast.

5. EVERY coach talks about the importance of special teams, and says that they are a major priority for the team. Is there anything that Coach Kelly has done to back him up on his own statements? What phase of special teams would you like to see more improvement from?

If there's one thing I've noticed in just the first week or two of practice is the fact that he truly does have a hand in every aspect of the operation. Weis may have given lip service to becoming a true head coach as opposed to just focusing on offense, but he never really followed through on it. If Kelly sees something he doesn't like in any aspect of the game he's going to get his hands dirty and demonstrate why the current situation is wrong, what his expectation is, and how to go about achieving what he wants. Year in and year out we see how special teams can make a huge difference for the better (see: the Return to Glory year of 2002) or the worse (see: The Jim Sanson/Kevin Kopka/Brandon Walker Eras). To think Kelly won't take on the task of greatly improving that unit is crazy.

I'd like to see improvement across the board of special teams, but the one area that sticks out the most from last year was punting. Eric Maust was absolutely dreadful and Ben Turk wasn't all that much better. That duo had more punts travel less than 15 yards than over 50 and there came a point where I almost drove to South Bend to hold an impromptu punting tryout in McGlinn Field. It may be the most basic task Kelly has, but he needs to teach someone on the team (or someone on campus, hell I don't care) to effectively and consistently punt a ball 45-50 yards. I may snap if he doesn't.

6. Last topics are a bit, off topic... A)With the arrival of Spring Football, comes a lot of "color" discussion. "The Shirt," is always a favorite subject of debate for Irish fans. What is your opinion of "The Shirt," and if you were in charge of it all- what would it look like? B) There is a lot of talk about the Notre Dame uniforms possibly being altered. What would you like to see, even if they aren't changed?

I have only worn The Shirt in Notre Dame Stadium three times: Boston College 2002 (14-7 loss in the puke green jersey game), Boston College 2004 (24-23 loss in the rain), and Michigan 2006 (48-21 beatdown). Needless to say I will never wear it on a game day again. Ever. That being said, I think it's a cool idea and I like the fact that every year gives a new batch of people the opportunity to design a shirt that reaches tens of thousands of people while raising money for a worthwhile cause.

In terms of the color, I think it should be something that makes the student section stand out on TV. For how terrible, hideous, and fruity the French's mustard colored "Spirit Lives" shirt was in '05 the student section popped out of the screen during home games and I liked that. If I were to choose it'd be a lighter shade of green or true gold like last year's color. Blue doesn't make the student section show up at all, dark green barely does, and yellow is synonymous with cowards, Skunkbears, and Trojans.

When it comes to jerseys I'm old school. I still rock my 1996 Champion Ron Powlus #3 jersey every Saturday (it finally fits after 15 years, it used to look like I was wearing a tent) and I love it. If I had a choice of jersey it'd be just the classic early 90's Champion jersey (ND on the sleeves, gold trim) paired with helmets that are painted with real gold every week by students, not the half-assed, dulled gold ones that are prone to chipping we've had in recent years (though I must confess I enjoy whenever we have the opportunity to hear an announcer say "he gave him a golden shower"). The best uniforms in college football are simple--no need to overthink things.

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