Fighting Irish: Reason For Optimism In South Bend?

Ryan WilliamsContributor IJune 5, 2009

SOUTH BEND,IN - SEPTEMBER 13:  Morgan Trent #14 of the Michigan Wolverines reaches for the ball against Michael Floyd #3 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on September 13, 2008 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Will this be more of the same in 2009 for the Irish, or is this the year that they can finally turn the corner under head coach Charlie Weis? The pieces are in place for this to be a special year in South Bend. The Irish have arguably the best receiver tandem in the country in Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. Between them they had 106 receptions for 1799 yards and 17 TD in 2008.

Look for those numbers to increase significantly this year. And with a very healthy battle going on behind them for the No. 3 spot, this may end up being the best receiving corp in Notre Dame history.  

They have a QB who has shown that if you can give him just enough time, he can shred defenses. As it stands, Jimmy Clausen is already ahead of the “Brady curve.” Of course, Clausen is a full two year starter, so that is where the difference comes in.

But what I find interesting is the spike in Brady Quinn's numbers between his sophomore and junior seasons. +1500 yards, +10 completion percentage, doubled TD, and cut INT by three.  If Notre Dame can expect anything close to this from Clausen, you would have to think ’09 will be a success. 

The backfield is older, stronger, and more confident than in years past. And it's deep, so if someone isn't getting it done, put somebody in who can. Look out for Jonas Grey in '09.

The only problem with this unit is the unproven O-line. This is the key to the season and to Charlie Wies' job. If the line can open up some holes and give Clausen just a little more time, this really could be a special year. ND is in the top 10 in FBS schools as far as minutes played across the O-line.

So they have the experience, but can they learn a new way to do things in a relatively short amount of time. I think new hire Frank Verducci was a good hire. In the interviews I've seen and the practice video I've watched, he is always fired up on his men. He looks to teach solid technique, and isn't afraid to show emotion.

And then there is the defense. Once again, the line is going to be the major area of concern. Notre Dame lists their post-spring depth chart for the d-line as having three sophomores and one junior. Youth and inexperience to say the least. Name to watch: Ian Williams. In 2008, Williams recorded 18 solo tackles and 22 assists. 

At linebacker they list one sophomore in Darius Flemming, one junior in Brian Smith, and one senior in Toryan Smith. Name to watch: Brian Smith. Look for Smith to be the leader on this defense.  In 2008, Smith had 33 solo tackles with 21 assists.

And of course we have to mention the heralded freshman linebacker Manti Teo. Irish faithful are hoping his impact will be immediate.  Listed at 6'2" 225lbs, with a 40 time of 4.6 sec, Teo has all the tools to be a phenom, but it remains to be seen if he can translate his success to the college level. 

And then there is the cream of the crop on the defensive side of the ball for the Irish.  This should be a group that makes offensive coordinators cringe. With senior Darren Walls and sophomore Robert Blanton locking down the corners and 2008 leading tackler fifth year senior Kyle McCarthy at the strong safety and junior Harrison Smith on the weak side, this unit should impress.

Blanton will be the vocal leader of this group. As a freshman, Blanton recorded 26 solo tackles with seven assists. He also intercepted two passes and returned one 47 yards for a score. 

All in all, I think the Irish will continue their assent from that awful 3-9 season two years ago. The schedule is set up for at least 10 wins in ’09. The key to it all is the O-line. If they can finally start pulling their weight, I believe the Irish offense can out score just about anyone in the country.