Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Like there was ever a real doubt...

A steady dose of YouTube videos, an email chain that involved an intense debate on the merits of potential Tailgater of the Year candidates, and a ticket secured at the last minute pushed me over the edge. The result was an impulse purchase on Priceline. We're officially locked and loaded.

When it came down to it I just couldn't pass up the chance to see the dawn of the Brian Kelly Era. The electricity in the air Saturday is going to be off the charts. I need to be a part of it.

Buckle up, Baby Jesus...it's about to get bumpy.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Irish Blogger Gathering: Let's Get This Party Started Edition

The IBG returns with a vengeance for the 2010 season. As announced last week there are 12 different blogs who will each come up with questions for a different week of the season. Frank at UHND has assembled a beefy set for Purdue so let's get to it. If you want to see all the different responses from all the different blogs head to UHND for the links.

1. Name one offensive player and one defensive player you're most excited to see in the new systems and why.

Offense: Armando Allen…he’s really evolved over the past couple years and always seems to be one shoestring tackle away from breaking a big run. He runs hard and with far more confidence than when he started as a freshman and does a lot of the little things that go unappreciated—much like D-Walk used to (blocking, receiving, etc). While he may not have 4.3 speed, the guy has wheels and I think coming out of the backfield with more room to operate will lead to him finally realizing his potential.

Defense: Darius Fleming…Fleming is a freakish athlete who quietly posted very good numbers last season. I see him as Filer except with much better football instincts and this year he takes the leap in large part because Diaco instills the necessary confidence and focus.

2. What’s one reason you think Brian Kelly is the right coach this time. What’s one reason you think he might not be?

He has so much experience
for a relatively young guy. Ara Parseghian has told everyone that would ever listen that he needed every day of his coaching experience prior to Notre Dame in order to find success under the Golden Dome. The powers-that-be (see: the two most incompetent athletic directors ever, Wadsworth and White) chose to ignore Ara’s inference that experience is absolutely essential in two of the last three hires. Not this time, though.

Kelly has experienced success at every stop in his coaching career, exhibited that he stresses fundamentals and attention to detail, and plays in integral part in every aspect of the team (offense, defense, and special teams). Off the field he’s thrown himself headfirst into the Notre Dame Community and came out of the gate this recruiting cycle with an excellent haul this far. There’s a lot to like about this guy.

My reason that he may not be really comes down to not being in love with the spread offense. Is it a fad that’s on its way out? Is it here to stay? Will we become a finesse team? My preference is the more traditional pound it down your throat approach, but there’s no denying that the effectiveness of the spread as it’s evolved over the past decade. The fact that this is my greatest fear is probably a good thing.

3. A lot of people are labeling Purdue, Boston College, and Michigan State as toss up games. Considering Notre Dame beat all three of these teams during the disappointing 2009 season, do you consider these games toss-ups or games you expect Notre Dame to win?

Purdue is not a toss-up game
. We’re 10.5pt favorites at home—if there’s anyone who thinks that’s a toss-up game then they’re nuts. Is Purdue capable of pulling off the upset? Sure. Does that mean it’s a 50/50 proposition? Hell no.

College and Michigan State are two different stories though. These both are road games in hostile environments against teams we barely squeaked out victories against last season. Michigan State will be Crist’s first start on the road and the Irish offensive line’s first real test in a raucous road atmosphere.

This could be a lot like the ’08 campaign; Notre Dame is very capable of beating both teams, it’s just a matter of whether the youth we’re leaning on at key positions grows up. If I were a betting man—which I certainly am—I’d say the Irish split those two games. That being said, I’ll go into both thinking Notre Dame has a great opportunity to win.

4. What’s one reason you think Notre Dame could shock the world and pull of another 1964-type season? What’s one reason you’re concerned we might see more of a 1997-type season?

After talking about how Notre Dame has a creampuff schedule all offseason, the media seems to have done a 180. Kirk Herbstreit was actually on ESPN the other day saying that nobody has a harder opening six games than Notre Dame. I don’t see it. There are no doubt some tough contests and there isn’t an “easy” game to be found, but none of the first six teams are even close to being considered the elite in college football.

If this is meant to be a Parseghian-esque ascension to the top of the polls then this squad will perform well enough to bury the teams that shouldn’t beat us at home (Purdue, Michigan), expose the pretenders (Michigan State, Stanford), and gut out tough victories against worthy opponents (Boston College, Pitt). Looking at each game individually, ND should be favored in four
—perhaps even five—of these games and if they're an underdog the spread won't be more than 4.5-7.5pts. It's by no means a cakewalk, but it's very manageable and if this team is for real they'll exploit it.

The Irish have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. In some instances it’s a bit raw (especially on the defense), in some instances it lacks confidence (previous parentheses x10)...but it’s there. If Dayne Crist comes of age quicker than expected (while staying healthy), the offensive line gels, and a retooled and improved defense steps up then it can be done. It takes a couple leaps of faith, but not as big a leap of faith as it took to expect Demetrius Jones to successfully run Charlie Weis’s offense behind the worst offensive line in school history!

My biggest reason for fearing '97 is the fact that if one or two key guys go down there's a hole deeper than Marianna's Trench behind them on the depth chart. If Dayne goes down the ceiling for the season probably drops to seven wins. If the injury bug hits the defensive line it probably drops to eight. Notre Dame's potential is largely contingent on two or three guys staying healthy and the main one is less than a year from shredding his knee. That's something that has terrified me since last Halloween.

5. Which freshmen do you see contributing the most on the field this year (outside of TJ Jones – that’s too easy)?

Other than TJ there won't be a lot of major, high-profile contributors, but if I have to pick the next biggest impact it's Danny Spond. From everything you read he has been one of the most pleasant surprises from camp. He’s going to play a huge role on special teams and has already jumped into the two-deep behind Te’o at inside linebacker.

6. Other than Dayne Crist (too easy again) who is the one player Notre Dame can least afford to lose to injury for any significant period of time?

Take your pick of defensive ends Ethan Johnson or Kapron Lewis-Moore. The drop-off from the first string to second string is enormous. The defensive line has a chance to really surpass most people's expectations because Johnson and KLM are about to emerge as productive, disruptive playmakers. If they go down due to injury though the unit’s ceiling lowers drastically.

I haven’t seen or heard anything from Nwankwo, Newman, or Hafis Williams that leads me to believe they’re capable of filling in for any extended period of time. The Irish defense simply can’t afford either of them missing any time—they’re probably close to as crucial as Crist is to the offense.

7. Rapid Fire 2010 Season Predictions

* Notre Dame's Record: 10-3…couple slip-ups on the road, but finally we’ll see progress over the course of a season and not regression.
* Bowl game for Notre Dame with opponent: Champs Sports vs Florida State…fun matchup in the best bowl ND can go to that's not in the BCS.
* Final ranking: Between #11 & #15…not enough high-profile wins to rise higher, but a great opening campaign for Kelly to build upon.
* Opponent with the highest final ranking: Boston College
* Notre Dame Offensive & Defensive MVP: Floyd & Te'o...no need to overthink things.
* Best opponent offensive & defensive player:
- Offensive Ballot: 1 - Jonathan Baldwin (Pitt)...2 - Andrew Luck (Stan)...3 - Ricky Dobbs (Navy)
- Defensive Ballot: 1 - Greg Jones (MSU)...2 - Shayne Skov (Stan)...3 - Mark Herzlich (BC)
* Best opposing coach: Kyle Whittingham
* Game you are most excited to watch:
Michigan…Last time RichRod's smug face will be in Notre Dame Stadium while wearing maize and blue. Also, I want Tate Forcier’s blood all over that field…I don’t care if he isn’t the starter. If John Ryan can tear his coach’s ACL while he’s out of the field of play then Danny Spond can do the same to Tate
* Game you wouldn't mind watching on DVR: None. Please, this is Notre Dame Football, not an episode of Jersey Shore. We only get 13 games per year and I won’t miss one of them.
* National Champion:
Ohio State…Pryor goes all Vince Young on everybody.
Heisman Winner: Terrelle Pryor…he’s going to make Big 10 defenses look dumb.
* Purdue game prediction: Going to have to wait until the end of the week...

Your Monday Isn't as Bad as This Kid's

Mondays are miserable, especially the last one that stands between you and football season. I've stared at the clock for about six minutes and it hasn't moved from 9:14am. When you think about what you'd be doing this week if you were still in college you get even more depressed.

(Give me a second to channel my inner Stephen A. Smith...)

HOWEVAAAA, your life CANNOT be as MISERABLE as this young man's life will be when he arrives on the first day of high school this week. Something tells me this move took him out of the running for any potential scholarship/girlfriend/friends.

His awareness in NCAA Football 2011 wouldn't be on the charts, it'd probably just be a picture of a skull and crossbones. So thank you, sissy running back with the instincts of a frightened squirrel. You made this Monday a little easier to swallow.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

WeNeverGraduate Invades Twitter

We're coming up on the blog's one-year anniversary so we've decided to take the next step to becoming a legitimate website and dive headfirst into the world of Twitter. You can go to our page--WeNeverGraduate--and follow us or just check out the little gadget on the right side of your screen. It's swell, ain't it?

Since both Bill and I will be tweeting from the same account each post will be preceded by either MM (Mattare) or BJ (Bill) so you know who you're reading. It's complicated, I know.

Thanks to Bill for setting up the account. He's been a Twitter veteran for months now, sharing his thoughts on that sandwich he just ate, that move he just busted, and that yoga pose he just struck. I'd include a link to his personal Twitter but I don't know what it is. I feel like you can't be missing all that much though.

Also, thank you to thebobkessler for setting us up with the gadget. It looks 1000x better than the ones offered through blogspot.

Twitter will hopefully open up a 140 character trash-talk battle royale. Bill's much more comfortable with that sort of character limit for his tweets/articles so this may actually increase his participation. It also gives us a new forum to interact with our readers, easy updates for when articles are posted, and allows us to pick apart Desmond Howard's ignorance and Bob Davie's diction from the comfort of our recliners each Saturday.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Battle Rages Within...

We're eight days away from the opening of the season and right now there's a tug of war going on in my mind.

On one side is the part of me that says, "Dropping $350 for a flight to go to South Bend without a ticket locked up for the game is crazy! You'll be out at the Michigan game next week so cool your jets. You can watch Purdue somewhere on a big screen, save the money, and it'll give you an opportunity to get the first running diary of the year up on the WNG asap."

On the other side is the part of me that's blowing about a .35 on the BKAC (Blood Kool-Aid Content) scale screaming, "IT'S BRIAN KELLY'S FIRST GAME! It's the dawn of a new era! Think of what that stadium is going to be like when they rush out of the tunnel! Isn't that worth $350?!?! You'll probably end up buying $350 worth of shots at the bar during the game if you end up staying home anyway. Man up and get out to South Bend by any means necessary!"

It's a vicious battle raging within. Loyal readers, give me some guidance here: should I sack up and make the trip even though it makes no financial sense or should I wait a week since I'll be there for the beginning of RichRod's final season anyway? It should be noted that I've been at the opening game for both Willingham and Weis' careers and while the individual games turned out well (thumped Maryland in '02 and Pitt in '05), their tenures did not.

To keep the Kool-Aid flowing let's take a look at Lou at the '08 Michigan pep rally. This is proof that pep rallies can still be good--tell me you don't get chills as you watch the students during the Overture of 1812.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Penn State QB Race Update

The Penn State quarterback battle is down to three candidates (from left): true sophomore Kevin Newsome, true freshman Robert Bolden, and redshirt sophomore Matt McGloin. Paul Jones was in the race until recently, when he was told that he would be redshirting for the 2010 season. As soon as Pat Devlin took his talents to Wilmington the starting quarterback position for Penn State this season became a question mark. Despite the fact that Penn State hasn't had terrific quarterback play in the last decade, save Daryll Clark and M-Rob, the empty depth chart enticed Robert Bolden and Paul Jones to commit.

All of a sudden we had three highly touted recruits (counting Newsome), all with at least three years eligibility left battling for the job. I became giddy, but I was almost more worried. Could I really count on Jay Paterno and the staff to get this right? These are the guys that shuffled Michael Robinson all over the field for four years before putting the ball in his hands, the same guys who never even gave Daryll Clark a shot while Morelli was leading us (Joe has admitted that mistake.) We need to show competence, we can't afford any more of this:

Yep, definitely no more of that.

My feelings on each candidate:

Matt McGloin
Strengths: Decision making, accuracy, knowledge of the playbook.
Weaknesses: Athleticism, arm strength.

I think McGloin ends up 3rd on the depth chart. Coaches say he has demonstrated a knowledge of the playbook, but he's not exactly fit to run a portion of it. I've said before that the Spread HD (I've embraced the name by now) is most effective when defenses have to scheme against the QB read-option. I don't see defenses respecting McGloin's running ability, nor do I think he has the body to withstanding the pounding he would take if he lowered his helmet between the tackles.

I don't think the fact that he's a walk on hurts him, I think the coaches are throwing all that out the window on this one. McGloin sounds like a hard-working kid, but this situation reminds me of the QB race in 2008 where the coaching staff insisted that Paul Cianciolo was in the running and not everyone totally bought it because we all knew he would ultimately be trumped by the superior talent he was competing against.

Kevin Newsome
Strengths: Size, strength, athleticism, knowledge of the playbook.
Weaknesses: Accuracy, decision making.

Projection: Newsome will take the first snap for us this year, but he won't take the most. From everything I've read, Newsome has not made the leap in the passing game that the coaches were hoping for. However, I've also read that he is far and away the best at running the option, which I think will earn him 6-10 snaps every game.

The kid stands 6'2" 225 lbs and has the best wheels of all three QBs. That's not something I want to see go to waste - or even worse, go to Wilmington. I think he could be very dangerous in Penn State's 5-wide goal line package they used in 2008 that helped Clark rush for 9 touchdowns.

Robert Bolden
Strengths: Accuracy, arm strength, athleticism, "IT".
Weaknesses: Knowledge of the playbook.

Projection: I think this true freshman is our starting quarterback midway through the season and possibly in the second half at Alabama depending on how that game goes. There has to be something special about this kid. Obviously the depth chart is in his favor, but the Penn State coaching staff is never eager to hand the keys to the offense to a true freshman (hasn't happened since 1992 when Wally Richardson did.) For him to come in in August and impress as he's done speaks volumes to his ability and poise.

In scrimmages he has made the big plays, he has picked up the playbook quickly, which means he's got a high football IQ or working his ass off or both. He doesn't have the physique to take a pounding running the ball yet, so that's why I think Newsome still gets considerable time this season.

Needless to say I have a man-crush on Bolden. I don't see how you cannot be excited about him, not only does it appear we have a special talent on our hands, we might have him for four years as our starter! Going beyond that, we have an offensive coaching staff that has really found an identity in the last five years and I feel very confident that they will make the right choice and use that player effectively. I know the 2010 season hasn't started yet, but it's not too early to dream about what could be in the coming years.

Chalk up my swing in optimism to the Big Ten Network's stop at Penn State when they interviewed Jay Paterno and he didn't seem like the baby Huey I used to picture him as. I've also been following him on Twitter (@JayPaterno) and he offers some good stuff, practice photos, recaps, and early morning tweets just to let everyone in the college football world know that we are GRINDIN.

Twitter is the wave of the future follow us @WeNeverGraduate.

Irish Blogger Gathering Announcement

The Subway Domer, founder of the IBG, has organized the mass of ND bloggers and put together a weekly schedule for the IBG. I chose to put together the questions for the Western Michigan game. Riveting, I know.

For a full breakdown of the schedule and a list of blogs participating click here and head over to Subway Domer.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Irish Preseason AP Ranking: Fair or Foul?

The Preseason AP Poll is out and for the third time in four years the Irish find themselves on the outside looking in. The writers have Notre Dame pegged at No. 32 with 31 total votes, placing them a spot above Missouri and one below Randy Edsall's Connecticut Huskies.

Some fans will say Notre Dame was slighted, that a team with so much highly rated talent deserves a spot in the rankings. Others will claim they deserve zero votes based on the team's performances the past three seasons. And then of course there will be the curmudgeons that will cry and moan and gnash their teeth about how being ranked behind teams like Connecticut, Cincinnati, and Houston just shows how far the Irish have fallen. After finishing a diatribe about how Leahy never would have stood for this, the third group will go back to yelling at kids to get off their lawns.

Which group is right?

None of them. Actually, the voters' conclusion was a very fair one.

Being placed just outside the Top 25 means that about half the voters think Notre Dame is a Top 25 team, half do not. Let's make an assumption that the research most AP voters do before casting their preseason ballot consists of picking up and skimming a preview magazine, watching a couple snippets of College Football Live, and trying to remember what they saw last season.

The performance of the 2009 Irish could not have left many positive memories and that surely affected a handful of voters, but let's take it a step further and pretend they're being totally objective and looking at the circumstances of Hypothetical Team X. The Irish preview would look something like this:

* Their record-breaking quarterback and record-breaking wide receiver both left early to go to the NFL.
* The team is also replacing their head coach and transition to new schemes on offense (pro-style to spread) and defense (4-3 to 3-4).
* The new starting quarterback was a very highly touted prospect coming out of high school, but he's a redshirt sophomore with almost no game experience and is coming off a major knee injury.
* There are nine starters returning on defense from last season, but that defense was the worst in school history last season.
* Three starting offensive linemen must be replaced.
* Their top receiver and top tight end are both one of the best three in the country at their respective positions and future first rounds picks.
* They have a lot of young, highly regarded talent on both sides of the ball, but it's still very young.
* The schedule is relatively soft (play two preseason ranked teams, highest one rated No. 15) and they have only three true road games.

I'd venture a guess that at least 75 percent of voters don't have extensive knowledge of Notre Dame's situation and look at a summary like the one above to base their decisions. That's not a harsh criticism by any stretch, just reality. Making a judgment solely off those bullet points could lead to the conclusion that this is a young, talented team that has potential but could have a lot of growing pains. It's a reasonable conclusion that isn't far from the truth. However, people who follow the program closely and have deeper knowledge of the circumstances and situations surrounding the team may have a slightly different view.

For one, I think the majority of the country is underrating the talent littered all over the Irish roster. There are impact players on both sides of the ball that will be well-known by the end of the year. You hear Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, and sometimes Manti Te'o being thrown around this preseason, but Darius Fleming, Ethan Johnson, and Armando Allen could be household names by November as well. Plenty of names won't get the acclaim nationally, but Irish fans will see guys like Kapron Lewis-Moore, Steve Filer, Jonas Gray, and Tyler Eifert blossom into playmakers.

Analysts also may be underrating the impact of having Brian Kelly leading the team. Kelly has been successful at every stop in his 19 year coaching career and the impact is typically immediate. Listening to player interviews and hearing practice reports leads one to believe there have been some stark (and positive) changes to the program's culture since he took over, something that should manifest itself on the field this fall.

If I had a vote I would place the Irish between No. 21 and No. 25 on my preseason ballot. This is a talented team with high potential an ideal schedule to ease in a new quarterback, but there is also a laundry list of questions to be answered and a whole lot of mental scar tissue from three disastrous years to overcome.

The maturation process will be a gradual one and the Irish will encounter some bumps along the way, but come January when the final poll is released there's no doubt in my mind that Notre Dame will find itself with a ranking next to its name. How high will that ranking be?

Come on, it's preseason! Let a brother dream...

Monday, August 23, 2010

Five Burning Questions

We've got less than two weeks (!!!!) until kickoff, so let's examine the five biggest questions facing the Irish this season then throw on the Swami hat to find some answers. If you'd like the slideshow version of the article click here to head over to BR.

#5 - Who will emerge at the inside linebacker spot next to Manti Te'o?

If you believe Brian Smith will hold off hard-charging Steve Filer and Kerry Neal at outside linebacker it means there's only one starting spot on the linebacking unit yet to be determined. The two main suspects to play Manti Te'o's co-pilot in the middle are Anthony McDonald (Jr.) and Carlo Calabrese (So.).

McDonald is a big, agile athlete who runs like a deer, but he has a tendency to play a bit soft sometimes which leads to him getting swallowed in the scrum of the offensive line from time to time. Brian Kelly has harped on the fact that the coaches would like to see Anthony play a more physical brand of football. This raises an eyebrow. If there's one thing you don't want with a defense based on toughness—it's a middle linebacker who's hesitant to mix it up. Will he rise to the challenge and develop a presence or is he doomed to be the next Anthony Vernaglia?

Calabrese, on the other hand, is someone who likes nothing more than to lay the boom on anyone who comes in his path. Coach Kelly has been quick to praise his toughness and the aggressive nature in which Carlo attacks the line. The downside is he's not the most fluid athlete and when he's on the field it may open a gaping hole for quick tight ends to exploit. Best case scenario is that his toughness overcomes his athletic shortcomings and he's the new-age Rocky Boiman. Worst case scenario is that he's the second coming of Toryan Smith.

Smart Money Prediction

One of the keys to the season is effectively stopping the run and Calabrese has a significant edge in that department. Couple that with the fact that McDonald is hobbled in camp right now (hyper-extended knee) and Carlo emerges as the starter. That being said, there's going to be plenty of rotation between the two based on down and situation so get used to seeing both of them out there.

#4 - Will the three new starters on the offensive line be effective?

Trevor Robinson (Jr.) and Chris Stewart (Sr.) return to anchor the line's interior at the guard, but three starters from last year must be replaced. Coach Kelly has expressed a lot of excitement about the talent and depth he sees on the offensive line—which frankly has come as a pleasant surprise to most Irish fans.

The center position is a battle between Dan Wenger (Sr.), Braxston Cave (Jr.), and new candidate Chris Watt (So.). Wenger lost his starting position last season to Eric Olsen and looked completely out of sorts when he did get playing time. Cave is one of the strongest players on the team but when he did see playing time he didn't exhibit the pop you'd expect from someone with his power. Cave has spent the last five months flip-flopping with Wenger in the starting lineup, though it appears Wenger pulled slightly ahead this August. Lastly there's Chris Watt. He was a very highly-touted guard prospect that the staff thought could provide some depth at the center position and provide another option should Wenger and Cave not work out. He's still learning the intricacies of the position but once things click he could be a great one.

Matt Romine (Sr.), Zach Martin (So.), Taylor Dever (Sr.), and Andrew Nuss (Sr.) were all in the mix for the starting tackle positions entering August, but things have changed since the start of fall camp. By all accounts Martin now has a stranglehold on the left tackle position, a surprise given the fact that he's a sophomore who has never played a snap while the other three have all earned two monograms a piece. He's very athletic and mobile for a lineman, which are two good qualities to have as a spread offense tackle. On the opposite side will be either Dever or Nuss, with Dever maintaining a slight edge right now.

A lot of people worry about replacing last year's starters, but I think people are overestimating the loss of Sam Young and Paul Duncan. Both were maddeningly inconsistent and prone to terrible mental lapses at the most inopportune times. They're hardly irreplaceable. Olsen has much bigger shoes to fill but if Watt can get the hang of the center position by the end of the year the Irish could have a hard-nosed, high-potential starter there for the next three seasons.

Smart Money Prediction

The good news is Robinson and Stewart will both be All-American candidates at the end of the season while Martin will continue to blossom at left tackle. The bad news is that there will be a revolving door at center between Wenger and Cave because neither will be particularly effective and right tackle will be a bit wobbly. The line won't be dominating by any stretch, but it will be as good—and perhaps even better—than last year's outfit. That's not great but should be plenty good enough to give Dayne Crist the necessary time to spread the ball around without getting beat up.

#3 - Who will step up and provide quality depth along the defensive line?

The switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 means there are solid numbers at the defensive line position, but it remains to be seen what will translate to production. There's a lot of reason to be optimistic about the trio of starters—Ethan Johnson (Jr.), Ian Williams (Sr.), and Kapron Lewis-Moore (Jr.).

Johnson was a highly-touted recruit who is a much better fit as a 3-4 end than the 4-3 tackle he was forced to play last season. KLM is the best pass rushing defensive end Notre Dame has fielded since Victor Abiamiri graduated and should hold up better against the run now that he's packed 15 pounds of muscle for the fall. Ian Williams may not be an elite nose tackle, but he's entering his fourth year as a starter and should be a solid contributor.

The questions begin when you move to the second string. Brandon Newman (Jr.), Hafis WIlliams (Jr.), Emeka Nwankwo (Sr.), Sean Cwynar (Jr.), and Tyler Stockton (So.) will all be given ample opportunity to contribute, but there has been no evidence thus far that they're on the verge of doing so (the entire quintet has combined for three career tackles). They all have a good combination of strength and pure size, but there are plenty of questions whether they're quick enough or explosive enough to be effective on this level.

Smart Money Prediction

Tyler Stockton and Sean Cwynar step up to become the most valuable reserves. The trio of backup ends will give production similar to what Pat Kuntz contributed prior to his senior season; they'll hold their own against average opponents but don't stand much of a chance against top-level competition.

#2 - Will Harrison Smith rebound and be the anchor the secondary needs?

Harrison Smith's 2009 campaign can only be described as a complete disaster. He was a horrendous tackler, consistently blew coverages, and looked completely lost on nearly every play. It got so bad that he was eventually converted back to linebacker for the end of the season—though he would still line up at safety in certain situations.

Smith was an all-state safety in high school and showed plenty of promise early during his career in South Bend, but the flip-flops in scheme (Corwin Brown's 3-4 to Jon Tenuta's 4-3) and position (linebacker to safety and back) helped drag his confidence down to dangerous depths. As you watched him last season, you could see his head spinning during plays; he's a natural athlete that was paralyzed by confusion and indecision. Part of the blame has to fall on the previous staff for never finding him a true home, but there's no defending how many tackles he flat-out whiffed on last season.

Notre Dame has a trio of very talented corners in Darrin Walls, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton and a couple young, high-potential candidates to man the other safety position. Their production will be all for naught if Smith can't pull himself out of the funk he was in last year. Smith needs to be this squad's Kyle McCarthy—a dependable contributor who steps up and makes plays in the clutch. He's a better athlete than McCarthy with a higher ceiling, he just needs to take a giant leap forward in the consistency department.

Smith is the X-Factor of the entire defense. If he returns to form then the Irish will field a formidable secondary; if he doesn't rebound then the defense's potential will never come close to being reached.

Smart Money Prediction

Harrison Smith will be much improved from last year, but finding consistency will take time. Irish fans will have painful flashbacks early in the season when he gets burned a couple times, but from day one his tackling will be like night and day compared to last year's aberration. As the year progresses he'll grow into his leadership role and by the time the Irish head to Los Angeles to face the Trojans he should be well on his way to realizing his vast potential.

#1 - Will Dayne Crist's knee hold up and how quickly will he pick up the offense?

There's the real million dollar question for 2010. The Irish are loaded and deep at the skill positions; however, all those toys will go to waste if the quarterback can't deliver.

Enter Dayne Crist.

Crist was one of the top recruits in the country when he graduated high school. He's an impressive physical specimen at 6'4", 235lbs, equipped with a rocket arm and some sneaky fast wheels for a guy his size. When Brian Kelly took over and Jimmy Clausen opted for the NFL it meant Dayne was thrust into the starting role a year ahead of schedule. He's been forced to learn a totally new offense, new terminology, and all while recovering from a torn ACL suffered about 10 months ago.

Every report out of camp is that Crist feels great, he's running full speed, and the knee is totally healed. That's tough to buy knowing that it takes most players a year—usually two years—to bounce back to 100%. One of his biggest assets was the new dimension his running ability was going to add to the offense. That goes out the window this season because the planned runs won't be worth risking another injury. On top of the physical issues there's also the mental side of coming back from a traumatic injury. It's one thing to drop back and run around when you're wearing a red jersey that means no one can hit you; it's an entirely different story when defenders are out to kill you and falling around your surgically repaired knee.

Were Dayne 100% healthy there would be relatively steep learning curve. The fact that his mobility is limited and he'll inevitably be worried about his knee when the bullets start to fly means the hurdles he'll have to overcome will become even larger. Asking him to step in right away and pick up where Jimmy left off—as some people think he should—is unrealistic and unreasonable.

That being said, if the offensive line can keep him upright and allow him time to get comfortable in the first couple games then the Irish offense could really take off. This is one of the most talented teams Notre Dame has ever fielded in terms of skill position athletes. Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph are potential All-Americans, there are five receiving targets that will log significant minutes at 6'3" or taller, and the running back stable is stocked with speed, size, and explosiveness.

All of the aforementioned weapons will make his transition to starting quarterback easier, but it's all on Dayne's shoulders to make the leap from raw prospect to polished producer. If he can accomplish that it could translate into a very special season for Notre Dame; if he doesn't then it will be a long year.

Smart Money Prediction

Dayne Crist's has a bright future, it's just that it's going to take awhile to arrive at that bright future. Dayne is raw and inexperienced. When you pair that with the fact that he's bouncing back from a major injury it translates to a bumpy road. Expect a performance reminiscent of Brady Quinn's sophomore year: a handful of questionable decisions, some flashes of greatness, but on the whole enough evidence to lead fans to believe this team has a bright future with Dayne Crist at the helm.

Housekeeping...you want me fluff pillow?

Couple WNG housekeeping tidbits:

Last week I accepted a position as Featured Notre Dame Columnist at Bleacher Report, which means I'll be pulling double-duty this fall when it comes to writing columns. I'll post most of the articles I do over there on WNG as well, but in case you are already over at Bleacher Report a link to my profile page (which has the columns listed) is right here.

Also, Bill is looking into firing up a WNG Twitter account. The app would appear in the left hand column and have a live feed to the blog. I feel like the 140 character max for tweets will allow Bill more than enough room to tweet his entire columns--which usually appear once every three months and consist of 120 characters and a picture of Dr. Dre--and keep him involved with the site. This will also open up a whole new world of trashtalking.

New column on the way by noon.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

LeGarrette Blount is learning from his mistakes...

Wait, no he's not.

LaGarrette Blount of Oregon sucker punch fame was in practice for the Tennessee Titans yesterday and got a little frustrated because the defense was roughing him up. How did he react after a year of counseling from Tony Dungy?

A. Turned the other cheek
B. Counted to ten and walked away
C. Punched someone in the face

Let's find out...

LeGarrette never was good at those multiple choice tests. Mr. Dungy, don't look at this like you failed in your guiding role. The learning curve is a steep one for someone with the intelligence and sense of a coffee mug. He'll get it eventually!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Infusing Optimism in Notre Dame Nation

College football preseason has officially arrived. It's a time for optimism--time to drink the kool-aid, grease the wheels of the bandwagon, and start dreaming big. The prognosticators and so-called "experts" may have pegged your team for a December 28th bowl in Shreveport but what do they know? Your boys are 0-0 and control their own destiny.

Productivity at work takes a hit because time needs to be set aside to watch pump-up YouTube videos, dissect practice reports, and trade emails with fellow diehards about locking down plane and game tickets.

Unfortunately, some negativity has crept into my inbox this August. A fellow Domer cut and pasted a relatively depressing post from ND Nation that talked about how that feeling of preseason excitement hasn't hit him and probably won't any time soon.

I read the ND Nation message boards, the Rivals boards, and the Scout boards, and it appears that the years of shortcomings and disappointments have finally pushed much of the Irish faithful to their breaking point.

Much like Owen Wilson's character in Wedding Crashers, I'm an idea man--I thrive on enthusiasm. This somber preseason attitude just won't cut it. I'm well aware that there are plenty of question marks and concerns going into the fall, but there are also plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

I feel an obligation to infuse positive vibes into those who are down so let me close out of my Orbitz search for a Tempe flight/hotel package for the second weekend in January and give ND fans 10 reasons to be optimistic about this fall.

10. Jon Tenuta is no longer the defensive coordinator

What does this mean? Our defense won't be as mind-blowingly inflexible and ineffective. Last year Tenuta was given the keys to the defense and switched the squad to a 4-3 base--despite the fact that we had recruited players for a 3-4 scheme. His philosophy--as every Irish fan knows--was blitz, blitz, and when that's not working blitz some more. As a result Notre Dame's defense was shredded week in and week out.

It didn't matter if the opponent ran the option (348 rushing yards by Navy), the spread (we made Tate Forcier look like Joe Montana), or if they trotted out a terrible quarterback (Boston College QB David Shinskie threw for 279 yards against us--his highest total of the year--and he was one of the worst quarterbacks ND has seen in a long time); everyone seemed to have a career day against our defense.

A large part of the blame for last year's disaster falls squarely on Jon Tenuta's shoulders. He was in charge of our defense and the unit looked ill-prepared, constantly out of position, fundamentally unsound, and consistently overmatched against inferior talent. He was bullheaded, inflexible, and belittled those who questioned his methods.

When a situation called for a round peg he still tried to jam in the square one. Jon Tenuta cost Notre Dame wins and the main reason that Charlie Weis ultimately lost his job (perhaps fitting since Weis made the controversial and ill-fated decision to promote him ahead of Corwin Brown).

There is no plausible excuse for being lit up the way we did in 2009. There was plenty of talent to play with and there still is...which conveniently leads us to our 9th reason to be optimistic!

9. The talent, speed, and athleticism on defense

We have talent on the defensive side of the ball--in fact, we have a lot of talent. It may be young and a bit raw, but the potential is sky-high. We're back to the 3-4 scheme, which is a much better fit for the personnel we have on the roster. Along the line we're a bit thin when it comes to proven depth, but the starting ends (Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson) are young, strong, and athletic.

I have some questions about whether Ian Williams can be the nose tackle we need, but if he can be even an average space-eater that occupies blockers it will allow an extremely talented linebacking core to make plays.

There's a heated competition between Anthony McDonald and Carlo Calabrese at one of the inside linebacker positions, but the other three are manned by a four-year starter (Brian Smith) and two of the most dynamic linebackers we've had at Notre Dame since the early 90's: Manti Te'o and Darius Fleming.

Not even included in that discussion is pass rushing freak of nature Steve Filer, who apparently is on the verge of unseating Smith on the outside but at the very least will provide serious heat on pass rushing downs. That's a front seven with an intriguing combination of experience and potential.

The defense is also equipped with the best set of corners since Walton and Duff--the trio of Darrin Walls, Robert Blanton, and Gary Gray. If Harrison Smith can realize the potential he flashed earlier in his career and either Zeke Motta, Jamoris Slaughter, or Danny McCarthy can step up, then the secondary will quickly flip from liability to strength.

New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has been raving about the athletes they have at every position. He's said if they can stop the run on first down and force 2nd and 3rd and long this defense will be able to tee off on opposing offenses.

There are plenty of "if's" to be overcome, but there's enough talent in the fold that if things come together the right way this unit can do a complete 180 from last season's debacle. Something that will be made easier because of reason #8...

8. A light schedule by Notre Dame standards

Now there's a huge chunk of Notre Dame Nation acting like adding Western Michigan and Tulsa to the schedule at the last minute is the equivalent of putting an Adidas logo on the helmet. While it's unfortunate that our schedule isn't as interesting as in years past, that problem is being corrected long-term thanks to AD Jack Swarbrick switching the scheduling philosophy. It's not a travesty of a schedule and actually, when it comes to the present, it's probably the best setup we could ask for to break in the new era.

We have a few games right off the bat that can be categorized as cream puff, slam dunk victories (Western Michigan, Tulsa, Army). Our home slate has some tricky games that will come with tight point spreads (Stanford, Pitt, Utah) but as the home team we should be favored and expected to prevail.

Navy will be tough if only because Ricky Dobbs--their best quarterback since Chris McCoy in the 90's--is back for one more go-around, but we need to remember there's a reason we beat them 43 straight times. Purdue is still a year away. Michigan is still mired in the failure of the Rich Rod experiment and is as down as we can ever hope them to be.

The Irish will only have to travel to play three true road games: Michigan State, Boston College, and Southern Cal. They'll all be tough contests in hostile environments, but across the board Notre Dame has more talent than both MSU and BC.

Southern Cal once again is the only team on the schedule with a roster more loaded than ours, but we don't play them until the final game of the season. There are three reasons that's important: the ND offense should have hit its stride by November, attrition on a thinned out roster will start to impact the Trojans, and there's a real possibility that Lane Kiffin will already have a full-throttle mutiny on his hands.

It's not a stretch to say that we're going to be the favorite in Vegas for every single game until the final one in Los Angeles. While it'd be stupid to say "I expect Notre Dame to go undefeated," one has to acknowledge that it's not as far-fetched as Lane Kiffin making it to December without committing another NCAA violation.

7. Paul Longo

A problem Notre Dame has faced over the last few years has been running out of gas late in games and late in the season (See: last two November swoons). Part of the problem had to do with the fact the strength and condition program Ruben Mendoza put together never seemed to know what identity they wanted to embody.

Each year it varied--one spring they wanted the offensive linemen bulked up, the next they wanted them trim. Very rarely did the Irish dominate in the trenches and by the end of each season players were said to have lost 30-40lbs. The general disarray and lack of a plan showed as the season wore on.

Enter Paul Longo.

Longo is one of the most respected strength coaches in the business. He put the team on a strict diet plan, an intense lifting plan, and set out with a clear agenda of making every player more explosive at his respective position. The results in just eight months are incredibly impressive. Every player that's been in front of a microphone has commented how they're in the best shape of their life. Chris Stewart--all 340lbs of him--can now do 26 pull-ups. Practice reports are quick to point out that players look leaner and more cut.

Kelly likes to run practices and play games at a breakneck speed the team was unfamiliar with before he arrived. Longo's workouts were the most basic step in moving the team toward playing the way Kelly wants them to play and by all accounts the first offseason workout program was a huge success. The fruits of their labor will show when other teams run out of gas while the Irish are still flying around the field on both sides of the ball.

6. The stable of extremely talented running backs with diverse skill sets

Armando Allen enters his senior season within shouting distance of becoming statistically one of the most productive backs in Notre Dame history in terms of all-purpose yards. For two years he's been on the verge of breaking big runs only to be thwarted by shoestring tackles and misplaced blockers. The guy can fly, it just seems he can't ever get over that last hurdle that springs him for the big run.

If he can't figure it out then Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood are sitting right behind him. Gray found himself buried on the depth chart last year due to a case of fumblitis, but according to camp reports his confidence is high and he's tearing it up.

Cierre Wood was probably the least fan-celebrated top 100 recruit we've gotten in the last five years, due in large part to the fact that he committed so early and then slipped from #2 in the country. Wood has shown flashes of gamebreaking ability every opportunity we've had to watch him. Certain guys just have that "home run" gene and he seems to possess it in spades.

Lastly, there is the bruiser Robert Hughes. Sometimes he has a tendency to dance and run soft, but if he attacks like he did in the Purdue and Washington games last year, he'll be an extremely valuable weapon in short yardage and red zone situations. He also has underrated hands (Weis was once quoted saying Hughes had the best hands on the team), something no one will appreciate until he snares a Reggie Brooks Snow Bowl-esque two-point conversion late in a game.

We're very deep in the backfield and can present a variety of different looks depending on who we send on the field. We've got pure speed (Allen), the shiftiness (Wood), power (Gray), and bruising goal-line potential (Hughes). This is the most talent we've had in the backfield since the Tony Fisher-Julius Jones-Terrence Howard combination of ten years ago.

5. The receiving unit may be the deepest and most talented in Notre Dame history

We are STACKED. Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph are the headliners of a Marianna's Trench deep unit. Floyd could be better than Golden Tate--he's so good that Mark May (yes, THAT Mark May) has christened Floyd as his darkhorse Heisman candidate. Rudolph could be the best tight end in the history of Notre Dame--a list that includes Hall of Famers (Dave Casper and Ken MacAfee), first rounders (Irv Smith), and countless NFL starters (Mark Bavaro, Anthony Fasano, and John Carlson to name a few). This pair will make Dayne's life infinitely easier because anything thrown in their general direction will either be caught or they'll draw a pass interference penalty.

Floyd and Rudolph are just the tip of the iceberg. Converted running back Theo Riddick has already locked down the slot position despite missing significant time in the spring due to injury. He's a gamebreaker that has the shiftiness and speed to go the distance every time he touches the ball.

There's a stable of talented wideouts that will all be given a chance to contribute this fall and there's an exciting mix of speed (Shaq Evans, TJ Jones, Robby Toma, Deion Walker) and size (John Goodman, Duval Kamara, Tyler Eifert).

The spread offense allows for a lot of receivers to contribute and the Irish have a wealth of depth and talent eager to do so. If Kelly wants to go five-wide with receivers/tight ends that are 6'2" or taller he can line up with Rudolph, Floyd, Eifert, Kamara, and Goodman. If he wants to go with five guys who can just fly and stretch the field he can send Floyd, Evans, Jones, Goodman, and Walker.

How are teams going to prepare for this unit other than lighting candles at The Grotto before they head in to Notre Dame Stadium?

4. The emergence of Zach Martin

There have been a lot of positive reports out of camp since it's opened, but the one that has caught my eye the most has been redshirt freshman Zach Martin leaving no doubt that he deserves the starting Left Tackle spot. If the key to the season is Dayne Crist's health and development, a related sub-plot is the offensive lines ability to kept Crist upright. Martin started establishing himself as a potential contributor this spring and has emerged as the clear-cut starter, something Irish fans should be extremely excited about.

The Irish are forced to replace three starters on the offensive line this season which has many people worried. But the way I see it, the only one that has big shoes to fill is center, where Eric Olsen started last season. Yes, Sam Young was a four-year starter at Tackle, but I spent most of those four years growing gray hairs thanks to his inconsistency (culminating with his indefensible decision to attempt to cut block a Navy defensive end he outweighed by 70lbs on the deciding play of the 23-21 loss to the Middies). Paul Duncan was someone I didn't trust at all. The bar the newcomers have to surpass isn't set very high.

Martin is an agile athlete that perfectly fits the mold of tackle in the spread offense. His stellar performance to date tells me we could actually be seriously upgrading over Duncan. It'll take time for this unit to gel and we can only hope that either Taylor Dever, Andrew Nuss, or Matt Romine steps forward like Martin has, but if you asked me to pick one spot to have someone shine unexpectedly right out of the gate, I'd take the protector of Dayne's blind side every time.

3. On-field leadership

One of the main things that Kelly has attempted to do is change the culture of Notre Dame Football. It's one that's been mired with mediocrity, a sense of entitlement, and selfishness. In the spring Kelly commented that "most of the guys here were more interested in whether they were on Mel Kiper's Big Board--I want guys who are more interested in what they can do for Notre Dame."

Shaking a program's very foundation and reshaping it is a tall order, but it becomes easier when the leaders on the field come naturally ingrained with the attitude the coach is looking for the team to adopt. That the exact scenario that Kelly walked into with quarterback Dayne Crist and linebacker Manti Te'o.

These are guys who came to Notre Dame for all the right reasons: because they love the school, realize and embrace the importance of tradition, and understand what it would mean to be a part of the team that brings Notre Dame back to the Promised Land.

Both players chose Notre Dame despite circumstances that seemed to stack odds against the Irish. Crist was a five star recruit that committed despite Jimmy Clausen's enrollment in the previous class while Te'o (another five star recruit) chose the Irish over Southern Cal despite the huge distance from home and after watching the Syracuse debacle in person on his visit. Why? Because they simply fell in love with Notre Dame.

These are the type of players we need leading the program. Talented, hard-working players that lead by example on the field and sincerely believe that they owe the school as much as it owes them. I couldn't be happier that this pair has stepped to the forefront during this transition. The impact of their leadership will be felt much more than in the wins column this season.

2. Brian Kelly

Ara Parseghian has said in the past that the head coach at Notre Dame needed to have extensive experience as a college football head coach in order to set himself up for success. He stated Notre Dame is the most pressure-packed job in sports and not a place for someone to learn on the job. After four failed coaching selections since Lou Holtz's departure that didn't fit Ara's criteria, the administration has finally decided to follow the proven blueprint.

Brian Kelly has been a head coach in the college game for 19 seasons. He has a hand in every aspect of his team, spending time with the quarterbacks, the defensive backs, and everyone in between. He won multiple championships in Division II, took Central Michigan to a conference championship, and even led perennial doormat Cincinnati to back-to-back BCS bowls. He's a proven winner with a wealth of experience--all of which will be valuable when taking on the tall order of returning Notre Dame to the top of the college football world.

Since taking the job Kelly has set out to tear down the losing, selfish culture that has poisoned the program and build up a sense of confidence, responsibility, and accountability. He's also tried to unify a splintered Notre Dame Nation with a barnstorming tour that has taken him to almost 200 speaking events since he was hired.

For the first time in a long time, we have a coach who gets it. Kelly understands what it takes to be successful in college football, embraces the challenges Notre Dame must overcome instead of crying about them, and has a clear plan he's set forth to turn things around quickly.

An impressive resume doesn't guarantee success and I'm not ready to anoint him a stone-cold lock to be the savior of Notre Dame Football, but his track record is undeniable and his first nine months have given Irish fans ample reason to be optimistic.


Brian Kelly said that players shouldn't need any extra motivation from coaches to get excited to play football for Notre Dame. I'm here to echo him: the alumni and subway alumni shouldn't need extra motivation to get excited for an upcoming season. The doom and gloom, downtrodden attitude that has permeated the fan base needs to stop.

On the afternoon of September 4th, the Band of the Fighting Irish will belt out the greatest of all fight songs and those gold helmets will flood out of the tunnel. When you close your eyes and picture that scene you can almost feel the electricity. A new era will dawn and new hope will be born.

The program has had a tough run recently, but dark times cannot erase decades of unparalleled greatness and glory. There's still plenty of magic left within the walls of that hallowed stadium, plenty of Notre Dame Moments waiting to be seized, a new and great chapter of Irish history waiting to be written. Notre Dame has risen from the ashes before and they will again.

Miracles are interwoven in the very fabric of our history and Notre Dame Nation's passionate belief that those miracles are possible is a large part of the mystique that makes this program so special. Will the next miracle dramatically arrive in the first year of the Brian Kelly Era like it did in Ara Parseghian's inaugural season over four decades ago? That remains to be seen. Odds certainly seem stacked against it.

But this is Notre Dame...you can never rule it out--especially before a ball is snapped.


Monday, August 16, 2010

"We Owe Notre Dame"

Another preseason video to get you ready for September 4th. This spot appeared on NBC during the Hall of Fame game last week.

I don't know about how other people feel but I love the fact that Dayne Crist and Manti Te'o have emerged as leaders of this team. Both committed to Notre Dame against stacked odds (Dayne coming on-board just a year after Jimmy Clausen enrolled with such fanfare and Manti coming to the Bend despite watching the Syracuse debacle on his visit) and both seem to have a keen understanding and appreciation of what representing the University means.

I know that players are coached to say all the right things at all times when it comes to the media, but there's something about these guys that seems so sincere. If the troops follow their lead and truly buy in then good things are going to happen on a grand scale sooner rather than later.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Dynasty Bet Payoff

This past weekend Bill and I headed to the Jersey Shore with friends to live the life of Pauly D and The Situation for a few days. This meant it was time for Billy Boy to own up on our bet from our NCAA Football Dynasty: on-demand 20 second yoga poses all weekend long.

Now everyone agreed he nailed the Downward-Facing Dog, but far and away his most impressive pose was Warrior #3. Bar patrons and waitresses alike couldn't have been more confused when on queue Bill hopped out of his seat and unleashed this little ditty in the middle of happy hour:
Job well done, Bill. Now the countdown to our next showdown in the dynasty league begins. What will be the terms? The full waxing of a single leg? The winner choosing a vanity license plate for the loser's car? Ideas are welcomed by one and all...stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Two Dudes, One Post: Preview Edition

We're less than four weeks away from kickoff. It's time for We Never Graduate's Notre Dame and Penn State diehards to start taking a deep look at what's to come this fall. It took a little Two Dudes, One Post, but we've lured Bill out of his hiatus to get his thoughts.

1. Take a look at your team's schedule. As a whole do you see it as tough, easy, or somewhere in the middle? Pick three games that will make or break your season. (Don't make specific predictions--that'll be a later post)

Mattare: This is the third year in a row that we've had a very manageable schedule. We have only three true road games (Michigan State, Boston College, and Southern Cal), Michigan is still down, and a few of our "toss-up games" will be played at home (Stanford, Pitt, Utah). This is a soft schedule by Notre Dame standards, the type dreamed up by Kevin White when he thought ND football had no chance to be relevant again unless we scheduled ourselves to winning seasons. Let us pause for a moment to thank God that he's no longer our athletic director.

Thank you.

Every week of the last two years has seemed as if it was the most important game in school history, which helped push many ND fans (including myself) to age an extra 4-5 years with each heart-stopping finish. A lot of that had to do with the toxic environment that enveloped the Charlie Weis regime after the 3-9 debacle of '07; a win every week became almost an absolute necessity to maintain any semblance of stability within the program. At the very least, year one of the Kelly Era will have a different feel than that which is a welcome change.

The three games I'll identify are Michigan, Boston College, and Southern Cal (with Stanford being a close 4th). Michigan's program is in disarray. The marriage of Rich Rod and the Skunkbears has been a terrible fit from day one and the ice Rodriguez is skating on right now is as thin as it gets. If Notre Dame can throttle them right out of the gate it might send their season into a tailspin that their embattled head coach won't survive. I touched on this last September--any time you have the opportunity to put the nail in the coffin of a rival you need to take advantage of it. We failed to do that last year, we need to do it this year.

The second game is little brother Boston College. The Eagles are a legitimate ACC Atlantic Division contender if they find someone better than Dave Shinskie (the worst QB we saw all of last year...who of course threw for almost 300 yards against us) to lead the offense. Alumni Stadium is an extremely hostile environment and it'll be Dayne's second true road game. There's a reasonable chance the Irish will be undefeated going into that game and if we clear that hurdle we can start talking about something really special.

The final one is of course the Trojans of Southern Cal. Just when you thought they couldn't become any less likable they go and hire Lane Kiffin. By the end of November their depleted roster should be banged up and who knows, there could be a full-throttle mutiny going on after players realize what a weasel Lane is. Their program is hurting right now with the sanctions handed down this spring, but their roster is still stocked with more talent than ND. Whether the Irish enter this game 7-4 or 11-0, if Kelly wins his first showdown with Southern Cal then it will clearly show the Irish are headed in the right direction going into the offseason.

Bill: Our schedule is very tough this year. We play 3 preseason top 10 teams on the road in Alabama, Ohio State and Iowa. The Alabama game could obviously make the season, but it couldn't break it because no one is expecting us to win (including me).

The game against Northwestern on November 6th is an obvious trap game as we should be coming off 3 straight wins and looking ahead to Ohio State, but Northwestern has moved up into the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and they have upset potential. Finally I'll go with Iowa as a season-breaker because this is an opportunity for us to play spoiler and crush their hopes early, man do they deserve it.

2. Both of your teams are replacing a multi-year starter at quarterback. How are you feeling about his potential replacement? How significant will be the drop-off with a new man at the helm of the offense?

Mattare: In the latest IBG I went over my feelings on Dayne Crist at length so jump over there for a full breakdown, but here's a quick synopsis: I feel very good about him being our team leader, but I'm very nervous about his knee and how that will affect him both mentally and physically. There's going to be a drop-off in terms of production with Crist because frankly there's nobody that could step in and totally fill the shoes Clausen left (32 TD's, 4 INT's, pinpoint accuracy, great decision-making, clutch performances).

If Dayne is healthy--and that's a BIG if--then we'll still have a very good offense even without Clausen and Tate. I don't think it has the ridiculously high ceiling that last year's unit had, but if they're more efficient in the red zone then they could actually turn out to be better. Dayne has plenty of toys to play with so if his knee holds up the offense will be dangerous.

Bill: I'm feeling good because the kid (I'm assuming Newsome here, although there have been no hints up to this point) has serious wheels and we have athleticism behind him in the depth chart. I think we need to take a very aggressive ground approach this year and run a lot of QB option. That's the only way I see us being dangerous offensively.

The drop off from Clark will be significant. Say what you want about #17, but he was able to complete routine passes with ease and we almost always beat teams we were supposed to beat with him under center. That's not to be taken for granted, I'm preparing myself for a lot of telepathed interceptions and overthrows. At least they have no game film on Newsome!

3. Sticking with the offensive side of the ball--what do you think is your team's biggest strength and biggest question mark going into the season? Identify an MVP of the offense, a sleeper that will emerge, and an X-Factor (someone who you have serious questions about that could make or break your squad).

Mattare: The biggest strength is our depth, size, and speed at the skill positions. Dayne Crist's acclimation to big-time college football will be made infinitely easier because when he drops back to pass he's going to have big targets (potential All-Americans Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd, Duval Kamara, John Goodman) and fast targets (Shaq Evans, TJ Jones, Theo Riddick). When he hands the ball off it'll be to both burners (Armando Allen, Cierre Wood) and bulls (Jonas Gray, Robert Hughes). I mean look at that collection of talent. It's probably the most loaded we've been since the '92 squad.

The biggest question mark is Dayne's knee. I have driven this into the ground and will continue to do so. Runner-up is the tackle position and who will emerge from the trio of Zach Martin, Matt Romine, and Taylor Dever.

My offensive MVP is Michael Floyd. He's been a man among boys since the first day he stepped on campus and in his third season he's primed to dominate. When he was healthy last year he was absolutely unstoppable. Mark May says Floyd is his sleeper Heisman candidate--tell me if that doesn't say something.

My sleeper is Shaq Evans. He's so fast, so strong, and such a good route runner that he can't help but excel in the spread. With so much attention focused on Floyd and Rudolph don't be surprised to see Shaq emerge as a force. My deep sleeper is Tyler Eifert. His reps may be limited but he's tall with great hands and great body control. He's another player who is lurking under the radar that could be a surprise contributor.

The X-Factor is Dayne Crist. Have I made this point clear yet? The entire season hinges on him and more specifically the health of his knee.

Bill: Our strength is at RB where we're returning two guys that have two seasons of game day experience. Evan Royster is poised to become our all time leading rusher, and while its time to admit that maybe Stephfon Green was overhyped because of a couple nice runs, I'll take him as my back-up any day.

Evan Royster has to be the offensive MVP. Every time the coaching staff switches into "don't lose" mode (every other quarter or so) I see five runs off-tackle in a row coming his way...so yeah, we need him to make us go.

The sleeper is going to be one of our young WRs because we have so much talent there and someone is going to be a first year starter. Justin Brown? The big man has moves and I've been reading that his work ethic is outstanding which is the only way to get on the field at Penn State.

The X-Factor: Quinn Barham, who might be our left tackle again (he took over after the Iowa game last year). We just need him to play better, a good pocket would do wonders for these young quarterbacks' psyche. Keep them upright against Youngstown State at least...please?

4. Penn State tends to field a great defensive squad year in and year out but must replace six starters this season. Notre Dame has nine starters returning but they were all a part of the worst defense in school history last season. How do you see your defensive unit performing this year? Throw out an MVP, someone who is under the radar that will emerge as a major contributor, and a player who will be the X-Factor.

Mattare: We're going to be good. I mean, really good. Far better than 90% of experts and even ND fans think. There are two keys that will determine how high the unit's ceiling will be: whether the thin defensive line holds up and if Harrison Smith re-emerges from the Clifford Jefferson Zone to fulfill the promise he had shown earlier in his career.

Our front three is going to be Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams, and Kapron Lewis-Moore. I feel very good about the ends but Ian worries me a bit. To me he fits in that Pat Kuntz mold of "productive, likable, but doesn't have the chops to be effective against the most elite competition." If Williams can hold up and occupy blockers effectively that will free up a host of playmakers to tee off on opponents.

The linebackers have speed, strength, and more speed. We don't know who's going to emerge from the middle linebacker battle, but we know Darius Fleming, Manti Te'o, and Brian Smith will be out there on opening day while athletic freak of nature Steve Filer will be unleashed 2002 Justin Tuck-style on passing downs. Bob Diaco said recently that the speed and athleticism at every position is phenomenal and that if they can slow down the run on 1st down, creating 2nd and 3rd and long situations, that they're capable of being a truly special outfit.

My vote for MVP of the defense is Manti Te'o. This guy is truly a special talent and already one of the clear-cut team leaders despite the fact he's only entering his sophomore season. It's been a long time since the Irish have fielded such an impressive physical specimen equipped with top-level instincts. My darkhorse is Ethan Johnson, who should really come into his own this season.

An under the radar contributor that I zeroed in on the spring is Jamoris Slaughter. I think he locks down one of the starting safety spots during camp and doesn't let go. He's a "you better think again about coming over the middle if you want to leave in one piece" element that's been missing in our secondary since the days of Deke Cooper and A'Jani Sanders. That style of play combined with the fact that he has already locked down a spot on the all-time Irish defensive name team (others include Michael Stonebreaker, Grant Irons) means he's going to become a fan favorite very quickly.

Lastly, we have the X-Factor: Harrison Smith. I never in a million years thought someone was capable of upsetting me to the degree that Clifford Jefferson used to infuriate me. Hayseed was abysmal in coverage and missed more tackles than anyone I've ever seen in major college football--and that isn't hyperbole or exaggeration, it was literally 3-4 tackles per game.. Smith has been shuttled between safety and linebacker over the course of his time at ND and last year his lack of a true position helped contribute to his confidence spiraling somewhere between 0% and -10,000% of where it needed to be.

Smith is extremely athletic and he had shown flashes of being a good player prior to last season's abomination, but if he can't pull himself out of the deepest of funks then there will be a gaping hole in a potentially rock solid secondary. Should Harrison tap into the potential that many people think is there it should go a long way in solidifying the entire defense.

Our defense will be stubborn. Pressure applied by the defensive line should keep the secondary from having to cover for too long. Our rotation at linebacker doesn't seem to be determined yet but we have enough depth there that I'm confident the coaches will get the right guys in there.

My pick for MVP goes to defensive tackle Ollie Ogbu. He has been underappreciated for two years now and I expect him to have his best season yet as a senior. He won't put up big numbers but he'll attract attention every day and he is a known commodity on a relatively young defense.

Under the radar is Stephon Morris. He's already earned the #1 CB spot as a sophomore and performed well in the 13 games he played last season. I don't expect him to be shutdown just yet because he is still young, but Tom Bradley obviously loves the kid, and he doesn't miss on corners often.

The X-Factor has to be Gerald Hodges. Everything I read has him "making his way onto the field at some point" but he hasn't earned a starting spot yet. This is a kid who has more athleticism and size than any of our linebackers and I think he could have a huge impact if he makes the leap during training camp. If he doesn't, Chris Colasanti, Nate Stupar, and Michael Mauti will be happy to take his minutes.

5. Most publications have both of your squads pegged as top 25-ish teams that will finish with 8-10 wins and land in mid-level bowls...But what the hell do they know? Their opinions are worthless; right now the facts say your team's record is 0-0 and controls its own destiny. We wrap up with a three part question:

A. Layout a best case scenario--what needs to happen for your team's stars to align and land in the championship game?

B. Try to put into words what the six weeks from the end of the season to the championship would be like if Notre Dame and Penn State were playing for the title.

C. What would you do if your team ran the table and won the title?

A - Dayne's knee needs to be healthy and needs to not miss a snap, Dayne needs to get comfortable with the offense, the offensive line needs to keep Dayne upright, the defense needs to fulfill its potential, and both units need to inflicting themselves with killer, momentum-swinging penalties. Piece of cake, right?

B - Every single day I'd be sending a package to Bill's house. One day it may be the head of the Nittany Lion, one day it may be the head of Joe Paterno, one day it may be the mug shot of whatever starting Penn State defensive end I'd just framed for some crime.

To say our friendship would be riding on the game wouldn't be an enormous stretch. It would be borderline intolerable for the loser to be around the winner probably for the rest of our lives. Frankly, I'd be willing to risk it for a chance to knock off the Nittanys and hoist the BCS Championship Trophy.

C - It'd be the greatest moment of my life. I'd take weeks off of work. When I returned I'd wear a different ND jersey every day until I was eventually fired. My first child would be named Brian Kelly Dayne Floyd Manti Mattare whether it was a boy or girl. I'd construct a Grace Hall-esque #1 to put atop my house and have it lit with Christmas lights for the entire year.

I can barely wrap my mind around how unbelievable it would be. I'm becoming vaclempt. Talk amongst yourselves. I'll give you a topic: Joe Paterno is neither living nor dead. Discuss.

A. Oh, not much. We just have to trot out a 19 year old quarterback making his first road start against the defending national champions who return everyone, beat them, and then focus on Kent State. Oh I forgot--we also have to beat two conference opponents who whooped us last year on the road too. Both of said opponents snapped our offensive line in half so its good that we have... the same exact guys back?

B. Running this situation through my head again and again and there's no way we're friends after that game. The weeks leading up to that game would be long, sleepless, and surreal. Trying to put a word to it: consuming.

C. Run my phone bill up, STRUT, antagonize every Gator fan, and name my kid Joe.


Mattare: Lebron handled "The Decision" about as poorly as humanly possible. What's a situation in your life you've handled equally as poorly?

Bill: My first job interview. I asked the interviewer to "hold on" so I could leave and take a 10 minute dump.

Bill: You recently played golf with Mark May and acknowledged that he's not a Notre Dame hater. If he gets on TV and bashes them again this year does that opinion go right out the window?

Mattare: Just because he's a straight-shooter and not an ND hater doesn't mean I won't unleash expletives/pillows/remote controls at the TV screen when he criticizes ND.

Mattare: You're going to have to do a variety of on-demand yoga poses at bars the next time we see each other...have you been working on your flexibility? Are you ready for the downward-facing dog?

Bill: I can't even sit Indian style, but that's not going to stop me from absolutely killing every pose put forth. Get ready girls.

Bill: How much football is too much football? I'm in a video game dynasty, three fantasy leagues, flag football, have the Eagles and Penn State, and recently found time for the Orlando arena team...and I still feel FRESH. Are you going to reach the tipping point this year?

Mattare: How fresh you'll stay is 100% dependent on how PSU and the Birds do. If they take the gas early then you'll burn out quicker than PSU basketball's NCAA tourney hopes.

Mattare: We're a few episodes into the new season of Jersey Shore and the reigning titleholder of "most terrible human being walking this earth," Angelina, has reappeared. What would you say to her if you had five minutes on national TV to just unload?

Bill: "Don't listen to those other guys, you're beautiful and smart and not psychotic at all..." (slowly backing away, very slowly)...

Bill: If you could ice anyone who would it be and how would you do it?

Mattare: After defeating PSU in the national championship game I'd ice you by FedEx-ing a 40 oz Smirnoff that was outfitted in an ND national championship koozy and a bottle-opener that played the Victory March to your place of work.