Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Player to Watch

Like any good citizen-level sports journalist site, we have to arrive at that moment in our "Big Preview Countdown" when we tell you about the "Player to Watch". The great thing about the "Player to Watch" is that he could be anybody - you have a much chance of being right about who was watch-worthy by picking a name from a hat as you do of following UND.com's practice reports - and I say that with all due respect as I know firsthand how hard it is to compile those things. Kudos to CSTV, the University's athletics site partner, for finally converting their video player over to a universal platform that doesn't discriminate against Macs or Firefox. Click here to keep tabs on all the All-Access videos at their new blog.

So, with that out of the way, let's get back to the "Player to Watch" - we tried to get this segment sponsored by Pontiac, but apparently we don't generate enough hits to warrant being an official partner of the Game-Changing Performance crew.

#9 - There Can Be More Than One

A few weeks back a Pac-10 follower struck up in conversation, "Who's the Irish running back going to be?" Ostensibly he was wondering who should've been getting the high rankings on NCAA Football 2009 for his X-Box, but in reality he was calling to mind a pressing question I hadn't thought of yet - who exactly is going to be Notre Dame's running back?

I fumbled for an answer briefly before settling on the following: "I can't tell you who's going to be the starter. And I have a feeling it'll be important only in that it determines which one touches the ball first." In that spirit, here is Notre Dame's Player to Watch in 2007 - the unsettled starting running back, who may be (in alphabetical order) James Aldridge OR Armando Allen OR Robert Hughes.

The Irish need to run the football. Such is the categorical imperative you face when your offense ranked at the absolute bottom of the barrel statistically. That's right - from consecutive Top 20 units in '05/'06 to 119 out of 119. Pretty stunning fall made possible by mass failure at lots of things, and an absolutely putrid rushing attack was no small accomplice. The way to slowly and surely rebuild the identity of the Irish offense is not by asking a still young quarterback and offensive line to start stringing together 400-yard passing games. Rebuilding occurs on the ground level, by establishing within the first drive that certain things are going to work around here, like a five-yard sweep or a seven-yard draw (and hopefully a bunch of other stuff too).

Yesterday brought a brief mention of Weis's Monday evening declaration that, "We're going to pound it." Now, I know in some circles any Notre Dame offense that throws the ball more than 10 times per game is considered blasphemous. On the flip side, others in what I'd call the New Wave insist that dynamic passing games have to take hold in the college game because they're how the football moves these days. Of the teams who ranked in the Top 10 of Division I (FBS) offenses, only one earned more yards running than passing (#10 Oregon). For the Irish though, first things first - let's establish something that we're good at it before attempting to mount a case for why one is preferrable to the other. When Weis was in his last season as Patriots coordinator, he disputed the notion that his 'pass-first' New England attack was born from some deep-rooted love of the air ball:
I love to move the football. I'm probably known as more of a 'passing guy' because that's what we've done to move the football. So, a lot of times, people say:'`Well, they want to throw it.' Well, I want to throw it because it works. If it's not working, I don't want to be throwing it. A lot of it has to do with what players you have and what you can do against who you're playing against.
Moving forward into 2008, Notre Dame cannot afford to try out the Tulsa, Texas Tech, or Hawai'i offenses (who ranked 1-2-3 last season in the NCAA, all with a lopsided preference for throwing the rock instead of pounding it). As a matter of fact, thank God for the Warriors and Red Raiders, or else ND might've been dead last in running the ball rather than 115th. Which brings me full circle to our player to watch - it'll be whomever among the three well-qualified candidates bursts out early in this 2008 season.

For two years the Irish had Darius Walker - not the fastest, but with solid speed and terrific vision, the kind of back who may not rack up a 60-yarder but could always be counted on for 10 sixes. Brady Quinn was unquestionably the best player on the field and was throwing to some pretty good receivers, meaning the Irish built an attack around getting their best players to do what they do best in order to move the football. Quinn's arm was the center of the offense, but Walker's running ability (with Travis Thomas providing an effective change-up in '05) was the ace in the hole that made ND a complete unit. In 2007 that dependency vanished from the backfield at both QB and RB, and the closest thing to a star turn was given by Hughes in the final two weeks against Stanford and Duke. A lot of factors spelled out an Irish team with no real hold on what exactly they did well offensively. Weis grasped the totality of his mistake and vows now to come out swinging, which is precisely what needs to happen.

Maybe we look at the numbers and see a lack of a "difference-maker" at running back, a significant problem for a coach who wants his team to "pound it". For optimisim's sake, let's look at it as an opportunity presenting itself like a problem - a challenge on how to get Aldridge, Hughes, and Allen out there often enough so that no matter who the back is, a dependable running threat is in the game on every single down. That kind of security blanket can only be a positive for an offense looking to complete the transition this season. That is your "player to watch" in 2008 - whomever one of these three lines up behind Jimmy Clausen. There can only be one at a time, but that doesn't mean there can only be one. Let's learn how to do one thing well first, to find that niche Charle so memorably noted was missing after the Michigan game last year. The rest might soon fall in line afterwards.

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