Saturday, August 25, 2007

Triple Decker - #10, #9, #8

12 Days of Irish football moves to the hurry-up to cover all the lost time. On with the countdown...

#10 - I Know Something You Don't Know...

Charlie Weis made himself very clear on Thursday evening: he's made up his mind regarding the starting quarterback job. We (as in all of us not named Charles J. Weis) don't get to find out until September 1st. Whether or not that's a beneficial thing remains open for debate, especially when you factor in that the news (to this point) has yet to travel even as far as the chosen one himself.

It has all the makings of an "out-thinking yourself" move. Rest assured, even if Sharpley/Jones/Clausen comes in and plays fine, all the Irish have to do is lose the opener to Georgia Tech (doesn't matter how), and the chorus will come down on Weis loud and quickly: he miscalculated the so-called 'element of surprise'. He played it so close to the vest that he undercut his own squad's chance to build continuity and trust in the starting QB. He held everybody, including his own players, in suspense over who and what the Irish would be featuring that it became too much of a sideshow.

My response to that is this: who's turning it into a sideshow? Certainly not Weis. The only time he makes a comment these days regarding the QB position is when a reporter who apparently wasn't paying attention the first 14 times he said he wouldn't name the starter opens up with a question about when he'll name a starting quarterback. The whole game isn't about Weis going back and forth depending on who has a good day in practice; in his mind, the decision's been made, and even though all three players are getting reps with the first string offense, it's become pretty clear (though not official for obvious reasons) who the job now belongs to. Weis simply isn't about to tell Jon Tenuta and Chan Gailey via press release, "Here's my guy. You may now spend two weeks using every waking moment to figure him out." Some people say that since all 3 are so inexperienced anyway, what's the point in trying to conceal the starter's identity? After all, Sharpley and Clausen are similar players. If you want to study film on Demetrius Jones you'll have to dig up the Chicago Public League Championship film from 2005. Even so, the objective here is to make it as difficult as possible for Georgia Tech to beat you. Spreading their resources around as they try to prep for 3 different quarterbacks, each of which brings something a bit different to the table, would certainly aid in the cause.

Yet because of the obvious potential for a psychological backlash, fans and media pundits have spent the last week debating the effectiveness of Weis' plan. His response? "Do you really think I'd be so fickle that I won't know who the quarterback is?" in response to the question over if he's decided yet. "If they haven't figured it out by now, they're not very smart", was the response to the follow-up on the concern that his cloak-and-dagger routine might leave all three competitors in the dark. Take it with a grain of salt, but several "reports" emerged that apparently say all the signs are pointing towards Jones. Others note that Clausen, in his first media session Friday, confirmed he'd had an elbow procedure over the summer and described himself as "day-to-day". CLEARLY he must be out of the running. And still others figure that with Weis saying his mind has been made up for "at least a week" and how below the radar Sharpley's been this fall, he MUST be the starter who Weis intentionally wants lost in the shuffle over Clausen's "BeerRun-Gate".

So why is this so important in the context of a whole season? Because the opener this year, much more so than even the 2005 game at Pitt, will leave an indelible mark on the tone for the remaining 11 games. Will the notes struck be ones of surprise and joy or concern that Weis has managed to outsmart even himself? Stay tuned. But if all the Notre Dame fans and talking heads are confused with the Irish QB situation, what must it be like for Yellow Jacket defensive co-ordinator Tenuta? Think about that.


#9 - Remember, Remember, the 9th and 16th of September (and the 25th of November)

Ask Travis Thomas about the 2006 season, and he comes back with thoughts that have the slightest trace of regret in their lining:
"I think we had so much potential last year, and I don't think we achieved everything that we could have. Looking back on it now, with the talent we had on that team, there's no telling where we could have gone."
The Irish touched the high ceiling of ability for a team with 7 NFL Draft picks (plus one who opted to play baseball and two more who'll almost certainly be drafted next May) only once, on September 9th in the home opener against Penn State. They carried themselves with such confidence that day that you'd have been hard-pressed to spot any similarities to the team that looked lost amid the glow of the spotlight during the first-half of 2005's opener against Michigan State. They tackled hard, they moved the ball, and Brady Quinn carved up Linebacker U's defense. Tom Zbikowski was back in pure ball-hawking form with a housed fumble, Thomas flawlessly executed a fake punt to kill off whatever spirit the Nittany Lions had left. The Irish walked out with a 41-17 win, were 2-0 by a combined score of 55-27 (with 14 of those points being scored by PSU in garbage time) and by Sunday afternoon had reclaimed the #2 ranking in the country. It seemed too easy.

And, as it turned out, it was. Weis and his players spent the next week insulated from attempts to hype up the showdown with Michigan. And at Friday's night's stadium-sized pep rally, Weis delivered the now infamous: "We have not said one word about Michigan. We have not talked about their players, we have not talked about their coaches. We'll talk tomorrow." Whatever they HAD been talking about during the week, it certainly didn't involve error-free football. The Irish sunk themselves early with two turnovers in the first quarter (five for the game) and gift-wrapped 20 points for the Wolverines, resulting in a 47-21 loss that crippled every ounce of momentum the Penn State game had established. The rest of the season played almost in slow-motion, like the Irish were looking to rediscover themselves. Try though the players did for it to be otherwise, the lasting memory of a 2006 season that began with sky-high expectations will be 47-21 and 44-24, the two losses to Michigan and USC that seemed to rattle a lot of psyches within the Irish program.

That may, in the long run, turn out to be a good thing. One player who certainly will never allow himself to forget the USC game is junior and now-starting safety David Bruton:
Nerves and timidity, not the lack of physical skills, did him in. And in the days that followed, it consumed him. Every day for three weeks, Bruton would watch the USC tape, beating himself up mentally each time, questioning his ability and his potential.

"Putting that behind me is part of the maturity thing," Bruton said. "Every defensive back gets beat. The great ones have the ability to move past that."
While you wonder what type of mental makeup it takes to openly subject yourself to watching the same horror film three weeks straight, off-season tales like Bruton's make your eyes light up just a tad as an Irish fan. You think back to the words of Irish greats in 1973 who proclaimed that the road to a championship began with the January 1 Orange Bowl beatdown they received from Nebraska (40-3, still the worst bowl loss in school history). You remember the 1987 team that commemorated the 3-consecutive losses to end the year (21-20 to Penn State, 24-0 to Miami, and 35-10 to Texas A&M) with a t-shirt: "From These Ashes, Notre Dame Must Rise". They went on to steamroll the toughest schedule in the country for the national title in 1988. You even tip your cap fondly to the 2004 squad and Coach You-Know-Who, the one that designed an entire offseason workout program around the number 38, a subtle reminder of the 38-0 thrashing they received from that same Michigan squad a year earlier, then dumped UM 28-20 a week after being embarrassed by BYU.

What the Irish are going to test this year is whether or not the seeds of future success are sown in failure. They need to remember what it felt like to get whipped - and resolve to do some whipping of their own, because they know they can. Just watch the tape.


#8 - Cornerback Territory: The Show Me State

You'd be hard pressed to come up with a position in college football that draws more scrutiny than quarterback for Notre Dame. But cornerback for the very same school would surely have to be in the running.

The Irish haven't had a "lockdown" corner since Bobby Taylor checked out early after the 1994 season. They've had individual flashes since then, like the speed of Allen Rossum, the leadership of Brock Williams, and the sheer tenacity of 2002 All-American Shane Walton, but Irish D-Backs have been making headlines mainly for the wrong reasons over the past 15 years.

A steady stream of sub-par recruiting and bizarre coaching styles hasn't helped. The most memorable plays for Notre Dame's secondary have one recurring theme - them chasing players into the endzone, whether it be Ohio State's Santonio Holmes or North Carolina's Hakim Nicks. The single play that defines Notre Dame at cornerback right now is the dreaded 4th and 9.

Weis coyly suggested two things as Fall Camp '07 opened: one, that the pathetic excuse of a depth chart he'd been left gave him no choice but to keep sending the same guys out there. His third option at corner was Leo Ferrine, for goodness sake. Secondly, he now has no doubts that when one guy botches things, he can send in somebody else. The days of whoever rises to the top of the depth chart being the first, last, and only line of defense have mercifully ended.

So, who are these guys? Two of them you already know - Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil. Walls got off to a fast start last season, being matched against Calvin Johnson in the opening game and more than holding his own save for one 45-yarder midway thru the 2nd quarter (pictured). But after getting torched by Selwyn Lymon four weeks later vs. Purdue, Walls (and the slowed-by-injury Ambrose Wooden) ceded ground and playing time to emerging sophomore Terrail Lambert. Lambert and Wooden are now listed as 1-2 on the depth chart, but Weis and Corwin Brown have been fairly clear that basically ends once the first play has been completed. One thing you'll actually see this season is the nickel package, and not just against Syracuse. The depth situation would be even stronger, but top-flight recruit Gary Gray suffered a shoulder injury in spring practice that's likely to sideline him for the year. Converted running back Munir Prince adds speed but no experience, and redshirt freshman Leonard Gordon rounds out the depth chart. More talent is on the way, with southern stars Robert Blanton & Jamoris Slaughter committed. Each is a 4-star on Rivals with 4.5 speed.

So talent and depth are back in the fold for more than just the first slot and a half for the Irish defense. And now the other shoe drops: outside of Lambert, it's very unproven. Wooden has had too much of an up-and-down career and been on the wrong end of too many big plays to say that he's going to develop into a different player for the fifth year, but after reading Blue-Gray Sky's side-splitting analysis of Rick Minter vs. Corwin Brown, the stripped-down and dirty style of football could be just what he needs. Still, the guys to watch are Walls and McNeil. They came in with too many accolades to be content with their extremely modest accomplishments of a year ago (heck, McNeil's moment in the spotlight came as the guy who negated a Zbikowski punt return TD against Michigan State with a clipping call). They've earned a longer leash this season, but they also know the margin for error is just as small. It's a positive development that Notre Dame no longer needs players from the 'show' team to fill out a depth chart in the secondary. But the corners are still getting barked at by Irish fans to "SHOW ME SOMETHING!"

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