Monday, August 29, 2005

A Season Preview

With the regular season just five short days away, it's time for my season preview of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Let's first take a look at the Notre Dame offense.

Notre Dame Offense
While Notre Dame was 81st last year in total offense and 72nd in offensive scoring, I expect that to completely change this year and that's for one reason: Charlie Weis is calling the plays and Bill Diedrick is not. I expect much better offensive gameplanning, a lot less predictable play calling, and no more WR screen calls on 3rd and 8. I think the biggest change for the Notre Dame offense is that it will be much more consistent this year. You will see a lot fewer games like last year against USC where Notre Dame moved the ball extremely well at the beginning of game, but then got completely stalled when the other team figured out what they were doing and they could not adjust.

The Irish return 10 starters from last year, and many of the 10 starters have been playing together for two years. Not only are most of the starters back, but the Irish are very balanced. Darius Walker ran the ball effectively as a true freshman last year, rushing for nearly 800 yards and averaging 4.2 yards a carry. Brady Quinn set career highs in TD passes and passing yards last season. Rhema McKnight, Matt Shelton and Anthony Fassano all had 100 yard receiving days last season, and Notre Dame got solid contributions at times last season from Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija. Scoring should not be a problem this year, which should at least make for more entertaining games than the previous seasons.

The biggest problem facing the Notre Dame offense is the lack of depth on the offensive line, at quarterback and at running back. None of the backups at these positions have seen significant game action except for center John Sullivan, who started all 11 games last year and running back Travis Thomas, who fumbled once every three carries last season. If they suffer a serious injury at any of one of these positions, they could struggle to score points.

Next let's take a look at the Notre Dame defense.

Notre Dame Defense
Unlike the Notre Dame offense, the Notre Dame defense is returning only three starters: LB Brandon Hoyte, SS Tom Zbikowski and DT Derek Landri. However, the Notre Dame defense is not as green as one might think. Some of the other defensive starters this year such as DE Victor Abiamiri, DE Chris Frome, DT Trevor Laws, LB Corey Mays and CB Mike Richardson all saw significant playing time on defense or on special teams last season. So the defense could jell together pretty quickly.

The Notre Dame defense has two huge question marks. The first being their pass defense. Their pass defense flat out sucked last year. 116th in the nation. The good news is that the defensive backfield cannot play much worse and they have a coach in Bill Lewis, who actually has a clue. The bad news is that the only reliable performer in the secondary right now is Tom Zbikowski. The two starting cornerbacks, Ambrose Wooden and Mike Richardson are question marks. Wooden saw little action in the defensive backfield last season, and Richardson was being turned around on every other pass his way last season. In addition, the other starting safety, Chinedum Ndukwe, was just converted to safety last year and played sparingly in the defensive backfield last season.

The other big question mark for the Irish defense is their lack of depth. If you think the starters are a little green, check out some of their backups: Ronald Talley, Justin Brown, Joe Brockington, Mitchell Thomas, Steve Quinn, David Burton and Kyle McCarthy just to name a few. You're not alone if you're wondering who the hell are these guys.

Lastly, let's take a quick look at the special teams.

Notre Dame Special Teams
This is an area that should improve with Charlie Weis spending significant time during spring and fall practice on special teams. Expect to see many of the defensive starters on special teams. As a result, expect a few more blocked punts and much better punt and kick return coverage.

D.J. Fitzpatrick is back doing all of the kicking duties. Fitzpatrick was very steady last year making 11 of 15 field goals with a long of 47 and averaging almost 42 yards a punt. Expect more of the same from him.

The big question with the Notre Dame special teams is whether a big time return man will emerge. Notre Dame has been sorely lacking one since Julius Jones graduated. True freshmen David Grimes and D.J. Hord along with Justin Hoskins and Chase Anatasio will get a chance to return kicks. If anyone of them can be an effective return man, the Irish might have one of the better special team units in the country. Having a great special teams will be critical for Notre Dame if they want to upset a Michigan or a Tennessee or a USC.

2005 Predictions
Now that we've taken a look at Notre Dame's offense, defense and special teams, it's time to make a prediction on this upcoming season. Here's my game-by-game prediction:

Michigan State-Win
@Washington-Win (in a blowout)

8-3 should put them in line for a Gator Bowl bid and after the last two abysmal years, I would consider that a successful one, especially when you consider the difficulty of their schedule. I will add one caveat to my prediction and that is if Notre Dame suffers some significant injuries on the offense or the defensive side of the ball, I would add at least 1 or 2 more losses. This is a very thin team and an injury or two could really hurt them. That being said, this should be a really fun year and for the first time in many years, I'm optimistic about Notre Dame football.