Posted by BrianBoru at 3/25/2009 4:07 PM EDT
With the Fighting Irish kicking off spring practice this week, here is what I am watching:
1. Will Jimmy Clausen be able to build off his sterling performance in the Hawaii Bowl?
Early on, my gut – not always reliable – tells me Clausen will finally begin to realize much of the hype around him when he came to Notre Dame a celebrity quarterback. If Clausen struggles early, don’t be surprised to hear Head Coach Charlie Weis whisper – okay, bark – in Jimmy’s ear that redshirt freshman Dayne Crist is nipping at his heels. Listening to Crist during training interviews, one gets a clear sense that he is exceedingly confident and ready to assume the high-profile role that comes with being the quarterback at Notre Dame. It’s not a matter of -- if Crist will be the next star quarterback at ND -- it’s a matter of when. That said, I believe that Crist will have to wait his turn. If Clausen can remain healthy -- a big if given he has been unable to shake off nagging injuries his first two seasons – he should be able to threaten some of Brady Quinn’s single-season records during the ’09 season. Last season, he played through a painful hip injury, causing his accuracy to suffer – along with a spate of interceptions.
2. Shifting attention to the offensive line - Will the Irish improve upon their wretched rushing figures last season?
New offensive line coach, Frank Verducci, comes to South Bend with a clear mission – get the linemen to play physical at the point of attack and open holes for the suddenly crowded stable of running backs. Saddled with wretched rushing figures last season, the Irish became an easy opponent to game plan. If Charlie Weis tries for a balanced offensive attack, the 2009 season could become an offensive bonanza. Look for talented rising sophomore, Trevor Robinson, to make a huge impact in 2009. Robinson, gifted enough to play anywhere along the offensive line, might transition from his guard slot over to left tackle.
3. Perhaps the most glaring need heading into next season is the defensive line.
Look for Tyler Stockton of Princeton, New Jersey to provide instant help next year. Watching his high school film, one can plainly realize Stockton possesses pass-rushing abilities from the interior; probing the middle of the offensive line and wreaking havoc in the backfield. Having already enrolled at Notre Dame for the '09 spring semester, Stockton will enjoy a head start on his fellow freshmen by being able to fully participate in spring drills. A player of recent Irish teams Stockton reminds me of would be Trevor Laws. Laws always played to the whistle and left it all out on the field. Expect Stockton to provide the same. A few more names you should be aware of: Kapron Lewis-Moore of Texas – the entire staff is high on this kid’s pass-rushing abilities; Morrice Richardson – though not the biggest defensive end, the enigmatic sophomore offers speed off the edge; finally, Kerry Neal – after making a splash during the 2007 season, Neal sort of flew below the radar last season. Returning to the 4-3 scheme, Neal ought to post impressive numbers from his more natural defensive end position, being able to focus on simply getting after the quarterback.
4. Will Shaquelle Evans be able impact the ND offense similar to Michael Floyd last season?
At wide receiver, Weis scored a coup by snatching Shaquelle Evans from Southern Cal's backyard. Evans comes to South Bend from Inglewood, California ready to contribute as a freshman. He offers both size (6'2") and speed (4.4 forty) to an Irish receiving corps which suddenly has become an embarrassment of riches under the Golden Dome. Never in my years following Notre Dame Football, have I seen a collection of wide receivers with this much potential. Though there are no Rocket Ismails on the roster, this group of athletes promises to invoke fear in the minds and hearts of opposing coaches. Don’t expect, however, to see Evans amass nearly the same kind of numbers as Floyd during 2008. With both the phenomenal Floyd and playmaking Golden Tate firmly entrenched as starters, expect a slimmed-down Duval Kamara and perhaps Deion Walker or John Goodman to round out the first group of receivers.
5. Will Steve Filer be able to solidify his recent anointment as starting linebacker?
Arriving with much ballyhoo last season, Filer boasts an impressive 6’3” frame to go along with blazing speed – recently winning a foot race against Michael Floyd. Though many Irish fans eagerly await the arrival of sensational recruit Manti Te’o, Filer will not be willing to step aside for the kid. Staring at a group of green but talented linebackers, Irish fans are hoping someone will emerge from the shadows to lead the way.