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Football Recruiting Commentary: ND, Weis back on the right track – for now

Jay Fitzpatrick | Thursday, February 7, 2008

Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis showed up at his National Signing Day press conference with ashes on his forehead, but he has already had his 40 days of suffering – 13 weeks, to be more accurate.

Ash Wednesday must have felt more like Easter for Weis – a rebirth of his team after last year’s 3-9 campaign. The coaches and players drew criticism from the media and the fans throughout last season, and, even though he would never admit it, Weis had to feel that pressure: allegations that he wasted the summer on the wrong quarterback, that he was too conservative offensively, that the spark that got him the honorific “offensive genius” had somehow fizzled out.

After Wednesday, Weis has the chance to silence all his critics.

Now he has the chance to create his football team in his image. One excuse Weis sympathizers used last season is that Weis had to make do with “Ty’s Guys” and that his recruits were too young and inexperienced to make an immediate impact.

That won’t be the case in 2008, with the roster now almost completely filled with players Weis recruited.

Weis said he felt this recruiting class was perfect in filling the holes he thought his team had.

“If you had told me the number was 23, how many of each position you want, that was the most significant part, to not only bring in good players but to fill a bunch of holes,” Weis said.

What this means is simple: Notre Dame had better be good next year.

The true fans paid their dues and then some during last year’s embarrassment (by anyone’s standards, and especially at a place with as much history as Notre Dame) and deserve to be rewarded with a good season next fall. The 2008 season should bring a rejuvenated offense and a much better defense – in no small part thanks to the recruits.

The general theme of Wednesday’s news conference was versatility. Corners who can hit like safeties. Defensive ends who are fast enough to play linebacker. Offensive linemen who can play all five spots.

More so than filling specific holes, Weis needed to use this recruiting class to adapt Notre Dame to his offensive scheme and especially defensive coordinator Corwin Brown’s 3-4 defense.

Last season, a lot of players had to switch positions and adapt to the 3-4 with mixed results. Defensive end Trevor Laws dominated on the strong side and Maurice Crum and Joe Brockington looked very comfortable as the inside linebackers.

But Notre Dame was completely devoid of a solid outside linebacking corps for most of the season. Anthony Vernaglia and John Ryan finished some games without a single tackle despite playing a significant number of downs and Kerry Neal and Brian Smith were too inexperienced to make a real impact until late in the season.

But with guys like Darius Fleming at outside linebacker and Brandon Newman as a true nose tackle, the defense should considerably improve.

Offensively, Notre Dame plugged a lot of holes on the offensive line, notably center and guard. Trevor Robinson towered over high school defensive linemen, abusing them on every down. Soon, Weis hopes he will be able to do that in college.

Center Braxton Cave can both snap and block, a combination that was missing for most of last season.

Added weapons at receiver (Michael Floyd and John Goodman) and running back (Jonas Gray) should make the offense more potent while Dayne Crist might force Jimmy Clausen to get better this spring or lose his job – and will almost certainly hold down the quarterback position after 2010.

These added recruits have changed the makeup of the Irish roster. Now let’s see if they can change the results.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Jay Fitzpatrick at [email protected]