Entering the 2009 season Notre Dame will have the highest rated talent out of the six teams with "Great" talent. With one more great class they could be back into the fold of the "Elite". Then why did the Irish struggle so mightily in 2007 and 2008 and will Charlie Weis be able to turn the corner? These have been very popular questions with the media and Notre Dame fans alike. Peruse any Notre Dame message board and there are likely hard core ND fans arguing about this exact thing right now. Being an Irish fan myself I began pondering those questions and a few others at about half time of the 2007 opening weekend when Georgia Tech was laying the smack down at Notre Dame Stadium. The quest for that answer was actually the catalyst for what ultimately turned into this completely geeked out Talent Analysis in the first place. I spent Part IV of this series talking about the three part equation, and I truly believe that coaching and program health also play a huge role in the ultimate success or failure of a program. But the horrible truth is that there is no substitute for talent and the more of it you have the greater the chance that your team will be able to compete at a high level. Go back to Part I and open up the spreadsheet. The 10 teams with "Elite" talent highlighted in green just happen to be the same teams that have dominated the rankings and the National Title scene for the last few seasons. Coincidence? Probably not.
With that let’s take a look at the talent that Notre Dame has put on the field over the last four seasons. The Weis tenure to date has been made up of the following classes.
2002 Signees/ Class of 2006- Rivals #24 (The Davie/ Willingham handoff class)
2003 Signees/ Class of 2007- Rivals #12 (Willingham post 2002 class)
2004 Signees/ Class of 2008- Rivals #32 (Willingham post 2003 class)
2005 Signees/ Class of 2009- Rivals #40 (The Willingham/ Weis handoff class)
2006 Signees/ Class of 2010- Rivals #8 (Weis post 2005 class)
2007 Signees/ Class of 2011- Rivals #8 (Weis post 2006 class)
2008 Signees/ Class of 2012- Rivals #1 (Weis post 2007 class)
2009 Signees/ Class of 2013- Rivals #20 (Weis post 2008 class)
In the height of the Lou Holtz heyday Notre Dame out recruited everyone in the country much like USC is doing currently. As a result of that and some great coaching under Lou Holtz and his staff the Irish were in the thick of the National Title race for several years. In the Bob Davie tenure that recruiting success dropped off. It was still good but not elite like it had been. Following the 2001 season Davie was replaced by "The Molder of Men" Ty Willingham. Willingham solidified a decent Davie class there at the beginning of his tenure and actually put together a really good class on the back side of a surprising 2002 season that looked way better in the W/L column than it ever did on the field. That class included Brady Quinn, Tom Zbikowski, Victor Abiamiri, Trevor Laws and Jeff Samardzija among others. I’m no fan of The Molder as a football coach but as a Notre Dame Fan I am truly thankful for the class that he signed in February of 2003 because that class might have ultimately saved Notre Dame Football from the point of no return. The following two seasons were brutal on the field as was Ty’s recruiting. Willingham was fired after the 2004 season and the ND Administration stumbled their way into the hiring of Charlie Weis. Weis finalized the 2005 recruiting class via the phone in the midst of his final Super Bowl run with the New England Patriots and the overall results were even worse than Willingham’s previous class.
One bad recruiting class should not be disastrous to any major program. That one class can be compensated for as it progresses through its 4-5 years within the program so long as the classes that preceded it and followed it are solid. It will in effect be "hidden" by the classes on either side of it as it progresses through the program. Most schools can also supplement that class with JUCO players. But two less than stellar classes in a row create a void that cannot be hidden and will inevitably have an impact on a program. Case in point the Notre Dame classes signed in February of 2004 and 2005. For the purposes of this discussion we’ll refer to the void in those two classes as the "bubble".
The senior class was solid and the Irish also had a couple of notable fifth year starters on the offensive line. The junior class was great and with the combination of the junior and senior classes Weis was able to put together one of the best ND Seasons in recent memory. With that the expectations surrounding the program went up, but the bubble was about to come into play. In 2005 that bubble was in the freshmen and sophomore classes where they remained undetect
ed to the untrained eye. In an effort to compensate for the bubble Weis signed a very large 28 player class ranked #8 by Rivals in February of 2006 but the inevitable check was still in the mail.
Several key starters and members of the two deep from that Davie/ Willingham handoff class were gone and had been replaced primarily by members of the two bubble classes who were now sophomores and juniors as few of the talented freshmen were ready to contribute. The senior class led by Quinn carried the load and won 10 games though it was apparent in blowout losses to Michigan, USC and LSU that the lack of talent in the two deep was not what it was a year prior. Weis followed the season by signing his second consecutive elite class again ranked #8 by Rivals in February of 2007 but the bubble was about to make its presence known.
The perfect storm had arrived and the result was the worst season in ND history. The bubble was now in the junior and senior classes where it would have its biggest impact and be impossible to hide. To make matters worse attrition in those classes reduced the total number of players remaining on the roster from those two classes to a paltry 21. Weis attempted to compensate by keeping nine fifth year players in an attempt to hide the bubble while the talented freshmen and sophomores got their feet wet and gained some valuable experience. It was a bad situation for the entire program and it showed up on the field. Miraculously Weis followed the ugly 2007 campaign by signing the Rivals #1 rated class in the country and hope for turning the corner remained tangible.
The bubble was almost gone. A small senior class of 14 remained but only six of those players were starters, as were three fifth year players that remained behind. Of those nine almost all were spelled regularly by more talented but inexperienced younger players. The junior class had also experienced a fair amount of attrition and its numbers had dwindled from 28 to 21 almost all cases as a result of freshmen and sophomores jumping players from the junior class on the depth chart. It was healthy attrition but ultimately resulted in another very young two deep. In short that first elite class signed by Weis in February of 2006 didn’t carry the load like Quinn’s class did in 2005 because so many of them had been jumped on the depth chart. The trade off for playing those more talented younger players was that they were very short on experience and leadership. What resulted was a season that was better than 2007 but still sketchy as all hell. Young players tend to struggle with leadership and inconsistency which the Irish had down pat in 2008. You didn’t know what team was going to show up from game to game or even series to series. Following the season Weis again signed another great class last month ranked #20 by Rivals.
So what are the takeaways? Throughout this series of posts I have established several things I believe to be true. The programs with the best talent tend to be the programs that win the most football games and recruiting that talent is vital year in and year out. One bad class can be problematic. Two consecutive bad classes can pose a tremendous obstacle particularly at a university that doesn’t have the option of filling in with JUCO players midstream. Coaching is also vital in every respect, and certain offensive schemes can go a long way towards leveling the playing field. Program health also factors in and can greatly affect the win/ loss column as well. It may appear over simplified on the surface but from my viewpoint these are the three legs of the tripod that every program is built on.
Notre Dame in particular has worked through a tremendous transition the last four years. The class that Willingham signed in February of 2003 provided the backbone of two BCS teams in 2005 and 2006. That success on the field assisted the coaching staff greatly in assembling very good recruiting classes from that point forward. That’s my basis for saying that class might have saved Notre Dame from the point of no return. The two bubble classes ultimately resulted in significant challenges that were not overcome by coaching and program health in 2007 and 2008. Despite this Weis and his staff continued to recruit well ensuring that scenario would not repeat itself again in the immediate future.
Notre Dame will take the field in 2009 with the most talented roster they have assembled in the post Holtz era. The two deep will be filled with highly talented and experienced players. Weis has continued to tweak the coaching staff and appears to have the best group of coaches he’s assembled to date. I’m not close enough to the program to say for certain but from a distance the program health appears to be good. Am I predicting a title run in 2009? Probably not, but I do think the Irish have all the pieces in place to ensure a high probability of becoming part of the BCS equation for the foreseeable future.
That concludes the 2009 Talent Analysis series. As always feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an e-mail.