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Notre Dame in 2011: What makes this year different?

Sep 1, 2011, 3:51 AM EST

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It was almost odd seeing it. Six years ago, a roster filled with the same guys that were trampled by USC and Purdue (Purdue!), edged by BYU, Boston College and Pittsburgh, and looked rudderless at the Insight Bowl after head coach Tyrone Willingham was dismissed, came out of the locker room eight months later transformed.

In an opening day grudge match between Charlie Weis and Dave Wannstedt, both fresh from the AFC East, the Irish ran the former Dolphins head coach out of his own stadium, as both coaches led their alma maters in decidedly different directions. Brady Quinn, a junior that looked the part his first two seasons but hadn’t delivered, transformed into a leading man. On the ground, an offensive line that was soft turned into a steamroller up front, leading an Irish cavalcade — five guys averaged more than five-yards a carry. Little used wide receiver Jeff Samardzija snatched a tricky touchdown pass in the end zone with six minutes left in the first half. As the Irish went to halftime, they had scored 35 first half points. It might as well have been raining manna from heaven.

The entire 2005 season still feels like a blur. Even when the Irish lost, it was memorable; storming back from a twenty-one point second-half deficit, the Irish lost a stunner in overtime to Michigan State 44-41. Then, an electric Saturday with the underdog Irish in green jerseys on a crisp October afternoon. When the numbness of USC’s improbable comeback wore off, Irish fans would never admit it, but the loss didn’t really matter: Notre Dame was back.

For a school that made a habit of waking up the echoes, the upcoming 2006 season felt different. It wasn’t just Irish fans that thought it could be the year. Sports Illustrated had bought in. So did ESPN. So did the entire AP Poll. That was Notre Dame sitting at No. 2 in the preseason, narrowly behind Ohio State and garnering 10 first place votes.

With 17 starters and 36 monogram winners returning, the banner Weis hung in the weight room that claimed “9-3 isn’t good enough,” didn’t feel like over-confidence from one of college football’s brashest coaches. The offensive backfield returned. Rhema McKnight replaced Maurice Stovall as All-American Jeff Samardzija’s partner-in-crime, protected by an offensive line with three returning starters. Even better, the defense returned nine starters and eight of the top ten tacklers. All four starters returned on the defensive line. The secondary was completely intact. Weis even inserted tailback Travis Thomas in at weakside linebacker (a move right out of Belicheck’s playbook), and an immediate athletic upgrade to a defense that looked a step slow against USC.

As Brian Kelly looked to build off the first winning season Central Michigan had completed in nearly a decade, Charlie Weis was set to return Notre Dame to college football’s promise land.

***

EXT. OPEN FIELD – DAY

Leaves scatter on a football field on a glorious autumn afternoon. CHARLIE BROWN stands with his faithful companion SNOOPY. His friend LUCY approaches carrying a football.

LUCY
Say Charlie Brown. I’ve got a football.
How about practicing a few place kicks?
I’ll hold the ball and you come running
and kick it.

CHARLIE
Oh, brother. I don’t mind the dishonesty
half as much as I mind your opinion of me.
You must think I’m stupid.

LUCY
Oh, come on, Charlie Brown. I’ll hold it steady.

Charlie is immediately distrustful of his friend in the blue dress.

CHARLIE
You just want me to come running up to kick that ball
so you can pull it away and see me land flat on my
back and kill myself.

LUCY
This time you can trust me.

Charlie seems skeptical until Lucy produces a DOCUMENT out of thin air.

LUCY
Here’s a signed document. Testifying that I promise not to pull it away.

Lucy hands him the document. Charlie marvels at the development as he peruses the contract.

CHARLIE
It is signed… It’s a signed document! I guess if you have a signed
document in your possession, you can’t go wrong. This year,
I’m really going to kick that football.

Filled with belief, Charlie looks down at the document. He’s convinced. With a running start, he charges toward Lucy, who holds the ball for his kick. Charlie SWINGS HIS LEG, ready for the triumphant strike when… THE BALL DISAPPEARS.

Lucy has done it again, pulling the ball out from under an unsuspecting Charlie Brown. Charlie SCREAMS in agony as he LANDS FLAT ON HIS BACK.

The signed document floats into Lucy’s hands.

LUCY
Peculiar thing about this document. It was never notarized.

FADE TO BLACK.

***

Charles Schulz got it wrong when he chose yellow and black for Charlie’s shirt colors. Our favorite optimistic lad might have felt far more comfortable wearing blue and gold, surrounded by the thousands of alumni and subway domers gearing up to once again take the leap after five seasons of frustration.

While two BCS appearances since 2005 is hardly grounds for a eulogy, it’s been a winding road filled with plenty of detours that’s led Notre Dame back to this not-quite familiar place. The rug was pulled out from beneath the program in 2007. A year later, a 5-2 start was erased by a humbling conclusion. While Weis seemed to have the Irish building for the future after a much-needed bowl victory, 2009 was a different version of the same song. After a four game swoon ended the regular season in dramatic fashion, an expensive plug was pulled on a Charlie Weis era that started with a bang but went out like a whisper.

Brian Kelly didn’t come out of the gates swinging. He won his debut in unimpressive fashion, but the Irish limped out of the gate, starting 1-3. Steadfast in his 20 years of experience as a head coach, Kelly didn’t panic.

“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” Kelly said after the Irish were beaten soundly by Stanford 37-14. “Some are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 8- or 9-3. It’s what you decide to do from here on out. There’s going to be success down the road for them if they stay with it, and I’m certain that they will.”

It got worse before it got better, with the Irish losing in humiliating and shocking fashion to Navy and Tulsa respectively. But with a bye week to regroup, a funny thing happened. Notre Dame started playing good football. November had been particularly unkind to Weis’ Irish squads (1-8 record the past two seasons), but last season’s Irish vanquished demons of seasons past, ending the year on a four-game winning streak that included wins over Utah, Army, USC and a convincing defeat of Miami in the Sun Bowl.

An 8-5 finish doesn’t get you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but there are plenty of people that see big things in store for the 2011 campaign. While it may be hard for some to dust themselves off and get ready to kick off another season, here are four reasons why this season will be different.*

1. The Irish have the size in their defensive front seven.

There aren’t many football teams that have the sheer size of the Irish in their front seven. When LSU pushed Notre Dame all over the football field in the Sugar Bowl ending the 2006 season, it was obvious the Irish were undermanned physically.

Let’s take a quick look at the front seven of both the 2006 defense and the 2011 Irish, and you’ll quickly get the picture.

2006 Opening Day Front Seven

DE: Victor Abiamiri: 6-4, 270 – Sr.
DT: Trevor Laws, 6-1, 283 – Sr.
DT: Derek Landri, 6-3, 277 – Sr.
DE: Ronald Talley, 6-4, 262 – Jr.
OLB: Travis Thomas, 6-0, 215 – Sr.
MLB: Maurice Crum, 6-0, 220 – Jr.
OLB: Mitchell Thomas, 6-3, 232 – Sr.
Key Reserves:
DL: Chris Frome, 6-5, 262 – Sr.
DL: Dwight Stephenson, 6-2, 248

2011 Opening Day Front Seven

DE: Kapron Lewis-Moore: 6-4, 300 – Sr.
DT: Sean Cwynar: 6-4, 285 – Sr.
DE: Ethan Johnson: 6-4, 300 – Sr.
OLB: Darius Fleming: 6-2, 255 – Sr.
ILB: Manti Te’o: 6-2, 255 – Jr.
ILB: Dan Fox: 6-3, 240 – Jr.
OLB: Prince Shembo: 6-2, 250 – So.
Key Reserves:
NT: Louis Nix: 6-3, 326 – So.
LB: Carlo Calabrese: 6-1, 245 – Jr.
DE: Aaron Lynch: 6-6, 265 – Fr.
DE: Stephon Tuitt: 6-6.5, 295 – Fr.

If you’re looking for mathematical proof that the Irish are stronger up front than they have been in a long time, take a look at the difference in sheer size between the 2006 front seven and the unit from this year. Even with Sean Cwynar playing as an undersized defensive tackle, he’d still be the largest guy on the 2006 roster.

With proper weight training and physical conditioning, this isn’t a team you’re likely to see on rollerskates at the end of the season, like you did with Irish team’s of the past. Size may not be the only determining factor, but for the first time in a very long while, the Irish can control — and dominate — the point of attack at the line of scrimmage.

2. The Irish will be better balanced and more productive on offense.

It’s hard to believe it, but even with the Irish breaking in an entirely new system, losing their starting quarterback, All-American tight end, two different starting wide receivers and a starting right tackle, the Irish offense wasn’t all that bad.

In fact, it was essentially a mirror image of the 2006 unit.

Looking back at the stat-line for both squads, it’s shocking to see how similar the offensive outputs were between the ’06 squad many saw as one of the most high-octane in college football, and Kelly’s ’10 team that was learning the ropes with Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees.

Here’s a breakdown of the run/pass ratio for both teams, along with their scoring average.

2006 per game output

36 passing attempts, 7.3 yards per pass. (11.8 per catch)
32 rushing attempts, 3.9 yards per carry.
Points per game: 31.0

2010 per game output

37 passing attempts, 6.8 per attempt (11.5 per catch)
32 rushing attempts, 4.0 yards per rush
Points per game: 26.3

If you’re looking for the major difference between the two teams, look at the red zone efficiency. Weis’ 2006 squad cashed in 90 percent of their chances, scoring touchdowns on 76 percent. Kelly’s first squad only scored in 82 percent, with touchdowns coming at only a 58 percent clip.

With another year in the system for Crist (and Tommy Rees), a running game that’s got four returning starters along the offensive line, and a team that showed an offensive identity in the final month of last season, if the Irish can build in their second year under Kelly and stay reasonable healthy, the offense will be in great shape.

3. Consistency in coaching a system and fundamentals fuels player development.

If there was a knock on Charlie Weis, it was his strident belief that he could out-scheme anybody. That “decided schematic advantage” became a punch-line to detractors when Weis was under fire, but also went a long way towards explaining why player development stalled out, as Weis consistently tweaked his coaching staff, schemes, and base knowledge for players in hopes of gaining an edge.

“I’ve had three different defensive coordinators, three different position coaches,” Ethan Johnson said. “This is the first time I’ve gone into a system for two consecutive years and known what to expect. In that respect, we’re going to have a much more productive year because we’re not dealing with a new coaching staff and a new system.”

Many questioned Kelly’s approach to hiring a staff when he brought with him a handful of coaches from Cincinnati and a group that was low on Q-rating but high on familiarity with Kelly’s system.

The “one-voice” approach was a stark contrast to Weis’ hiring philosophy. When the Irish defense struggled, Weis replaced coordinator Rick Minter‘s 4-3 defense with Corwin Brown‘s 3-4 system, only to bring in Jon Tenuta and go back to a four-man front. A roster already assembled for a system it was no longer running was forced to add another level of complexity to it, and the results on the defensive side of the ball were self-explanatory.

Kelly’s name hasn’t been too far away from the “genius” moniker, but the brilliance in his system is also in its simplicity. It’s that simplicity, both on offense and defense, that allows players to develop quickly on his rosters, fueling growth and improvement throughout the season.

4. Momentum.

For the first time since this football team enrolled in school, the Irish had an offseason where they were able to build off of an impressive finish and continue developing. Where as Weis’ last two rosters collapsed at the first sign of adversity, Kelly’s 2010 team picked itself off the mat twice, ending the season on a high note.

With a healthy spring practice session, an incredible recruiting haul on the defensive side of the ball, and the return of Michael Floyd from disciplinary purgatory, the Irish are poised to build on a season that had every player and coach on the roster doing an awful lot of self-examination.

***

There will always be questions on a roster. Can Dayne Crist carry the offense? Will Cierre Wood be able to last the season? Can the Irish secondary stay healthy? We’ll find all that out over the next three months.

But as the days get shorter, summer turns to fall, and Saturdays become a communal exercise in hope, there’s plenty of reason to think this year might be better than the last. And while all of this could be shot to hell by the time the calendar hits October, Notre Dame is once again poised to make a run in college football.

Now come on, Charlie Brown. I’ve got a football. Let’s practice a few kicks.

* These reasons were not notarized.

  1. brendanunderscoreg - Sep 1, 2011 at 7:19 AM

    I always feel the need to temper my excitement going into a season because of the heartache experienced under the previous regimes. But, is comparing Brian Kelly (or any coach for that matter) to the previous head coach really an apt comparison? Different teams, different coaches, different players (or at least a better outlook among the same players).

    I, for one, am ready for Saturday and the potential jubilation or disappointment that comes with the final result. Negatron has been buried and won’t be rising from the dead. I’m all in as a fan just like the players.

    Bring on South Florida. Bring on the teams from Michigan. Bring on Stanford. No more hedging bets. Let’s lay it all on the line emotionally just as the players are going to do physically.

    GO IRISH!!!

    • nudeman - Sep 1, 2011 at 1:51 PM

      A very thorough analysis here that gives actual data to support the optimism.

      I too am optimistic, even if some of my reasons are more subjective, such as:

      1. Kelly seems to understand coaching is not about outscheming or “tricking” the other team
      2. Rather he understands it’s about knocking the hell out of people with size and strength
      3. Brady Quinn was highly overrated, and his NFL performance has done nothing to dispel that.
      4. Weis viewed Defense as a necessary evil. Kelly embraces it as at least 50% of the game.
      5. The depth is stunning, even if – as the case in many spots – it’s provided by true Freshmen.
      6. Crist is as underrated as Quinn was overrated. I look for a breakout year here.

      • trbowman - Sep 1, 2011 at 6:38 PM

        I stopped reading when you called Quinn “overrated.”

    • nickynardini1 - Sep 1, 2011 at 3:31 PM

      Good point re: comparing previous regimes, except that the heartache has occurred so frequently in the recent past…

      Love the Negatron reference and am so excited for the Live Blog. Bring in Positron!

  2. mattnef - Sep 1, 2011 at 7:45 AM

    Great article! I actually laughed out loud at the “these reasons have not been notarized.”
    I’m definitely drinking the kool-aid for this team (even with the bitter memory of the last time I drank the kool-aid).

  3. joeschu - Sep 1, 2011 at 8:08 AM

    Oh, I hate to admit it, but they have me too. I’m going to live and die with this bunch on Saturdays this fall. They’re saying all the right things, they look the part, and they have a coach we can be proud of (not make excuses for). Please, please, please let this be real!

  4. danno27 - Sep 1, 2011 at 9:11 AM

    I’ve been an Irish fan since the mid 90’s, grew up watching them on tv every weekend. You could call me a bandwagoner except it would have to be a bandwagon of masochism (davie, willingham and weis- some painful years there). I have never been this excited about a season. This was a great read and its good to see that keith’s drinking just as much kool-aid as i have been. Beat those Bulls!

  5. ndfanwabashman - Sep 1, 2011 at 11:53 AM

    Reading things like this, it’s hard to temper enthusiasm. However, these days I don’t make outlandish predictions when friends and family ask me how the Irish will fare. I just tell them, and try to believe, that it’s not where you start but where you finish.

    The only thing I can do as a fan, is show up early, yell loud, stay positive and hope for the best. I trust Brian Kelly will provide these kids with the tools to take care of the rest.

  6. oldestguard - Sep 1, 2011 at 11:57 AM

    Absolutely great article – I can’t add or subtract a thing…you’ve got me firing on all cylinders !

    Now I just need to find a 52 hour tailgate to tide me over till kick-off

    • papadec - Sep 1, 2011 at 4:27 PM

      More power to you OG – if I tailgated for 52 hours, Lucy wouldn’t have to pull the ball away. I’d already be flat on my butt. Although, looking at the clock, it would only be about 47 hours now. For all you Irish fans & alums that are disappointed about the recent past results of ND football seasons, myself included – my son graduated from Wash St U in 2010. Winning A GAME was something to celebrate, never mind a winning season, while he was there. The time we spent together on Dad’s Weekends was way more important, and enjoyable, than the outcome of the games. With the three hour time difference, we watched as much of the ND games as possible before heading over to Martin Stadium to have Lucy pull the ball away – yet again. GO IRISH!!!!!!!

  7. fitzp - Sep 1, 2011 at 2:46 PM

    Super article as always Keith…..great work in building up to the first game of the season. I can’t wait for the season to start!

    It’s so hard not to get over excited that this team can do special things this year but I’m worried about the game this Saturday, there could very be an upset, Saturday will tell us a whole lot more – just hope it all good.

    Really looking forward to the Live Blog on Saturday Keith – the game isn’t being show live over here in Ireland this week, we have to wait until the Michigan game to get the first ‘live’ game on Eurosport.

    • oldestguard - Sep 1, 2011 at 6:10 PM

      Is there a decent ND following over there, Fitzp ?

      My mother came from Cork and it sure is beautiful down there.

    • tradertrik - Sep 1, 2011 at 8:46 PM

      Really, I’ll be suprized if USF scores 14. We have a defense with something to prove, as in last year may have been a fluke, and I expect the next two games will be used to put that to rest. Even if I’m wrong, we’re gonna be 2-0.

      Typing on a lap top is just a bit*ch, anyone every noticed that? Mayby it’s just me…………

      GO IRISH!!!!!!

  8. ndtod - Sep 1, 2011 at 8:30 PM

    Thanks Keith. I agree with everybody here. This year feels different. Unlike the gimmicks and shortcuts of the last couple years, we seem to actually be methodically improving every aspect of our game through player acquisition and development. No excuses. Do the work.

  9. a68domer - Sep 2, 2011 at 2:09 PM

    FITZP,

    Try live-streaming the game via und,com. If you have trouble with that, try the website:

    http://www.soccertvlive.net/sport

    It’s not just for soccer, I’ve been watching the Phillies live in S. Florida all summer!

  10. footballace - Sep 2, 2011 at 2:54 PM

    The biggest difference between 2006 and 2011 is the coaching staff. The Irish now have a coach who knows how to develop all 3 phases of the game instead of just focusing on the offense.

    When your starting D tackles are 283 and 277 pounds your going to get pushed around at the D1 level. Its almost like Weis thought the defense was an afterthought and he put no effort into make the unit better.

    The Offense puts people in the seats, but the defense wins championships.

  11. rcali - Sep 2, 2011 at 4:16 PM

    Kelly is a real, successful, college head coach. How long has it been since we had one of those? Enjoy the ride.

  12. gershonpsu - Sep 3, 2011 at 9:35 PM

    Aauugh! Sorry ND fans. You’ve been snookered again.

  13. 1historian - Sep 3, 2011 at 10:34 PM

    This was pathetic. For the 1st 7 or 8 plays they looked great, then Gray gets the ball stripped, SF picks it up and runs it back 96 yards and the rout was on. There was no leadership on the field from Crist at all.

    There was even less on the sidelines from Kelly – every time the camera found him he was red in the face from yelling at someone and we saw how much good that did – none.

    They were ouplayed and outhit and outcoached and so they were outscored.

  14. gatorprof - Sep 3, 2011 at 11:59 PM

    Nothing is different. The same thing will happen again. Preseason hype to try and build interest (i.e., ratings for NBC), followed by pathetic performances.

  15. paulbrownsrevenge - Sep 4, 2011 at 1:46 AM

    “What makes this year different”? Did you watch the game today? at least it wasn’t Tulsa or Navy. I’m just happy I don’t have to look at Charlie Weis anymore. I wonder if coach Kelly wishes Zach Collaros would have transferred.

  16. polegojim - Sep 6, 2011 at 6:20 PM

    I was quite ‘confused’ by the early ranking of Notre Dame. We all have to prove what we are, then deal with the results, even if they’re not what we’d hoped for. The Irish faced a first test and can adjust.

    You won’t find me as respectful about what I saw out of Coach Kelly personally. He needs to learn how to deal with kids in a more mature manner and not take away their dignity. Some of his antics were pathetic. Irish football players deserve better.

    Looking forward to Saturday nights game – Heritage History Honor

    Go BLUE!

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