Commentary

Experience key to Irish revival plans

Originally Published: April 1, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- In the late 1920s, sportswriter Frank Graham took the measure of Yankees outfielder Bob Meusel, an unpleasant man who tried to warm to newspapermen late in his career.

"He's learning to say hello," Graham wrote, "when it's time to say goodbye."

Head coach Charlie Weis does not believe he is about to say goodbye to Notre Dame. The university did not fire him last December, after a 6-6 regular season that looked good only in the reflection of the 3-9 season that preceded it. After enduring two years of playing freshmen and sophomores, Weis will field a 2009 team of juniors and seniors. Not just any upperclassmen, mind you, but starters with talent and experience.

Weis, even if he believes it, is too cagey to say in public that he thinks Notre Dame will contend for a BCS berth this fall.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Weis
AP Photo/Marco GarciaCharlie Weis and the Irish have a new bounce in their steps after the Hawaii Bowl win.

But he saw his team pick itself up from a disastrous finish of the regular season to dominate Hawaii 49-21 in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.

He sees many of those same players on his practice fields this spring.

He sees the freshmen who will report to the Guglielmino Athletic Complex this summer, including linebacker Manti Te'o, ranked No. 2 in the ESPNU 150. He sees a schedule that fits the Fighting Irish like a 12-piece bespoke suit.

That is why Weis decided to say hello. Over two days last week, Weis opened the inner workings of his team to a journalist for the first time in his four and a half years at Notre Dame. Weis flung open the doors of the Gug, which since its opening in 2005 has stood as a closed fortress on the southeastern edge of America's most famous campus. All it lacked was a moat and a dragon.

He even flung open the doors of his private dining room at the Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Mishawaka. Yes, there is a Charlie Weis Room, with pictures of his team and his family. To locate it, look two doors down from the Regis Philbin Room.

Why now? If the Irish do return from the BCS dead this fall, it would violate Weis' competitive creed to open the team's doors after they succeed.

"That's what losers do," Weis said, give or take an adjective. "Losers call the guys up after they won because they want to say, 'I told you so,' or 'You were wrong about me.' I don't want to do that. I don't want to do what those people do. I don't want to be one of those people who all of a sudden because you proved yourself right and everybody else wrong, you have a chip on your shoulder and are boasting. I think that's a totally arrogant attitude."

Weis has been accused of arrogance, especially as the Irish went 19-6 in his first two seasons. He believes the accusation is unfair, made by people who don't know him. He doesn't like "justifying that you're a good person."

"You should have to justify why they are keeping you here after 3-9 and 7-6," Weis said. "Justifying that is a little different than justifying whether you're a good person."

Charlie Weis
AP Photo/Rob CarrA 10-15 record over the past two seasons haven't given the Irish much to smile about.

Weis justifies his return because he believes he sacrificed 2007, choosing more talented freshmen over more experienced upperclassmen, for the benefit of 2009. But the free fall of 2007, followed by the mediocrity of last fall, appears to have tempered him. So did his physical problems. Weis finished the 2008 season in a wheelchair, the result of a hit he took on the sideline during the Michigan game Sept. 13.

The collision blew out every ligament in his left knee. And that was the good news. The right kneecap suffered such a severe bruise that the bone began to die. Five days after the bowl game, on Dec. 29, Weis had his right knee replaced.

He celebrated the New Year, he said, in withdrawal from nearly four months of taking painkillers. He only took them at night so as to keep a clear head during the day. But he took them.

"I had all the good stuff," Weis said. "And I decided to get off of them … Vicodin, Percoset. In the beginning, you might just try taking Tylenol 3, you know, Tylenol with codeine. I felt like a drug addict. I really did. Nauseous. Not eating … Chills -- all the things you watch on TV? I had them all."

And yet, by mid-January, he had begun to travel again. Recruiting would not wait. That may be why no one on his staff seemed surprised last week as Weis worked despite the lingering effects of a gallbladder attack the previous weekend. Weis' walk looked more like a shuffle. His diet, when he ate at all, included nothing more exciting than low-fat Ritz crackers.

But there he was, at the head of the table in the offensive staff meeting, explaining his high bilirubin count and detailing his illness, whether his coaches wanted the details or not.

"I got gas in my stomach," Weis said Thursday morning, "but I'm not as weak as I was yesterday."

There was a pause while everyone digested the news. Quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus, at the opposite end of the table, closest to the video screen, affected a tentative voice.

"You telling us you're going to pass gas?" Powlus asked.

"It's not that kind of gas, you wiseass," Weis said.

Though Weis made nearly every meeting available, it is difficult to resist following him, especially into this meeting. The man lives to coach offense. His trust in his defensive staff, led by Jon Tenuta and Corwin Brown, is complete. Now he wants to kick their butts.

"Once I start calling plays, I go away from being the head coach," Weis said. "I start being the offensive coordinator. I want to score touchdowns. I'll worry about cheerleading for the defense later."

Charlie Weis
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCharlie Weis will be calling the shots on offense again in 2009.

Calling plays is his strength, as anyone who recalls the Brady Quinn years may attest. Last season, Weis ceded playcalling duties to offensive coordinator Mike Haywood, now the Miami (Ohio) head coach. Weis took them back before the season ended.

The Gug's staff rooms are smaller than those in most football buildings these days. Behind Weis, there are two cabinets filled with computer and video equipment. The whir of the computer fans deadens any other ambient noise. The wooden window blinds, a rich brown to match the cabinets, are fully drawn. The glow of gray light seeps in at the edges.

Weis looked to his immediate left, where the new line coach, Frank Verducci, sat. On Tuesday, Verducci had sent a four-page e-mail to Weis and each of the linemen, breaking down their play.

"I really like the e-mail you sent," Weis said. "It called them out, good and bad."

After last season, Weis asked for the offensive and defensive averages of the 10 teams that played in the BCS games, plus Cotton Bowl participants Ole Miss and Texas Tech. "If the goal is to be a BCS team," Weis reasoned, "then that's what we should be doing."

The statistics are just another way of viewing Notre Dame's shortcomings.

"We averaged 3.3 yards per carry," Weis said. "The average of these guys is 4.6. We averaged 109 rushing yards per game. The average for these guys is 175 …"

The offensive line has been a focal point for Notre Dame's ills. Youth and inexperience up front has caused the death of many a coaching career. Three of this year's projected starters have started since 2007. They are no longer young and inexperienced.

Verducci is a meticulous man. No hair is out of place. If cleanliness is a virtue, then the top of his desk is Pope Benedict XVI. Verducci married into a family of Notre Dame alums. He couldn't be happier to be here.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Clausen
AP Photo/Marco GarciaJimmy Clausen fired five TD passes in the Hawaii Bowl.

"There were too many occasions when the guy across from them played harder," Verducci said of his linemen. "To me, that's inexcusable. The greatest compliment you can give an offensive lineman is, 'He's a grinder.'… As you improve as a grinder, you learn to be comfortable when you're most uncomfortable."

That philosophy meshes with that of the head coach, who believes his love for his players will carry them through the moments when he voices his displeasure. Loudly.

"Nothing pisses me off more than mental errors," Weis told the offense Wednesday afternoon. "That's an advantage we should have at this place. To have mental errors with people not knowing what to do is inexcusable. The party is over! You're going to be held accountable. There is no excuse for mental errors. Zero. You got your ass whipped, I can live with it. Mental errors, I got zero tolerance."

On these two days, Weis is down on center Dan Wenger ("a training room guy") and up on guard Eric Olsen ("the heart and soul of our offensive line").

And then there's right tackle Sam Young. The senior came to Notre Dame as the Gatorade Player of the Year in Florida. Among the players he beat out: quarterback Tim Tebow. Young has started three years. He is big (6-foot-8, 330 pounds), smart and friendly, playing a position where only the first two traits are coveted. Young doesn't appear to be the type of guy who would rip anyone's head off.

"We were never a bunch of lazy guys taking plays off," Young said. "We have guys who were working hard who didn't know our full potential. We realize we have more to give."

There are no such reservations behind the offensive line. Junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen has enjoyed the loyalty and support of his head coach through two rocky seasons. Against Hawaii, Clausen demonstrated what Weis has seen all along. Clausen completed 22 of 26 passes for 401 yards and five touchdowns.

"After losing to Syracuse at home and getting stomped on by USC, everyone figured you'd throw in the towel," Weis said. "They go out and play the best game we played since we've been here, maybe. It didn't matter who we would have played that day. We would have been competitive."

Weis began the March 25 practice on the two new outdoor practice fields. A chill crosswind blew with such ferocity that he moved the team indoors before the offense took on the defense.

"Wait until you see him," Weis said of Clausen. "He looks really good."

Standing on the sideline, looking uncharacteristically blue and gold in a Notre Dame windbreaker, is former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville. He and Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez are among the featured speakers at a coaching clinic that Weis and his staff will stage over the weekend.

"Your backup quarterback sure looks good," Tuberville told Weis.

The 6-4, 233-pound sophomore Dayne Crist passes the eye test, especially when the ball zings out of his hand. Once live drills begin, however, Crist's inexperience reveals itself. Standing in front of the orchestra, Crist takes the baton and pokes himself in the eye.

As the coaches watch video of the practice on Thursday morning, they see Crist's running plays collapse. That's because Crist kept coming to the line and choosing the wrong defender as the middle linebacker. Identifying the "Mike" is the first step in choosing the blocking scheme. Identifying the Mike incorrectly is like a Broadway writer setting his hands down wrong on the keyboard: The play turns to gibberish.

"As far as his knowledge of the offense," Powlus said of Crist on Thursday, "he's pretty good on the board. He knows the offense. It's a lot different when the 40-second clock is running down and it looks different than it did on the board."

After Crist comes sophomore Nate Montana, a walk-on who played in a running offense at California powerhouse Concord De La Salle. Yes, it's that Montana. In fact, that Montana is prowling the sideline at practice, watching his boy as he runs two plays in the seven-on-seven drill near the end of the workout.

"I don't like the way he's throwing," Joe said. "I'm going to stay after practice with him."

On Thursday morning, after the coaches finish watching the practice video, they begin to go over their personnel.

"Tony, what do you think about the running backs?" Weis asked.

Weis may have had one foot out the door last December, but running backs coach Tony Alford, who twice turned down overtures from Florida coach Urban Meyer, leapt at the chance to leave Louisville to coach for him.

[+] EnlargeArmando Allen
James Lang/US PresswireArmando Allen rushed for 585 yards in 2008.

"We still got ball-security issues," Alford said. He is not happy that halfbacks Armando Allen and Robert Hughes both put the ball on the ground in practice Wednesday.

"We'll get it worked out," Alford said. "No. 5 (Allen) is a real guy."

"I think he's real, too," Weis said.

"No. 33 can be a real guy," Alford said of the 5-11, 237-pound Hughes. "You lose six, eight pounds, you'll be that much more explosive."

"I think these two guys are the combination we've been looking for for a long time, since we got here," Weis said. "The difference is they're ready now. Armando is ready. Robert is ready, too. I'm not saying they are LenDale [White] and Reggie [Bush]. I think Robert could be better than LenDale. Armando has another gear, but I don't know if it's that Reggie gear."

"We've got to get more physical on pass protection," Alford said.

"Our best pass protector is our smallest guy," Weis said, referring to the 5-10 Allen. "He'll do it but we're got to take the hits off of him. What is he? 192?"

Alford replied, "195. There's a clear line of demarcation between 1 and 2 and 3 and 4."

"I guess we have to plan on playing 1 and 2 a lot," Weis said.

That may be the answer all over the field. The first two lines on Notre Dame's depth chart look good. After that, there is talent but no experience.

"There is a lot of competition," Clausen said. "… That's really what's been missing. The process, wanting to get better. Not, 'Oh, another day of practice.' We can't think that way. We want to be great."

The Irish will have to stay healthy this fall. They will need a bounce here and a tipped ball there.

But the possibility exists that after two years of saying goodbye to the BCS, it will be time for Notre Dame to say hello.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com