By: Nick Shepkowski
An abysmal 2007 left the Irish faithful with their heads stuck lying in their hands—3-9...at Notre Dame...unbelievable.
What did Charlie Weis do? How could a team like Notre Dame only be able to muster up three wins in an entire season? Well, Charlie bit the bullet in 2007, giving several freshmen valuable playing time, which well aid in the future.
How much of an improvement will we see in 2008?
Expect the offense to start to show signs of why it will be scary in years to come. We now know that Jimmy Clausen was not 100 percent last fall and that there was a reason he looked nothing like what he was hyped up to be.
Note that he did add 15 pounds of muscle this offseason, so expect Jimmy Clausen to be a lot more like the Clausen Notre Dame thought they were originally getting.
The running backs of the Irish are a fearsome bunch, having power, speed, and strength all covered. The question is whether or not the offensive line will be able to block for them, something I covered a few days ago here.
If the offensive line progresses the way it likely should, the offense will be scary. I can not say enough about how important and how much of a question mark the O-line is this year.
The wideouts on the Irish are primarily young but have the talent to be amongst the best in the nation in a few short years. We saw flashes in a pan from Duval Kamara last year while David Grimes was also productive at times.
Expect Michael Floyd to work his way into the starting lineup before the end of the season. Also add in Golden Tate, who can hopefully learn to do a bit more than run straight down field, and Irish quarterbacks will be smiling with their options to throw to.
Tight end is a position where Notre Dame enters 2008 with yet another question mark. John Carlson, who has been an offensive threat for the past two years, is now a Seattle Seahawk, which leaves the Irish with Mike Ragone and Luke Schmidt at the position. Both were highly touted coming in, and the Irish will benefit if they can contribute immediately.
Expect one if not both to have big years with how much ND has used the tight end position as a target so far in the Charlie Weis era.
The defensive line needs to be able to penetrate the offensive line, otherwise the defense as a whole will suffer badly. Trevor Laws, ND's best run stopper up front a year ago, is gone to the NFL. The good news is that the youth that will be up front has talent, it just may be a bit green.
My prediction is that the Irish secondary and linebackers aren't the biggest concern on defense, instead it is the line. There is no doubt that Omar Hunter would have been playing right away had he not chose to attend Florida after committing to Notre Dame.
The linebackers are young as well for Notre Dame, outside of Maurice Crum, Jr. that is. Crum is the senior leader of this defense while others such as Toryan Smith and Kerry Neal saw valuable time a year ago. Factor in freshmen Darius Fleming and Steven Filer and the Irish have begun to add depth to the linebacking corps.
The secondary of Notre Dame will be a strong spot this season, even with the departure of Tom Zbikowski and unfortunate loss of Darrin Walls. Kyle McCarthy will lessen the blow of losing Zbikowski as McCarthy had a very strong spring season. Let's hope he can parlay that into a strong fall as well.
Sure Darrin Walls was Notre Dame's best corner a year ago and he is gone this year; however, Terrail Lambert is back and expect him to recover from what was a bad year for him last year.
Walls' replacement will likely be Gary Gray or Raeshon McNeil, both of whom will be entering their first years starting. Although they will be green in the defensive backfield, they should be strong as well down the road.
On special teams Notre Dame will need to find a solution to what was a major problem for them a year ago. Brandon Walker struggled a year ago kicking field goals and he may be replaced by Ryan Burkhart.
Practices will decide who the kicker is, while Eric Maust will do the punting.
The Irish struggled in the return game last year, not returning a kickoff past midfield. Zbikowski is gone as a return man but Golden Tate has the speed and quickness to one day be great there as well.
Notre Dame is still too young to be competing for a BCS Bowl this year. However, with a schedule that is very favorable to them, eight wins should not be out of the realm of possibility.
Notre Dame will finish 2008 with an 8-4 record and play in the Gator Bowl. That sets up a title run for 2009 with anything short of a BCS game being a major disappointment.