Tuesday, August 28, 2007

#5 - "Something's Gonna Happen"

Into the top tier of the keys to the season...

#5 - "Something's Gonna Happen"
Q: Coach, you've got (Armando) Allen and (Golden) Tate listed as kick returners. What's the expectation there?

Charlie Weis: Well, we're gonna put two freshman back there who can run real fast. They're gonna kick the ball off, it probably won't get to the goal line, and when they get the ball...something's gonna happen...(Weis pauses, reveals a huge s&*t-eating grin, then claps his hands)...something big's gonna happen.
You've been hearing about it for almost 20 years now, as the Irish have gone through the ups and downs of being knocked by USC, LSU, Ohio State, hell, even Purdue and Nebraska. "Notre Dame is always a step behind at the speed positions, and it'll kill any chance they have of returning to true elite status."

Fundamentally, this is a correct statement. For a variety of reasons, the Irish will never stockpile pure speed the way a Florida or a USC does. But things are changing and changing quickly under Weis. They started last year as frosh George West and Darrin Walls took a stab on the return units. Both have graduated to starting roles in their respective offensive and defensive positions, but another crop of ultra fast backs is set to come onto the field and validate Weis' announcement that freshman will be on the field for Georgia Tech, and not just one and not just in garbage time.

Armando Allen (above) hasn't seen a live down of football in almost two years after he missed his entire senior season with a broken leg, but that didn't stop the recruiting hype from boiling over for the Miami native. Allen blazed through the South Florida prep record books with a 4.31 40-yd. dash, the fastest ever run in the state notorious for producing football's speediest players. More significant was the fact that Notre Dame went head to head with the Urban Legend for Allen's services and won (no sweat though, Urban recovered nicely by landing a transfer from USC).

Opposite Allen is Golden Tate (pictured, right), the 6-footer with speed aplenty who hopes to be making more headlines in the spring as Notre Dame's centerfielder in baseball - he was drafted this summer by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Tate, along with safety/athlete Harrison Smith, represent the 2007 example of recruiting highway robbery, as both got plucked straight from the backyard of Phil Fulmer and the Tennessee Volunteers. Tate, a Hendersonville, TN native, turned aside offers from most of the SEC and ACC to showcase his 4.42 speed on the turf at Notre Dame Stadium. If you haven't seen his high school highlights tape at und.com, check it out. He scores every freakin' time he touches the ball.

This, if you believe all the pundits out there, is the missing link for Notre Dame. Game-changers. Rocket Ismail clones. Heirs to the throne of Reginald Bush. The guy's who keep defensive coordinators up at night because every time they have the football, the odds go up dramatically that the other team is going to get caught with its pants down.

As a young kid, I remember what it was like to sit and watch Rocket Ismail field kicks. This guy (along with Jerome Bettis) was Notre Dame football to me. Every time he touched the ball was an event. So much so that now, almost 20 years later, it doesn't matter if you happen to be watching the '89 ND-Michigan game for the 114th time on ESPN Classic. When the second half rolls around, you stop what you're doing and watch, every time stunned by how effortlessly Ismail burned the artificial grass at Michigan Stadium. He was so good the next year against Miami he simply had to get to his own 30 before Jim Nantz screamed, "LOOK OUT!" Each and every time a swing pass sailed his way, or an opposing coach was dumb enough to give him open space on a return, you caught your own breath - that's how captivating the very idea of him and three yards of free grass was.

It's been a long time since a Notre Dame coach could legitimately get those ideas about a player. Judging by Weis' body language when asked Tuesday about Allen & Tate, he clearly thinks that both of them have that kind of potential. With the new rules changing kickoffs back to the 30-yard line, meaning far fewer touchbacks and far more returns in open space, the two of them can make life much easier for the rest of Notre Dame's offensive attack. Weis' priority since he arrived has been solid special teams play, an area that was lacking last season in the placekicker department...and doesn't figure to be a whole lot better this year, going by what's been seen at practice up to this point. The Irish return unit hasn't taken a kickoff back for a touchdown since Vontez Duff housed one vs. Navy...in 2002.

With a new style of defense, a lot of inexperienced talent on offense, and as challenging opening slate of game as you'll find in college football, the Irish need to place a premium on field position every single time the offense takes the field. Of the 23 Irish scoring drives that followed a kickoff last season (or, every time Notre Dame opened a game, a 2nd half, or answered an opponent's score with one of their own), the Irish needed to march at least 70 yards to that score 17 times (basically 75% of the time). And all of this roots back to...you guessed it, the quarterback spot. Nothing can be more calming on a team than the security of knowing a top-flight return unit is gonna let you have a shorter field to work with.

Allen and Tate both came to Notre Dame expecting to battle and contribute right away. While we of course need to ease up on the Rocket or Tim Brown comparisons until one of them actually, you know, fields a kick return, the gleam of potential is in there eyes - and Charlie Weis'. There's no more pressing need for their skills right now than on kick returns, and if and when something big does indeed happen, you can bet that Irish eyes will be smiling.


And On the Seventh Day, Weis Rested

At least, the great multitude of columnists with apparently nothing better to write would have you believe it works that way. Tuesday's press conference again saw Weis saddled with the questions regarding the quarterbacks. Weis didn't get grouchy, but he did share the news that "the competition" is officially over, after having been unofficially so for at least a few days, and the workload for each man in practice reflects that. Further, the moment Jones and Sharpley finished their interview sessions this evening, the big mystery will finally be solved on an official, announced basis inside the Irish locker room. In response to a new batch of questions on "should we read too much into who gets picked to start the opener", Weis was careful to ask what exactly that meant. Well, Charlie, if you read the popular theory making its way around the authors of countless "impact freshman" lists on ESPN and The Sporting News, they figure there's NO WAY Jimmy Clausen rode his stretch hummer to South Bend to ride the bench for a whole year, and also predict the Irish will limp so badly out of the gate that you will have NO CHOICE but to play Clausen even if he doesn't start the opener. Right?
Charlie Weis: The answer to that question is, "The No. 1 is No. 1 for a reason."

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