We do a fine job running a Texas athletics blog here at Burnt Orange Nation, but the standard bearer for collegiate team blogs continues to be the Blue-Gray Sky, a Notre Dame team blog run by a pack of talented Irish writers. As Notre Dame gears up for what many believe could be a banner season, we thought we'd bring in the experts to give us the rundown on the team.
Burnt Orange Nation: Notre Dame's always a big national story - whether they're doing well or not. With the team widely expected to be potential title contenders this year, though, the national attention is higher than usual. Do you think this will affect the team in any significant way?
Blue-Gray Sky: I think it's naïve to think that the pressure for the national championship run won't affect the players in some way. After all, they're college kids and around half of the starters are seniors playing in their final year. It's make or break time for them. On the other hand, that seniority and maturity will be a strong source of leadership and hopefully keep the team focused on the next game as much as possible. These players have gone through the O'Leary hiring fiasco, the PR flak over the Willingham firing, and everything else. This is one battle-tested senior class when it comes to media attention and pressure. Additionally, I do think Coach Weis will work hard to keep player egos in check and the team focused on next week's opponent. I really don't expect any significant change from last year in terms of the way the team and coaching staff handle themselves and honestly I don't think the pressure will affect the team in any significant way.
Burnt Orange Nation: I keep hearing that this Irish secondary is slow, making the team vulnerable to speedy offenses. How valid is this criticism, and how concerned are you by it?
Blue-Gray Sky: Notre Dame certainly doesn't have the fastest secondary in the country, but I honestly think many of the "slow" criticisms are off-base. Many of the issues last season came from inexperience and poor communication between the players. Three of the four defensive backs were starting for the first time and all four came to Notre Dame at a different position than the one they are currently playing. So it was a combination of getting used to being a first-time starter, a new position, and a new coaching staff and scheme. We took a look at the Fiesta Bowl touchdowns by the Buckeyes (parts I, II, III, IV) and the end conclusion was that coverage breakdowns were more to blame than just being out-classed speed-wise by Ted Ginn, Jr. and company. This coming season I'm not worried about the speed issue at all. The secondary - who all return from last year -- is fast enough to be a quality unit. Of course, whether or not they are able to iron out all of the communication and coverage breakdowns from last year is something that we'll just have to wait and see. Facing Calvin Johnson from Georgia Tech in the first game is a good first test.
Burnt Orange Nation: We all hear, ad infinitum, about Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija, but tell us about two or three guys that we may not know of yet that are going to turn some heads this season.
Blue-Gray Sky: My first choice for this question is wide receiver Rhema McKnight. He's not exactly an unknown player, as he was ND's leading receiver in 2003 and 2004, but was knocked out of the season early last year and never got much of the media attention showered on Quinn and Samardzija. Considering that McKnight was starting over Samardzija before he was injured, I really expect Rhema to have a fantastic year. I wouldn't be surprised if he finishes the year with more catches and yards than Samardzija.
BGS Breakout Candidate Rhema McKnight.
A choice for defense will be defensive end Victor Abiamiri. He's one of those guys that was the biggest recruit in his class, one that included Quinn, Samardzija, and Tom Zbikowski, but so far hasn't had that one big breakout year everyone keeps waiting for. He's been a very solid player from the start, but never a star. He was fighting through some injuries and near constant double teams last year, but now he's reportedly healthy and in line to hopefully finally give Notre Dame that pass rusher that the defense needs. He has the potential to play himself into a first-round pick. If the defense turns in a good year, he'll likely be one of the main reasons why.
Burnt Orange Nation: Fill in the blanks for us, with explanation. Notre Dame's toughest game will be ___. They're biggest potential trap game is ___. The opponent others are worrying about but you aren't is _____.
Blue-Gray Sky: Notre Dame's toughest game will be USC. Even without Leinart, Reggie, and the rest of the guys they lost, they are still going to be a tough test for ND, especially late in the season at the Coliseum. Notre Dame's biggest potential trap game is Michigan State. Again. The first three games against Georgia Tech, Penn State, and Michigan could leave ND pretty beat up for the trip to Michigan State. Drew Stanton certainly had ND's number last year and they return just about everyone from that offense. I also expect a pretty rowdy crowd for the night game in East Lansing. The opponent others are worrying about, but I'm not is Penn State. Yes, there is some talent there and their linebackers are fantastic, but there is also a lot of inexperience on their offensive and defensive lines and new QB starter Anthony Morelli will be making his first road game start at a hopefully noisy ND Stadium. It will be a very physical game, but I think ND matches up well with Penn State and the Irish experience will give them a decent edge over the youthful Nittany Lions.
Burnt Orange Nation: Is it too early to tell what Charlie Weis is doing well and what he needs to improve? After a full year at the helm now, what's your impression of his abilities? Strengths? Weaknesses?
Blue-Gray Sky: Charlie has no weaknesses. He's the perfect coach. ND will now not lose for another 10 years. Oh....sorry about that, I just got done reading ESPN and the hype is still swimming around in my head. Honestly, I don't think it's too early to tell what he's doing well. Obviously the offense has had a huge gain over what it was under Davie and Willingham. Likewise, recruiting has been a complete shift from the past few years to where now it's not uncommon to see ND back legitimately fighting USC, Texas, and other power programs for some of the best players in the country. Overall, I think Coach Weis just brought a contagious winning attitude back to the program and it's spreading to all aspects of the team.
As for weaknesses, I think it's still a bit too early to tell since nothing major has cropped up yet. I'm interested to see how he works to improve the defense this year. His offensive skills are well known from his NFL days, but now he's the head coach and in charge of both sides of the ball. If it continues to play under expectations, will he change starters and/or assistant coaches? I think he will, and in fact he's already moved the team's 2nd best running back to linebacker, but until the defense stops being described with adjectives like "slow" and "swiss-cheese", the jury will still be out. The goal at Notre Dame is the national championship and no matter how good the offense is, teams rarely, if ever, win a national championship without a stellar defense.
Burnt Orange Nation: Lastly, we'll let you roll out your Notre Dame predictions on Blue-Gray Sky, but how about some calls on some other teams. Any thoughts on who might be headed to the BCS title game?
Blue-Gray Sky: Tough question. I really haven't looked too much at other teams and seen just exactly what they have coming back. The winner of the Texas-Ohio State game has a very good chance of making the BCS game I think. Both teams have some big holes to fill, but a lot of talent is waiting in the wings. A win in Austin could propel either team to an undefeated season. USC took an even bigger talent hit, but I still think that they will at least be favored in every game this year. Auburn has a shot but the SEC really beat each other up. Honestly, it's a wide open year this year. There are no dominant teams and everyone has some glaring weakness that needs to be addressed. Whichever two teams do the best job of replacing outgoing talent are probably going to be the ones playing on January 7th. Which two teams that will be, I have no idea. I'd like to think that ND will be playing in the BCS title game, but it wouldn't surprise me if the defense or an injury to a crucial player cost ND a game or two somewhere along the line.
At this point I'd just like to say thanks for the question and hope the answers are sufficient. Hopefully ND will run into the Longhorns out in Arizona this coming January. Good luck on your season and keep up the great work at BON.
Burnt Orange Nation: Thanks for stopping by to chat with us, Pat. I'm on record saying that Notre Dame is my dream matchup for a BCS title game showdown. Here's to hoping it happens.