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Not yet time for Notre Dame panic

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New York -- What type of season can Notre Dame football fans expect in 2007? This kind: Charlie Weis has already announced that the Fighting Irish will don green jerseys for the Oct. 20 home game versus Southern Cal, but he won't announce his starting quarterback for the September 1 opener against Georgia Tech until ... chances are you'll know as soon as Tom Hammond does.

Green jerseys? The Irish, as a symbolic gesture, could sprint out of the north tunnel of Notre Dame Stadium two Saturdays hence wearing Riddler replica jerseys. This team has that many question marks.

Questions such as ...

1. Will the Irish really start out 1-7, as ESPN's Mark May (and others) have predicted?
2. Will freshman wide receiver Golden Tate emerge as a cult favorite, inspiring a freshman cheering section who dub themselves "Golden Taters" and toss Ore-Ida crispers after each score?
3. How could this year's inexperienced offensive line possibly be any worse than last year's veteran one?
4. What is now the most popular Notre Dame program: Program of Liberal Studies or Pretrial Diversion?
5. Who be the QB?

The answers: (1) No, and the correct answer is not 0-8; (2) Given the preponderance of "Superbad" types among the freshman class, probably; (3) It won't be; (4) PLS, but the chasm is narrowing, and (5) Whoever, barring injury, is the starter against Michigan State on Sept. 22.

The official "The Shirt" that students are being asked to wear (cost: $15) to games this season bears the motto "Together As One." A more apt motto for 2007 might be, "Don't Panic" (either that or "9-3 is good enough").

Don't panic, Notre Dame fans. Embrace the uncertainty. The Irish were a tad smug -- even for Notre Dame -- last season and more often than not gave perfunctory performances. Or maybe they were just bored, counting the days until the Southern Cal showdown. The Irish may have been 6-1 after seven games, but they trailed at halftime in four of them.

Be honest, Domers. Notre Dame may have been loaded -- offensively -- in 2006, but with the exception of last season's fourth quarter in East Lansing, Mich., the Irish have not been inspiring, or inspired, since the 2005 classic versus USC.

This year? The '07 Irish (or, considering the top secret nature with which Weis has veiled his offensive personnel decisions, the '007 Irish) find themselves in a rare and envious spot. Little is expected of them. The coach's position is secure no matter what they do. And, really, nobody even knows who they are (except, it seems, South Bend P.D.).

The four starters in the secondary intercepted a total of three passes a year ago (a misleading stat, that, since they were all by Terrail Lambert). The starting wideouts caught a total of 28 passes. The starting halfback, Travis Thomas, rushed for 78 yards in 2006, just 18 more than Brady Quinn gained on just one run at USC. The quarterback contingent has a total of one career completion. Safety Tom Zbikowski has more career touchdowns (5) than anyone on the team with the exception of Thomas, who has six.

Two years ago the Irish woke up the echoes. A year ago they woke up on Thanksgiving morning with just one loss. This year they could wake up on Labor Day with one loss. But then again, maybe not. Haven't the Irish always been at their best when the worst is expected from them?

Five things for Irish fans to be happy about in 2007

1. Tauntingly familiar "Over-rated" chant will abate.
2. Zbikowski returns with a chip on his shoulder pad.
3. Paul Hornung promises to wear belt to all pep rally appearances.
4. November: Navy, Air Force, Duke, at Stanford.
5. Geoff Price is an outstanding punter (school-record 44.9 avg. in '06)

Five freshmen who will impact the offense

Armando Allen (HB, 5-10, 189): Go, Speed Racer, go!
Jimmy Clausen (QB, 6-3, 207): Is 42-0 in games he started.
Duval Kamara (WR, 6-4, 205): Size is welcome behind sub-six-foot starters David Grimes and George West.
Mike Ragone (TE, 6-5, 230): TE position is deep, but how do you keep him off the field?
Golden Tate (WR, 6-0, 190): All-around athlete with good size.

The QB conundrum

Evan Sharpley is a junior. Demetrius Jones is a sophomore. Clausen is the most coveted recruit Weis has yet landed in South Bend.

What do you do, if you're Weis? You love passers ... are you really going to give Jones, a dual-threat QB, a starting nod in Notre Dame's home opener? And, considering the dearth of experience throughout the offense, chances are you did not install a separate Mr. Jones play package just to exploit D.J.'s talent.

So, assume it's between Sharpley and Clausen. Do you hand the junior, who has spent two years in your system, the keys to the car and say, "Impress me kid?" Do you play it safe with Sharpley, giving yourself a no-lose situation? If Sharpley leads the Irish to an upset win or two in the first three weeks, you've avoided tossin' Clausen to the wolves (and Wolverines) while finding a pleasant surprise in the upperclassman. If Sharpley doesn't, you kick-start the Clausen era at home versus Michigan State (the easiest game among Notre Dame's first eight).

Or do you go bold and start Clausen immediately? And what happens if the freshman stumbles or gets hammered (by opposing defenses, I mean) those first three weeks? You can't pull him.

The safe choice is Sharpley. The fun choice is Jones. The bold choice is Clausen.

Oh, and by the way, EA Sports' choice for NCAA 2008? It was Zach Fraser, who transferred to Connecticut after spring practice.

Talley tarries elsewhere

Ronald Talley, the defensive end whose imposing glare inspired T-shirts on campus that bore his likeness, left the team at midseason in 2006. Had he stayed, Talley would most likely have owned the starting defensive end spot opposite Trevor Laws this season. Instead, he'll be playing for the Blue Hens of Delaware this autumn.

Depth perception

The Irish are scary thin in their defensive front seven -- only defensive end Laws and inside linebacker Maurice Crum return as starters -- but Marianas Trench deep at tight end. John Carlson was a Mackey Award finalist in his first year as a starter (despite missing the final three games with an injury); back-up Will Yeatman, a sophomore, was an honorable mention All-America in lacrosse last spring; and Ragone is considered one of the two best freshmen tight ends in the nation.

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