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Can Willingham revive the Irish offense?

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The option is in many ways the quintessential college football play. When you see a quarterback scoot down the line, reading the defense, and deciding whether to pitch it or keep it, you know you're at a college game. The option never has been and never will be prominently featured in any NFL playbook. And for the foreseeable future, it won't be featured in the playbook of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, either. Recently, at a speech before a group of Notre Dame boosters in Chicago, first year head coach Tyrone Willingham made that announcement. Those in attendance responded with applause, which is a sign that Willingham's West Coast style of offense will be embraced by Irish faithful as a welcome change in South Bend. The option had been the offensive cornerstone of the last two Irish regimes, those run by Lou Holtz and, until recently, Bob Davie. Make no mistake, Notre Dame had its share of success running a ground oriented attack under Holtz. But Notre Dame's win totals began to dwindle under Davie, which had a lot to do with the fact that Irish teams were finding it harder and harder to move the football. When compared to Joe Tiller's pass happy attack just down the road at in-state rival Purdue, Notre Dame's attack under Davie looked downright anemic. Oh, Davie and offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers tried to make the Irish offense more diverse. But Irish coaches were seldom able to utilize the entire offensive package, and last season the attack came to rely mostly on the running of quarterback Carlyle Holiday. As the offense deteriorated, so did Davie's job security. So following the well documented George O'Leary hiring debacle, Notre Dame went to Stanford and grabbed Willingham, a coach brimming with offensive imagination. To that end, he would seem to be the anti-Bob Davie, which is fine and dandy with most ardent Notre Dame supporters. If ever there was a program that could stock Willingham's type of offense, its Notre Dame. It will take cerebral student-athletes to make Willingham's offensive machine reach its full potential. And those are exactly the type of athletes that Notre Dame prides itself on attracting. Willingham finds himself at the helm of a program that had 42 of its alums in the NFL during the 2001 season, more than any other school in the country. Heck, Willingham didn't even have a full recruiting season as Irish coach, and still Notre Dame signed a class that finished in the top 15 of most recruiting service rankings. So don't fool yourself, there is plenty of talent on hand in South Bend. But is it the kind of talent that can make Willingham's system work right off the bat? If you look at running back and the offensive line, the outlook is very positive. Tailback Julius Jones returns after leading the team with 718 yards rushing, and he is only 145 yards from overtaking Tim Brown as the school's all-time kick return leader. Jones will provide the speed, but expect bruising halfback Ryan Grant to get his share of carries as well. Grant was the offensive MVP of the Blue-Gold Game this spring, and his power will provide a nice complement to Jones. Last season at Stanford, Willingham and offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick utilized tailbacks Brian Allen and Kerry Carter in the same manner and had very positive results. Both backs will benefit from an offensive line whose top five players have a combined 43 career starts among them. Center Jeff Faine will be among the best in the country at his position, while the guard slots will be more than adequately manned by seniors Jordan Black and Sean Mahan. When the attention is turned to quarterback and the receiving corps, though, the outlook is far less rosy. Former quarterback Arnaz Battle emerged this spring as the team's top receiver after a fractured fibula limited his play in 2001. But he's still relatively new to the position, so youngsters like Omar Jenkins will be counted on to grasp the offense quickly and contribute sooner rather than later. Willingham and Diedrick didn't name Matt LoVecchio or Carlyle Holiday the starting quarterback following spring practice, which means the competition for the starting job will continue into the fall. In their defense, neither LoVecchio nor Holiday was recruited into this offense, and both seem to be overwhelmed by the intricacies of the newly installed passing attack. LoVecchio is a tough competitor who has a knack for avoiding mistakes, but he lacks the arm strength that a true West Coast offense quarterback should possess. Holiday ran for a ton of yards last season, but his lack of accuracy as a passer doesn't make him a strong fit for this offense, either. So it would seem that Notre Dame heads into the 2002 campaign without a quarterback suited to direct the brand of West Coast attack that Willingham and Diedrick are partial to. Incoming freshman Chris Olsen could get a look, as could walk-on Pat Dillingham, but even with those two in the mix, the quarterback position is still a big mystery for this football team. By abandoning the option and installing his own system, Willingham has created a buzz among an Irish fan base that had to endure the 110th ranked team in total offense last season. But can the new Irish coach squeeze more production from a team that is thin at receiver and doesn't have a quarterback suited to run the new attack? If he can, you might have your 2002 coach of the year.
Tagged: Georgia Tech, West Virginia, Stanford, Notre Dame

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