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Debunking myths (cont.)

Posted: Monday August 14, 2006 12:30PM; Updated: Monday August 14, 2006 9:06PM
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Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski is a heavy hitter and notable big play guy.
Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski is a heavy hitter and notable big play guy.
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
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Myth No. 1: Notre Dame doesn't have the talent.

It's not hard to figure out why the Irish haven't contended for a national title since 1993. Over the past 12 NFL drafts the program has had only three first-round picks. During the same span, Miami has had 29. Most college football fans acknowledge that Notre Dame's recruiting slipped considerably starting in the latter part of the Lou Holtz era, in part because of poor evaluation and in part because of tighter academic restrictions.

Contrary to popular belief, however, former coach Tyrone Willingham did upgrade the talent level considerably during his first two years. His 2002 and '03 recruiting classes were ranked 18th and fifth in the country, respectively, by SuperPrep. "I think everyone blew out of proportion the lack of talent under Willingham," said SuperPrep publisher Allen Wallace. "They've got some very good players there."

That '03 class, in fact, has produced 12 of the Irish's 22 projected starters for this season, including stars Quinn, Samardzija, Zbikowski and defensive end Victor Abiamari -- all of whom are considered potential first-rounders next spring. "This Notre Dame team doesn't look any different than a lot of the ones we used to face," said Purdue defensive coordinator Brock Spack, who as linebackers coach from 1991 to '94 faced some of Holtz's best teams. "Position by position, they're very talented."

Where the Irish did suffer a recruiting drop-off was during the Willingham-to-Weis transition, netting SuperPrep rankings of 27th and 34th in '04 and '05. "Willingham, earlier than most people know, became disenchanted there, and I think he stopped working hard in recruiting," said Wallace. As a result, there isn't much depth beyond the junior and senior classes.

Weis, however, landed the nation's ninth-ranked class last winter, and several of its most vaunted members -- offensive lineman Sam Young, tailback James Aldridge, cornerback Raeshon McNeill -- are expected to contribute immediately. "We're going to be more athletic," said Weis. "We're not going to get beat because of a lack of team speed."

Myth No. 2: Notre Dame's defense is hopeless.

Whereas Weis had the luxury of inheriting a largely veteran offense, his defense last season employed eight first-time starters. Playing in new coordinator Rick Minter's more aggressive scheme, they allowed far too many big plays, most notably in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, and finished 75th nationally in total defense. Look a little closer, however, and you'll find that the unit wasn't without its positives, ranking in the top 40 nationally in rushing defense (132.3 yards per game), sacks (31) and turnovers created (24).

"They played very good defense against us," said USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, whose star-studded squad needed a miraculous 61-yard pass on fourth-and-nine to set up the winning score. "When we were watching them [on tape], we didn't think they were slow or that they were bad at all."

A year later, all but two defensive positions are manned by returning starters, all of whom should be far more comfortable with the system, resulting in fewer breakdowns. "I think that we played slow sometimes [last season], but that doesn't mean we ran slow," said Weis. "Anyone who has to think about what to do ... is going to be hesitant. That was one of our big focuses in the offseason."

Last season the Irish were plagued by an inconsistent pass rush. This year Minter expects the front four, led by Abiamari ("He was the best pass rusher we saw all year," said Kiffin), to be the strength of the defense, which could make life easier for much-maligned cornerbacks Ambrose Wooden and Mike Richardson, who too often found themselves in fruitless foot races. Zbikowski, who had five interceptions in '05, is back to play center field. The biggest question mark is linebacker, where Notre Dame lost veterans Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mayes. In an intriguing move, Weis has moved speedy tailback Travis Thomas -- Darius Walker's primary backup last season -- to strongside linebacker, where he's expected to start.

Despite his team putting up 44 points and 488 yards on the Irish in an early-season win last year, Michigan State offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin thought very highly of ND's defensive personnel: "They're not lacking at any position. Up front they run very well. And I know those cornerbacks are talented. We weren't wide open, I can tell you that; we made some incredible catches.

"With nine returning starters and the same coordinator, they have a chance to be one of the best in the country," said Baldwin. With such a powerful offense, the defense doesn't need to be one of the best -- but they do need to be a whole lot better than 75th.

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