Top 50 Countdown: No. 31 Notre Dame

Coach: Charlie Weis | Staff
In 2006: 10-3, lost 41-14 to Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 3. Defense: 5.
Key losses: QB Brady Quinn, WR Jeff Samardzija, WR Rhema McKnight, RB Darius Walker, OT Ryan Harris, DE Victor Abiamiri, DT Derek Landri.
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: Notre Dame has the difficult challenge of replacing the most prolific quarterback in school history (Brady Quinn), two receivers who combined for 27 touchdown catches last year (Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight), and a two-time 1,000-yard rusher (Darius Walker). The Irish will rely heavily on tight end John Carlson and an offensive line that returns fifth-year senior John Sullivan at center and promising sophomore Sam Young at tackle.

John Carlson will be a nice outlet for whoever ends up at quarterback.

1. TE John Carlson
2. DL Trevor Laws
3. S Tom Zbikowski
4. C John Sullivan
5. OT Sam Young
6. LB Maurice Crum
7. RB Travis Thomas
8. P Geoff Price
9. CB Terrail Lambert
10. WR David Grimes
Best player: TE John Carlson. The fifth-year senior could have left Notre Dame as a first-day NFL Draft pick, but instead he'll return to captain the young Irish offense. With a receiving corps that's short on experience, the prototype tight end should see plenty of passes come his way this season. Notre Dame's young quarterbacks should find Carlson to be a designer security blanket.

Most overrated: QB Jimmy Clausen. This is more a product of the rating than the quarterback. Any logical analyst would expect Clausen to experience the usual growing pains of a true freshman quarterback. But Clausen's profile, which deems minor elbow procedures to be national news, will make it impossible for the former five-star prospect to live up to the hype this year.

Most underrated: C John Sullivan. A year ago few figured the veteran center would return for a fifth season, but Sullivan's decision to come back may prove vital for Notre Dame's fledgling offense. The Irish are breaking in two new guards and a new quarterback, meaning they need a calm presence in the middle. With 33 career starts, Sullivan can provide that.

Must step up: WR David Grimes. Notre Dame desperately needs somebody to help fill the shoes of Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight, a duo that accounted for 145 catches and 27 touchdowns last season. Grimes, at 5-foot-10, doesn't have commanding size. He showed a few flashes last season, including a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. The Irish need that kind of production every Saturday.

Shoes to fill: OT Paul Duncan. The junior has some experience as a reserve, but now he must replace left tackle Ryan Harris, a four-year starter. Duncan can play both tackle spots and worked in a light rotation with Sam Young on the right side last season. Notre Dame's young quarterbacks have enough to worry about without stressing over blindside pass rushers.

Impact newcomer: WR Duval Kamara. While running back Armando Allen turned heads this spring, it's Kamara that has the best opportunity to make an early impact with Notre Dame's green group of wideouts. The New Jersey product might need time to get acclimated, but his 6-foot-5 frame figures to fit somewhere into Notre Dame's formations this season.

Position battle: Quarterback. Maybe you've heard Notre Dame is replacing Brady Quinn? Charlie Weis wanted to cut the derby down to two candidates heading into the summer, but instead decided to keep three Clausen, Demetrius Jones and Evan Sharpley under consideration. This position figures to get plenty of national ink this August.

New in 2007: Notre Dame's running game ranked as the school's all-time worst last season, averaging 125.7 yards per game. With Darius Walker's finesse style gone, the Irish will go for power with Travis Thomas and James Aldridge leading the charge.

Grade the units:
QB: B-minus: A grade of incomplete probably would be more appropriate for this untested group. We're guessing Weis' acumen for coaching quarterbacks will help one of the candidates emerge into a quality performer.
RB: B-plus: The Irish have enough talent and versatility to make up for their lack of an obvious featured back. Without Walker in the lineup, look for more of a back-by-committee approach.
WR/TE: C: Throw Carlson out of the mix and this grade drops to a C-minus.
OL: B-minus: This could emerge as a strength of the Notre Dame offense, particularly early in the year as the skill players gain experience.

Breaking down the defense

Overview: Notre Dame did a decent job of defending the run last year, but the deficiencies in the pass defense were exposed when the Irish gave up 85 points in their final two games of the season. The return of fifth-year seniors Trevor Laws at defensive tackle and Tom Zbikowski at safety rescued a defense that otherwise would have been sorely lacking experience.

Best player: Laws. No offseason player news was bigger for Notre Dame than Laws deciding to return for a fifth season. He'll bounce outside in Notre Dame's 3-4 front and represents the only trusted defensive lineman on the roster. The Irish need a big year from Laws to make the defense hold up against a tough schedule. The former heavyweight wrestler should be a bear for offensive tackles to handle.

Notre Dame Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 Georgia Tech
Sept. 8 at Penn State
Sept. 15 at Michigan
Sept. 22 Michigan State
Sept. 29 at Purdue
Oct. 6 at UCLA
Oct. 13 Boston College
Oct. 20 USC
Nov. 3 Navy
Nov. 10 Air Force
Nov.17 Duke
Nov. 24 at Stanford
Most overrated: Zbikowski. For all the hype thrown Zbikowski's way, the safety was a shell of his 2005 self last season. He didn't pick off a single pass, didn't have a sack, broke up two passes and recovered just one fumble. Shoulder and groin injuries played major parts in that decline, now he needs to get back to delivering knockout blows in his final collegiate season.

Most underrated: LB Maurice Crum. He'll captain the defense alongside Zbikowski, although the soft-spoken linebacker won't grab the same number of headlines. He posted 100 tackles and four sacks last season at middle linebacker. Now he'll take a couple steps to either side as one of the two inside linebackers in the 3-4 front. The cerebral senior should have the moxie to make that shift.

Must step up:The defensive line. Four years of recruiting misses and missteps will show up this fall, even with Laws back in the fold. Notre Dame hasn't recruited an impact defensive end since Victor Abiamiri in 2003, and he's off to the NFL. Nose guard could be problematic, too. If the Irish can get serviceable play from the front three, the defense should take a strong step forward. If not, it could be trouble.

Shoes to fill: NG Pat Kuntz. If the season started today, Kuntz would be asked to anchor the interior of Notre Dame's defensive line. That's a big request considering the 272-pound junior lacks prototype size for the nose guard position. The coaching staff loves Kuntz's motor, but can he keep that going for a full game while facing constant double teams? It's a tall order.

Impact newcomer: Defensive coordinator Corwin Brown. Notre Dame's high-energy defensive coordinator replaces the reserved Rick Minter. Brown clicked with his players during spring ball, earning praise for his streamlined system that didn't overload the defense with pre-snap minutiae. Brown has never been a coordinator before, meaning there's legitimate questions about how he'll work on game day.

Position battle: Right outside linebacker. The Irish didn't fill this position definitively during spring, rotating Scott Smith and Anthony Vernaglia. Who's the favorite? Maybe neither depending on how Kerry Neal performs during fall camp. The incoming freshman should be a perfect fit for the position and could be an instant contributor if he picks up the system in a hurry.

New in 2007: Defense. Yeah, the formations will be different, but the real story is the potential for new results good ones. There's a sense the Irish defense will be more than a punch line under Brown's direction. The secondary should be vastly improved, too. We'll reserve judgment, but Brown could be a genius hire.

Grade the units:
DL: C-minus: The loss of Victor Abiamiri and Derek Landri should prove costly. Nobody else provided much of a pass rush last year. The absence of star power and a troubling lack of depth should cause serious concerns here.
LB: B-minus. Crum will hold down one inside linebacker spot while veteran Joe Brockington and big hitter Toryan Smith battle for the other starting job. Smith turned heads in the spring game.
DB: B-plus: Zbikowski should bounce back from a disappointing 2006 season, and safety David Bruton had an outstanding spring. The Irish also return Terrail Lambert and Ambrose Wooden at cornerback.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: One reason Weis went for it on fourth down so often last year was because the Irish didn't have a reliable field-goal kicker. Notre Dame has an uncertain kicking situation again this fall despite signing a kicker each of the last two years (Ryan Burkhart in 2006 and Brandon Walker in 2007). Fifth-year senior punter Geoff Price returns after setting a school single-season record by averaging 45.4 yards per attempt last year. Zbikowski gives the Irish one of the nation's most dangerous punt returners.

Best player: Price. It took three years, but Price was finally right for Notre Dame last season, averaging 45.4 yards per punt and rarely putting the Irish defense at a disadvantage. He also never had a punt blocked. Price will need to come through more this season with Notre Dame's offense likely to struggle for stretches.

Grade the units:
K: D: The Irish missed five extra-point attempts and didn't make a field goal from beyond 40 yards last season.
P: A: Price should emerge as a legitimate All-America candidate if he repeats last season's performance.
KR: C: Grimes averaged 24.5 yards per return and George West mustered 20.9 yards per attempt last year.
PR: B-plus. Zbikowski has returned three punts for touchdowns over the last two seasons.

Breaking down the coaching

Overview: This season could represent the greatest challenge of Weis' three-year tenure because the Irish have an inexperienced roster and a grueling early season schedule. Weis made two coaching changes during the offseason by hiring Brown as defensive coordinator and Ron Powlus as quarterbacks coach. Powlus should be an effective mentor for the new starting quarterback because he understands the unique demands that come with the job.

Season outlook with bowl forecast
If you could turn Notre Dame's schedule upside down, you could see how the Irish might contend for a third consecutive BCS bid. But it's tough to imagine a team this inexperienced succeeding against a schedule that includes trips to Michigan and Penn State in September and three consecutive games with UCLA, Boston College and Southern California in October. Don't be surprised if the Irish are stumbling along with a 3-5 record before closing the regular season with four straight wins against Navy, Air Force, Duke and Stanford. That should allow the Irish to finish 7-5 and end their postseason losing streak by winning a second-tier bowl such as the Sun.
Steve Megargee
Grade the coaches:
Head coach: A-minus. The most popular pronoun attached to Charlie Weis is "it" as in he gets it, understands it, works it and respects it. Weis hasn't been perfect during his first two seasons, but from top-to-bottom there aren't many head coaches that are better fits for their programs. The Notre Dame alumnus has restored the program's reputation on the field, on the recruiting trail and with the fans.
Offense: B. Weis brought back efficiency to the Irish offense, although this season will be a challenge - probably the biggest one during his Notre Dame tenure. The Irish lost Quinn, Samardzija, McKnight, Walker and three starters on the offensive line, meaning it's rebuilding time in South Bend. The offense should struggle out of the gate, but give it time. This group should improve enough to make sure the Irish go bowling.
Defense: C. We'll sell this group a little short until it produces, but don't be surprised if Brown's defense steals the show on more than one Saturday this fall. The secondary should be much improved and Zbikowski could have a monster season. The linebacker situation is slightly unsettled, but there's plenty of potential there. The defensive line is loaded with questions.

Special teams: C-plus. Lost in the coaching changes this offseason was how Weis revamped special teams duties, dividing it up among the entire coaching staff instead of relying on Brian Polian to call all the shots. The Irish were barely average on special teams last season, with a kicking game that was unreliable and a kickoff return unit that never broke a big one.

Pete Sampson is the editor of is counting down our Preseason Top 50. Coming tomorrow: No. 30.

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