By Nick Shepkowski
It seems idiotic to even imply that Notre Dame could be the biggest surprise team in 2008 but the statement alone makes everyone realize how far it is the Irish have fallen. One year ago they were coming off of back-to-back BCS appearances and seemed primed for the spotlight for years to come once again. However, 3 wins and 9 losses later they enter 2008 looking to gain back some of the respect that was lost on the national level a year ago.
So what does Notre Dame have to do to at least get back to a bowl game? What do they have to avoid to make a sure a repeat of 2007 does not occur? Its pretty simple with Notre Dame in '08, the Irish need to get back to the basics and that starts up front.
Jimmy Clausen will never come within shouting distance of All-American status and Robert Hughes and the rest of the Irish stable of running backs won't reach their full potential if the offensive line does not improve. If we learned one thing towards the end of last year it was that Notre Dame has more talent on their roster than a 3-9 record should have. However, the offensive line was amongst the very worst in the game. If that does not change then the results in the win column will fail to as well.
Rightfully so there are a ton of questions marks about this offensive line. Irish fans wish it was as simple as a years more experience means that the line will be that much better but the truth of the matter is that it does not work that way. Sure the experience may help but to what degree? Time will tell.
On the line Notre Dame will see its anchor back in Sam Young. The former 5-Star recruit will be playing right tackle this year and will be counted on heavily in giving Jimmy Clausen more time to throw while also opening up running room for the Irish backs. Young was a pleasant surprise his freshman year of 2006 but '07 saw him take a step back. Young getting back to his form at right tackle in 2008 will be key for Irish success.
Joining Young on this years offensive line are expected to be Paul Duncan, Michael Turkovich, Dan Wenger, and Eric Olsen from left to right, with Young being the RT. This has turned into an older and more experienced group for the Irish, both something that will be helpful for 2008. Like I mentioned before though, experience will not matter if these guys did not gain anything from last years debacle.
What needed to be done is that the Irish offensive line learned from mistakes they made last year. The coaching staff needed to learn what they may have done a poor job with while working with the O-Line a year ago.
Nobody knows yet what the Irish offensive line may entail in 2008. They could be the reason the Irish disappoint again or they could very well be the reason Notre Dame flies in under radar on their path back respectability. As far as I am concerned, this is the only important question Irish fans need to ask themselves about for the time being.
If the line has not improved from a year ago there is no need to worry about the development of Jimmy Clausen or the skill of the running backs on the roster. Without an offensive line these young men will not prosper on the football field and will not have to be worried about to make plays because they once again will not be able to.
Only if the offensive line is improved should Irish fans begin to even have doubts about what happened to the skill positions of Notre Dame last fall. If the line gets better and Clausen and company still struggle, then you can begin to question player development at those positions. However, without an offensive line it is impossible to be critical of the rest of the offense, including the play calling because it does not have a chance when the line doesn't hold up its part of the bargain.