Monday, July 26, 2010

Irish Blogger Gathering: Let's Get Offensive

We're rapidly closing in on the start of the season which means we need to start breaking down every single angle of this Irish season every which way. To help kickstart this in the Irish Blogosphere I pieced together the first of what is sure to be a slew of preseason Irish Blogger Gatherings focusing on the offensive side of the ball. To check out how the other ND blogs responded head over to Subway Domer, Domer Law, and Irish Creed.

1. First, before officially shifting focus to what matters most, let's take a moment to offer a way too early evaluation of Team Kelly's recruiting efforts. They've got verbals from some highly touted prospects (Matt Hegarty, Ben Koyack, Jordan Prestwood) and are in the hunt for quite a few more (Aaron Lynch, George Atkinson, Justice Hayes), but it seems like this class lacks the flair and star power of Charlie Weis's classes. We're not even in the hunt for a Rivals five-star rated prospect and we've already taken as many three-stars as the '07 and '08 classes combined. Sure, Kelly can transform two-stars into seven-stars, but the numbers of the last ten years don't lie--championships are won with teams chock full of four and five star talent. Are you at least a little worried at this point or still in the RKG Honeymoon period?

We live in a sports world that feels the need to pass immediate judgment at all times, even if it's clearly premature with an extremely limited basis for it. We're five months into the recruiting cycle and Team Kelly has locked down a few gems (three 4-stars) and is in great position to grab another two by August 1st (Lynch and Hayes). While I'll concede that this is not shaping up to be a spectacular class, it's not heading in the direction of disaster either.

This was going to be a pretty small class based simply upon how many scholarships we had available to dish out. I think he's done a very good job to date assembling a group of guys who fit his scheme and, though not necessarily rated highly by some recruiting services, have very high potential (see: Prestwood and Burton). There are still some missing pieces that must be found at this juncture and we've already been dealt a heartbreaking/shocking whiff with QB Bubba Starling, but there's plenty of time to round out a solid effort in Kelly's first recruiting season.

This won't be a class for the ages that pushes Notre Dame over the edge (like the current junior class should), but it should result in quality starters and depth. It doesn't have the buzz that a few of Weis's classes but I'd think most Irish fans would trade buzz for substance after the last five seasons.

I will say this though--the teams that compete (and win) national championships are ones that have at least one or two superstars on each side of the ball. Within every class there needs to be a couple big-time studs (preferably 3, with at least one on each side of the ball) for it to be deemed a real success. That doesn't mean they necessarily have to be christened five-star prospects by Rivals, but they need to clearly and indisputably be high impact and high potential players. One of the biggest keys to this class is locking down that sort of an impact player on the defensive line.

With the exception of Manti Te'o (and to a lesser extent Louis Nix) we've been unable to get those big fish on the defensive side of the ball off the hook and into the boat. After being left at the altar by one-time Irish verbal commitments Omar Hunter, Justin Trattou, and Chris Martin we've hitched our wagon this year to the Florida prospect Aaron Lynch. Should he commit to ND during his campus visit as some suspect he will, it will begin a long, bumpy road to National Signing Day that Irish fans know all too well.

If Kelly can find a way to navigate it better than Weis did with the aforementioned studs that got away then he'll be off to a great start and go a long way in selling me on his recruiting prowess.

In summation: it's too early to be worried or sold on Kelly's recruiting. Check back in 365 days and there will be a slightly clearer picture.

2. The Irish switch from a pro-style offense to the spread this season. We saw it unveiled in the spring game and it is (understandably) a work in progress. That being said the Irish have a veritable bevy of talent, size, and speed at the skill positions. In general, what's your take on the switch to the spread and how high or low should expectations for the offense be going into the year?

I'm not going to lie--I'm not the biggest proponent of the spread offense. If you give me my choice of any offense I'd go with a pound the ball down your throat type any day. History has shown that even as "fad" offenses come and go, if you control the line of scrimmage and impose your will in the trenches you'll almost always be successful.

I know we're going back 20+ years now, but the victories over Miami in '88, Florida in '92, and Florida State in '93 were all situations where brawn and toughness beat speed and finesse. I guess it almost seems extra satisfying when we win that way. Or maybe it's been so long since we fielded a consistent rushing attack that I'm just wishing we'd line up under center on a 4th and 2 and flatten the opponent's defensive line for an easy rushing first down up the middle.

That being said, one cannot deny the effectiveness of the spread across the college football landscape over the past decade. Kelly has had great success with it at every place he's coached and there's little reason to believe it won't be successful now that it's arrived in South Bend, especially when you look at the talent at his disposal (Allen, Riddick, Wood, Floyd, Rudolph, Evans, Jones--that's an absurd collection of speed and talent).

This is an offense that relies on timing and precision so there will be bumps in the road early, but once the players get comfortable with the new scheme the offense should be a force. My expectations for the offense would be very, very high if Dayne Crist didn't have the serious injury questions lingering. If he hadn't gotten hurt last year we'd be set up for a serious and immediate resurgence along the lines of the '64 squad.

My current expectation level on the whole is that of cautious optimism. If Dayne's knee holds up and he can focus on becoming acclimated to the offense instead of worrying about re-injuring himself then the ceiling for this offense will be ridiculously high. Armando Allen and Theo Riddick's skills fit the spread perfectly and we probably have top-to-bottom our deepest and most talented wide receiver core in school history.

Everything hinges on Crist. If he's somehow miraculously alright then the sky is the limit. If he's only 75% like I think he will be then the offense will be good but inconsistent. If Dayne goes down and we have to resort to the backups then we're in deep, deep trouble.

3. Three-year starting quarterback Jimmy Clausen has loaded his mom, dad, and free-loading brothers into the family stretch Hummer and taken off for the greener pastures of professional football. Dayne Crist is tasked with stepping into the big, 28 TD, 7:1 TD to INT ratio shoes Jimmy leaves behind. How are you feeling about him taking the reins to Kelly's vaunted spread offense? Do you see there being a significant drop-off with the Great Dayne at the helm or is he going to come out guns a-blazin' a la Brady Quinn in '05?

First, let's talk about Dayne off the field because frankly I think it's more important for the long-term health of the program. Jimmy Clausen was probably the best quarterback in the country last year and having him back would have jacked people's expectations for the season through the roof while giving Notre Dame a legitimate chance for its first Heisman winner since Tim Brown 23 seasons ago...but I'm here to tell you Dayne Crist--not Jimmy--is the perfect person to be leading the team during this transition period.

He has three years of eligibility left, he has the physical tools to be an All-American caliber signal caller, he's a natural born leader that players respect and rally around, and perhaps most importantly he perfectly fits in to the culture Brian Kelly is trying to instill in the program. He chose to attend Notre Dame because he loved the school and wanted to win national championships. Jimmy made it perfectly clear from day one that he chose Notre Dame so he could be prepared for the NFL by Charlie Weis.

I appreciate what Jimmy contributed to ND on the field--especially his spectacular efforts last season--but I think turning the page to Dayne was a good thing at this juncture. Kelly walked in to a culture plagued by selfishness; as he said, many players were more concerned about where they stood on Mel Kiper's Big Board than the six losses they suffered last season. An essential part of purging that attitude is having the team leaders truly on board with the new philosophy to help ingrain a more positive culture. I believe Dayne is the perfect person to lead that transformation.

Now let's turn to what Jimmy to Dayne means on the field. As we touched on in the previous section, I would be very optimistic if Dayne wasn't coming off a major knee injury. I think even if he hadn't gotten hurt he would have had the normal growing pains of a first time college starter, but his progress leading the offense would've been quicker and more dramatic if none of his attention was diverted to worrying about his knee (which of course it naturally will).

An ACL tear is a two-year injury (just ask Tom Brady). A lot of people seem to think he's going to be 100% since he was running around in the spring. As much as I want to I just can't buy it; he's not going to be back to normal until 2011. I don't see a 2005 Brady Quinn season coming (32 TD, 7 INT)--I see more of a Brady Quinn '04 season on the horizon (17 TD, 10 INT).

Dayne will have flashes of greatness and he'll also make some boneheaded decisions and bad throws that kill important drives, especially early in the year. As he begins to trust his knee he'll establish a rhythm and the offense will improve, but it's a process that will take some time.

4. When a new coach takes over there tends to be a couple of players that haven't seen any significant playing time (or at least haven't made an impact) that unexpectedly emerge as major contributors (see: Samardzija, Jeff in '05). There are plenty of candidates on the offensive side of the ball, but you're only allowed to pick one horse in this derby. Who's it going to be?

This is really tough because I feel as if there are a million names being thrown around (from Cierre Wood to TJ Jones to Shaq Evans) so it's tough to find a bandwagon of my own to start. I think there are going to be a lot of opportunities for a lot of different players to contribute (and I look for the three I just named to be among them), but my pick for a deep sleeper is tight end Tyler Eifert.

Eifert was one of the most unheralded recruits to enroll in the class of 2009; in fact, it was a pretty big surprise that he was even offered a scholarship since the Irish had not planned on taking a tight end during that cycle. For those unfamiliar with him, Eifert is essentially Kyle Rudolph Lite. He's not quite as strong or physical as Rudolph (aka he of the hands the size of small dogs) on the blocking side, but he's 6'6" with great hands, leaping ability, and body control. That combination should make him one of many dangerous redzone threats at Charley Molnar's disposal, one that's not really on the minds of Irish fans since that list of threats includes Michael Floyd and Beagle Hands.

My best guess is that Rudolph will be projected as a high first round pick this spring and bolt for the NFL so chances are when you see Eifert you'll be getting a sneak peek at Dayne Crist's main safety outlet for 2011-2012. Allow me a second to channel my inner Men's Warehouse: You're going to like the way he looks...I guarantee it.

5. It's preseason which means it's appropriate for all college football fans to bathe in Kool-Aid and allow themselves to dream of invading Glendale, Arizona this January en route to claiming a national championship. Tears of joy will be shed, flights will be missed, and days--if not weeks--of "sick" leave from work will be utilized. I want that more than that weird, fat lady in Napoleon Dynamite wanted that model ship. What needs to happen this season on the offensive side of the ball for this dream to become reality?

Here's your simple, three-step plan:

1. Dayne Crist stays healthy and gets better as the season goes on...It's a constant theme in the preseason and it will be during the regular season as well.
2. Two offensive tackles emerge as reliable contributors...I don't care if it's Zach Martin, Matt Romine, or Taylor Dever. We need to keep Dayne upright and they're the keys.
3. Reverse the redzone ineptitude that plagued us last season...There was no excuse for how terrible we were at punching the ball in the endzone last season with all the talent that was at our disposal. If you've forgotten and want to get mad take a look back at the diary of the Washington game. There were far too many self-inflicted wounds (holding penalties, false starts, etc.) brought about by sloppiness and carelessness. Reverse that and we're going to have a very potent offense.

6. ***BONUS*** The arrival of college football means the arrival of perhaps the greatest American pastime: Tailgating. The assumption is that you're going to be heading to at least one game in the Bend this year which means you'll have at least one opportunity to tailgate your face off. What home games are you planning on attending, where do you normally tailgate when you're out for a game, what's your typical tailgate like (we talking a great spread and a selection of imported beverages or a pack of Bubba burgers and about 20 30-racks of Natty?), and are you inviting your loyal readers?

I'm headed out to the Michigan game because I need to feel the impact of Manti Te'o laying out Tate Forcier on a blindside hit in person and see him stand over him Drago-style uttering "if he dies...he dies." I realize Forcier is well on his way to becoming Michigan's very own Matt Lovecchio (without the success!) and may not be starting, but I can dream.

Since college I have tailgated at Radio Tower Lot, a place affectionately (and appropriately) known to those in O'Neill Hall as "The Field of Dreams." Apparently they're building the new hockey arena on top of it so it's days are numbered, a thought that makes me sick to my stomach.

(Side rant: what a shortsighted decision on the location of the new hockey arena by the University...couldn't they put the rink on top of a plot of land that no one cares about? Why not on top of the girls' softball stadium?)

Typically we'll peel ourselves out off the floor of whatever house we've crashed at after a night spent belting out "God Bless the USA" at The Backer and get to the Radio Tower Lot by around 9am. If you're looking for great food and a relaxed, family atmosphere head back to the Legends of JACC lots. If you're interested in some pregame raging, complete with full-beer flip cup, Irish drinking toasts, and Can of Shame all with the Notre Dame Victory March blaring in the background then you've landed in heaven.

We show up in bonus time armed with garbage cans full of ice, carloads of canned deliciousness (shotgunning bottles just isn't as fun), a table (multi-functional for full beer flip cup and Jerry's Kids), a football (because no tailgate is complete without one), and a full container Morton's salt (just in case an enemy fan needs to be salted...nobody enjoys salting another human being, but frankly some leave you no choice...especially the SC fan in the picture to the right).

At some point I make the trek over to the Legends Lot to visit the Wolohan Swamp Attack tailgate--a ritual I've practiced since my first game on-campus my freshman year--to catch up with some fellow alums and refuel with the delicious, life-giving combination of fried chicken and taco salad before heading back to the Radio Tower to resume pregame activities.

Are our loyal readers invited? Of course! We're not hard to spot...and if you can't find us then you'll be fine. Almost everyone in the Tower Lot is on the same page--we do it all for the love of the game.

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