Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Separation Anxiety

One of the most devastatingly simple things in football is the sack. One player is taken down by another, loss of yardage, loss of confidence, potential loss of cognitive function. So to hear that 4/5 of the same offensive line that allowed a staggering 59 sacks in 2007 is returning doesn't exactly have me making New Year's Day travel plans. But just as a sack is simple, it is also complex - what usually looks like a cut-and-dry case of one man beating another to the quarterback is usually a mix of great athleticism, split-second timing, favorable luck, and contributions from any number of players who were nowhere near the play.

This is not to absolve the offensive line of all blame, but in 2008 it won't be just the big five up front who determine if Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen can spend more time vertical than horizontal. Which ushers in key #10 in the countdown...

#10 - We Need Some Space

No need to mince words - if Notre Dame's gonna have anything close to an offense this season, they need the wide receivers to get physical and create some space. People say the problems for Clausen, Demetrius Jones, and Evan Sharpley all stem from holding the ball too long. That's not without merit, but it was often a total lack of open targets which compounded the problem. Perhaps the most gaping loss of experience and productivity after the quarterback position came among passing targets, with John Carlson usually held back to block and the wideout corps seeing the end of the Samardzija/Stovall/McKnight era. Considering that outside of David Grimes and Carlson there was no receiver on the roster who came in with more than 2 career receptions, it's no surprise that the leading receiver was freshman Duval Kamara, a guy who definitely was trying to find his way at the start of the year.

Now Kamara's a grizzled veteran and paces the passing attack along with Grimes - the two combined for 59 catches and 6 touchdowns, not including Grimes' layout grab against Stanford which mystifyingly got overruled on video review. Throw in Golden Tate, who has earned plaudits in camp for transforming into more than a one-route wonder, and five-star recruit Michael Floyd next to juniors Robby Parris (29 catches for 341 yds in '07) and George West, and we're getting closer to a productive receiving corps.

Productivity is nice, but what the Irish need first and foremost from this group is the kind of hard-nosed play that usually doesn't show on the stat sheet. One of the hidden gems in the 2005 season was the terrific run-blocking provided along the edge by Maurice Stovall, freeing Darius Walker and Travis Thomas for a variety of sweeps and draws that moved both the chains and the clock during some of the most important stretches of big games. And when the Irish did go to the air, both Samardzija and Stovall physically punished those who tried to jam them, while tight ends like Carlson and Anthony Fasano stretched the field over the middle.

But if Weis and Mike Haywood truly want to "pound it" on offense this year, they need more than just the five blocks of granite along to be doing their part. Sending Robert Hughes or James Aldridge between the tackles for some bruising five yard gains will take its toll, sure - but imagine how effective the Irish could be by balancing some outside space for Armando Allen to work with. And if the run can be established and the Irish sprinkle in the play-action pass, the receivers can't routinely get beat off the ball and provide no escape when Clausen drops back. What made the Irish offense hum in '05/'06 wasn't scheme alone, it was solid veterans who ran every play to the whistle whether the ball was heading their way or not. Expecting a fully smooth transition to such a young group of receivers last year might have been too much - but the mistakes of youth cannot stand in 2008.

We talk a lot about the obvious in football, and just because it's obvious doesn't make it less true: Notre Dame will need dramatic improvement from it's offensive line to have a desirable running attack in 2008. But if that does happen, watch for the kind of "game-within-the-game" plays from guys like Grimes and Kamara to be a less-heralded but equally vital reason why. Highlight reel catches are welcome (for this upcoming season, looking at you, Tate & Floyd), but a solid pancake block to cut off a cornerback and spring Allen or Hughes downfield will do just as nicely.

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