April 10, 2006

Spring Hopes Eternal - ND Spring Football Preview

Well, it's about time weisnd.blogspot.com threw in some commentary on ND football. You didn't think we were going the whole spring without one post on spring ball, did you?

Ok, show of hands. As much as you enjoyed last season, did any of you start to daydream a little bit about 2006? How could you not? Brady Quinn returning as a senior, most of the o-line back, Samardzija coming off an All-American season, Darius Walker, Derek Landri, Trevor Laws, and tons of stud recruits coming on board. Throw in a schedule that looks very manageable with most of the traditional powers at home, and it was hard not to start thinking about a #1 ND team heading into the LA Coliseum to play a #2 USC team for a Fiesta Bowl birth.

Well folks, 2006 has arrived. Spring ball is finally here, and we are ready to get the ball rolling on some ND spring football discussion. I would love nothing further than to be partying it up next January after a national title victory in the Fiesta Bowl, but we have some things that need to get done in order to make it happen.

I’m going to call this little discussion the “Spring Buffet.” Lots of different stuff to discuss, and hopefully something in here for everybody to enjoy.

Here are the ten things on my mind as we head into the Blue-Gold game:

1. Maurice Stovall

Look, I think the offense will be fine and might even be better than it was last year, but is anyone else mildly concerned about the loss of Maurice Stovall? You get the vibe that ND fans feel that Rhema McKnight and company will keep the passing game rolling along without any type of transition. I have been in this camp for the most part, but now I’m starting to wonder if I’ve underestimated the impact of losing Stovall. If you haven’t watched some of those individual game highlight videos on NDNation.com, do yourself a favor and check them out. They are PHENOMENAL. Anyway, I watched most of the videos, and was in awe of Maurice Stovall. I completely forgot how much of a stud the guy was last year. Good god, talk about a man-child! The Terrell Owens of college football. Pretty much unguaradable on those jump ball throws, and always found a way to get open in the endzone. If you threw him that sideline stop route, he could bull his way to an 8 or 9 yard gain with ease. Stovall’s performance in the MSU game was beyond belief. It was positively Puckett-esque in the second half. Having Stovall was such a luxury because we always had the threat of a quick score on the deep ball with him. The buzz in camp is that Rhema has looked great, but our offense might be a little more tailored to the mid-range passing game with McKnight and Grimes in the mix. Might be something to keep an eye on this year. I have faith that Weis will maximize the talent on the roster, but it will be interesting to see if our offense has a slightly different look this year. Also curious to see how DJ Hord looks this year. You can tell that DJ has loads of ability. I am hoping for a promising sophomore year out of him with a potential breakout junior year in 2007.

2. Anthony Fasano

Another personnel loss that ND fans will want to keep an eye on. Fasano is another guy who had an incredible year last year. I can’t even count how many times Fasano had a clutch catch in a big situation over the last couple years. I really enjoyed watching him. Pretty sure my dad has already inducted him into his personal “white ND tight ends with great hands” Hall of Fame along with founding member Dan O’Leary. I will miss that paisan tremendously. How do you replace a guy like Fasano? Well, we’ve been hearing Charlie Weis rave about John Carlson as the “best athlete on the team” for a couple years, but we’ve only seen the guy in small doses. All the spring articles have been raving about Marcus Freeman, so that is a nice surprise. Marcus Freeman’s recruiting video highlights are right up there with the most impressive high school highlights that you will ever see. Glad to see him putting it together. Those two guys need to give us production in the passing game and in the running game for this offense to keep trucking along.

3. Charlie “The Mind” Weis

Ok, enough with the concerns. Think about how much Charlie Weis accomplished with this team in one year. The team literally turned into an offensive juggernaut overnight. ND has great players and great athletes, but there’s no denying that Weis’ schemes and playcalling were a huge catalyst for the offensive explosion last season. Weis is not one of those coaches who is only successful with the right personnel. He has been a master in New England and at ND in creating an offensive scheme to match his personnel by taking advantage of the strengths of his roster.

I can’t wait to see what Weis has in store for this season. I really wouldn’t be surprised by anything at this point. More reverses and screens to McKnight? Done. Increased emphasis on the running game? Sounds good. More play action? Works for me.

Bottom line, ND is going to put up a ton of points. Might be a little different than last year, but the offense will be a consistent force throughout the season. As long as the offense is rolling this year, you have to like our chances to run the table.

4. Offensive line

4 starters back, one or two All-American candidates, 5 stud recruits coming in. Have to be really excited about the progress of this unit. There wasn’t an area of the team more improved than the offensive line last year, but I’ll be curious to see if there is more of an emphasis on straight run blocking out of this group. Most of our success running the ball came through draw plays and misdirections, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of a power running game with James Aldridge on board. With Penn State and Michigan coming up early in the schedule, I wouldn’t mind seeing ND try to match their physical play with a little flexing of our own.

O-line could be trouble after this year though. We have very little depth from the upperclasmen and will be relying on youth in 2007. Honestly, how bad was Ty Willingham? Could he have possibly done a worse job at ND than he did? How hard is it to recruit o-linemen to Notre freaking Dame? Linemen are usually foaming at the mouth to play for ND, and yet he couldn't bring in more than two linemen in that second recruiting class. What an absolute joke that man was.

5. Defensive line

Returning: Trevor Laws, Derek Landri, Victor Abiamiri, “Play like a” Ronald Talley today, and Chris Frome. Derrell Hand, Dwight Stephenson and Justin Brown as backups.

Strengths: Laws and Landri. If there is a better combo in the middle than Landri and Laws, I would be stunned. Landri has been a force for three years now, and I expect an All-American type year out of him. I love how active both those guys are. They both make plays behind the line of scrimmage, which is all I can really ask out of a defensive tackle. Abiamiri has been a solid player at ND, Talley has some ability to get up the field, and Frome was somewhat underrated while healthy.

Concerns: The D-line is probably the strength of the defense, but I’m still not in love with this defensive line. Abiamiri has his moments as “The Manimal,” but I wouldn’t call him a disruptive force on that d-line. Talley got shoved around a lot last year, and no one really knows how Frome will look coming off the injury. There is absolutely no depth with this unit. If Laws or Landri go down, we are staring at a virtual unknown like Derrell Hand.

Outlook: We have to get some more consistent pass rush this year. Those 3rd and 10 conversions late in the OSU game fall squarely on the D-line if you ask me. Abiamiri needs to step up and become a Justin Tuck type dominator on the end. No real word yet on Frome’s health. Would like to see him return healthy and give us some production at end. Might be nice to see Hand take a step up with an eye toward a starting job in 2007. This unit looks ok now, but will be a major question mark in 2007. Could be staring at a Talley, Brown, Hand, Stephenson front four or something along those lines. Yikes.

6. Linebackers

Probably the biggest concern on the team right now. I think there are some sleepers at LB, but it doesn’t help that we’ll be breaking those guys in against some heavy hitters like Penn State and Michigan. Is anyone else a little concerned about a linebacker trio of Anthony Vernaglia, Maurice Crum, and Mitchell Thomas with a little Joe Brockington and Steve Quinn sprinkled in? Umm..me too. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been apologizing to their recruiting profiles for about 3 years, but we’ve never seen them on the field.

Is Vernaglia the real deal or the next Mike McNair? Is he big enough to play LB? Is Mitchell Thomas ever going to make a contribution after all the recruiting promise? What about guys like Joe Brockington and Nick Borseti that have flown under the radar but haven’t really played? Where do the young guys like Steve Quinn, Toryan Smith, and Mo Richardson fit into this picture? Will Ndukwe see any time at the Apache spot?

Lots of question marks. On the bright side, there is talent and possibly a little more speed than we’ve had in the past. Nothing against Brandon Hoyte or Curry or Goolsby, but those guys were a bit on the slow side. If your linebackers are running 4.9 40 times, you are susceptible to some big plays and might have some trouble on the sidelines. Vernaglia and Thomas have some speed, and the young guys look promising. ND has always had solid linebacker units, so I’m not too worried about finding guys that can play. Whether or not there are any standouts in this group is something that we will have to find out. Hope a couple of them break out next year. LBs could be a strength of this team in 2007 with so many young guys expected to get time this year.

7. Defensive Backs

Did I just say that the linebackers were the biggest concern on the team? Scratch that. Unless you’ve chosen to eliminate the Stanford and OSU games from memory (I wouldn’t blame you), you are probably thinking that the DB situation needs to be improved this year.

Let’s breakdown the starters and throw out some potential backups to ponder:


Ambrose Wooden – I know there are a lot of people who are really high on Wooden, but is he really good enough to be starting on a top 10 team? Ehh. Not a bad player, but not even close to an elite player. He’s got some speed, and made some huge plays for us last year. Still, do you think Ambrose Wooden will be playing on Sundays some day? Me neither.

Mike Richardson – Currently in his 12th year at ND (at least it seems that way), the elder statesman of the defense. Again, not a terrible player, but hardly the lockdown guy that this team needs.

Leo Ferrine – Uncle Leo rose onto the scene last year with a great offseason, but his debut last year was scary. My heart shot up into my throat every time the ball was thrown in his direction. Made a big play on the td return in the Syracuse game, but left a lot to be desired in other games (namely Tennessee). Need Leo to step up this year.

Terrail Lambert – The story of the camp so far! I like Lambert. He’s the one corner on this team who looks like he has played the position before. I’ve been impressed with this guy in limited playing time, and am somewhat perplexed as to why he hasn’t played more. Supposedly has had a great camp, and will be starting in the BG game. I think Lambert has a bright future, and like his cover skills.

Raeshon McNeil/Darrin Walls – The young phenom freshmen. See me in August. I will say this right now. If these guys are better than the upperclassmen, you have to get them on the field right away. With Dwayne Jarrett, Calvin Johnson, Mario Manningham, Derrick Williams, and Matt Trannon on the schedule, we need some corners who can lock guys down.


Tommy Zbibkowski – Not much to worry about. Zibby is the one guy on this defense that makes plays. Just throw him out there and watch him make some plays. Not the best coverage guy in the world, but you have to love his aggressiveness.

Chinedum Ndukwe – No knock on the Duke, but I’m not sure that he’s a strong safety. How many times did we get beat on deep balls last year with no safety in sight? Ndukwe has a knack for the big play, but I’d really prefer a Glenn Earl type safety out there to defend the pass.

David Bruton/Ray Herring – Word out of camp has been that these guys have both looked great. I’m excited to hear that. If they are better than the players above them, Lewis/Minter have got to get them on the field. Between UCLA, Stanford, USC, G. Tech, MSU, and a potential major bowl game, we will face some big time aerial attacks this year. Can’t afford to have weak coverage from the safeties.

Outlook: Spring reports indicate that the DBs will be much improved. I hope so. Big plays killed us in all 3 losses. Take away the big plays, and the pass defense should be better.

8. Special Teams

You didn’t think we were going through a spring preview without any mention of the special teams, did you? I really believe in the importance of special teams. Love him or hate him, Bob Davie always had a good special teams unit, and it kept us in a lot of games during his tenure. Would like to see us playing special teams at a high level in the near future.

Three most important issues:

1. Who is kicking the field goals? - Well, looks like Goia has the inside track, but that could change when Ryan Burkhart shows up on campus. Would like to see someone emerge with a great summer camp to take this job.

2. Who is kicking off? - After watching OSU’s kicker bomb every kickoff out of the end zone, I’ve realized more than ever how critical it is to find a kicker who can boot the ball deep on the kickoff. Nothing against DJ Fitzpatrick, but his kickoffs were routinely being fielded at the 10 yard line. Doesn’t help your defense when the other team is starting at the 35 on every possession.

3. Who is returning kickoffs? - I thought our kickoff return unit was much better last year, but would like to see someone emerge as a legitimate home run threat in this spot. Never hurts to have a Julius Jones type returner back there.

On a sidenote, how bad was our kickoff return unit under Ty Willingham? I hate to make people do this, but do you all remember those returns where Chase Anastasio would catch the ball at the one, look around, run it out of the endzone at about 1 mph, and get snowed under at the 11? The other team would be chest bumping while poor Chase limped off the field with the “I wish I was dead” look going. Absolutely infuriating to watch. Willingham was bad on so many levels, but this area might have been the worst. Or was it the pass defense? Or was it the running game? Oh, what about the blowout losses? How about the ridiculous nonspeak at his press conferences? What about the "last time I checked, we've won 4 out of our last 6" comments? Or the John Saunders interview?

Ok, I'm getting fired up. Let's move on.

9. The schedule

I’ve been pointing to this schedule for about three years now as a “national championship run” type schedule. It sets up really favorably with a lot of tough home games in the beginning to pump up the ranking followed by a string of easier games before heading to USC. Some of the better programs on the schedule appear to be down (PSU and UCLA), and we have owned Michigan at home over the last decade.

Book those tickets to Tempe, right? Well, I still think the schedule sets up well for us, but I get more and more nervous the more that I look at it. We’ll break it down more in depth as the season gets closer, but let’s take a quick look now. I think this schedule is going to be significantly tougher than last year’s schedule when it’s all said and done. We should be favored in all those first four games, but that’s still a pretty tough slate. I’m not all that worried about G. Tech because I know Weis will have us running and gunning for the opener. PSU looks like a 7-4 type team, but you know that JoePa will have them cranked up for that game. Michigan is starting to worry me a lot more than I thought they would because of the motivation factor. You know Lloyd Carr has been barking at them about the ND game all offseason. MSU is still MSU. In a vacuum, we win all those games. But over the course of 4 straight, it will be tough.

Unless Ben Howland or Roy Williams show up on the sidelines, I’m not too worried about UCLA or UNC. That leaves USC with Fiesta Bowl birth on the line. Wowsers. I’m sure those bandwagon SC fans will be firing up the shrimp cocktails and cosmopolitans for that one! Somebody pass me an umbrella straw!

Is USC still a top 5 team after all those personnel losses? Umm..have you seen their recruiting classes of late? I think they’ll be just fine. I really wish we were playing SC earlier in the year. If Sanchez is as good as advertised, that is going to be a brutal game at the end of the year.

If we survive that slate unscathed, we undoubtedly head into the Fiesta Bowl at 12-0 against some form of Texas/Oklahoma/SEC champ with the title on the line. If you want to dream big dreams, imagine going 13-0 with wins over Michigan, Penn State, USC, and Texas. That would be incredible!

Is the schedule tough? Oh yea. But let’s not get crazy here. We can run the table with that schedule. It’s not like we’re stuck in the middle of the SEC East or anything with a seemingly unwinnable road game in a crazy, hostile environment (think Auburn).

10. To go or not to go

That is the question. Figured I would end the Buffet with some thoughts on this “go for it on 4th down” debate. Wouldn’t mind seeing some discussion in the comments area.

Look, I LOVE Charlie Weis, but I personally wouldn’t mind seeing him cut back on the “go for it on 4th and 4 from the 15 yard line” stuff. That’s why you have a kicker. That won’t kill us against Navy or Purdue, but I don’t want to lose a bowl game or the SC game by 3 because of a failed 4th down conversion. Last year, we left points on the board at the end of the MSU game, and killed our momentum in the OSU game with a bad 4th down play.

I hate to sound so old-fashioned. I love that Weis has so much confidence in our offense to convert, but I just don’t think it’s worth it to go for it as much as Weis does. I’ve never been a big “go for it on 4th down” guy, so maybe I’m biased. I understand the argument for going for it. Weis loves to stay aggressive, and he isn’t afraid to go against conventional wisdom in those 4th down situations. For all I know, Weis has done some Moneyball statistical analysis on this exact issue, and has figured out that it’s always worth trying to go for it on 4th down. Maybe he’s on to something that I haven’t thought about. The guys like Weis, Belichick, Billy Beane and Peter Gammons who aren’t afraid to buck the conventional wisdom are usually highly successful, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I favor the sure three points, but I would be curious to hear Weis’ ideas on this issue.

Feel free to comment. I think I could be persuaded in the other direction. And yes I just compared Weis to Peter Gammons. I consider it a compliment. Yea, yea, I worship at the altar of Gammons. I’m just biding my time until I write a 10,000 word post on this blog about how Peter Gammons has revolutionized the game of baseball and should be made commissioner for life.


Matt said...

Doug great stuff here. I would tend to agree with you that a lot of times MoSto was under appreciated as to how good he was. I have confidence that Charlie will tailor the offense to our strengths with smaller receivers, but it is a legitimate concern.

Michigan scares me, at Ga Tech could be tough and Penn State will be fired up and will return a good defense. Other than that, not too worried about anyone on the schedule with the exception of MSU just because they always beat us.

I didn't really mind Weis' fourth down go for it policy too much and i can only imagine its not going to change with this years kickers. If he didn't trust a senior in DJ he probably isn't trusting a first timer in gioia (sp?) or burkhart

Matt said...

Didn't say it in last comment, but obviously very worried about at usc. That should have gone without saying.

Sean H. said...

How about this maxim, "Always get points off of turnovers." So, yes, we should have kicked the FG in the Fiesta Bowl.