Friday, April 25, 2008

Post-Spring Thoughts: Part II

Coming into the spring, the defense faced many difficult questions: Who would step up to replace the production of Trevor Laws? What would Jon Tenuta bring to the defense? How would Tenuta and Corwin Brown mesh? I am not sure the spring answered all of our questions about this defense. Here are my thoughts about what we did learn:

1. The DL needs Pat Kuntz back, and the sooner the better. This unit was woefully thin this spring, both in sheer numbers, and also in top end talent. The good news is that I expect Kuntz back this summer. The Irish DL will need Kuntz's attitude and enthusiasm this season so he needs to come back mentally focused and athletically in shape. The Irish do not have the luxury of easing him back in while he works his way into playing shape. He has to show up ready to go.

2. Without counting the incoming freshmen, I think the Irish have 5 DL they can turn to for solid minutes -- Kuntz, Justin Brown, Emeka Nwankwo, Morrice Richardson, and Ian Williams. We all know what Kuntz will give you -- solid production, great effort. Ian Williams looked good to me this spring, but he also looked like a guy who at times could have used some competition at his spot to push him a bit. Let's face it, Ian was really the only legit NG on the roster this spring. The 2 surprises were Emeka Nwankwo and Morrice Richardson. Emeka is going to be a player and the proverbial "switch" has gone on for Morrice. There are some very interesting possibilities for alignments with these guys. In their 3 man line sets against more power running teams, I think you could see a lineup of Kuntz-Williams-Nwankwo, which will provide a lot of girth up front. Morrice Richardson will always have a role in this defense because he has speed and pass rushing ability that few others on this roster have at DL right now. The guy who is somewhat lost in the shuffle is Justin Brown. He will give the Irish minutes, but I just don't see the coaching staff being sold on him. Paddy Mullen has not become a factor to this point.

3. The difference in LB play this spring under Tenuta was noticeable. They were more aggressive, looked more instinctive, and true to Tenuta's mantra, they played "downhill." The Irish know they have 3 LBs they can count on -- Mo Crum, Kerry Neal, and Brian Smith. Crum is a smart football player and captain, Kerry looked outstanding and I heard he was unblockable at times this spring, and Brian Smith, while he will never be spectacular, will be extremely solid. What I think the Irish were trying to do this spring was find that 4th LB. Toryan Smith is the logical choice, but judging by the moves that were made this spring, it appears he did not nail down a starting spot. I have always liked Scott Smith, but in order for him to be the guy, you would have to move Brian Smith inside, which I don't think the coaching staff is sold on yet as an every down solution. I believe this group is improved -- I just don't know if along with the DL they can consistently stop the run against the better teams.

4. That brings me to a young man by the name of Harrison Smith -- a natural safety who is blocked at that spot by some very talented returning players. However, every time the coaches look up, the kid is making plays. When he was recruited and I watched Harrison's tape, everyone talked about his blazing speed at safety. What jumped out to me, though, was that this kid has tremendous, unusual for his age, instincts on the football field. Yes, he has great speed, but his instincts allow him to appear even faster. You watch his tape and it seems like he is all over the field because with his instincts, he is always around the ball. Harrison is not a natural LB and won't be an every down LB for the Irish this year. What I think they will do with him is make him their X factor -- their rover if you will. He will play a lot of snaps, but they will come at multiple positions. One play he might be a 3rd safety in a spread defense, another play he might be a LB in a nickle alignment, you might even see him rushing off the edge a bit. He will be on the field.

5. It won't be easy, but the Irish defense really needs 1, maybe 2 of their LB recruits to give them some time this season. I think Darius Fleming's talent will get him on the field a bit. However, the Irish need either Filer or McDonald to become a factor for depth as the season goes on.

6. The Irish secondary is the best it has been in a decade. They are talented, deep, and experienced -- adjectives we can't use to describe every position group on this team. David Bruton is going to be outstanding and I firmly believe he will be a round 1-2 pick in the NFL draft next season. Kyle McCarthy is probably not the second most talented safety on the roster, but he is perfect for what the Irish need from that SS spot. He is smart, knows the scheme, is fundamentally sound, and perhaps the best tackler on the defense. With the run defense question marks the Irish have, Kyle is an extremely important guy to have on the field. The athletic ability and range of Bruton will allow the Irish to shift Kyle closer to the lone of scrimmage in certain instances to support the run. At CB, you can run any of 4 guys out there -- Lambert, Walls, McNeil, or Gray and feel quite comfortable. The guy who actually impressed me the most this spring was Raeshon McNeil. he is not the natural athlete Walls is and isn't as quick as Gray, or as strong as Lambert, but his technique is outstanding and he is very consistent. He had a wonderful spring and earned himself some minutes.

Bottom line is this defense will be faster and more aggressive than last season. They will force more turnovers. However, their overall success will be determined by their ability to stop the run. While the Irish have talent on this defense, their lack of depth at DL and LB will become a major issue if they are kept on the field with time consuming drives.

Your thoughts???

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Post-Spring Thoughts

It has been a while since I have posted anything here, but I wanted to wait until after spring ball to get a handle on my thoughts about where the Irish are. In general, I think the Irish made dramatic improvement this spring as a team. There are still holes, some glaring, but the biggest improvement I saw and heard was that this team has galvanized. There is a very different attitude on this roster right now. A funny thing happened this spring -- Charlie Weis upped the physical intensity of practice, and his team responded. The coaching staff made the guys hit at every chance, and they embraced it. I don't know how much better the Irish will be on offense or defense next season, but I know without a doubt that they will be a much tougher team, a much nastier team, a team that may lose, but they will put up a street fight and stand together. I will share my thoughts on the offense today and in the next day or so, I will post my thoughts on the defense.

1. Jimmy Clausen is MUCH improved. Physically, mentally he is just light years ahead of where he was. There is still plenty of room for growth, which is a good thing. I have said all along that the sky is the limit for this kid. If he can get the protection and the WR play, he is going to have a very good season. I also know, though, that he is not ready to take a team on his shoulders and carry them. He needs a solid running game and pass protection. This team will be much more effective, this year, with Jimmy throwing 20-25 passes per game than they would be with Jimmy throwing 35-40 passes per game. The Irish can win with Jimmy going 17-25 for 200-250 yards and limiting turnovers.

2. If the Irish do not take advantage of this stable of RBs and make this year the year they commit to the run, then they are making a huge mistake. It simply doesn't get much better than Hughes, Allen, and Aldridge. Everyone wants to know who will start, who will carry the load. At this point, I think you have to say Robert Hughes will be given the first shot. I really enjoy watching him. He is so raw and has not even scratched his potential yet, which is very exciting. I watch Robert run and he still struggles often with hitting the right hole, or making the right cut, but he is so powerful, and uncannily light on his feet that he is still productive! It defies explanation sometimes! Robert can be an excellent back this year. When he reaches his potential and the light goes on, watch out! While I think Robert will get first crack at being the workhorse, all 3 backs will play and from what I hear, the coaching staff will not be afraid to ride the hot hand if someone is making plays early in a game. Keep an eye on Armando Allen, because he is close to clicking. Real close.

3. At FB, Asaph Schwapp looks more agile, which is a good thing. Moving Paskorz to FB is also a great move, because if he can get the blocking down, he can be a weapon (though likely not this coming season). Moving Paskorz, if successful, essentially negates the need to use a recruiting scholarship this season on a FB, which is a good thing in a year where we are limited in available scholarship numbers.

4. At WR, I will be honest -- I am slightly disappointed. I am disappointed that the players have not made more dramatic strides and the intensity and concentration level is not where it needs to be. David Grimes is going to be a very productive football player for this team if he can stay healthy. He runs great routes and usually has sure hands. But let's be honest -- he is not a #1 receiver. The 2 guys I wanted to see step forward this spring were Duval Kamara and Golden Tate (I would have included Robbie Parris in this group, but he was banged up). Duval looked very similar to how he looked during the season -- incredibly talented, fantastic size, inconsistent hands, and inconsistent effort. No receiver currently on the Irish roster has the upside that Duval has. Unfortunately, I did not see as much development, growth, and maturity from him as I had hoped. Duval needs to go out every play driven to use his unique blend of size and speed to simply control a CB, He does this sometimes, but not every play and not nearly often enough. Jimmy needs to know that every down he can count on Duval being where he needs to be and being willing to fight for the ball. With Golden Tate, we all know he has speed. You can't deny it any more than you can coach it. However, he is still very very raw in his route running and understanding of the position. With the cavalry of talented freshmen receivers showing up this summer, I expected to see more of a fire lit under these guys and I just didn't see it.

5. Mike Ragone was the Irish TE position this spring. This young man got more reps than any other player other than Jimmy this spring. As an Irish fan, Ragone is going to come to symbolize next year's team I believe. He is tough, hard nosed, plays with an attitude, won't back down, is extremely talented, but is still young and will make some young mistakes. In case you can't tell, I am a big fan of this player. The catch he made in the Blue-Gold game over Brian Smith was an NFL play. Ragone has a lot of work to do on his technique in the blocking game, but he always give you 100% and he is flat nasty. He will have trouble blocking some of the bigger rushers this season, but the one thing you know is that he is never going to hang his head and he is never going to back down. Getting Will Yeatman back in the fall will be huge for this unit. Will is going to need to pick up the slack in the blocking game. I liked the experiment of Luke Schmidt at TE, but I am afraid that his unfortunate head injury will cost him. He desperately needed the reps he would have gotten this spring. With Yeatman back in the fall, Ragone as the starter, and 2 talented freshmen about to arrive, I think there is a chance Luke gets lost in the shuffle.

6. Perhaps no position was more scrutinized this spring than the OL, and with good reason after the debacle we witnessed last season. Overall, I am encouraged. I am actually encouraged more by the change in attitude and cohesiveness than anything else. That will go a long way towards fixing many of the problems we witnessed last season. Trust me on that one. I don't often single out guys on the OL, but if you want to know where the improved aggressive attitude comes from, look no further than Eric Olsen. This kid is an animal. Every practice video you watch shows him sprinting to lead a drill. Every skirmish and he is right in the middle of it. Every time a back or QB goes down, he is the first man there to pick him up. I said last year that talent and experience were not going to be enough to fix the OL problems for next season -- they needed an attitude adjustment. That has happened. Having said that, there are still issues with this OL. If you were to ask me today how the Irish will line up for San Diego State, I would say that from left to right the starters would be Duncan, Olsen, Wenger, Stewart, and Young, with Turk rotating in often at both guard spots. I have read a lot of criticism from the spring game about the play of Sam Young, and to be honest, I don't see it. No OLineman is going to be perfect every snap. Everyone gets beat occasionally. Sam is what he is -- a powerful run blocking lineman who is solid in pass pro, but struggles against elite outside speed rushers. You can win, a lot, with a guy like Sam at RT. I think the Irish have a special combination in the running game on the right side with mammoth Sam and Stewart to run behind. To be frank, my concern is with the LT spot and Paul Duncan. Duncan has improved, but I am just not sure how much ability he has left to improve. Through no fault of his own, I just don't see Paul as an elite tackle. He is not powerful in the run game, and he struggles to hold his ground in pass pro. That spot will be the weakness of next year's line in my view. I think the Irish will have to struggle not to telegraph their play calls, because I think they want Schwapp in there at FB on running plays and they know they are going to need to give Duncan help in the form of 2nd TE Will Yeatman in the passing game. Nevertheless, you play with the guys you have and right now the Irish do not have a better option at LT than Duncan, who when he plays hard and smart, can be ok. I wanted to see Matt Romine step forward and take that spot this spring, but it didn't happen and Romine was hobbled with an apparent ankle injury.

Overall, this offense will be improved next season. It would be hard not to improve off last season's performance, however, I think the improvement will be genuine and significant.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Perception Matters

I don't know if I am the only one who has noticed this, but it appears that there is a concerted effort recently to change the commonly held (mis)perceptions about Coach Weis. We have all heard the criticisms and complaints -- he is arrogant, he ignores former players, he is brash, he is difficult to work with, he is hostile, etc. etc. etc. Let me be clear in stating that I do not believe any of these statements accurately portray Coach Weis. However, those (mis)perceptions are out there and I have finally noticed an effort on the part of the Notre Dame community to portray a different side of Coach Weis.

First, take a look at what Coach Weis has done himself. He has made himself more available and approachable to his players. He is delegating more responsibility to his assistant coaches. Since he can no longer be on the road recruiting in May, he is taking the opportunity to get out and visit numerous alumni groups during this time. He is visiting U.S. troops in the Middle East. Please understand that I am not in any way suggesting Coach Weis is doing any of this for good publicity. He is not. he is doing these things because they are the right thing to do and he understands his tremendous role as an ambassador for the University. However, a secondary benefit of these actions should be that people see that there is a different side to Coach Weis than has been portrayed in the media.

Second, I have noticed several public positive comments coming from others about Coach Weis. For example, in yesterday's Observer article, Maura Weis, Coach Weis' wife states:

"Coach loves her [Hannah], she is his little angel," Maura said. "My husband is a wonderful human being. He does not play golf or go out with his friends; being with his family is his hobby."

From today's South Bend Tribune, baseball coach Dave Schrage says:

"Coach (Charlie) Weis has been phenomenal as far as letting these guys play baseball," Schrage said of working things out with the football coach, referring to sophomore receiver/outfielder Golden Tate and junior punter/pitcher Eric Maust. "He's been just tremendous to work with on this."

Schrage later says:

"We have three (baseball) players who also play football. They're smart kids and they're dedicated kids, and one of the nice things about Notre Dame is we have a football coach who cares about the whole program, and he's letting this happen, because I've been in places where this doesn't happen."

My reaction? FINALLY!!! Look, no one wants to see a University or a football program run in such a way that we cater public perception or make decisions by sticking a finger in the wind and taking a poll. However, by the same token, you can't stand by and allow one of the University's highest profile representatives to be hammered repeatedly while you say nothing either. Coach Weis has really stepped up to the plate since he has been at Notre Dame and elevated the profile of the program from the yawn of the Willingham debacle to where ND is back to being a lightning rod for discussion. He has run a clean program and a successful program. Before I take heat on the successful part, please let s not forget that he is the same coach who led the program to back to back BCS games in his first 2 years after inheriting a program that was going nowhere under Ty-Tanic Willingham.

I am not an apologist for Coach Weis and believe he has made several mistakes, as he himself has acknowledged. However, I just wanted to share what I have noticed as a subtle effort to re-shape the public perception and image of Coach Weis. I think it is long overdue and I am happy to see it.

Your thoughts???

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

IrishGlory Q&A

We are almost 1 week into spring practice and I wanted to take some time to answer some questions. Thank you to those who have emailed me. Please feel free to email any questions you have to

Q: What do you think of Tenuta in the early going? Do you think this is going to work with Tenuta and Corwin together?

A: I think Jon Tenuta has been EXACTLY what this football team has needed. He is passionate, energetic, tough, and one heck of a football coach. I never had a chance to follow Tenuta's coaching style throughout the years, but I have been incredibly impressed by what I have seen. I think this is going to work just fine. Corwin and Tenuta are both winners.

Q: What do you think about James Aldridge being listed as the starter at RB?

A: I have a couple of thoughts on this. First, I think it is deserved. James is a heck of a football player who showed flashes of what he could do at times last year. He is the veteran of the group now and deserves the first shot at starting. Second, don't pay too much attention to the depth charts at this point. Remember, last year at this time Travis Thomas was listed as the starter at RB. How many carries did he get? I know everyone is clamoring for Robert Hughes to be the starter. You need to realize that while Robert is incredibly talented and can compensate for some of his and the line's shortcomings with his size and strength, he has an awful lot to learn and improve on. He will be a very good one, but he is not Jerome Bettis right now. He has much to learn. I do believe that the starter will be either James or Robert, as I think the coaching staff has a definite role in mind for Armando as a change of pace back/slot guy/screen guy.

Q: Have you seen any signs of hope for improvement on the O Line?

A: Yes!!! I really have and it starts with 3 guys -- Sam Young, Dan Wenger, and Eric Olsen. Eric Olsen did a phenomenal job in the weight room this offseason and is just a driven guy. Sam is much more reserved by nature, but he is stepping up. Dan Wenger will be the glue on this line, and I suspect will assume a leadership role. I don't think this line is going to go from awful to dominant in 1 year, but I do think they will be considerably better.

Q: There have been reports that Kerry Neal has been working with the DEs instead of the LBs. What do you make of this?

A: I think we need to fasten our safety belts with this defense because trying to figure out who is lined up where on any given play is going to be a challenge. I do think the Irish will show more 4 man fronts as I have said previously, with Kerry as a rush end, but that does not mean we will be a 4-3 team. We will not. I think you will see lots of guys playing multiple spots and moving around. I think Brian Smith is a guy who will be both inside and outside. There will be a lot of moving parts to this Irish defense. I am excited to see how it comes together.

Q: Who do you think will win the spot at SS?

A: My money is on Kyle McCarthy. Couple of reasons. First, he is a fundamentally sound football player who has a very good understanding of the scheme. That is important because you are losing a guy in Zbikowski who brought a lot of experience to the table. Second, of the candidates competing, I believe Kyle is the best in run support and is the most fundamentally sound tackler of the group. That is important in the Irish defense for this position, especially because of the lack of depth/talent on the DL this season. The Irish will count on their LBs and SS to be stout in run support. While I think McCarthy will be the starter, I do think you will see quite a bit of either Jashaad Gaines or Sergio Brown, particularly on passing downs. They simply have too much athletic ability to be kept off the field.

Q: IG, it seems like every spring there is one guy that comes from out of nowhere to make a splash. Who do you think that guy will be this year?

A: There are plenty of guys that I am hoping make a splash, but so far, from what I am hearing, Mike Ragone is a guy who is flashing. Everyone says he is still too small to be an every down TE. They are partially correct, as he does still need to get stronger. What I have seen and heard, though, is that he is a guy who plays with that hard nosed attitude and he won't back down from anyone. He is a scrapper. He also has tremendous ball skills. Keep a very close eye on Mike Ragone is what I will say.

Thank you all and GO IRISH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!