Football Q&A with Notre Dame beat writer Brian Hamilton
Each week, AnnArbor.com will have a chat with a beat writer/radio personality from the team Michigan is facing to get a feel for what's going on in Kalamazoo, South Bend or Champaign.
This week, Notre Dame beat writer for the Chicago Tribune took the time to chat with us. A Twitter rival, follow him at @ChiTribHamilton or read his work on the blog Around the Bend. We thank him for the time.
Michael Rothstein: So, in reality, how much better is this Notre Dame team than its 2008 version of itself?
Brian Hamilton: "It's better, but I hesitate to annoint them as massively better. "They've picked on two WAC teams in a row, but they've looked really confident in doing it. So the competition isn't great, but as a friend of mine pointed out, teams have to believe they can be great before they can actually be great. Right now, rightly or wrongly, Notre Dame believes it can be great. You didn't see that in 2007 or 2008, really. Certainly not for long, anyway.
"To me, the confidence is the biggest thing. Experience has made a couple five-star guys like Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph a little more dangerous, but the most glaring difference is how the Irish carry themselves. For now. Given the past two seasons, they're also still very vulnerable to doubt, should things start going bad early on here."
MR: If there's a glaring weakness, what is it that would cause them to lose?
BH: "Offensive and defensive lines. No question. I've said this before and I'll say it again: I refuse to believe that offensive linemen who have been around for four or five years suddenly, all at once, in one offseason, go from mediocre to great. It just doesn't work that way. If the offensive line is consistently average, at least it's consistent. If it backslides to the way it's played at times last year and two years ago, it's going to cost Notre Dame a game it shouldn't lose.
"The defensive line just has question marks all over, whether it's because of youth or that they're generally unproven as performers. And since the Irish haven't been particularly stellar at stopping the run the past couple seasons as it is, it's a concern."
MR: Notre Dame at least talks of having a lot of depth at a lot of positions. Which are their strengths? Is there one that stands out among the rest?
BH: "To me, the depth means they have more better younger players who can push the older guys and/or give a better scout team look. It's not like you can go position by position, and the second guy is just as quality as the first guy. But there are some spots where that is true. The Irish have three cornerbacks that are all starter quality - McNeil, Walls and Blanton - and that's a plus when you're in nickel packages as much as Notre Dame might be.
"If Duval Kamara is healthy, they have nice depth at receiver. Michael Floyd and Golden Tate are just very good, but Kamara and Robby Parris can emerge as reliable guys and experience might make a Shaq Evans into a force by the end of the year."
MR: What's the bar here for Charlie Weis? How many wins does he need to feel completely safe? Somewhat safe? And consequently, how big of a game is this for him if he wins? Loses?
BH: "I've said all along that nine wins is minimum competency for this team with this schedule. That gets him back for 2010, no doubt. Eight wins, and you're talking about which eight, and which four you lost, and how you lost them. It gets dicey in there.
"It's weird, because they should be better than Michigan, so winning, even on the road, shouldn't be that big a deal. Pretty much everyone would have predicted that before the season started. But somehow it'll be something that boosts the confidence some more.
"And I don't think losing the game is anything remotely close to a death knell for Weis, as long as the Irish regroup against Michigan State. But a loss does add the must-win tag to maybe the next two games."