Friday, December 21, 2007

2007 Review: Linebackers

If there was one unit on the Irish team that epitomized the good, the bad, and the ugly, the LB corps was it. For Irish LBs, it was a year in which some guys flashed incredible potential, others showed their physical limitations, and still others were downright mediocre.

In the switch to a 3-4 scheme, you simply cannot survive with mediocre or even average LB play. Those guys absolutely have to be your backbone and your playmakers. They have to take on and shed blocks, set the perimeters of your defense, and be sure tacklers. The Irish didn't get nearly enough of that this year from their LBs and it cost them. I think it would have cost them significantly more if not for the absolutely dominating year of Trevor Laws, who covered up a number of deficiencies. The other word I will use to describe the LB play was inconsistent. Some of the inconsistency was understandable and attributable to the young playmakers the Irish were breaking in at the position. However, older guys Like Mo Crum were also extremely up and down. Let's take a look at some individuals:

Mo Crum: Whether fans realize it or not (and many don't) Mo Crum is a guy that a ton of Irish defenders look up to as a mentor. He plays hard, he is smart, he cares a ton, and he is one of those guys who is always looking to bring along the younger guys. I respect that. I like Mo Crum as a player. However, I think it is fair to say that he had a very up and down season. The first thing that stood out to me when I watched Mo play this year was that he looked like he was not carrying his added weight well. What I mean is that he looked heavier than his frame was built for and a step slower than what I remembered. That is sort of a double edged sword, though, because Mo needs that added weight and strength to play in the middle in a 34 defense. Mo had some great performances this season (see UCLA) but he also really struggled in others. In many cases, he took poor angles to the ball carrier in rush defense and his tackling was poor. Because of where he is physically, Mo has to be a fundamentally sound football player because he is not one of those guys who can get by with speed and athleticism. He has to be a sound fundamental guy. He wasn't this year. He will have to be next year for the Irish to improve.

Joe Brockington: Joe had a productive, if unspectacular, season. Playing hurt for much of the year, Joe turned in a gutty performance. Joe is not the most physically gifted football player, but I thought he came pretty close to reaching his ceiling and realizing the potential he does have this season. I would call him a productive, decent football player.

Anthony Vernaglia: I just don't think Anthony ever found a position on the football field that was his. At LB, he often looked like he was thinking too much. Plagued by the label of being "soft," I think Anthony made a conscious effort to prove people wrong, but in doing so, he often found himself caught out of position. At LB, Anthony was really a 1 tool guy -- rushing the passer. However, the Irish had other guys who could do that as well, or better, than Anthony so he wasn't often able to show up. He would have been a depth guy had he come back in 2008 and I understand the decision not to do that.

John Ryan: This kid took an awful lot of heat from Irish fans this year. Was he great at OLB? No. However, that is not a natural position for the kid. He had been a hand on the ground DE throughout high school. He certainly struggled, but at the beginning of the year when Kerry and Brian were not ready to play yet, John had to man that position. He certainly struggled this year, but I thought he competed hard. John is really a tweener in this defense, not fast enough or athletic enough to play OLB but not big enough (right now) to man a DE spot. This offseason, the Irish coaches will have to decide whether they want to bulk John up to transition him to DE or they want to work on his speed and agility and keep him as added depth at OLB. I will be interested to see which they choose.

Kerry Neal: The future. A beast. The sky is the limit for Kerry Neal. I simply can't wait to see what this kid is going to do in his career as he develops. As a freshman, he lacked the size and strength to star, but that will be remedied in the offseason. Unlike several of the other LBs on the Irish roster, Kerry is so athletic and so physically gifted that it is scary. I think starting next year, you will see Kerry moved all over the field on defense to create matchup nightmares for opposing coaches. I think he will slide between a standup LB position on the outside and putting his hand on the ground as a rusher from the DE position.

Brian Smith: Perhaps my favorite returning player on the Irish defense. Brian has leader and future captain written all over him. A late addition to last year's recruiting class, Brian is going to pay huge dividends. He is not the fastest guy at LB, not the most athletic, not the most talented, but man does he play hard and man is he instinctive and smart at that position. Even as a freshman, you could tell that he had been around football for a while and understood the defensive scheme. Corwin Brown even went so far as to say Smith could finish his sentences in meetings. How many times do you hear that about a freshman??? He also brings a fire and vocal personality to the defense that the Irish have been sorely lacking. I think it will be interesting as he develops to see if he stays at OLB or moves to ILB. With his intelligence and instincts, I can see him playing inside and quarterbacking the defense making calls in the future.

Others, such as Scott Smith, Toryan Smith, and Morrice Richardson played meaningful minutes, but did not have a tremendous impact this season. As with many other positions, the reinforcements are coming with this recruiting class, so there will be immense pressure on guys who have not nailed down spots to improve. The development of Toryan Smith, who is a ferocious hitter, when he wants to be, will be a huge key this offseason. The coaching staff has to find a way to unlock his potential and get him to bring that ferocity every down and has to work on his pass coverage skills.
Your thoughts?

Next Up: Secondary

Thursday, December 20, 2007

2007 Review: Defensive Line

Entering the 2007 season, the position group I was most concerned about was the D Line. I knew we had a solid football player in Trevor Laws, but beyond that, I saw an awful lot of question marks, no depth to speak of, and I was concerned about the loss of 2 productive football players from last year's squad -- Derek Landri and Victor Abiamiri. Combine that with a switch to a 3-4 look where the D Line in many cases has to take on a double team and hold the point of attack, and I was extremely concerned. While this season certainly provided its share of disappointments, the play of the D Line was actually a pleasant surprise for the most part. Though the Irish did get gashed several times against the rush, that had at least as much, if not more, to do with the LB play than it did the D Line. First, I think Jappy Oliver did a fantastic job with this group this year. To a man, I believe just about everyone improved from last year to this year, some dramatically. Second, Defensive Coordinator Corwin Brown made some adjustments in scheme on the fly this season to help his players out and play to their strengths -- an attribute that has been lacking in recent Irish Defensive Coordinators. Third, there was some real fire and tenacity from the players on the D Line this year. Often hung out to dry by a struggling offense and kept on the field far too long, I really think this group kept fighting and scratching and clawing, especially when it would have been very easy to give in. Let's take a look at some of the individuals in this group:

Trevor Laws: Hands down, unquestioned MVP of the Irish this season. Trevor Laws was the heart and soul of the defense. He went from being a nice, solid player as a senior to an unblockable dominant and disruptive force as a 5th year. His statistics were incredible, but what stood out most to me was his motor. He never stopped -- spinning, bull rushing, swimming, he did anything and everything to get to the ball. I said it during the season and it bears repeating -- the effort and passion that Trevor displayed this year on and off the field set the gold standard for the next generation of Irish D Linemen. His example will be referred to for a long time to come.

Pat Kuntz: Coming into the season, when we learned that Pat Kuntz would be starting at NG in the 3-4, I sort of raised a concerned eyebrow. I knew Pat would give 110%, but I just didn't think he could hold the fort there every down. I was wrong. Pat Kuntz was not only stout at NG, he did more than simply hold the point of attack. He made several notable plays, including his uncanny knack of knocking down passes. Pat has everything you look for in a defensive player and I expect him to be a leader on this unit in 2008. Looking ahead, it would not surprise me to see Pat slide out to DE next season into Trevor's slot on the line.

Ian Williams: Playing a true freshman significant minutes at NG is not usually a prescription for success. While Ian struggled at times and lost his share of battles, he was a high motor player who also won his share of battles. He was also extremely productive making tackles for his position, another indicator of a guy playing with high intensity. I think Ian's development (along with the arrival of reinforcements) will allow the Irish to start Ian at NG next season and keep Pat Kuntz on the field at DE. I can't wait to see how productive Ian can be once he adds some more size and strength to his frame.

Justin Brown and Dwight Stephenson: These 2 guys for the most part manned the DE spot opposite Trevor Laws. For much of the season, they struggled, as neither are really suited perfectly for the Irish defense. If you watch the film, teams often attacked their side of the line in the running game, often with success. Realizing it was likely his final opportunity to make his mark in football, Dwight Stephenson did play hard and he competed. Justin Brown will likely be back for another year and will battle for playing time at DE. Justin needs to do a couple of things to put himself in position to have a more productive 2008: 1. Get bigger and stronger. Justin was a thin guy when he came to ND and he still needs to add significant bulk and strength in my view. 2. Stay healthy. 3. Go 110% every play. Justin has talent, but he just seems to drift occasionally. I am not saying he takes plays off, but it appears that he doesn't bring the level of tenacity he needs to bring on every single play. Some plays he goes harder than others.

Kallen Wade/Derell Hand/Paddy Mullen: We really didn't see enough of any of these guys to form much of an impression. I will say that with what I believe is the best DL haul the Irish have brought in in the last decade coming, they better make their move in the spring. I still believe Kallen can be a very good player in this defense, but he needs to get much bigger and stronger. Derell Hand looked completely and utterly lost and overmatched physically and mentally when he did play this year. I didn't see enough of Paddy to form an opinion.

This will be an interesting offseason for the Irish D Line. Any time you are replacing a talent and a leader such as Trevor Laws, there will be uncertainty. Who will step up? As I said, I believe Pat Kuntz will lead this unit next season, but I also know that Ian Williams is a guy who absolutely burns to win and is crushed when the Irish lose. I also know that there will be some real talented recruits showing up shortly. I am looking forward to seeing how it all shakes out.
Your thoughts???

Next Up: Linebackers

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

2007 Review: Offensive Line

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am not someone who is overly negative and critical when writing about the Irish. I generally try to look at things from a glass half full perspective and find the positives. As I prepared to write this review of the Irish O Line from 2007, I was really dreading it. There is a time to be positive, and then there is a time to just be brutally honest. And the brutally honest truth is that this O Line was awful this year. You can attach many different adjectives to this group, from young and inexperienced to deficient and terrible. I firmly believe that the fate of the the Irish team in 2008 rests in large measure on how much improvement the O Line can make. I stand by my belief that the Irish need a solid running game in order to be successful with their schedule. They cannot win as a one-dimensional team against the teams they play.

First and foremost, this group was unprepared to do battle against the type of competition ND faces year in and year out. Encompassed within this, the coaching staff led by Charlie made a much discussed terrible mistake by not hitting more in spring and fall camp. The guys comprising this line are by and large easy going guys by nature and the lack of contact made them soft. When the bullets started flying as the season began, they were caught on their heels and unprepared. The coaching staff takes a big hit for this one.

Second, this group did not work nearly hard enough -- they didn't work hard enough to develop chemistry and they didn't work hard enough in their playbook. That is on the players. When the coaching staff has to basically cut the offensive playbook down to the bare bones because the O Line cannot handle more than the simplest of blocking schemes, the blame does not fall solely on the coaches. As an athlete on a full scholarship, you need to do a better job than that. Also, from a chemistry standpoint, this group was a disaster. More than any other position group in football, O Line requires chemistry. You have to be brothers out there. Whether you are friends off the field or not, you have to be brothers on the field and watch each others' backs. I did not see that at all this year. I saw a whole bunch of guys looking to take care of their responsibility and if someone else got beat, then oh well, at least they did their job. That mentality doesn't work on the O Line. I believe this was largely a failure of leadership from the older guy(s) on the line, but everyone played a role in that. Where this was clearly evident was in the lack of communication along the line. If you review the film, you will see that when ND's O linemen just had 1 guy to block as individuals, they were reasonably successful. However, when the play design or development called for a combo block or linemen to adjust and work together, they flat out failed more often than not.

Third, and this is quite honestly what bothered me most of all, this group was soft and they were passive. They lacked emotion, they lacked passion. Going into the season, I knew this line was young and inexperienced. When you have a young line, you expect that there will be mistakes, blown assignments, etc. What you also expect is that those guys will be so hungry to be on the field for the first time that those mistakes will be made going 100 MPH. I didn't see that. I didn't see guys looking to hit somebody, anybody down the field or after a missed assignment. I didn't see guys running downfield after a rare big play. I saw a bunch of big guys get pushed around by other teams and instead of fighting back, they walked away. I saw a fiery young QB get drilled with a cheap shot and multiple linemen simply turn around and head back to the huddle. I can deal with a young line that misses assignments and experiences growing pains. What I fail to comprehend and will not accept from this season is a line that simply accepted getting beaten up and watching their teammates get beaten up.

Now, I want to take a look at a few individuals:

Sam Young: Sam has a ton of talent, probably most out of anyone on ND's line. Is he a prototypical LT? No, but how many schools have a prototypical LT? That's why guys like Joe Thomas last year and Jake Long this year get picked in the top 5 of the draft. Sam can be successful at either tackle position. Sam also took a fantastic step forward by going to Charlie and asking how he can be more of a leader. However, words aren't enough. You know what I think Charlie told him? You need to bring it every play of every game. Right now, Sam is inconsistent with his effort from what I see. In my view, he has suffered from not having a veteran offensive lineman on the roster to show him just how hard you have to work every single day in practice and just how hard you have to go every single play. Guys aren't born knowing that stuff.

Mike Turkovich: By contrast, I have no complaints with Mike's effort, but he needs to develop his awareness. He is one of those guys I referred to above where 1 on 1, he is flat nasty, but when guys stunt or come from a different spot than he was expecting, he really struggles.

John Sullivan: I will keep my comments to a minimum here. He had a fine career at ND, but there are times where it is best for the player and the team that a guy moves on.

Dan Wenger: In order for the Irish line to improve, it is going to take leadership and and an attitude change. I would look to Wenger to be a key component to the turnaround. He is an average guard, but he looked really good at center. With the eligibility he has remaining, he is a guy that can grow and develop with the line. He has the attitude you need. Someone at some point has to take ownership of the group and has to view himself as its leader. By take ownership, I mean hold himself accountable not only for his own performance, but hold others accountable for theirs as well and not be afraid to tell a teammate he needs to raise his level of play. To do that, though, you better be darn solid in your own play and you better be a guy that others see gives 110% every play or guys will see right through you. Jeff Faine could do that because his effort was superb every down and guys saw that. Dan has that in him. He must remain healthy, as he has battled injuries throughout his short career.

Eric Olsen: While he is not as naturally talented as some of the others, he can play for me anytime. He brings it every play. He was not ready to play this year and made a lot of mistakes, but his play is what I expected from the entire line this year -- making young and inexperienced mistakes, but playing so hard that you have to respect him.

Paul Duncan: He played out of position at LT at the beginning of the year and it really showed. I wish he played with more of an edge, because he does have some ability and he has size. I am not sure he is a starting tackle on a top 10 team, however.

Chris Stewart: You just have to smile when you think about this kid. I can't help it. Before he left campus briefly, Chris was lost. Having been shuffled from O line to NG and back to O line in under a year, he was sinking. When he came back, Charlie noted that he had a different attitude and a much greater commitment. It showed. Chris is overmatched right now in pass protection, but man does he go hard every play and he can be devastating as a run blocker. I do not believe his future is at tackle, that move was made out of necessity. Chris' future is up to him. He really can be as good as he wants to be.

The Irish will need the current starters to take dramatic steps forward in strength, understanding, and attitude. They will also need at least 2 from the group of Matt Romine, Taylor Dever, and Andrew Nuss to step forward and be able to give them solid minutes. Increased depth is on the way with the current recruits. I am really curious as to readers' comments on the O line.

Monday, December 17, 2007

2007 Review: Tight End

Coming into the 2007 football season, everyone expected All American TE John Carlson to have a huge season for the Irish. With the graduation of Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight, fans expected John Carlson to become the leading receiver in the Irish offense. While Carlson did not set the world on fire catching footballs, he still wound up with a solid season of 40 receptions for 372 yards and 3 TDs. While this is a noticeable dip from Carlson's 2006 stats of 634 receiving yards, many factors contributed to the decrease in productivity. First, the Irish were breaking in a new QB(s). Second, the Irish lost their top 2 WRs to graduation so Carlson became the focus of opposing defenses. Third, and most significant in my view, the Irish offensive line was a sieve for much of the year and Carlson was required to stay in and help with pass protection.

One area in which Carlson did excel was leadership. It would have been very easy for the 5th year senior captain to demand the football or gripe about having to block so much, or panic about his draft status as a result of the Irish struggles. None of that happened. Carlson worked extremely hard throughout the season and always kept a positive attitude. He also served as a needed mentor/big brother to Jimmy Clausen, which really helped the freshman QB make the transition to starting QB and aided in Jimmy's development.

Based off his entire collegiate body of work, John Carlson is a first day NFL draft pick. I still believe he is the top TE in the draft and nothing I saw this year changed that opinion. The kid from USC at TE is extremely talented, but I believe Carlson's game adapts really well to the NFL. John catches the ball well, even in traffic, he runs good routes most of the time, and he gives effort in his blocking. Where he needs to improve is in his consistency in the blocking game. While his effort was admirable this season, his technique as a blocker was inconsistent. Sometimes he would absolutely maul his guy, but other times he would lose leverage, take a poor angle, or not sustain his blocks long enough. Overall, though, John Carlson was probably the strongest link in an otherwise anemic Irish offense this season.

Backup TE Will Yeatman saw extensive action this season as a true sophomore. This will greatly benefit the Irish program next season. Will was probably the best blocker I saw this season on the Irish squad. He really does a nice job playing aggressive and engaging defenders rather than waiting for them to engage first. While Will likely does not have the speed to stretch the field like John Carlson, he did show that he has reliable hands and can make some plays catching the football. Because of his lacrosse background, I think Will has some good footwork. With Carlson graduating, Will is going to be the elder statesman of the TE group beginning next year.

Mike Ragone showed me much more this season than I expected. Coming into the season, I thought Ragone would be a huge player for the Irish in the future, but I thought he was a guy who was going to need a couple of years to grow into the position, much like John Carlson did. Coming off a serious knee injury and undersized for the position from a weight standpoint, I was realy encouraged by what I saw of Ragone this year. You want to know what impressed me most? Not his much publicized speed, not his solid hands (which we didn't see as much of this year as we will next) but rather it was his attitude. Everyone is always asking me where the Irish will get their nasty attitude from. The answer? Look at Mike Ragone. This kid was extremely undersized this year and it hurt him, but he didn't back down from anyone. If you go back and watch the tape of the plays he was in, you will usually find Ragone in just about every pile and usually scratching and clawing at his guy until the whistle. He also plays with a little bit of that "Jersey attitude" that meshes real well with Charlie. Ragone's development also bumped Konrad Reuland a notch down the depth chart, which prompted him to transfer. Plain and simple, Ragone needs an outstanding winter and spring in the weight room. He has the frame to add the size and he will certainly need every last workout and protein shake he can handle. For a comparison, take a look at John Carlson as a freshman (he looked like a basketball player) and look at him now. That is the transformation Mike needs to undergo. Because of the Irish season, there are many candidates for a breakout season next year. However, for those who have asked me who I think is one player who could bust out next year that we didn't hear much from this year, my answer is Mike Ragone.

With the graduation of John Carlson and the transfer of Konrad Reuland, the Irish are going to be very thin at TE in the spring, and even more so if Will Yeatman misses time again for lacrosse. The good news is that reinforcements are on the way with an exciting group of TE recruits in Kyle Rudolph and Joe Fauria. As long as Charlie Weis is the coach, the Irish offense will always feature the TE prominently and the Irish will be able to build on their national reputation for attracting and producing top TEs.

Next Up: Offensive Line

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The NFL Coaching Exodus

I decided to take a brief break from writing my 2007 ND position reviews to comment on the recent trend of NFL coaches leaving to go back to college. Last year, the big name was Nick Saban. This year it is Bobby Petrino. Aside from the classless manner in which they left their NFL employers, these two men also had other things in common -- losing NFL teams, disastrous QB situations with their NFL franchise, and ugly salary cap situations. However, to believe that these are the only reasons for the current trend towards college coaching is short sighted. Everyone is pointing at Petrino right now(and rightfully so) but there are others who would do the same thing if given the chance. For example, there are a ton of rumblings right now that a guy like Lane Kiffen would crawl from Oakland to an SEC school. I believe that there are 4 primary reasons for this exodus to the college game:

1. Ego: Let's face it. Just about every successful coach has a very healthy ego. They are all the hero of their own war stories. To be honest, I am not sure I would want it any other way. A guy like Charlie Weis is often accused of having a large ego. Guess what? He does, just like everyone else in the profession. The difference is that guys like Charlie can rein it in when they need to and use it to their advantage when they want to. High profile coaches want to be "the man." They want to be the face and voice of the organization. However, that is not the way it is in the NFL. The NFL is correctly often characterized as a players league, while college is a coaches league, with obvious exceptions. To illustrate this point, think about this: When I think of USC, the first person I think of (with equal parts respect for accomplishments and nausea) is Pete Carroll. When I think of Texas and Oklahoma, I think Mack Brown and Bob Stoops. Ohio State and Jim Tressel. Now, think about the NFL. When I think of the Dallas Cowboys, the first images are Terrell Owens and Tony Romo. When I think of Green Bay, I think Brett Favre, not Mike McCarthy. I will say it again -- high profile coaches yearn to be "the man" -- the face and voice of the operation. Closely tied to this is wins and losses. When a coach gets used to winning 75% of his games in college, it is a pretty big blow to the ego to start winning 25% of your games in the NFL. Not good for the old ego. Let's see.... I can win 75% of the time and be adored and told how wonderful I am, or I can win 25% of the time and be vilified and told I am the worst coach in football. Not a tough choice.

2. Control: Another characteristic most coaches share is the desire to control their football operation. This is a heck of a lot easier to do in college than in the pros. In college, the coach has free reign to pick his team and can turn over almost a quarter of his team every season with graduation and recruiting. In the NFL, the coach typically must answer to a GM and team owner and even if he does have player personnel authority, he is constrained by external factors such as the salary cap, minimal draft picks, and free agency. In college, a coach can dictate the message. Coaches can close practice if they see fit, they can choose not to make certain classes or groups of players available to the media, they can. In the NFL, this is not an option. Wade Philips can't decide one day that Terrell Owens or Tony Romo, or all rookies on the team, can't talk to the media. Coaches in the NFL often have to react to what the story has become rather than shaping it themselves. This is uncomfortable for people who are used to and want to exert control. Take a look at Bobby Petrino for example. At Louisville, he was known for getting in players' faces after they screwed up or took a bad penalty etc. He would go crazy on the sidelines because he knew he could. That was his show. In Atlanta, CB Deangelo Hall did everything but slap Bobby Petrino in the face on the sidelines and what did Petrino do??? NOTHING. He stood there. He took it. Quite an adjustment for a guy so accustomed to dishing out the tongue lashings.

3. Money: It used to be that coaches left college because they wanted to get paid. This is not the case anymore. Currently, top college coaching salaries are somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5-3 million per season. While this is not equal to the top NFL salaries, it is a heck of a lot closer than it used to be and close enough to make it a viable career decision.

4. Quality of Life: The life of an NFL head coach is grueling. It is a 365 day a year full time, 100 hour a week job. There is always something to do for an NFL coach. Many NFL coaches have lamented the role their job played in causing marriages to fail, difficulties with children, etc. In college, while recruiting can be tiring, there are fewer games, there are only a set number of hours in which you can practice during the season, and there are designated times where you are not allowed to recruit.

There are certainly other factors at work, but I believe these to be the primary factors. Your thoughts???

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

2007 Review: Wide Receiver

2007 was an up and down year for the Notre Dame receiving corps. There were flashes of excitement surrounded by too much inconsistency, too many lapses in concentration, and too many drops. While this group took strides to improve as the year progressed, I don't feel they ever attained the level of consistency that the Irish will need moving forward. Speaking of the group as a whole, one of the biggest disappointments I had was the poor technique and inconsistent effort I saw blocking in the run game. This must improve. I was also very disappointed with the consistently poor routes some guys ran. There is no excuse, for example, on 3rd and 7 for running a 6 yard route. You simply have to be smarter and more disciplined than that to compete at this level. That must improve as well. Here are my thoughts on some of the individual players who saw time at WR this year:

Duval Kamara: Duval was, by the end of the season, the best WR on the ND roster. It wasn't close. He also displayed excellent chemistry with Jimmy Clausen. Duval is going to be a big-time player at ND before he is through. His combination of size and hands makes him a true threat. I don't think Duval has the speed to burn past people, but he is going to make some big plays down the field just using his size and hands. Like every young WR with Duval's size, he really needs to work on being quicker and more decisive coming out of his breaks and consistently using his size to position his body to shield defenders from the ball. Overall, though, the future is exceptionally bright for Duval.

David Grimes: I like David. However, I think he was miscast on this ND team. As the season began, the Irish tried to make David a #1 receiver, and I don't think he fits that role. David is a small guy who has solid hands (though he suffered terribly from drops toward the end of the season) , but he does not have the speed to be a deep threat nor the size to work the sidelines or go over the middle. On a good football team, David is a #3 WR, surrounded by 2 bigger, quicker guys. This would free him up to make plays underneath the defense, especially working in the soft spots against a zone defense.

Robbie Parris: Robbie confuses me, he really does. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt because he showed some genuine flashes this year and he is just a sophomore, but Robbie is a perfect example of a guy who better step up this offseason and put it together in the spring because he could be anywhere from the #2 WR on next year's team to the forgotten man passed by a guy like Mike Floyd. At times this season, Robbie showed that he could be the next Jeff Samardzija, making plays down the field, in traffic, and in the end zone. At other times, he seemed to float through games where you wondered where the heck his head was at because it certainly wasn't in the game. This manifested itself in his disappearing for many games and in the large number of drops he had this year. He has to become more consistent. He has to be a guy Jimmy and the coaches can count on game in and game out, play in and play out. From a skill standpoint, there is no question Robbie can play. He needs to improve his route running like everyone else, but the biggest area he needs to improve is using his body for position. While Duval is able to do this at times, though inconsistently, Robbie rarely showed this. Robbie Parris can be a critical member of the Irish offense next year because he is a great fit for this offense, but he really needs to put it together this offseason.

George West: I think George is very similar to David Grimes, and therefore I have many of the same comments, but I think George possesses more natural ability than David does. I think George's biggest issue is that David is already occupying the niche that George could occupy. Therefore, I think George is going to have to push David out with his play in order to win more playing time and see more balls thrown his way. On a side note, I am very excited to see what George could do as the replacement for Tom Zbikowski as punt returner. His ability as a return man on special teams really stood out to me from what I remember of his high school film.

Golden Tate: Seemingly every Irish fan's favorite player -- the next Rocket, the next Tim Brown, etc. Bottom line is Golden is an explosive athlete, capable of making big plays. He is a talent the Irish don't currently have among any of their other WRs, as I believe he is the only true burner among the WRs. However, he was in no way ready to be an every down WR this year. yes, he made some spectacular plays, particularly early in the season. But what happened after that? Teams are not stupid. They adjusted and Golden's big plays down the field went away. I think the coaching staff needed to do a better job getting Golden integrated into the offense, and I think Golden needed to learn an awful lot about the nuances of the position. The one criticism I have of the coaching staff here is that while I understand that Golden was not ready to be an every down WR, I think they should have found more creative ways to get the ball in his hands. Not every play has to be conventional. I would have liked to see Golden get a few opportunities on screen passes, an occasional reverse, etc. I will be very interested to see how Golden develops this offseason. I love his fire and competitiveness so I am quite hopeful about his future.

As with many other positions, 2007 was a year of struggle and growth for the Irish receiving corps. I believe the coaches learned that they have a #1 horse in Duval, they have a burner in Golden, they have a guy with possession potential in Parris, and they have some smaller, quicker guys who can contribute also in David and George. Piecing that together and figuring out where the incoming recruits will slot will be a lot of fun through the spring and fall camp. I will say this, I expect at least 1 of the incoming freshman WRs, in my opinion most likely Mike Floyd, to see a lot of playing time next year, though not necessarily as a starter. It should be fun. Your thoughts????

Next Up: Tight End

Monday, December 10, 2007

2007 Review: Running Back

Entering the 2007 season, we knew 2 things about the RB situation at Notre Dame -- we had a lot of them, and they all did different things well. Travis Thomas, Junior Jabbie, James Aldridge, Armando Allen, and Robert Hughes formed one of the deepest RB corps in recent memory at Notre Dame. As the season unfolded, we learned a lot about the RBs collectively and individually.

Travis Thomas: As the elder statesman of the group, and a captain, Travis started the season as the feature back, with Armando mixed in. It quickly became apparent that the Irish would struggle early running the football. Travis also got passed on the depth chart by James, Armando, and eventually Robert Hughes. Travis did not have the season offensively that he expected, but he always played hard and he accepted his role really well. I will say that some of the penalties Travis took on special teams were uncharacteristic of him as a player and disappointing. The RB group was extremely close personally and Travis had a lot to do with that. While Travis' contributions on the field were not what he expected, his presence will be felt for a long time to come with his work ethic off the field and in the weight room. The younger guys really looked up to Travis.

Junior Jabbie: For much of the season, I felt that Junior Jabbie may have been the closest we had to a complete RB -- running, blocking, and receiving. Junior's problem, however, is that other guys were better at individual skills than he was. As the season developed, Junior turned into a guy the coaching staff could depend on to catch the football out of the backfield and he showed nice burst and elusiveness in the screen game.

James Aldridge: If I had 1 wish for the new year at the RB position, it would be that James Aldridge gets 100% healthy so we can see what he can do when healthy. I do not believe James has ever been 100% with his knee since he stepped on campus. His knee injury has robbed him of the power, cutting ability, and extra gear that I saw in his high school film. The good news is I really believe that talent is still there. If James can get his knee back to 100%, and more importantly trust that it is 100%, I think you would see a different guy out there. I expect one heck of a battle this spring and fall between James and Robert to be the bruising back for the Irish.

Armando Allen: Exciting. That is the best word I can use to describe Armando Allen. We all know Armando has speed and is a gamebreaker. What has me most excited, though, is the dramatic steps he took to become a complete back this year. At the beginning of the year, Armando was extremely raw and a bit rusty after suffering a season ending injury his senior year in high school. You could see the speed and ability but that was about it. By the end of the season, Armando was a much more complete football player. His blocking went from being very poor to pretty darn good for a back his size. I think the most common misconception about Armando, and I thought this way about him coming in as well, is that Armando is purely a shifty speed back. That is not the case at all. Amando certainly does not have the size of James or Robert, but he runs with power and is not afraid to take contact. I think the coaching staff will be spending a lot of time this offseason brainstorming about how to get the ball in #5's hands in a variety of ways.

Robert Hughes: In a season of turmoil, no one on the Irish team endured more heartache than Robert Hughes. To have your brother killed must have been incomprehensibly difficult to process and accept for this young man. You just have to feel good about a kid who handled this tragedy in the manner he did and bounced back to spark the Irish to a couple of victories down the stretch. I have to confess that when I saw Robert's high school film, I thought that while he was a powerful runner, I wasn't sure how he would fare at the college level since I didn't see that extra gear of speed in his game. What I learned is that Robert is a guy you really need to watch for an extended period to truly appreciate how unique his game is. We can all see the power running part of his game. What astounds me is how quick and nimble his feet are and his hands catching the ball. The cuts Robert is able to make at his size are exceptionally rare and I believe that Robert's hands catching the football are the best among the RBs, better than Armando's.

I want to throw in a few comments about the fullback position in this article. At times, the use of the fullbacks really confused me this season. I think Asaph Schwapp can be an outstanding blocker, but he never appeared to be in top condition this year. Watching him, it really appeared that he was favoring his knee and was simply too blown up with weight and muscle. He did not look quick or agile enough to adjust to oncoming blockers. If Asaph got a guy square, he was absolutely devastating. However, because of his quickness limitations, he was really vulnerable to guys shifting and making moves around him. I still believe that Asaph can be an effective FB in this offense, but I would like to see him slim down, maybe not hit the weights quite so hard, and focus on speed and agility drills. What puzzled me this year was that Charlie did not make more effective use of Luke Schmidt. Luke still struggles blocking, but he is a much more effective runner than Asaph and he is more of a threat in the passing game as well. I think there was an opportunity to take advantage of some of the things Luke does well this year and we did not do that. I am hoping Luke can be integrated into the offense more effectively next year. Finally, I think it is very interesting the Charlie does not appear to be actively recruiting any FBs this year. I see it as a sign that we are transitioning away from the FB in the program and towards more 2 TE or extra WR sets.

The future is definitely bright at RB and I can't wait to see these guys develop during the offseason. Your thoughts?

Next Up: Wide Receiver

Thursday, December 6, 2007

2007 Review: Quarterback

No one would deny that 2007 has been a year of tumult at the QB position for the Irish. It has been a year of experimentation and draa for certain, but also a year of discovery. The Irish certainly saw their share of struggles from the QB position this year, but ultimately, I firmly believe that we have found our franchise QB in Jimmy Clausen.

The season began with the drama of a spring and fall QB battle without a named starter. As I have said before, I truly believe that this uncertainty hindered the development of the Irish offense in making the transition to the post Brady Quinn era. Anytime you have a guy who has dominated the position for years as Quinn did, there is a comfort level there, both for the coaching staff and the players. Coaches can be creative and diverse in their play calling and players can worry about their own performance and development without having doubts about whether the guy leading the huddle can make the right decisions and get them the ball. Whether coaches like to admit it or not, your QB HAS TO be the leader in the huddle, and must be a leader. It is just the nature of the position and the nature of the sport. If anyone ever wants to downplay the importance of the QB position in college football, this year provided some outstanding examples to counter that position:

Dennis Dixon starts, Oregon on the verge of playing for a National Championship.
Dennis Dixon out, Oregon can't gain a positive yard

Sam Bradford plays, they can beat anyone.
Sm Bradford out, they lose.

West Virginia:
Pat White plays, they win.
Pat White out, they lose to Pittsburgh and South Florida and score a combined 22 points.

I could go on, but you see my point. I firmly believe that had Jimmy Clausen been healthy and had he not undergone surgery to his throwing arm, Jimmy would have started from Day 1. That wasn't the case. Even if Jimmy had been healthy, this offense would have struggled this year. It is simply too much to expect a freshman QB to lead an offense against a schedule such as the Irish schedule, especially when he is surrounded by as much inexperience as the Irish had this year.

Before discussing Jimmy further, I want to publicly acknowledge Evan Sharpley in this article. Evan did everything you could ask him to do this season. Despite being the most experienced member of the QB corps, he accepted the decision to to start Demetrius with class. He prepared every single week like he was going to be the starter. When called upon to play, he provided a spark. Most importantly, he was a solid teammate and mentor to Jimmy, always in his ear after a series talking to him. Despite the common view that the most popular guy is the backup QB, this is not an easy job. As I have discussed throughout the season, Evan has some flaws in his game that I believe will prevent him from being a big-time starting QB. However, as a backup, he showed this year that he has all the tools you look for -- leadership, moxie, calm presence, and the motivation to prepare and study every single week as though he was the starter. The Irish would be in real tough shape if Evan had reacted as others did and transferred simply because he lost his starting spot.

I said at the beginning of the season that the most important thing that needed to happen this season for the Irish program was that they had to settle the QB question decisively by the end of the season. Whether it was Demetrius, Evan, or Jimmy, I felt that the Irish could not afford another offseason of uncertainty at such a critical position. While it seemed tenuous at times, I think Jimmy showed enough at the end of the season to at least provide concrete evidence that he is the guy now and for the future. Jimmy was not healthy for a single game this year. Whether it was his arm, hip, or something else, there was not a single game where Jimmy was close to 100%. That is not an excuse, it is just a fact.

I think it is useful to divide a review of Jimmy's performance into 2 parts, separated by the games Evan started. Pre-USC, Jimmy looked like a freshman QB. Mentally, he could figure out where to go with the ball, but he had a couple of problems:
1. He had no protection so he was drilled before he could complete the read and deliver the ball
2. It took him too long to make the read so held onto the ball too long. Just because you can read a defense, doesn't mean that you can read it fast enough. Jimmy was ahead of most freshmen QBs in that he could read a defense better than just about any freshman QB I have seen in a while. That doesn't mean he was able to read it fast enough to be successful at the level, especially when the time allotted for making a play was so reduced by poor protection.
3. Physically, he was unable to make all the throws. This was obvious to anyone watching our games, and if you watch the tape, other teams knew that as well and adjusted their defense accordingly.

Following his stint on the bench, Jimmy looked a lot different to me. Here is what I noticed:
1. He was much more confident on the field and in the huddle.
2. He still held onto the ball too long at times, but he looked more decisive and more willing to make the throw from the pocket.
3. Physically, he looked much stronger. Take a look at the TD to Grimes on the post pattern in the Duke game. That was an NFL throw right there.

Like everyone else though, Jimmy has plenty to work on in the offseason to prepare for 2008. Since I am trying to include discussion of moving forward to 2008 in these articles, I wanted to address what I think Jimmy needs to do to move forward:

1. Get stronger. This is a no-brainer. Jimmy needs to get bigger, needs to get stronger to compete for a full season at this level. This includes giving his arm the rest it needs so he is 100% in the spring.
2. Establish himself as a leader. This doesn't happen overnight and it can't happen simply by Jimmy jumping up and down in the weight room getting guys fired up. Guys see through things like that. Jimmy has to go about his business first, and allow his natural leadership qualities to emerge. Lat offseason, Evan and Demetrius organized all the 7 on 7 stuff in the offseason and Jimmy couldn't do much because he was recovering. This offseason, Jimmy has to be the guy doing that, with Ean working with him.
3. Spend as much time watching film and diving into the playbook as possible. This is imperative for any young QB. You don't get better just by being a year older, it takes work.

With talented, but raw, prospect Dayne Crist on the way, the Irish are well positioned at the QB spot. 2007 was a rough year for the QBs, but ultimately the Irish will be better for it. welcome your thoughts as always! Next Up: Running Back

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

2007 Review: Coaching

As I mentioned previously, I wanted to go position by position and provide my thoughts on 2007 with an eye towards 2008. I purposely took more than a week following the final game to do this because I wanted to be as objective as possible. These are just my thoughts and opinions and as always, I welcome your insights, disagreements, and opinions as well. One thing I will not be doing is assigning grades to any of the positions in these reviews. I feel neither qualified nor comfortable doing that. I am starting with coaching because as Coach Weis has said on many occasions, that s where you have to start when analyzing your program. So here goes....

I think that in a candid moment, Coach Weis would tell you that he has learned more about coaching football this year in a time of struggle than he has in any previous year. This year had it all for a coaching staff -- youth, inexperience, QB controversy, transfers, etc. Some have called it a perfect storm. I tend to agree. First, let me say right off the bat that I think Coach Weis and staff made some mistakes this year.

I think one of the biggest issues was the failure to establish a QB in training camp. I think the uncertainty at the QB position was the catalyst for many issues on this team. Charlie took a gamble here and lost. He thought he could steal a couple of wins with Demetrius early in the season to buy time until Jimmy was ready. Many have argued that Evan should have been the starter for the opener. I disagree. Here is what Charlie was looking at: My O line is young and inconsistent. Georgia tech is going to blitz the crap out of me. My best QB (Jimmy) is not physically ready to play. My most experienced QB's biggest deficiencies are his inability to feel/adjust to the rush and lack of accuracy. That doesn't bode well against a team that is going to blitz the crap out of me. I have this other guy who is a heck of an athlete and I know he can get me some yards with his legs. Athletic QBs have given this Tech defense trouble in the past. In that scenario, Charlie decided to gamble on Demetrius. He knew that Demetrius was not ready or able to run the Irish offense so he had to dedicate time to preparing a package for Demetrius. We can hindsight this decision all offseason long, but I think it is useful to consider what Charlie was looking at. I do not think the mistake was starting Demetrius. I think the mistake was in communication and package. From a communications standpoint, I think Charlie would tell you now that he wishes he had said in the fall, "Jimmy and Demetrius are too close to call right now. Jimmy is banged up and not ready to start. A healthy Demetrius right now is better than a banged up Jimmy. Demetrius will be the starter and his play will dictate where we go from here at that position." That would have eliminated all the cloak and dagger speculation and avoided the miscommunication that ensued with Demetrius thinking he had been misled. Again, hindsight is 20/20. From package standpoint, Charlie didn't do Demetrius any favors with that gameplan. I don't say you had to air it out, but you had to give the kid a chance to throw some quick passes at least. I believe the drama surrounding the QB position hung over this team the entire season like a cloud.

I also think Charlie made a clear mistake by not establishing more of a physical mentality in the spring and fall. This has been beaten to death, but it is true. With a young team, they take their cues from the coaching staff. If the coaching staff is not going to hold their feet to the fire and teach them how physical you have to play to win at this level, they simply won't do it.

The coaching staff as a whole also underestimated the leadership vacuum that was left by graduation. In the past, there were older guys to hold people accountable on the team for their actions and play so the coaches didn't have to do that constantly. This year, those guys were gone and no one took their place.

Having said all that, contrary to popular opinion, I think the coaching staff did some really positive things. Let me highlight those:

They recruited a top class and to date, held them together. How many other 3-9 teams do you see that have a top 5 recruiting class???? That doesn't happen by accident or chance. That is hard work, skill, and dedication.

They held the team together. Was the chemistry on this team good? No. Were they a close knit bunch across all 4 classes? No. But when the going got tough, real tough, and the losses mounted, not a single guy cracked publicly. No one threw their teammates or coaches under the bus. For the most part, guys continued to play hard and those that didn't saw their playing time decrease significantly. This year could have turned into Nebraska, with teams hanging 70 on us because guys quit caring. That never happened and the coaches deserve some credit for that.

Ok, here comes the controversial one. I believe this coaching staff, in many cases, did a solid job developing players. You and I can all point to some guys who did not look like they improved from game 1 to game 12. You can blame that on coach or player or both. I acknowledge that. However, I think far too many critics have ignored the players that did develop. That doesn't happen by accident. I am going to give concrete examples:

Watch Jimmy Clausen against Penn State (in my opinion a very average team) and then watch him against Duke and Stanford (admittedly worse teams). Aside from the competition, it is night and day the way he is handling the position and the reads and throws he is making.

Watch Armando Allen's (and for the matter Aldridge and Hughes also) pass blocking at the beginning vs. the end of the season. The improvement is substantial.

Kerry Neal and Brian Smith went from being undersized kids who just ran after the guy with the football to guys you could count on every down to handle their assignment and make plays.

Darrin Walls went from being a great athlete playing cornerback to a technically sound, significantly more physical, cover corner.

I am not mentioning these examples to say how great a coaching job the Irish coaches did this year. I am just highlighting them to show that along with some of the mistakes and negatives in coaching this year, there were positives as well.

I am often asked what the Irish coaching staff needs to do to improve for next year. Well, aside from correcting the mistakes I discussed above, here are a couple of things I think need to happen:

There needs to be an infusion of passion and intensity on offense. Someone on the offensive coaching staff, either current coaches or new coaches, needs to bring the kind of outward intensity and fire that a guy like Corwin Brown brings to the defense. The offensive coaching staff has some really good teachers and cerebral coaches. What they lack, and I think it shows itself in the play on the field, is a rally the troops fiery personality. I do not want to see Mike Haywood leave, but if he does, I believe this presents Coach Weis an opportunity to import that type of guy for the offensive coaching staff.

I think Charlie needs some lieutenants among the players. A tough coach like Coach Weis requires guys on the team who can spread his message and quiet the dissenters. In the past, Weis had that with Brady Quinn, Victor Abiamiri, etc. Those guys bought in fully to what Charlie was selling and as a result everyone else toed the line. Charlie really needs those lieutenants this offseason more than ever. Spring practice and fall training camp is going to be brutal. Charlie and the coaches will be riding the team harder than they have ever been ridden. The Irish desperately need to have some players who are in a position to lead understand that, embrace it, and sell it to their teammates.

Those are my thoughts on coaching. In the coming days/weeks, I will be providing similar commentary individually about each position. Next up: Quarterback. I look forward to your comments.