Friday, August 31, 2007

#1 - The Countdown Ends...

And so we've arrived...

#1 - Leaving Me in the Trenches, Taking Grenades

I hope you flip over your handle bars and knock your two front teeth in! You selfish son of a B&*&H!!! You're leaving me in the trenches, taking grenades John!!!

This quote from America's consummate Notre Dame fan, Vince Vaughn, neatly summarizes the one thing on which success hinges for the Irish - winning the battle in the trenches, and not merely from one side. It isn't only that the Irish front line defense, reduced to 3 in Corwin Brown's new scheme (Justin Brown, Trevor Laws, & Pat Kuntz) needs to succeed against great running backs over the first two months. Or that the Irish offensive line must break in three new starters and so quickly and without missing a beat in front of an inexperienced quarterback. Either of these things would prompt huge concern for the Irish coaching staff and become a point of emphasis. The fact that both are paramount at the same moment demonstrates why the battles along the trench line will make or break the Irish season.

Funny thing is, that might be just where Charlie Weis, John Latina, Jappy Oliver, and Brown want it to be. Like several other positions, they see each line as "question marks" more because they are unknown rather than untalented. While green, the o-line certainly has tremendous upside, with a Rimington Award-caliber center surrounded by prep All-Americans plus a right tackle coming off a solid freshman year in which he became the first frosh to start every game for the Irish since freshman regained their eligibility. On defense, Laws more than proved his worth at the interior tackle spot, and Brown was a capable backup over the last two seasons. So it isn't a question of talent, it's a question of results.

The "results" could determine the win or loss in as many as half of Notre Dame's games, starting with tomorrow. If the Irish 3-4 scheme controls the line of scrimmage and beats up last year's ACC-leader in rushing, Tashard Choice, the Irish win the game. Plain and simple. On the flip side, if the Irish offensive line asserts itself against elite caliber defenses like Michigan and USC, building opportunities for a deep running back corps and a (one might assume) mobile quarterback, ND will be more than capable of pulling the upset.

So pull up a chair, Irish fans. We're a little over 14 hours from kickoff, and the biggest key for the Notre Dame season is also football's greatest cliche: the game will be won and lost in the trenches. Be rooting for Laws/Brown/Kuntz to provide the complement to Young/Wenger/Sullivan/Turkovich/Duncan. Be looking for the Irish to make a statement.

Be looking for them to leave some other teams stuck in the trenches, taking grenades.


#2 - "MAKE PLAYS!!!"

26.5 hours to kickoff...The penultimate key has arrived.

#2 - "MAKE PLAYS!!!"

If you want to hear a grown man slowly descend into the darkest depths of his soul, simultaneously losing all perspective on life as we currently know it, then listen to WXYT's Mike Valenti during his Monday morning recap of the 2006 Notre Dame-Michigan State game.

Here are the questions confronting unranked Notre Dame...

Who's replacing Brady Quinn? If you believe Morgan Park HS Coach Lexie Spurlock, it'll be Demetrius Jones (this can also be confirmed if you believe what gets reported on AOL Sports blogs using the unimpeachable source known as Facebook). If it is Jones, the reason is simple: the Irish need the best playmaker at the most important position. Not the best caretaker, not the guy with most raw skills, but the guy who can pull the ball in, get creative, use his weapons, and...wait for it...MAKE PLAYS!!!

This is the biggest problem Notre Dame has been confronting over the years - their supposed lack of talent, dearth of playmakers, and lazy coaching that allowed the likes of USC, Michigan, Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, and Rutgers (Rutgers?!?) to speed past the nation's most storied program in those key categories. But the tide is turning inside the Irish program. It isn't just the tantalizing possibility of Jones piecing together Vince Young-style highlight reels that should put a smile on Charlie Weis' face.

How are the Irish gonna compete without a receiver that cracks six feet? Notre Dame's two starting wideouts seemed more equipped for Mighty Mites football than Division I. No Jeff Samardzija and his lanky 6-5 frame to win jump balls. No Maurice Stovall with his acrobatic catches. Instead, tiny George West and David Grimes, who are listed (emphasis on listed) at 5-10 each. DJ Hord is the tall man of the group at a stout 6-1. But like many of the skill positions, the Irish have talent and depth at wideout. It's simply inexperienced and (for now) unknown outside the circle of diehards. Frosh Duval Kamara invites plenty of Stovall comparisons with his 6-5, 222 LB. frame, as does 6-4 sophomore Robby Parris. The real reason not to be concerned with wideouts is the height and talent back in the fold at tight end, from likely All-American John Carlson to head-turning freshman Mike Ragone. We already said it once during this countdown, but...the tight end is the quarterback's best friend.

The skill positions are littered with talent for the Irish, more than they've had in the program for quite some time. But college football isn't like the NFL; there's no preseason exhibitions, and Notre Dame, for the time being, doesn't schedule I-AA schools in the opening game to give their young guys a chance to break themselves in. No getting around it, the Irish are walking into an opening gauntlet of games with little margin for error and have plenty of players who you'd have to expect a going to make errors, but they mental or physical. But they can also "MAKE PLAYS!!!" On both offensive and defensive fronts, the emphasis this offseason has been on breaking down the playbook, giving players the freedom to use their athleticism and create chances for themselves rather than working inside a pre-determined frame. The big moment on Saturday could very well be the one that features nothing but improvisation and pure playmaking ability, and it may not be coming just from Demetrius Jones. Stay tuned Irish fans - Irish football returns in one day.


Thursday, August 30, 2007

#3 - Starting Fast

And then there were three - the countdown marches on with just 39.5 hours until kickoff...

#3 - Starting Fast

The trademark of Notre Dame's breakthrough in 2005 was fast starts. Each of the first two games has come to be defined by the first Irish offensive series. With that in mind, a little trip down memory lane...

September 3, 2005 - Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh

The Irish defense didn't come out awe-inspiring, yielding a 8-play, 73-yard touchdown march capped by Tyler Palko's 39-yard alley-oop to Greg Lee that infuriated Weis and left every Irish fan with the gnawing feeling of "Here we go again..."

What happened next is hard to describe even with the benefit of two year's hindsight. The Irish offense trotted onto the field, and immediately things seemed off. Three tight ends? Jeff Samardzija as the ONLY wideout? Standing high in the corner endzone of Heinz Field at that moment, most of us didn't even know who Samardzija was. And then the Irish ran a bootleg. What kind of crazy offense is this?

5 plays had the Irish at midfield. The sixth play was the one where you just knew everything was about to change for Notre Dame football. Brady Quinn ran a designed screen play to Darius Walker, who just scooped in the pass and started running, using his convoy all the way to the endzone. A 51-yard screen pass TD on the sixth play of the season. To put this in perspective: Notre Dame had more offensive touchdowns after the first six plays under Charlie Weis than they did after the first 139 plays under Tyrone Willingham.

September 10, 2005 - Notre Dame vs. Michigan

An even bolder opening-act was planned for the next week against then-#3 Michigan.

Having drilled them on it all week, Weis opened the game with the Irish in a five-wide shotgun set and had Quinn run the no-huddle. The junior responded by going 5-for-6 for 44 yards to complement tough running by Walker, and the Wolverines were still looking around confused as hell when Quinn connected with Rhema McKnight for the 7-0 lead. The Irish held on for a 17-10 victory and UM never recovered, dwindling to a mediocre 7-5. The game was ultimately cited as proof that Weis can't win the big game because the Wolverines weren't that good. Hey media, you guys made the rankings, so don't whine when somebody makes you look stupid.

Over the past two years, Weis has gone back to 'empty' to strike the opening notes several times, notably against Penn State in '06 (drive stalled thanks to a penalty, but the Irish claimed a 3-0 lead) & BYU in '05 (touchdown on a drive in which Quinn threw against the Cougar blitz on every down). What does he have in store for Saturday?

That, far more than the seemingly interminable drama over the identity of the starting quarterback, is the real strategic advantage Weis needs. Jon Tenuta is no dummy; while life would be easier for the Yellow Jackets if they knew with certainty that it were Sharpley, Clausen, or Jones behind center, the real challenge is prepping for the offense Notre Dame runs. Whoever becomes QB adds wrinkles, but Tenuta had all last summer and all this summer to devour tape of Weis' system and try to pick out the coach's tendencies.

Anybody who's heard Weis talk knows his personal point of honor is to avoid patterns in his playcalling. That seemed to recede a bit in 2006, as a softer interior of the line changed his running preferences and defensive lapses coupled with turnovers and missed opportunities forced the Irish to toss out the script in their biggest games (case in point Michigan '06, in which whatever gameplan Weis had going in surely must've been blown to hell before the end of the 1st quarter).

Late last season, especially for the USC and LSU games, the Irish repeated ad nauseum the importance of a quick start, the kind that knocked teams like Pitt and UM back on their heels in 2005. Neither game produced one, as the Irish squandered the momentum of a highlight reel catch by McKnight that covered 38 yards on the game's first play from scrimmage against USC (as previously mentioned, the drive stalled on the Trojan 29 and Weis gambled on 4th down rather than basically give the ball away on a missed field goal). The Sugar Bowl was an even bigger flop out of the gate, as Samardizja got dinged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that wiped out a first down gain to the 42 and put the Irish in 1st-and-20 from their own 27. Weis gambled again when the drive stalled and lost with Travis Thomas' fake punt run stuffed for a loss.

So, under Weis, Notre Dame fans have been getting (for better or worse) a pretty good read on what kind of game it's gonna be based on the first drive. This season, for obvious reasons, is no different. New quarterback, revamped defense, high expectations as usual from the fanbase with little to no regard for the non-expectations of outsiders, and all those questions wondering, "How can Notre Dame move on from the loss of all those playmakers?" To which I laugh a little, not because I disrespect Quinn, Walker, Samardzija, Rhema McKnight, Anthony Fasano, et al, but because these were all the same guys that belonged to a team "WITH NO PLAYMAKERS!!!" back when Tyrone Willingham coached them. Essentially, I'm looking at the opener on Saturday as a dare - a dare for Charlie Weis to shock people once again, to change it up so dramatically that people can't help but notice.

And, for some spine-tingling reason, I think Weis (and, far more importantly, his players) are about to take people up on that dare.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

#4 - Time to Get Their Kicks

There's a strong case that this baby could be the #1 key to the Irish season, but it certainly merits being one of the top few...

#4 - Time to Get Their Kicks

Quickly, think of how many teams have multiple kickers on scholarship yet have no clue who the starter is, let alone if any of them can get the job done consistently.

Being a place-kicker is like being a plumber; the job's not glamorous, you get described in only the broadest stereotypes, and as long as you do you're job correctly you get neither praise nor damnation . Occasionally, if you really come through in the clutch by patching a messy leak or plunging a dangerous clog late in the day, you get rewarded. But if you f&*k up...well, then s&*t literally rains down.

Since Nicholas Setta suffered an injury during the 2003 season, the Irish have been relying on walk-ons to brace the gap in the kicking game. Local South Bend hero DJ Fitzpatrick had a moment of glory with a game-winner that season...against NAVY, but he was mainly invisible through 2+ seasons as the number-1 kicker. His most notorious miss? A 35-yarder in the 4th quarter against USC in 2005, one that would've put the Irish up 27-21. Who knows what might have happened? Fitzpatrick was serviceable, but still connected on only 34 of 49 FG attempts. His successor Carl Gioia, a walk-on from Valparaiso, didn't fare any better, going just 8-for-13 on FGs and also inexcusably missing 6 PAT attempts. From the moment Setta went down in 2003 through the Sugar Bowl in January, ND made just 12 of 24 attempts from 40 yards of more. And in 2006, perhaps the most fatalistic statement about the range and accuracy of the Irish kickers was made through the stat that Charlie Weis opted to go for it on fourth down a staggering 33 times, third most in the country.

Now, occasionally that was a decision based a strategy and momentum and was in no way of reflection on the kicking game; case-in-point agianst Michigan State, when the Irish were trailing 24-7 and desperate to swing some big mo in their favor, so they went for it from their own 37 on 4th-and-1. But there were also times like the opening drive against USC, when the Irish faced 4th-and-9 from the 29 and didn't even bother asking Gioia to come out and make a kick he clearly couldn't make. Although he was sometimes looking for his offense to shoulder more of the burden and make statements that would resonate louder than chip-shot field goals, Weis' gambling ways on fourth down were often indicative of the fact that he would rather take chances against defenses then give away scoring opportunities due to missed field goals (and piling onto his kicking squad's self-doubt with each miss). By the end of last season's opener vs. Georgia Tech, when Gioia missed from 42 and 36, Weis knew what to do for the rest of the season if caught between the 20 and 35 yard-line - send Quinn back out there and go for broke.

The Irish come into the season with a legitimate battle for kicking duties, between scholarship players Brandon Walker (true freshman) and Ryan Burkhart (sophomore), plus walk-on Nate Whitaker (sophomore). During their one open practice on Aug. 11, none of the three did much to assuage concerns among Irish fans, as they went a combined 6-for-14 and failed to reach the endzone during kickoff practice - another point of concern. The Irish had just 13 touchbacks last season, 8 from Burkhart and 5 from walk-on senior Bobby Renkes, and their opponents average start position was the 26-yard line. With rule changes pushing the kickoff spot back to the 30-yard line, the Irish need to get better - not just hold form and certainly not regress, but significantly better.

That's where Walker comes in. The depth chart released on Monday narrowed the choices at kicker to him and Whitaker, though it's not explicitly clear yet who's handling kickoffs and who's got FGs. Both need to be at their best, because as was mentioned yesterday with respect to a potentially-electrifying return game, nothing could help a refigured defense and inexperienced offense settle in quicker than the safety net of solid special teams play. It would be nice for the new QB not to take the offense to the 25 and then get sent back out to pick up a 4th-and-8 that could rattle his composure when two scholarships ought to be produce at least ONE player who can nail kicks from 40 yards (think the 2002 Setta, who was 8-for-8 from that benchmark distance.)

After wandering around in the walk-on wilderness for the better part of four seasons, the Irish are hoping two scholarships can net at least ONE reliable field goal kicker. The top contender? Brandon Walker, pictured above.


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, 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. 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 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."


#6 - Six-Pack

Continuing to size up the key positions and issues as we're now only 5 days away from the return of Notre Dame football...

#6 - A Linebacker Six-Pack

Meet the six men who are going to save Notre Dame's defense.

From left to right: Seniors Maurice Crum, Jr., Joe Brockington, and Anthony Vernaglia, sophomores John Ryan, Morrice Richardson, and Toryan Smith.

If you believe what the outsiders say, linebacker is the position most riddled with questions when it comes to Corwin Brown's new 3-4 scheme. The line may be thin but it still has talent thanks to Trevor Laws, and the secondary still has potential and experience thanks to Tom Zbikowski, Ambrose Wooden, and Terrail Lambert. But linebacker? Only Crum has multiple years of experience at the position. Brockington was a journeyman who couldn't beat out a converted running back (Travis Thomas) until Thomas suffered an injury on the final play of the Michigan State game. Vernaglia has been one of those players who's been "on the verge" of a breakout year for the third straight season now. Ryan and Richardson are learning the position after being defensive ends last year. Smith was kept to special teams and garbage time last season.

Yet there's a reason you should be excited to see these guys on the field - they're leaner, hungrier, faster, and more agitated than ever when it comes to quieting the critics of the Notre Dame defense. Inside Brown's simplified "see ball, attack ball, rip ball-carrier's head off" philosophy, they'll finally get a chance to run wild much the way a steady stream of swift, hard-nosed linebackers have been for a certain NFL team in New England.

In 2006, Notre Dame linebackers accounted for only 18.5 TFL (Tackles for Loss), six of those sacks. That was out of a defense that had 78 TFL and 31 sacks - most of the heavy, penetrating lifting was being done by Laws and departed lineman Derek Landri and Victor Abiamiri. There was all the talk about how vulnerable and unathletic Notre Dame's back four were on defense, but that seemed to deflect some critical eyes from noticing just how ineffective the front seven could be. Caught up in the confusing "stratego" stylings of Rick Minter and his "gap sound" defense, the Irish yielded 3.8 yards per rush and 14.1 yards per catch in 2006; solid against the run, but awful against the pass. Two years ago a lot of people, including this humble blogger, compared Minter's defense with the 3-4 because of it's shifting emphasis was meant to be outside of the standard "run vs. pass" choice most defensive coordinators make on each play. But it seemed to do nothing except confuse the hell out of people.

For the Irish to have success in 2007, those percentages of TFLs and sacks coming from the linebackers (roughly 20% of each in '06) need to go up significantly. Linemen will be keying on Laws as he shifts out to the defensive end spot, and the Irish are perilously thin in the middle with only junior Pat Kuntz and true frosh Ian Williams anywhere close to being ready for the field. But this is what the '3-4 personnel' defense is all about; figuring a way to but your 11 best athletes onto the field, and in that department Brown's linebacker corps is making strides in a hurry. The starting four will be Crum & Brockington on the inside (Brockington has bulked up significantly as he prepares to take on more offensive guards) and Vernaglia filling the role of a standard outside linebacker thanks to his outstanding speed. Ryan is the "hybrid", roving open space much the way Roosevelt Colvin or Adalius Thomas might for New England.

The backbone of the 3-4 as Belichick runs it, as Brown learned it, and as Weis installs it depends on four fluid, versatile linebackers to be on the field at all times. Thanks to diligent recruiting and an insane amount of work over spring and fall, the Irish have a two-deep chart at linebackers which fits the bill. Get to know this six for sure, but keep an eye on: junior Scott Smith as well as freshmen Kerry Neal & Brian Smith, both of whom could be part of the dozen or so first-years on the field Saturday. Here's one particularly "GET PUMPED UP!" quote from the 6-2, 222 lb. Smith, who came to Notre Dame late in last year's recruiting cycle after Brown was hired and he had already committed to Iowa:
There are folks back in Smith's hometown of Overland Park, Kan., who could envision him handing out water at ND rather than playing football. But the son of former ND fullback Chris Smith has played himself out of scout team or water boy duties and should see meaningful playing time at outside linebacker as a freshman.

"That's what makes Brian Smith tick," he said. "All those people who doubt me back home. They didn't think I could play Division I. They didn't think I could make it here. I get a lot of satisfaction out of proving those people wrong."
And starting five days from now, the rest of a deep and hungry linebacker unit gets the chance to do the same.


Monday, August 27, 2007

#7 - Sullivan's Travels

You can please some people all of the time, and all people some of the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time. That must be what Charlie Weis is telling himself as he continues to take a beating for having the audacity not to reveal his starting quarterback to the public. I can't say I don't see where the cynics are coming from; this is a very fine psychological tightrope Weis has chosen to prance out onto, but if the media horde is simply trying to set him up so he can throw one of his QBs under the bus, think again. I also find it odd that Stewart Mandel calls Weis arrogant when Mandel claims to know who the starter is, the extent of Clausen's injury, the fact that Clausen won't start but will sometime soon, and that Notre Dame's offense has already been so thoroughly dissected by Jon Tenuta that Georgia Tech will have the Irish beat no matter who the QB is.

My biggest problem with Mandel is his ridiculously out of context quote taken from Justin Tuck propped up as evidence of Weis' arrogance. Tuck was commenting on how Weis, brought in as a guest speaker for the Irish squad during off-season workouts after their dubious 5-7 2003 campaign, let them hear it instead of being the standard "Notre Dame is a magical place" mouthpiece. Tuck came away impressed by Weis' confidence/arrogance, yet Mandel apparently felt he must've surely been reaching the conclusion which the mass media has of Weis being an arrogant S.O.B. Which he is - but in a good way.

Moving along in the countdown...

#7 - Sullivan's Travels

John Sullivan finally came full circle last week. In a Thursday team huddle before practice, Weis not only surprised 4 walk-ons with full scholarships for the coming season, but announced that the coaching staff had unanimously selected a fifth captain. Sullivan, a hulking 6-4 center from Greenwich, CT, has traveled a long way towards that moment, covering 33 starts (the last 21 in a row) at the position. And now, in his fifth year, 'Sully' stands alone on an offensive line that is for the first time that anyone can remember long on talent and short on experience.

Bob Morton, Dan Santucci, Ryan Harris, Mark LeVoir, & Dan Stevenson have all moved on. And, with due respect to the quarterback position, the one spot on the field where Weis needed to make an impact and make one immediately was the recruiting of the offensive line. Willingham's staff badly understocked the position, often relying on converted defensive players (like Santucci), and Weis' "arrogant" style of tough love chased off John Kadous & Chauncey Incarnato. As good as Sullivan and fellow '03 recruit Ryan Harris turned out to be, they were the only O-Lineman in that class. The '04 and '05 hauls likewise produced just two true "blocks of granite".

So Weis and John Latina went to work, first at teaching the few men they had still standing to be expected to play multiple positions. Sullivan was the prime example, switching frequently between guard and center with Morton before settling back in as the primary snap man following Morton's injury in the Purdue game. Then the recruits started to pile up: Eric Olsen, Matt Carufel, Chris Stewart, Bartley Webb, Dan Wenger, & Sam Young last season. Matt Romine and Taylor Dever this season, along with Northwestern transfer (and one of the rewarded walk-ons) Thomas Bemenderfer. Suddenly, lo and behold, just like with cornerback, there are second and third options. Unusual, I know.

Sullivan was one leader amidst a crowd over the past two seasons. But with most of those guys now gone, Weis and his staff took the time to realize that the rest of a very green offensive line is taking its cues from him and responded accordingly. If Sullivan had a tall task compensating for Morton and Santucci on either side of him, what challenges might await when he has to break in both Wenger and Olsen in the trenches, especially against three stout defenses to open the year (Tech, Penn State, and Michigan). It has all the classic marks of a unit that could go through massive growing pains and potentially cost the Irish some games - kind of like the one Sullivan watched from the sidelines in 2003 that had 4 new starters, was forced to put Harris onto the field by October and stumbled to the 5-7 marked that first introduced all of Notre Dame to the arrogant buffoonery of Charlie Weis. Or something like that, right Stewart?

So basically what I'm saying is that Sullivan's important this year. How important? Well, take a look at what the first-rate analysis from Blue-Gray Sky last week, a breakdown of Notre Dame's running plays over the last two years, showed. Weis' offense, due to being led by the sleek but not explosive Darius Walker, earned a reputation for being a finesse running attack dominated by sweeps and draws; not enough counters and slashes and bursts into the line. I think some coach once referred to this as "three yards and a cloud of dust." Whether it was situational, coincidental, or accidental, Weis stayed on the outside a lot more in Year Two, probably due to the fact that with the loss of Stevenson he had an average-at-best interior of the line. The pounding runs weren't an option regardless of who was toting the rock. Maybe if James Aldridge had been healthy from the start of the year, Weis would've explored that avenue earlier so he could've used it instead of calling for sweeps in short yardage against USC and LSU. But he didn't. Now he really needs Sullivan to take his game to the another level, and more importantly, get Wenger, Olsen, Stewart, & Carufel to go their with him. To again point out the obvious, there are far greater things developing inside the Irish program than the "nuke-code-like" security blanket Weis has thrown over the starting QB line on the depth chart. If Sullivan brings the youngsters up to speed in a hurry and buys whomever is behind him a little bit of time to settle in, great things could await the Irish in 2007. But it also could be an o-line that looks very, very familiar.


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!"


Things to Do in Denver When You're Coaching the Browns...

Man. Brady Quinn thought life in the NFL was tough before? Welcome to the school of extra hard knocks, rook.

Quinn had another "good performance but let's not get carried away just yet" night against the Broncos, completing 7 of 11 passes for 81 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in Cleveland's 17-16 victory. It might have looked even more impressive had Quinn's perfectly lofted fade pass to Joe Jurevicius been correctly ruled as a catch, or if Romeo Crennel had figured it was worth using a challenge in a meaningless preseason game.

At this point, Charlie Frye is clearly the #1 option for Romeo, IF he's still limiting his options to the two guys who've been competing since camp began. Quinn not only didn't regress under more competitve circumstances this week, he improved, leading what should've been two scoring drives in the second half against Denver's A-unit (after the near-miss with Joe J., the first series with ended on a missed field goal by Phil Dawson).

And yes, as you can see, not even the New Golden Boy is immune from the time-honored traditions of "close-out-the-training-camp" hazing. Quinn's crisp dome apparently didn't come without a fight, a story color commentator Bernie Kosar gleefully related to tonight's Cleveland-area viewing audience. So while we can all have a good laugh at the loss of his Madison Avenue-ready locks, what's lying in front of Romeo Crennel is no laughing matter, because Quinn didn't do much to make anybody (least of all the bloodthirsty Cleveland fan base) think he can't handle the starting job. Where's the standard 2-of-9 with a pick when you need it, eh Romeo?

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

#11 - Tight End U

12 Days of Irish football continues...

#11 - Tight End U

Notre Dame's most seasoned player (and its best pro prospect) on offense is a tight end. Notre Dame's best position in terms of overall depth is tight end. Last season's top TE prospect chose Notre Dame. And Notre Dame's top recruit for the coming year is a tight end. Are we detecting a trend here?

As quickly as Charlie Weis developed a reputation for grooming quarterbacks thanks to Tom Brady and Brady Quinn, the Irish were even more quickly turning into a tight end factory much like Miami (FL) had been in earlier in the decade, when the 'Canes bounced from Bubba Franks to Jeremy Shockey to Kellen Winslow to recent Chicago Bears draft choice "G-Reg", who had a very infamous week and a half inside the Irish program.

As early as October 2005, in the middle of a breakout season for tough-talking fellow Jersey guy Anthony Fasano, Weis was singing the praises of backup John Carlson - "NFL scouts come in and are like, 'Whoa, who's this guy?" Until Weis' arrival, Carlson's most noticeable ND moment was probably his freshman year split between football duties and walking-on to Mike Brey's basketball squad, which ought to give you some insight into his overall athletic ability. It's no coincidence Pat Haden never ceases to come up with at least one hoops analogy per broadcast when describing Carlson's play.

Behind last season's Mackey Award finalist (and likely winner were it not for a knee
 injury suffered against Air Force that knocked him out of the Army & USC games) are two battle-tested sophomores with their own superfreak skills: California kid Konrad Reuland (pictured, from Mission Viejo) and Will Yeatman (San Diego), who's another two-sport star in the making after cleaning up on the Irish lacrosse field this spring (he was selected National Rookie of the Year and an Honorable Mention All-American). Then there's Mike Ragone, yet another Jersey guy with the attitude and talent necessary to fight for playing time right away. Weis made a point after August 11th's open practice to single Ragone out as a guy who was "very fast" for his position.

So why are Cincinnati's Kyle Rudolph, a five-star TE, and Washington State giant Joseph Fauria (a lanky 6'8") already committed to the Irish when they'll be stacked immediately amidst that kind of insanely good depth chart? For the simple reason that just because one man gets the boffo stats doesn't mean that every tight end can't share in the glory. Glance over the Irish's results in the past two seasons, and third-option Marcus Freeman was as significant a piece of the overall offense as Fasano & Carlson, even if much of the throws ended up in the arms of the latter two. Wei's simple motto is to use his team's best strengths, and a whole lot of things open up for you when having 3 top-flight tight ends is among your strengths. When an experienced quarterback knows how to get a big, nimble tight end involved in the offense, look out. And when the quarterback is inexperienced? That's when a great athlete at tight end becomes (wait for it...) a quarterback's best friend.

The familiar refrain of worry across NDNation goes that Weis will have a devil of a time grooming replacements for Quinn, Samardzija, Rhema McKnight, & Darius Walker. No matter what the Irish have a new QB , and their most experienced receivers are the diminutive David Grimes & George West, along with junior DJ Hord (on the mend from ankle injuries) plus frosh Duval Kamara and Golden Tate. Speedsters Barry Gallup saw no action last year, Richard Jackson and his questionable hands were limited to special teams duty, and Robby Parris is much like current recruit John Goodman in that he invites Samardzija comparisons due to being tall and white. So if that's what you're facing, what do you do? Concentrate on what you don't have to replace - the best crop of Irish tight ends ever.

Taking all that into consideration, it's not difficult to call tight end the best position in terms of talent and experience, but also the most essential. Doesn't matter who takes the snaps once Georiga Tech arrives; all he'll need to see is Carlson snagging one over the middle and a lot of anxiety will fade. Or see his 3-TE set provide a power lane for one of five running backs to cut through on a toss play. The tight end isn't merely a blocker or simply a pass-catcher in Weis' offense; the position has to excel at both and players get justly rewarded for doing so, which is why the Irish currently have four players who could all be #1 at the position for a school that probably won't utilize the tight end so efficiently and so creatively as Notre Dame does. That reputation will be put to the test in 2007, and most measures of success for the team will come at the same rate that they come for Carlson, Reuland, Yeatman, & Ragone.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

12 Days of Irish Football - 2007

Wow. Can it really be football season already?

It does not seem that 8 whole months have passed since the Irish walked out of the SuperDome with their collective tail between their legs after getting overrun in the second half of the 2007 Sugar Bowl by LSU. And a TON has happened both inside and outside the realm of football since then:
  • The Irish changed defensive coordinatorsand defensive schemes.
  • Former "All-World" Notre Dame QB Ron Powlus was promoted to QB coach, a move that coincided with the arrival of Jimmy Clausen, the departure of Zach Frazer, the misdemeanor marijuana charges (subsequently dropped) against Demetrius Jones, the news that Clausen was cited for being a minor transporting alcohol, Clausen's elbow 'procedure', and a 3-man derby for the starting quarterback jobthat won't be publicly resolved before the first snap on September 1st. I'm not sure if Charlie had a smooth operation planned for Powlus' first offseason, but that probably wasn't it.
  • Nose tackle Derrell Hand, who probably wasn't a starter but would at least have been much-needed depth along the interior line of the new 3-4 scheme has his future at the University in doubt after being picked up for soliciting a working girl during a SBPD sting.
  • The Irish were nowhere close to being ranked in either major poll, the first time that's happened when the Irish are coming off a winning season since 1959 - and for only the second time in program history.
  • Mark May pegged the Irish to open the year at 1-7.
  • Everybody else agreed Mark May is a colossal douche.
  • The Irish announced that they would be wearing throwback green uniforms for the October 20th USC game, robbing the moment of whatever suspense it might have possibly had, but took a beating for it on NDNation as another sign that Kevin White merely is whoring Notre Dame traditions out to the highest bidder (in this case, Adidas).
  • More NDNation panic ensued when the Irish unveiled their first "off-site" home game as part of White's 7-4-1 scheduling philosophy (really 8-4, 8 home and 4 road games every year, but we'll play along with Dr. White's semantics): a Halloween matchup with Washington San Antonio. Recruiting pundits applauded the move as a great marketing chip for long-distance prospects, as Weis would now be able to guarantee Texas blue-chippers at least one crack at playing for the hometown crowd. Everybody else wondered how there would ever be enough tickets to spread around the central Texas chapter of the WSU Alumni Club.
  • Oklahoma was added to the schedule for 2012-2013, apparently with the result of Michigan being bumped off for a "two-year break". Now NDNation was positively apoplectic. Then the Michigan series was officially renewed for 20 years through 2031. All was well once more.
In short, so much superfluous crap flowed around the Irish program that some of us (namely, this guy) were desperate for fall camp to arrive just to hear only the endless pontifications about who should be starting at quarterback and why. 

So here we are now, August 21, and game 1 of Year 3 is just 12 short days away. It seems like forever since we talked football, but like a lot of things, time off between football campaigns seems to fly-by quicker when you get older and actually have stuff to do during the summer months. So now, part 1 of the 12 keys to the Irish season, one per day until we reach zero hour at 3:30 ET on Sept. 1 against the Yellow Jackets.

#12 - Them's Fighting Words

"They may have an opportunity to get Purdue, Michigan 
State out of these first 8 games...that's about it." -- Mark May, July 27

When he opened up fall camp two weeks ago with an hour-long media season, Charlie Weis hedged on a lot of things - he discussed the QB situation in broad strokes, noted that he was "anxious" to see how things were coming in the receiver and defensive line corps, and made passing references to his expectations for the newest crop of Notre Dame freshman. What Weis wasn't coy about during his opening day press conference August 6th - the fact that he's very aware of the fact that most people expect nothing from the Irish. And so is his team.

"It's easier to get your team to buy into it when you can sit there and say, look, no one thinks you're worth a darn. It's easier to do it that way because usually players - football players or any athlete in general - want respect, and I think that they understand that respect is something that you just don't hand out. It's something you have to earn." Rumor has it that when May opened his trap in 2005, boldly declaring the Irish to start "1-5, possibly 0-6" (and promptly got Lee Corso to jump on his bandwagon), that the video evidence found its way into the team film sessions on more than one occasion. You never want to give too much credit to an idiot, but there's no denying that the Irish played with an extra zip through 2005 that seemed at times directly propelled by the kind of thing they'd been hearing all offseason from talking heads like May. That same sense of urgency seemed to be lacking alongside the gargantuan expectations of the following season. So now, with all this "great talent" that's moved on to the NFL, it's only natural that the Irish expect a huge drop-off and settle for a respectable 7 to 8 win season that preps a lot of young talent for the following year. Right?

Wrong - "May God strike me dead if I use that word," Weis said, referencing the dreaded "R" word of rebuilding. And don't misread my putting the "great talent" in quotation marks. Yes, that was an unbelievably gifted squad the Irish trotted out in '05/'06. But it was the exact same squad that proved themselves quite capable of going 6-6 as opposed to 10-3. Brady Quinn took a lot of heat for tumbling to the 22nd pick in the draft, but he wasn't even considered anywhere close to a pro prospect before Charlie Weis got his hands on him. The same goes for Jeff Samardzija. Most of these 'irreplaceable' guys were anything but before Weis arrived. And on defense, let's just say this - Victor Abiamiri, Chinedum Ndukwe, Mike Richardson, & Derek Landri were all NFL draft picks. Factor in that Tom Zbikowski, Trevor Laws, & maybe even Maurice Crum, Jr. will be and you have HALF of Notre Dame's starting '06 defense that's capable of making an NFL roster. So was it that they weren't talented or that they weren't being coached to their potential? You have to tend towards the latter just a tad at this point, particularly when you hear the raves NFL coaches have been placing on all four guys who've gone on to pro camps this fall.

So, if you want my honest opinion, given that this 2007 squad is composed of two full Weis recruiting classes plus the best of the best of the Ty-LeftOvers (Zbikowski, TE John Carlson, C John Sullivan, Crum, & RB Travis Thomas) you would have to consider this squad as the hands down best of Weis' brief tenure in terms of raw talent and (major factor here) depth. Of course, the true key word is 'raw'. But few things fire up a group of young, ornery men in football helmets like a collective "you stink" being directed from the national media. Coming into last season everybody loved the Irish, and success seemed to come too easy after they grinded out a win against Georgia Tech and then blew-out what was supposedly an elite-level Penn State team. The 2-0 opening seemed to butter them up and the result was an egg against Michigan and a near-disaster against Michigan State. No such praise will come automatically this year. Nobody, absolutely NOBODY (with the possible exception of Lou Holtz) is stroking the Irish ego at this point in the year. The chip is back on the shoulder, and that could wind up becoming their most dangerous weapon of all. No matter who takes the snaps under center.


Monday, August 13, 2007

Charlie Weis & Machiavelli

You wonder if Coach Weis has been reading "The Prince" in his spare time. The classic arguer of 'the ends justify the means' position also had this little nugget of wisdom concealed in those pages:
No plan is more likely to succeed than one concealed from the enemy until it is ripe for execution.
With that in mind, Weis today made the thoroughly predictable announcement that no, he will not be revealing who's who under center before the Georgia Tech game. The media can stop asking (yeah, like that's gonna happen), but this was a safe and understandable move by Weis in order to hold onto little things like strategic advantage and play down the circus that will surely surround whoever becomes "The Next Brady Quinn".

Quick Takes

Saturday's "open practice" revealed one thing for sure - the class of 2011 needs to learn how to carry a tune. Weis wrapped the session inside Notre Dame Stadium with a serenade of the 19 frosh to the several thousand fans who'd gathered to watch, and many winced in agony as they tried to force themselves into listening.

Weis on Quarterbacks...
"I think we'll be good enough to win -- that's what I've learned. That's the biggest question mark the guy who's directly responsible for the position has to worry about. What I've learned is we'll be good enough to compete to win."
A week of practice has gone by, the "installation period" for the offense has come and gone, and Weis knows this - any one of the three could handle be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame. The big riddle: which one gives the 2007 Notre Dame Fighting Irish the best chance to win? Obviously Weis is encouraged by the fact that all three of them are still in the race - it's enjoyable as a coach, to say nothing of the fans, when the Irish reach a point where the marquee position inside the program isn't awarded to the guy who achieves the distinction of simply being the last clown standing.

Weis on Running Backs...
"You can win with any five of them."
Deja vu all over again at this position. Last August, a rather innocuous comment by Weis on freshman Munir Prince had visions of another Reggie Bush dancing in the heads of Irish fans. Probably because Weis put Prince's speed on the same pedestal as the reigning Hesiman winner. Munir saw limited action throughout the year, never truly getting a chance to display his hyped-up burst and then switched over to cornerback in the '07 Spring Practices. But here we are, another fall camp and another first-year running back being anointed as 'The Chosen One', in this case Florida standout Armando Allen. Message boards were abuzz Saturday night after seeing him pull some nice jukes and cuts during Saturday's 11-on-11 drills, and others were just as high on classmate Robert Hughes, who comes in as another James Aldridge bruiser-type of back. Despite the urge to exercise caution after last season's 0-to-60 expectations on Prince, Weis never immediately counted Munir among the group of backs who would be able to help the Irish win in the very near future. Yet that group now stands five-deep: Senior Travis Thomas, converted senior Junior Jabbie, Aldridge, Allen, & Hughes.

Weis on overall team depth...
"We got a lot more players that can a game. You ask me how well, I don't that yet. But I do know I'm not going to blink an eye about taking someone out and putting someone else in, because there was a time here when that wasn't the case...the guy had to stay in because there was no one else to go. I feel a lot more confident now that there are a lot more players we can put on the field."
A less-than-subtle slap at the depth chart left behind by Tyrone Willingham that the Notre Dame diehards simply ate up. And why wouldn't they? If you don't know by now that Charlie Weis is a man with absolute commitment to the truth, welcome back from your five-year mission into sub-Saharan Africa.

Weis on why Jimmy Clausen and his fully healthy throwing elbow didn't attempt a pass over 15 yards...
"We've had different quarterbacks doing different things on different days."
Information about Jimmy Clausen has the same effect on the Notre Dame corps of beat reporters that crack cocaine has on an addict. They know it's misleading, abusive, self-destructive, and yet they just...can' themselves. Weis cooly slid off suggestions that anything seen in Saturday's public workout was a tip of the hand, merely pointing out the obvious that on any given day (just like in any given game), whoever is chosen as QB-1 will be asked to do a wide variety of different things. So why not have all three of them practice the same way? It was a novel concept that seemed lost on some in the Irish press corps, most of whom worked in some sort of personal tea-leaf reading on what Clausen's short-game workout really meant when they filed stories for the next day. A similar attempt to cook up theories based on Weis' one-day jaunt to West Virginia this spring (gee, which Notre Dame QB most resembles WVU's Pat White?) was tut-tutted at today's press meeting.
Weis on the very unsettled Irish kicking situation...
"We're not far as making a decision on who the guy is, but it was good that the fans and the media were there for these guys today, because it isn't the same as when you're in practice. When you're in practice sometimes you can nail 8 in a row, because there's not really the same pressure as when eyes are on you...I wanted everyone tired, and I wanted them to feel a little bit of pressure."
Irish kickers respond to the pressure: Soph. Ryan Burkhart: 0-4 on FG attempts; Soph. Nate Whitaker and Freshman Brandon Walker: 3-for-5 each. None of them stood out on the new kickoff unit either (kicks now go from the 30 instead of the 35, and none of the three reached the endzone). But at least Geoff Price looked like his reliable self. Still, 6-for-14 and not a touchback among the three vying for the PK role. Color us all concerned.

And to close on an extra high note (no pun intended)...

Weis on the the freshman (singing talents aside):
"There will be freshmen on the field in the first game, and it won't be in mop-up time, and it won't be just one."

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Friday, August 10, 2007

The Name's Brown...Corwin Brown

Last December, when seemingly everybody had an opinion regarding what to do with Notre Dame's defense and why it had run in place/retreated for two seasons under Rick Minter, one intriguing blog post caught my eye. The post in question claimed, citing "insider" sources that, far from being a simplistic, bare-bones, easy to outsmart style, Minter's coaching directives were actually far too complex. The defensive schemes relied too much on checks and counterchecks at the line, forcing all 11 ND players into a mad scramble on almost every down to get on the same page. The results weren't pretty - a wide-open Mario Manningham, Dwayne Jarrett, Hakim Nicks, & Selwyn Lymon among them. 

Minter was out, again according to the "insiders", as early as the day after ND's season-ending 44-24 loss to USC. True or not, the writing was on the wall by the time JaMarcus Russell finished wiping the SuperDome confetti with ND's secondary after the Sugar Bowl. News soon leaked that Minter's contract would not be renewed. All across the internet, the Irish fan's wish list was long and cluttered with sexy names - UCLA's DeWayne Walker, a Pete Carroll crony who turned one of the worst defensive units into an elite squad that bumfuzzled ND and USC (and would've had victories in both games if not for Karl Dorrell being Karl Dorrell)? He was contacted, but passed on the idea of moving on to a fifth job in seven years. USC's linebackers coach Ken Norton, Jr.? However his name started popping up, it wasn't on account of anything serious. Romeo Crennel, riding the hot seat in Cleveland and Weis' old buddy from New England? Dream on. The new defensive coordinator turned out to be...

A 37-year old NFL position coach named Corwin Brown.

Most of ND Nation had the same generic reaction: who's Corwin Brown? The bio began to trickle out shortly after. Brown was:
  • A former Michigan defensive back ('89-'92; shortly after he was hired, intrepid fans began to notice that he was the guy who missed the first tackle on Reggie Brooks' spectacular, coma-inducing touchdown run during the 1992 ND-UM contest)
  • A prototypical journeyman across 8 seasons in the NFL, used mainly as a special teams contributor (and a very good one, according to Weis, who coached him during his first stint with the Patriots under Parcells) and a backup in various secondaries. His biggest moment as an NFL safety came in his final season when, as a member of the Lions, he absolutely LIT UP Keyshawn Johnson (see above photo)
  • A disciple of the Belichick/Parcells coaching tree, with stops as Al Groh's special teams coach for the UVA and three years as defensive backs coach for the New York Jets before accepting Weis' offer to come to Notre Dame
It was this last point that first got Notre Dame fans excited (that, and the prospect of Tom Zbikowski being taught how to hit SC players the way Brown did in that October 2000 Sunday Night Football game). Brown's presence as a pupil of the Patriots and Weis' comments that he'd tried to hire Brown once before in 2005 surely meant that the 3-4 defense was coming to South Bend. After two years of futile exhaustion under Rick Minter, two years where Weis admittedly pulled back from getting too involved with the defense due to the fact that he simply didn't understand it (and, apparently, neither did the players), Weis was finally installing one of his own.
Weis: I won't have to concern myself with knowing what we're doing, because I know what we'll be doing. Because it's a system that I was grown up in as I started on the defensive side of the ball my first year. And all I know is if I can get recommendations, ringing recommendations with one name from Parcells and Belichick and Crennel and Groh and they all give you the same person, then I must be on the right track.
Guess that settles that. Weis went on to clarify throughout the spring that he and Brown were crafting a defense based more around 3-4 "personnel" than an actual 3-4. Another collective "Huh?" rose from the crowd of message board pundits. Take it away, Coach:
Weis: 34 personnel means you're playing with three defensive linemen and you're playing with four linebackers. A 34 defense means you're playing with a nose tackle on the center, you're playing with two defensive ends on the tackles, you're playing with two inside linebackers on the guards, and you're playing with two outside linebackers either on tight end or in space. That's what a 34 defense is. You can count on one hand the number of teams that play that as the main part of their defense. What they do is they play 34 personnel. Why do you do that? To get more athleticism on the field.
Brown, a man of few words, echoed the sentiment over and over again in his public comments. The defense would be about fundamentals, about discipline, about tenacity. Less thinking, more 'getting after it'. Less concern about mapping out strategy and more concern with the fundamentals of how to hit, how to tackle, how to play ball "my way".

The results won't even begin to show until we can look at a box score for September 1st opener against Georgia Tech. There's simply no way to gauge what this defense is going to do until you see it on the field - however, one gets a strange conviction that for the first time in 3 seasons as Fighting Irish head coach, Weis and his defensive coordinator are on precisely the same page.

Yet Brown didn't bother to wait until tangible results were in the bag to make impressions. His biggest up to now is without question happening on the recruiting trail. Notre Dame has roped in many of the top defensive names on the national board  - LBs Darius Fleming and Steve Filer (both from Chicago), S Dan McCarthy, DT Omar Hunter, LB Anthony McDonald (son of USC alum Mike), DT Brandon Newman, ILB David Posluszny, and CBs Robert Blanton, &  Jamoris Slaughter are poised to form what will be hands down Notre Dame's best defensive recruiting class in a decade, and they could yet be joined by other highly touted players like CB Jeremy Brown and DE Kapron Lewis-Moore. Even more important is Brown's immediate flag-planting in Notre Dame's backyard of Chicago - Filer, Fleming, and DT recruit Sean Cwynar are the consensus 1-2-3 prospects out of the area, and ND had them all locked up before the end of summer - with all of them citing their relationship with Brown and his tireless sales pitch on behalf of ND as the major factor in their decision.

And, in another stunning first (thank you Tyrone Willingham), Weis and Brown will be working with actual, legitimate depth this year as talented players battle their way onto the field throughout the duration of camp. Linebacker offers the most intriguing combinations of personnel, as Maurice Crum figures to be the only one with one of the four spots nailed down. Seniors Joe Brockington & Anthony Vernaglia lead the pack fighting for the remaining three, along with juniors Steve Quinn, Scott Smith, and Kevin Washington, plus sophomores Toryan Smith, John Ryan, & Morrice Richardson. Freshman Kerry Neal, Brian Smith, Aaron Nagel, and maybe even Steve Paskorz will all be in there fighting as well, but their likely destination is special teams if not redshirts.

Though he isn't a quote gold-mine for the media, Brown could very well be the Crennel clone that Weis was looking for - a hard-nosed drill sergeant that's going to coach the kids up and then turn 'em loose on the field. Prepare for a new look Notre Dame defense in the fall, and not just because of the re-aligned positional chart; there's a new sheriff in town, and he walks tall and delivers bone-rattling hits on Keyshawn "Gimme the Damn Ball" Johnson.

Weis went deep into his rolodex for advice from Parcells, Crennel, and Belichick. 
They all came back with one name: Corwin Brown.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Still Talkin' 'Bout Practice...

QB Derby - AND They're Off....
"I've seen several teams go on to win championships playing a quarterback that just manages the team. But when you're playing with a lot of inexperience (at a lot of positions) like we are this year, you can't just count on a guy to manage the team. Because then, the only games you're going to win are the ones you're supposed to win." -- Charlie Weis
Three days of practice are in the books for Notre Dame, and no, we're not any closer to finding out who the starting quarterback is going to be.

Still, as judged by the above quote, there's a very specific criteria Weis and his coaches will be using to determine who among Sharpley, Clausen, and Jones emerges as the winner - and there will also be great expectations. The starter won't simply be the guy Weis figures will screw up the least because he'll be asked to do the least; or, in other words, inexperience won't be an excuse come September 1st. Whoever lines up under center then is there because he's been judged to be the guy who can best trot the unit onto the field and run things as well as Brady Quinn did for the past two years.

Even more telling was Weis during Monday's season-opening press conference:
"I'm not looking for a jack of all trades, master of none," Weis said in a rare and passing moment of loosening up. "I'm actually looking for somebody who can do enough stuff where we can actually win."
For all the hype that surrounds Jimmy Clausen, there remains something very tantalizing about watching what Demetrius Jones could do with the Irish offense. Evan Sharpley as well. The nice thing is that all three of them have a very keen grasp on what's in front of them and the fact that nobody will be crying foul when it's all over.

Men on a Mission

Travis Thomas and Tom Zbikowski know you're out there, Mark May. And they really don't give a s%^t what you have to say.

That much was clear from Thomas (back at his true position of running back after a noteworthy but ultimately ambivalent year as a linebacker) and Zbikowski's Monday media chat, where the two captains stated in plain bold talk the only reason they returned for a fifth year: to win, and win now.

"[When I came to Notre Dame] there was no reason why I should have thought that we couldn't win a national championship," Thomas said. "That's the mentality I'm coming in with right now. With the tools we have, we can get everyone on the same page and we can still accomplish that goal, regardless of what everyone else thinks."

Zbikowski was even more to the point: "I didn't have the season that I wanted to have last year. Plus a lot of people, as usual, are saying that we are going to win one game out of our first eight. But that's old news and they've said that the past three years."

Personally, I wouldn't be shocked if Zibby's off-campus home had May-Day's face taped to a dart board (or, perhaps more appropriately, a punching bag). So if you're looking for a sense of purpose that can whip the young faces in the huddle to attention, Thomas and Zbikowski are your guys. It's already obvious within 3 days of camp that the other 10 guys on each side of the ball are looking to them to set the tone, and it's nice to see the tone is relatively simple: we're here to win. End of discussion. This is no rebuilding year, this is no mail-in prep the youngsters for 2008 run. Once again, the attitude of the Irish football starts at the top and filters its way down, and the Irish definitely have the right guys in place to install the 'win now' attitude this program has been fighting to regain for the better part of a decade.

Tomorrow: The Corwin Brown Experience

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Practice? We Talkin' 'Bout Practice?!?

And so it begins for Charlie Weis and the Fighting Irish. Year 3 kicked off today with the start of fall camp, and with plenty of competition spread out over the field (including the all-important position of QB-1), Weis was in high spirits as he dished on the impending quarterback battle, better overall depth then he's seen in either of his previous two seasons, the neverending expectations game that a school like Notre Dame is subjected to, the NCAA ban on text messaging, and the usual assortment of "what's it going to take to win this year" inquiries that are the hallmark of every coaches' press conference.

For scores of college football pundits, to say nothing of every Notre Dame fan in the known universe, the answer to their most pressing question - who's running the huddle now that Brady Quinn has moved on to an illustrious career as a holdout from Cleveland Browns training camp? - probably won't be answered with any sort of finality until after Weis' offense trots onto the field for its first play against Georgia Tech on September 1st.
The candidates, in order of likelihood to start:

Evan Sharpley - Jr., Marshall, MI / 6-2, 212 lbs.

A year ago, Sharpley's status as Quinn's backup was perceived to mean very little; he was simply holding a clipboard and being run out for the occasional mop-up series at the end of a blowout while the highly-touted Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones learned the ropes as freshman. When the commitment of Jimmy Clausen was made official during the 2006 Blue-Gold Game, along with Clausen's intention to be an early-enrollee so he could compete in 2007's spring practices, Sharpley was easily the 4th-most talked about man on the QB depth chart.

And yet there is something about him that could make him a very appealing choice to start. First and foremost, he impressed enough to remain as one of the 3 competitors heading into this fall camp, which begat the chain reaction of events that ended with Frazer, the first man knocked out, transferring to UConn. Secondly, do not underestimate the value of him having two full seasons to digest and understand Weis' offense. And while he does not have the rocket arm of Clausen or the freakish atheltic skills of Jones, he's been described by many as a serviceable blend of the two. Above all, "Evan ran the operation the best", Weis concluded in his post-spring breakdown of the three candidates. If things unfold as planned and Weis sees a power running game that can take a lot of pressure off the quarterback, Sharpley (Michigan's Gatorade Player of the Year in 2004) just might be the heir apparent.

Jimmy Clausen - Fr., Westlake Village, CA / 6-3, 207 lbs.

It's tough to claim you follow college football, period, if you don't know everything there is to know about Jimmy Clausen. He was a Sports Illustrated profile piece by the time he was a junior in high school. His visits to campus throughout the 2005 season and off-season, culminating with his late-April commitment on the weekend of the intra-squad scrimmage, got the attention normally reserved for a head of state. (And, of course, there was the stretch Hummer.)

Then, after a solid spring in which he did nothing to stand out from the pack but certainly did enough to hold his own ("Jimmy threw the ball best" was Weis' conclusion), it was practically breaking news on ESPN when Clausen had a 'procedure' on his elbow over the summer. The exact cause for it as well as what it remedied remain shrouded in mystery, but Weis was adamant at today's press conference that, if the situation required it, Clausen would be available to "sling it 30 or 40 times" against Georgia Tech.

Clausen's drive is well-documented and so are his exploits in SoCal high school football, which include tossing a ridiculous 97 touchdowns (versus 14 interceptions) in his first 3 high school seasons before committing full-throttle to Notre Dame. He spent his senior season split between picking apart Oaks Christian HS opponents and breaking down Notre Dame film with older brothers Casey and Rick. He passed on a relaxing spring in L.A., enjoying his final months of high school, to move to South Bend in the dead of winter and work like crazy to become Charlie Weis' next prize pupil. Will the work result in a starting gig before the end of 2007? You might think you know all there is to know about Clausen, but that's one question Weis alone knows the answer to - and he's not telling.

Demetrius Jones - So., Chicago, IL / 6-4, 210 lbs.

The best athlete of the three, Jones turned heads in spring ball with an uncanny amount of playmaking ability, compensating for the fact that he isn't running the operation the best or throwing the ball best like his two fellow entrants. If he were to become a successful quarterback at Notre Dame, his standing as a product of the Chicago Public League would be a valuable chip for the Irish coaches and could produce a detectable windfall on the recruiting trail in that talent-rich area, much like the presence of new defensive coordinator Corwin Brown has on the other side of the ball. Of course, Jones needs to get on the field first.

There's no questioning Jones, nicknamed 'Double D' since childhood for his tendency as a double disaster, has the skills to be a top-flight quarterback. But will he have the ability to soak in and break down every last detail of Weis' offense? The answer to that will determine his fate in relation to the quarterback position. Ever since he committed to Notre Dame fans have theorized he could be moved to another position, the most popular choice being wide receiver - many fans with the positive memories of Arnaz Battle's recent position switch still lingering on, no doubt. Others speculate his speed could prove valuable on defense at either corner or safety. But Notre Dame's depth is solid at those positions, even if they lack a proven threat for the moment at wide receiver. If Jones doesn't succeed in winning the starting job, he might soon follow Frazer out the door. But if Weis elects to put the best athlete at the most important position, then 'Double D' could be wreakin' havoc on ND opponents for quite awhile.

Ultimately, the QB battle is going to be won by somebody before September 1st rolls around - possibly well before that, as Weis hinted today, though he has no intention of letting Georiga Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta in on his secret any sooner than he has to. What remains to be seen is what Weis wants from the position - a caretaker or a playmaker? If the running game clicks as hoped for, thanks to the return of fifth-year slasher Travis Thomas and a stable of youngsters such as James Aldridge & Robert Hughes (the bruisers) next to lighting-quick freshman Armando Allen, then Weis may want a QB who'll make just enough smart decisions to let others win the game - Sharpley. But what if Weis wants the quickest athlete or the strongest arm in the game to compensate for a young o-line and a defense with plenty to prove? That could leave it as a coin flip between Jones and Clausen for all we fans know. My advice? Tune in four Saturdays from now and watch what happens.

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