Strong nucleus of talented young players gives Irish hope

How does Notre Dame recover from the worst season in school history? With many of the same players who lost nine games in a season for the first time in school history.

After losing quarterback Brady Quinn, receivers Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight and tailback Darius Walker from a team that finished 10-3 in 2006, the Fighting Irish were supposed to take a step back this season.

But no one expected them to take a plunge into futility. Notre Dame opened the season with five straight losses, lost six consecutive games at home for the first time and lost to rivals Michigan and USC by identical 38-0 scores.

By the time the season was mercifully over, the Fighting Irish ranked dead last in Division I-A in total offense, 116th in scoring offense and rushing offense and 110th in passing. They lost to Navy for the first time in 44 games and lost nine games by an average of 21.2 points.

"There's a whole litany of things that you can place blame on, but I really have a tough time placing blame just on graduation of players," coach Charlie Weis told reporters in his postseason news conference. "Did we lose a whole bunch of key players? You bet we did. But that still shouldn't lead to going 3-9 for a season."

As bad as the Fighting Irish were in 2007 -- and they were downright awful more often than not -- there is reason for hope next season. Notre Dame played seven true freshmen in 2007, including quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who showed great improvement during the final three games of the forgettable season.

Clausen, who was plagued by an elbow injury during the summer and preseason, completed 56 percent of his passes for 1,254 yards with seven touchdowns and six interceptions. He led the Fighting Irish to two victories to end the season, albeit against Duke and Stanford, and had six touchdowns and only one interception in the final three games.

Weis hopes Clausen will benefit from a full offseason in Notre Dame's strength and conditioning program. Weis wants his quarterback to get stronger and add about 15 pounds to his 6-foot-5, 207-pound frame.

"I think that that is the biggest thing for him," Weis said. "I think that the kid has a very good mind. He has a very good arm. He has a pretty good understanding about the basis of our system that we're going to be able to expand going into the spring. But I think for him, more than mentally, I think that his biggest task is going to be to get himself fully healthy and physically ready to go and add some muscle."

The Fighting Irish will again suffer heavy personnel losses. Defensive end Trevor Laws, the team's best player with 112 tackles, four sacks and three blocked kicks, has exhausted his eligibility. So have strong safety Tom Zbikowski, linebacker Joe Brockington, center John Sullivan and tight end John Carlson, the team's top pass-catcher.

But along with Clausen, the Irish have a strong nucleus of talented young players. Freshman receiver Duval Kamara caught 32 passes and four touchdowns. Nose tackle Ian Williams had 45 tackles and was a good run-stopper. Outside linebackers Kerry Neal and Brian Smith both showed signs of good production late in the season. Running back Robert Hughes ran for 100 yards in each of the last two games.

"Our freshmen skill players, we were pleased at the progress," Weis said. "In addition to the guys playing, there were some guys that were on the cusp of being legitimate contenders on the depth chart going into the spring. I think it'll be interesting to see how they push their way up."

With an incoming recruiting class that could end up being ranked No. 1 in the country, there is reason for hope following the worst season in Notre Dame history. The Fighting Irish can't get any worse, can they?

"Ultimately, the responsibility of the success of the program falls on my shoulders, as well as the failures," Weis said. "We've got a lot of work to do. I think the arrow is definitely pointing up. You already know what my goal is every time we play. Every time we play my expectation is to win the game. But we can't get good enough fast enough as far as I'm concerned."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.