Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Knights of the Spring Practice Round Table, Volume I

While spring practice can often provide catch soundbites and plenty of fodder for speculation and excitement - did you see the muscle added by so-and-so? Have you heard about the great strides such-and-such made? If What's-his-name keeps hitting like that, he'll be an All-American this fall! - there's only so much strategic overhaul that can happen when you're spreading 15 practices over three and a half weeks with limits on how much contact can occur (no pads for the first two days, and no two-a-days). As a fan you spend most of your time foolishly poring over the reports from spring ball with irrational expectations, certain that the next star is waiting in the wings and you alone are responsible for detecting the reason why. A healthier way to go about it is not to grasp at straws by obsessing over the new depth chart, or to put a ton of stock into the oft-repeated coach speak. Sometimes, it's just how the player handles himself in looking forward to the new season that can prelude greatness. For instance...

Most players coming off a 3-9 season think modest when publicly stating their goals for the following year - restoring confidence here, a dash of improving fundamentals there. Darrin Walls is not one of those players.
Every defensive back wants to win the Thorpe Award and that's a goal I'm pushing toward.
Walls showed off some athleticism early last season with a smooth pick-six against Penn State, but his game took on a more physical dimension as the year progressed and team's stopped throwing the ball his way. He hits camp this season claiming to be five pounds above his listed weight and more intent than ever on being a physical, in-your-face cornerback this season. That's the attitude that wins Thorpe Awards.

Meanwhile, at linebacker, Toryan Smith is itching to get on the field (regularly) and hurt people. Speaking about not only his playing time a year ago but the overall team dynamic:
I sat back last year and I wasn't happy. To be honest, I don't think anybody around here was happy. Looking back at the big picture, I felt like I should have been able to make more things happen. But obviously that wasn't the case, so I've just got to do what I've got to do now...I'm ready to put it all together and lead our team from the inside-out.
Speaking of his new position coach, Jon Tenuta, Smith got even more excitable, based on what Tenuta's old team did to the Irish offense the past two seasons:
I can remember being on the sideline last year against Georgia Tech wondering what they were doing because I wanted to do that. It's awesome that he's going to be my coach. I'm ready to cut it loose.
Over at a perilously thin tight end position, Mike Ragone not only stepped up his workout routine in recovering from a leg injury that wiped out his freshman season, but also was listing the Irish as primed to hunt for big game:
We're like family. We share a bond. When we lose and someone hurts, we're all hurt. After coming off a 3-9 season we want to win. We want to beat the USC, beat the Michigan, beat the Michigan State, all that.

Attitude's as important as anything on the football field, and there's little question it probably weighs more in college athletics than anywhere else. But attitude takes one only so far, and there was plenty of attitude to go around for the Irish last season with players like Maurice Crum, Tom Zbikowski, David Bruton, Pat Kuntz, even Demetrius Jones. Maybe the more open-ended nature of Charlie Weis' coaching will help attitude gel with talent, spurring the Irish to grab hold of a strong identity in ways that couldn't throughout 2006 and 2007.

Despite all the warnings against conjecture, we're no different from any other humble college football fan site. We crave info and feel the need to dissect it ad nauseum. With that in mind, we'll be posting some good round-table discussions with our featured contributors as well as special guest commentators throughout the spring.

Joining us at the round table today, from left to right: Sean Calloway, Angelo Suozzi, & Eric Gast:

We went back and forth on if we should actually bother including our mugs, but as somebody pointed out, we're not exactly trying to conceal Batman's secret identity. Point taken. So fellas, we've all got questions, let's hear some purely speculative answers.

On a scale of 1-10, the traditional measurements being applied (1 = still stuck in Clifford Jefferson territory, 10 = the greatest defense ever), how great an impact will Jon Tenuta have, and why?

More than people think. I would place his immediate impact at a 7 on the traditional scale. Though locking down the Irish defensively last year was not exactly something to stick at the top of the ol' resume, Tenuta's squads have shown the ability to confuse the crap out of opposing offenses, at least at the outset of games. Since I can't imagine that Tenuta will revert to a policy of defensive conservatism in his shift to a cold-weather climate, we will see blitz packages and a variety of defensive schemes and defensive sets. How effective will those schemes be, given the current personnel? That remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that he will have an immediate and substantial impact on the look of the Irish defense from the outset through the end of next season.

Tenuta's blitz scheme success will come down to one thing: ability of Walls/Lambert/Gray/McNeil to cover wideouts 1-on-1. Tenuta can sometimes come with some pretty heavy packages (like 5,6,7 guys) so the only way we will be successful (and Tenuta being able to call the blitzes in the first place) is if our corners can lock WRs down and not let the Ted Ginns/Santonio Holmes of the world to break free for the all-too-common wide open bombs of years past. That being said, if we can cover WRs, Tenuta's presence will be about a 3-4 on the 10 scale. It will make a difference, but in the end, our outside linebackers will decide whether or not we can get to the QB. This means either getting to the QB themselves or attracting attention so our interior guys can bust up the gut.

I am going to say a 9. I know people may think that seems high, but I think it is deserving. I agree totally with Sean about the ability of the secondary to cover man-to-man will allow more pressure to be brought and hopefully support a weak DL. However, I think Tenuta will not only impact the D, but also the O. He will finds ways to test CW's offense in practice and help prepare for defensive schemes we might see in a game. I believe this was a HUGE hire for ND. Not only does he bring expertise, but also he is another fiery attitude guys to complement Corwin, something ND sorely needs. I think personnel will be less of an issue than Angelo has stated. The secondary is top notch and the LBs are on the rise. We have athletes on the field, we just have to let them do their thing.

Even with a lot of head-scratchers under his belt from a year ago, Charlie Weis made himself as a coach with his knack for playcalling. Criticize him all you want, but as far as playcaller track records go, his is easily the best on the Irish staff. So, how much freedom should Mike Haywood, having never called plays in his life, really have?

I hated this move at first, but now like it. Too many people figured out CW's offense after 2005. [A personal friend, name withheld to protect the innocent] told me Michigan ran nothing but ND's offense all during their fall camp in 2006 with the goal of beating us. I think Haywood's input will greatly aid this offense. However, I feel this is really just window dressing. Haywood may call the plays, but they are still CW's plays, CW will still be involved in gameplanning, and CW will still have final say if that play makes it onto the field. So, I would say Haywood is in charge, but his true freedom is more limited. Hopefully, he can talk Weis into a FG against Navy and not going for it in on insane 4th down situations.

As much as this sounds like a good idea, I find it hard to believe that Chuck will be relinquishing play-calling duties. Haywood will be given a lot of freedom in the beginning, but if things turn south, I could see CW quietly making more and more decisions on the offensive side.

Charlie really ought to go one way or the other here. Either maintain play-calling duties, or abdicate them entirely. The worst thing that could happen here is for the Irish to lose a couple of games while struggling offensively (which, let's face it, isn't exactly out of the realm of possibility), Chuck gets the itch to call plays again, and then re-claims the duties. After last season, there is value of consistency in the upcoming year, in both on-field personnel and policies with the coaching staff. Charlie will clearly still have a great influence on what plays are called, regardless of what he says. However, if Dubs is going to give up this power, then it shouldn't be just a way to shield Charlie from criticism - instead, he should give Haywood as much autonomy as he asks for.

Word 'round the campfire is Jimmy Clausen put on close to 20 pounds in the offseason. What should be his top goal for this spring camp?

Clausen's top goal for the spring session? Making his O-Line realize that it's not good when he gets sacked. As much of a joke as that sounds, it is reality. I think that if the OL cooperates, he becomes more comfortable in the pocket and can then concentrate on being a QB and hitting open WRs. I guess the other major thing is learning what "open" means in college football

I'm going to presume that at least 12 pounds of that was hair gel. Hopefully the rest went to his arms (he could be a more neanderthal-looking Brady Quinn), and not to a burgeoning beer gut - his goal ought to be improving his recognition of the pace of the game, which comes through experience; he has the skills, but seemed a step behind, still in the high-school mindset last season. His struggles, however, may have been a function of his supporting cast, rather than a deficiency in underlying skill. Of course, Sean has a valid (true) point, though I might take it a step further - the success of an offense all comes down to the offensive line. An O-line can make an average back a 100-yard-a-game guy, and can make a great quarterback useless if he has no time to throw; if the offensive line struggles, Clausen struggles, simple as that.

Don't get injured and don't get in trouble. He is the franchise QB and with Evan playing baseball he can't go down.

Which non-freshman needs to step up and let the coaches know, "I'm ready."

On defense, it's Toryan Smith. I know he played a lot last year, but he needs to really step out and be a monster on D. On the offensive side of the ball, it's Asaph. Don't fumble. Don't dive. Don't miss blocks.

Justin Brown. We are in such a big hole on the DL. He is a 5th year so its now or never. Hopefully, he will have a Stams or Zordich like step-up. I was tempted to say Asaph, but while we can play a formation sans fullback, we need a DE. Close second would be either Chris Stewart or Matt Romine/Taylor Dever. We need solid competition on the OL to push each other.

Overall, the player & coach with the most to prove during the spring before heading into 2008 is...

Paul Duncan/Mike Turkovich are the two on the OL with the most to prove. Prove that they actually deserve to play. Personally, I hope [Trevor] Robinson gives them a run for their money. On the coaching staff, it's definitely Brian Polian. I hope I can actually not cover my eyes this year when the special teams hit the field.

Anyone on the OL is a good answer. Most probably Duncan and Turk. Like Sean said they need to prove they belong. However, my choice goes to the kicker's trifecta of Walker/Whitaker/Burkhart. I still don't understand how we can have 2 scholarships kickers, yet not one can consistently make a FG over 30 yards and no one can kickoff even close to the end zone. Here is a stat: ND registered ZERO touchbacks last season! Granted the O was horrible and they were fewer kickoffs, but in the words of Gob Bluth, "COME ON!" If these guys can't cut it, then go to the soccer team or bring in Brian Fallon. I think he still has eligibility and I know we can actually do both those things - I have seen it.

The coach with the most to prove is Weis; it's a boring answer, but it's the truth. Let's earn that $40 million. I'm still convinced that Weis's legacy at ND lives and dies with Clausen...if he can't mold him soon to a useful quarterback, then his vaunted mystique as a quarterback-maker will be ruined. He recruited him, he trained him. Weis has nobody to blame but Weis if it doesn't work out.

What position will you be watching most closely?

Once again, it will all come down to the offensive line. But that's boring to talk about, so we're going with running back as the position of interest. Should be interesting this year...it would be preferable to find two solid backs that could share the load. Plenty of depth and experience at that position, and it will be interesting to see who comes out on top.

Kicker will be interesing. However, I have a tie between the battle for Zibby's replacement and starting RB. Frankly, I just love the competition and position battles in spring ball. Sorry Sean, I think WR is fairly entrenched with Kamara and Grimes with a pinch of Tate. That will all change when Floyd hits campus this fall though. RB has James Aldridge the starter, and he is finally healthy, so it is now or never for him as Armando and Robert Hughes breathe down his next. He had great games against MSU and Navy, with Hughes having them against Duke and Stanford. It will be a good battle. Safety is interesting - my darkhorse is Sergio Brown, although my gut tells me it'll be Kyle McCarthy or Harrison Smith. I just want some athletic like Sergio that will hit like Zibby.

In your mind, what player who made his 'debut' (either a frosh or a player who'd yet to see significant action) last season is poised for a Harangody-style jump in his second go-round?

Ian Williams. As much as it sucks that Kuntz will not be at spring practice, it will be a great opportunity for Williams to become the man in the middle.

My answer may not totally fit this question, but my choice is Gary Gray. Everything I have heard says that he is our best DB. I am anxious to see him in action. The other obvious answers are Jimmy and Ian Williams. Watch both their stats and overall contributions to the team gain exponentially from '07 to '08.

Okay, fast forward into the fall camp. Which freshmen walk on to campus and immediately make a push for playing time?

Didn't follow a whit of recruiting this year, so I'll have to recuse myself here.

Michael Floyd is the obvious answer. I also think [Ethan] Johnson and Trevor Robinson have a good chance at early playing time. Hopefully we get Will Yeatman back so that Kyle Rudolph doesn't get thrown in there too early.

Mike Floyd, in theory. Sean you are right that Ethan Johnson should also. However, remember that he was hurt all of his senior year so hasn't really played in 2 years. Additionally, he plays in Oregon, not exactly a powerhouse for football. I like the call on Trevor Robinson though.

A year ago Demetrius Jones declared, "
Last time I checked, no busters wore #3". We're going to pull a Mark McGwire and simply say that we're not here to talk about the past, so...who should get the hallowed Irish trois now?

Great question. No one person really jumps out as the one who should get #3. [Dayne] Crist probably wants #10. Does Jonas Gray get it?

Not sure if he should, but I bet Jamoris Slaughter ends up with it.

Joe Montana's daughter.

Angelo will be here all week, folks. Stay tuned for more roundtable chivalry as spring practice chugs along.


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