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March 20, 2009
Talent returns, but pressure is on for Irish
Notre Dame generally celebrates bowl victories. But last season's win in the Hawaii Bowl wasn't one that caused jubilation because the Irish finished just 7-6.
It was the second consecutive down season for the Irish, and coach Charlie Weis is coaching for his job this season.
The good news for Weis is that 10 starters return on offense and six are back on defense.
Here's a look at Notre Dame as it prepares for spring ball.
Positions of strength
Michael Floyd and Golden Tate give Notre Dame a receiving tandem that compares favorably to any in the nation. The passing game can be more effective if wideout Duval Kamara recaptures his 2007 late-season form and tight end Kyle Rudolph continues his development. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen has struggled with consistency, particularly on the road, but he has an outstanding arm and plenty of experience after starting each of the past two seasons. The Irish hope his brilliant performance in the Hawaii Bowl is a sign of things to come. Notre Dame's offensive line has taken plenty of lumps after giving up the most sacks in the nation two years ago and struggling with run blocking last season. But the Irish should consider this unit a strength since they return four starters and welcome back tackle Paul Duncan from an injury. The return of cornerback Darrin Walls after a year's absence should fortify the secondary.
Help is needed
For the second season in a row, Notre Dame has a severe lack of depth on the defensive line. The departures of Pat Kuntz and Justin Brown will force the Irish to rely on major improvements from the likes of Ian Williams, Ethan Johnson and Morrice Richardson. Notre Dame's lack of depth on the line is significant enough that Kapron Lewis-Moore could win a starting job as a sophomore after not playing at all last season. Early enrollee Tyler Stockton could earn immediate playing time at defensive tackle if he performs well this spring. Notre Dame also must fortify a rushing attack that gained just 3.3 yards per carry last season. The Irish have experienced linemen and experienced backs (Armando Allen, James Aldridge and Robert Hughes) who were highly regarded recruits. The lack of production from the running game the past two seasons remains a mystery.
Keep an eye on
OT Paul Duncan: After starting two games at left tackle and 10 more at right tackle in 2007, Duncan missed the '08 season with a hip injury. Duncan returns as a fifth-year senior this season and will try to regain his starting spot, though he must hold off challenges from Matt Romine and Taylor Dever. At the least, Duncan's presence should add more depth to a line loaded with experience.
DL Ethan Johnson: Notre Dame has lacked an elite pass rusher since Victor Abiamiri moved on to the NFL after the 2006 season. Johnson, who could play defensive tackle and end, just might be the answer. Although he made only four starts last season as a freshman, Johnson led the team with 4.5 sacks and got three of them in the last two games of the season. The Irish are counting on those performances against USC and Hawaii to set the tone for his '09 season.
DE Kapron Lewis-Moore: This former four-star prospect didn't play at all last season as a true freshman, but he could work his way into the starting lineup this season. The Irish don't have much depth and need Lewis-Moore to step in and make an immediate contribution. Even though he wasn't on the field last season, his performances in practice garnered plenty of attention.
His time is now
After rushing for at least 115 yards in each of his last two games in 2007, Hughes seemed poised for a breakout season in '08. He instead took a major step backward and averaged just 3.4 yards per carry while running for a total of 382 yards. He carried the ball more than nine times just twice in Notre Dame's final 11 games, though he did gain 55 yards on 17 attempts in the Hawaii Bowl. The Irish return Allen and Aldridge, who both averaged more yards per carry than Hughes last season. Hughes needs a big spring to prove he merits a big role in Notre Dame's rushing attack because the competition will get tougher once true freshman Cierre Wood arrives on campus this summer.
Weis responded to a second consecutive disappointing season by making changes on his coaching staff. He fired defensive line coach Jappy Oliver and replaced him with Randy Hart, a longtime Washington assistant whose fiery attitude should provide plenty of energy on the practice field. Frank Verducci arrived from the NFL to replace John Latina as offensive line coach. New running backs coach Tony Alford came over from Louisville to try to fortify a rushing attack that has struggled the past two seasons. Jon Tenuta was named defensive coordinator, and Corwin Brown now has the title of associate head coach and co-defensive coordinator. But the biggest change of all came after former offensive coordinator Mike Haywood took over as coach at Miami University. Instead of hiring someone to call the plays, Weis decided to name himself offensive coordinator. The biggest question remaining is whether Weis will be calling plays from the sideline or the press box. When his knee injuries forced Weis to coach from the press box in the Hawaii Bowl, the Irish responded with their best performance of the season. Weis hasn't decided whether to continue coaching from the sideline during the regular season.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.