|COLLEGE FOOTBALL '07: Irish face challenges following loss of big-name players|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 09 August 2007 12:18|
There are few big-name players left at Notre Dame other than safety Tom Zbikowski - who himself expected to be in the NFL by now. With only three starters back on offense and five back on a defense that has struggled the past two seasons, it appears to be a rebuilding season for the Fighting Irish.
Coach Charlie Weis doesn't see it that way.
``May God strike me dead if I use that word,'' he said. ``I'll never use that word. You use it. I'm not using it.''
Weis concedes, though, this season presents ``challenges.''
Notre Dame must replace a record-setting quarterback, a tailback who was on pace to become the school's career rushing leader, the two most prolific receivers in school history and find three starters on an offensive line that struggled unexpectedly last season. Oh, and a defense that gave up 40 or more points to Michigan, USC and LSU last season must learn a new 3-4 defense.
Complicating all that is the fact this Irish squad is inexperienced. Even with nine returning fifth-year seniors, the Irish have just 16 seniors and 14 juniors. They have 27 sophomores and 18 freshmen on scholarship.
The inexperienced Irish face a tough early schedule with four of the first six games on the road, including games at Penn State, at Michigan and at UCLA. They then face Boston College and USC at home. The Irish know some outsiders aren't expecting much.
``A lot of people saying, as usual, we're going to win one game in the first eight games,'' Zbikowski said.
Add to that, Weis is entering his third year at Notre Dame - a year that has provided landmark seasons for Notre Dame coaching greats. Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz all won national titles in their third seasons, as did Dan Devine, and the Irish went 9-0 in Knute Rockne's third season in 1920.
The last Notre Dame coach to have a bad third season, Tyrone Willingham, was fired before that season ended.
So how is Weis, who is 19-6 in two seasons at Notre Dame, feeling about all this? Weis said he is calm and doesn't feel under any pressure.
``I feel better now than I felt the last two years. I feel great,'' he said. ``I know the indecision or the question marks that come into it. I'm not oblivious to that. I'm not ignorant. I understand that a bunch of guys are gone. But to me, that makes you even more driven, provides even greater challenges.''
The most immediate challenge is to find a starting quarterback. Because who will start will decide what type of offense the Irish will run. Will they depend on the arm of freshman phenom Jimmy Clausen, the mobility of Demetrius Jones or the versatility and experience of Evan Sharpley? No one at Notre Dame is giving any clues.
Asked whether he could remember going into a season with so many questions at quarterback, Weis recalled the 1993 season with the Patriots when Drew Bledsoe was a rookie. That team went 5-11.
Asked if he could recall a successful season with so many questions at quarterback, he recalled the 1999 season with the New York Jets. That's when Vinny Testaverde had a season-ending Achilles' tendon injury in the first game. The Jets started the season 1-6, but finished 7-2 with Ray Lucas as the starter.
Those two comparisons might not give Irish fans a lot of hope, but Weis insists he's comfortable with where the Irish are.
He has no choice.
``Either you accept being OK or you strive to be better,'' he said. ``That's the two choices.''
Irish fans have had reason to be optimistic the past two seasons. After mostly alternating good seasons with bad seasons from the mid-1990s until 2004, the Irish have been ranked every week since they won their opening game under Weis in 2005 and have made back-to-back Bowl Championship Series appearances.
Weis believes low expectations from those outside the program may help the Irish, saying last year's high expectations probably hurt the team.
``It's easier to get your team to buy into it when you can sit there and say, 'Look, no one thinks you're worth a darn,'' he said.