April 21, 2009

Blue Gold Game Recap: Awards, Thoughts from the Game, a Dayne Crist review, Brooks Brothers talent, and this year's Junior Jabbie

All right, another eventful weekend in South Bend, so let's hand out some awards and other thoughts from Saturday's Blue Gold game.

The Grant Irons Awards for "players who may or may not be able to play a lick, but at least they pass the eyeball test": Deion Walker, Ethan Johnson, and Jamoris Slaughter

Deion Walker - This is a completely unscientific standard, but I'm a big believer in first impressions when it comes to sports. And by first impressions, I'm not even talking about whether or not they look like they can actually play. I'm just talking about whether they look good in that blue and gold uniform! Some guys just LOOK like they are going to be good even before you watch them play. With these young guys who are just starting to get some playing time, I like to see if they can pass that eyeball test.

That's how I would describe my initial impression of Deion Walker. I have absolutely no clue if he's going to be a great player at ND. But he just looks like an athlete. He's tall and smooooooth and real fluid with everything he does out on the field. He is a string bean right now, but I think he's got a lot of potential to be a big time weapon in this offense someday.

Walker wasn't the star of the game by any stretch, but he did make a couple real nice plays that have me excited about his future. I don't know if he's got the body right now to be a big contributor though. He's really really skinny. I'd like to see him get on the field a little bit and then start to make more of a real impact in 2010.

Tyler Stockton - WHOA!! Of all the guys I saw on our defensive line, I think this guy was the most impressive from a physical standpoint. He is a big big man and really has a presence on the field. It took about five times of saying "who is this #92??" to finally come to the conclusion that it was Tyler Stockton.

For a true freshman (heck, he should really be a senior in high school), I was really impressed with Stockton's performance on Saturday. I know he was probably going against a lot of second team guys, but he was wreaking havoc on the interior. He had at least 2-3 plays behind the line of scrimmage.

Like Deion Walker, I have no idea if Stockton will play much at all this year, but I liked what I saw on Saturday. He is a big dude, and he has the type of size and presence that we haven't had on the defensive line in a number of years.

Jamoris Slaughter - Another guy who had me scrambling to find a roster to find out who #26 was. Slaughter is a really impressive athlete with a lot of height and size for a cornerback. He looks like another guy who is going to contribute big things down the road, and he probably would be playing a ton this year if we didn't already have a boatload of talent at cornerback.

That was an underrated signing for Charlie Weis. He goes into the heart of Georgia and pulls a dude named Jamoris from the bowels of Tucker, Georgia. That's the kinda guy I want on the ND roster. Plus, even if he never plays a down, he's already a legend for introducing "Crank Me Up" to Notre Dame lore.

The Shane Walton Award for "the player who could throw this team on his back and carry the team just with his pure joy and enthusiasm for the game": Robert Blanton

WITNESS. Wow, I like a lot of guys in this secondary, but "D___ in the Dirt" really looks like he might already be our best player on defense. He looked spectacular on Saturday. Not only did he take an INT to the house on the first series of the game, he was blanketing our receivers all day long. As we all know, Michael Floyd is a pretty darn good football player, and Blanton was running stride for stride with him for most of the afternoon. Blanton has the ability to be a shutdown corner and a playmaker. And he's not afraid to stick his nose in there to make a tackle. For a 19 year old kid, he's already awfully good.

I said this the other day before the spring game and I feel even more strongly now. Blanton is going to take a huge INT to the house early in the season that is going to galvanize this team. I don't know what it is about him, but Blanton is the kind of guy who other players rally around like Shane Walton was in 2002. He has the confidence to take on anyone, and he has the skills to back it up. I think he is going to emerge as a star this year.

The ND secondary is really good this year. It's gotta be the best secondary we've had since the 2002 team. Walls is a first day NFL pick, Blanton is a young star, McNeil is a solid player who probably would have been our best corner in 2005 and 2006, and Slaughter is an impressive looking young player. Harrison Smith and the McCarthy brothers are rock solid at safety, and you've got Sergio Brown as Mr. Versatility. Great to have Walls back this year. He looks like he hasn't missed a beat. I expect him to have a great year and then probably go off to the NFL somewhere in the first few rounds.

The only thing I can definitively say about this team after watching the spring game is that our secondary is really really good. There is NFL talent back there now, and I think the days of getting beat with regularity down the field are over. Hopefully that back four will create some coverage sacks and things like that.

The Junior Jabbie Award for "spring game all stars that have the fanbase a little bit too excited": Jonas Gray, Joseph Fauria, Nate Montana

Jonas Gray - I'm a fan of Jonas Gray and have said as much on this blog a few times. I like what he brings to the table, and I do think he's capable of becoming a feature back in this offense someday. Gray is one of the few guys on this roster who seems to be willing to do his work between the tackles. He runs hard, he seems to like contact, and he hits the hole with more determination than some other guys on this roster. Our running backs have done a poor job of breaking tackles in recent years, but Gray is a guy who seems to run through those arm tackles. He's sort of a Tony Fisher type player.

But can we slow down on the "Gray should be getting the bulk of the carries this year" talk?? Cmon, he played well, but it was the spring game. For the most part, he was running against 2nd and 3rd stringers. There's a big difference between running over the scout teamers and the real games. We've seen this in the past with guys like Junior Jabbie who dominated in the spring and then disappeared under the bright lights.

I'm not knocking Jonas Gray by the way. I'm knocking the fans who are reading too much into his performance in the Blue Gold game. I definitely want to keep an eye on him, and he may very well play his way onto the field this year. But for now, I don't expect to see him much this year.

Joseph Fauria - Fauria is another guy who I've been targeting as a possible sleeper, but now I'm worried that people are expecting too much out of him after his impressive showing in the spring game. Fauria is a big time athlete, and he seems to be a really coachable young player with good technique. I think he has the ability to be a great tight end someday.

But right now?? Fauria is a string bean!! He is the skinniest football player I've ever seen. He's listed at 245, but I don't see how he could possibly weigh that much. When he runs out on the field, it looks like the wind is going to blow him over. I cannot see him getting a ton of playing time this year with that body. He'll get killed.

The ND strength coaches need to get Fauria on some sort of insane high calorie diet or something to put some meat on those bones. Get him some extra helpings of Blazing Sea Nuggets and Yo Creme at the South Dining Hall to pack on an extra 20 pounds.

Nate Montana - You could see this coming from a mile away. A guy named Montana runs out onto the field with P.A. guy Mike Collins announcing in his classic voice "Nate Montana checking into the game at quarterback," and everyone in the stadium sort of perks up and pays closer attention. And then what do you know, he completes a 17 yarder over the middle to Deion Walker and then a 34 yarder to Mike Ragone. Suddenly, there's a little buzz in the stadium. "Wow, Nate Montana!! Get him some more snaps!" I would be willing to bet that there were some old school fans/alums in the stadium who thought it was getting a little dusty in the stadium. Nothing like some Montana nostalgia.

Anyway, it was great to see him have a little success, but he's still a 3rd quarterback type guy. That pass to Ragone was wobbling like crazy.

The Jeff Samardzija award for "unexpected breakout star": Mike Ragone

I didn't expect much from Ragone this year after an injury-riddled start to his career, but then he goes out and plays great in the spring game and has me thinking differently. Ragone looked real good out there and had probably the biggest play of the game with that long pass from Nate Montana.

If I had to name two position groups that were most impressive on Saturday, I would probably name the secondary and the tight ends. I think we have elite DB and TE groups this year that could go toe to toe with just about anyone. Ragone and Rudolph and maybe even Fauria all seem like NFL type tight ends with big bodies and good hands. We've had some good ones in the recent past, but this might be the deepest TE group we've had in the Weis era.

And honestly, why would a top TE prospect not want to play for Weis?? We throw the ball to the tight end more than any major power in the country. The only teams that are even in our neighborhood are probably Oklahoma, Missouri, BYU, Wisconsin, and Purdue. I think the tight end is a great weapon in an offense, and Weis has a good understanding of how to use these guys in the passing game. Now we just need to make sure they work equally hard at run blocking and pass blocking when it is needed.

The Justin Tuck Awards for "breakout stars who everyone knew would be breakout stars someday": Kyle Rudolph, Ethan Johnson, and Armando Allen

Kyle Rudolph - Staying on the tight ends theme, Rudolph looked like I thought he would look like. He's a stud. If Clausen wants to have a big year, he needs to be finding Rudolph over the middle as often as possible. Rudolph is his safety valve. Get him the ball, especially on those critical third downs to keep a drive alive. This offense really fell apart in 2007 and 2008 when the tight ends stopped getting the ball.

Ethan Johnson - As for Ethan Johnson, he might end up being the best overall player on this roster not named Michael Floyd by the end of the year. Ethan Johnson is a beast and a disruptive force. It seemed like he was exploding through our o-line all day on Saturday.

In the last 5-6 years, we've had some really good d-linemen come through the program (Laws, Abiamiri, Tuck, Weaver, etc), and Ethan Johnson has a chance to be as good as any of them.

Armando Allen - Finally, we might finally be seeing the emergence of Armando Allen as a legitimate feature back. He might be the Russell Carter of the football program. You know he's got the talent, but he never seemed to play with the level of focus and determination that you need.

That was until I saw him on Saturday. He looks noticeably better this year. His cuts are quicker, he's more assertive, and he's more explosive. I would like to see Weis tailor the running game to get him going up the field as soon as possible. None of the slow developing stuff. Just get it and go. That's where Allen is at his best. I don't think Allen is a gamebreaking back, but there's no reason he can't be a Darius Walker with a little more top end speed.

Plus, he's turned into a really solid receiver. It would be nice if we can work an effective screen game back into the mix this year.

The Anthony Vernaglia Award for "player who got a lot of buzz in the preseason but didn't really impress me": John Goodman

Before I say anything negative about Goodman, I'm qualifying this statement by acknowledging that he's only a sophomore and that it might take some time for him to develop. Samardzija wasn't exactly burning up the depth chart as a true sophomore either.

But I can't really see any way that John Goodman should be getting signficant playing time this year. He's not physically ready to be a major college football player.

I hate to bang the guy for one play alone, but that Clausen "interception" for a touchdown was about 90% the fault of Goodman. Goodman got shoved off his route and couldn't get to the spot where the ball was on a little comeback route. A guy like Floyd makes that play, but Goodman got shoved around. The play made Clausen look bad, but he was just throwing to a spot and the receiver wasn't there.

And that wasn't the only time it happened. Granted, our secondary is really good, but Goodman could not get open at all. He was either getting pushed around or he was blanketed. It reminded me of the Richard Jackson debacle in the 2007 spring game. Goodman isn't physically ready at this point to get open against good corners.

Maybe he'd be a better fit as a 3rd receiver in the slot where he'd be going against linebackers and roaming the middle of the field, but I think there are better options on the roster.

The Nick Setta Award for "special teams player of the game": Brandon Walker

Ok, so he missed an extra point. A little concerning, but he made up for it with that 49 yard beauty later in the game. The kicker position is one that we probably still need to keep an eye on, but I think Walker will emerge as a solid kicker this year.

One other special teams note while I'm here. I am curious to see who our return men are this year. If I had my druthers, I think I'd give the punt return job to Golden Tate. While I would ordinarily love to have the fastest guy possible back there, there isn't really a Percy Harvin or Ted Ginn type gamebreaker on this roster to return kicks. So in the absence of one of those types of guys, I want a guy who is going to fight like crazy and never give up on a return. There's just something about Golden Tate with the ball that makes you think he could go the distance at any time. Tate has a lot of Zibby in him when he gets the ball. When he's back there, he fights and scraps and claws and keeps the play alive until he finds a seem to break on. That was always Zibby's best quality. Armando Allen is not that type of runner.

The Julius Jones Award for "comeback player of the year": Robert Hughes

I went with Hughes here because he looked like a whole new man on Saturday. He had his little sophomore slump last year, but he looked like the player that showed a ton of promise as a freshman at the end of the 2007 season. It's becoming more and more obvious that Hughes' injury early in the year limited his effectiveness. He was running with a level of power and speed on Saturday that we didn't see much last year, and all of it was between the tackles. If he could be an effective short yardage back, that would be huge for this team. Weis hasn't really had a good short yardage guy in his first four years. And Hughes even showed good hands on Saturday with a nice catch over the middle.

It also looks like Hughes has lost a little weight, and he even made a little uniform change by adding one of those flapping Warrick Dunn-esque back pads to his look. I thought he was looking solid in the uni.

I don't want to go overboard on the running backs because they looked pretty good in the spring game last year too, but I do think that we will see better production out of Hughes and Allen now that they are juniors. If Weis and company can use them properly, we're fine at running back.

The Rocky Boiman Award for "men of mystery who apparently are going to be important contributors on this team": Kapron Lewis-Moore and Steve Filer

Kapron Lewis-Moore - I named this category after Rocky Boiman because a) he's the man and b) he shot up the depth chart out of nowhere as a sophomore and suddenly was starting even though he hadn't played a down the year before. That's basically what we have with Kapron Lewis-Moore and Steve Filer this year. And after the spring game, the general public still doesn't know a thing about either of them.

I didn't realize that KLM was not even playing in the Blue Gold game, so I briefly had him confused with Emeka Nwankwo (#91). Once I found out that KLM was #89, I was both disappointed and relieved. Disappointed because I had been looking forward to seeing him and seeing what all the fuss was about, but also relieved because Nwankwo is not all that physically impressive.

Anyway, not only is KLM going to probably start this year, he's being talked about as our key passrusher. The man of mystery! I don't even know what he looks like. It will be very interesting to see what he looks like against Nevada. He could be the difference between this d-line being really good and this d-line being mediocre.

This is how our d-line looked on Saturday:

DE - John Ryan
DT - Ethan Johnson
DT - Ian Williams
DE - Morrice Richardson
Super sub: Hafis Williams
Bench rotation: Brandon Newman, Tyler Stockton, Nwankwo

Keep in mind that Kerry Neal, Darius Fleming, and KLM all did not play in this game. Suffice to say, those three guys are all key players this year. We cannot afford to have a d-line with the likes of John Ryan and Morrice Richardson playing prominent roles. I can't really evaluate the d-line as a whole until we see Neal, Fleming, and KLM in there.

Besides Ethan Johnson, I thought Hafis Williams was probably the best of the bunch. He's got a nice power and size combination and had one really good bull rush to get to Clausen. I'm a believer in Hafis.

Steve Filer - The other man of mystery is Steve Filer. This guy has been talked about as an athletic marvel, but I didn't see enough of him on Saturday to really get a feel for him. Maybe he was out there more than I thought he was, but I barely noticed him. Did he make a tackle?? Anyway, he was pretty quiet on Saturday, but he's apparently going to play a prominent role on this team. Stay tuned I guess.

The Ron Powlus Award for "player who could not possibly live up to the unrealistic expectations that I had for him before watching him play": Dayne Crist

It was almost surreal when Dayne Crist ran onto the field for the first time at the spring game. I hadn't really thought about it until then, but then it hit me. "Wait, Dayne Crist is in the game!! THE DAYNE CRIST!! The guy who we've been saying "In Crist I Trust" about for years or joking "put Crist in the game" whenever Clausen throws a pick." I get to see this guy play for the first time. This is kind of exciting." We've been reading about this guy for 2-3 years and watching highlights, and there he was lining up behind center. A guy who may very well be the future of Notre Dame football someday. Even though it's just a spring game, it was sort of a big opportunity for him to make a big splash and a huge first impression.

I won't say that I was disappointed, but I will say that any perception of a quarterback controversy ended at around 2:10 EST on Saturday. Crist is still a work in progress. Physically, he's got the kind of size that you want, but Crist is much more raw than I had imagined. His throwing motion was kind of awkward, and apparently he is still working on the mechanics of throwing the ball more over the top instead of sidearming it. He also seemed a little unsure of himself, and he was overthrowing on a lot of balls.

I'm not jumping to any conclusions on Crist based on what I saw. He's a redshirt freshman who is getting backup type reps. We won't really know what we have with him until Clausen has graduated. He may very well end up becoming a superstar, but he's not ready to compete with Clausen at this point. And if Clausen goes down at any point, we're in big big trouble.

The Mike McNair Award for "player who gets talked up every year but still hasn't put it together": Robby Parris

I think it's probably time to accept Robby Parris for what he is. We keep waiting for him to break out, and I'm not sure it's going to happen. He didn't really stand out on Saturday, and he had a bad drop on a play where he could have probably taken it for big yardage. I don't even remotely trust Robby Parris to be a key guy on this team next year.

I haven't had a lot of positive things to say about the wide receivers, but it was really more because they didn't get a lot of balls thrown to them. Tate and Floyd are all we really need, and I think we can get away with a pupu platter of Kamara/Walker/Goodman/Parris until we get a closer look at Shaq Evans. Another name to keep an eye on as a possible slot receiver: Cierre Wood. I could definitely see that.

The Bob Davie "Foootbawwwwwwwwwwwwl player award": Harrison Smith

I can't wait for Bob Davie to announce his first ND game this year just to hear him say the words:

"I'll tell you whaaaaat. HARRRRRRRRRison SMITHHHHHH is a HECKuva foooootbawwwl player. Watch him DEEEEEEE-liver this hit right here."

Just pencil it in for about the 3rd quarter of the Purdue game if he's doing that one.


You know that's coming!! He might take a minute just to get through those seven words.

The Clifford Jefferson award for "the possible Achilles Heel of this team": Offensive Line

Uh oh. I know it was just the spring game, but I thought our o-line play still seemed a little bit shaky. We were moving the pile in the ground game, but there were still a bunch of breakdowns up front. Guys like Morrice Richardson were getting to Clausen. Yes, we had some nice moments like that giant hole that Sam Young and company opened up for Armando Allen on a long run, but I still don't see a dominating unit up front.

I don't know what it is about this o-line, but it's just sort of a lethargic unit at times. Slow and plodding and never completely in synch. There's always somebody getting blown off the ball.

The o-line was the one area that I really wanted to see a big change, and I can't say that I saw that. You can't always tell the whole story from the spring game, but the inconsistent play from the o-line is the one thing that really tempers my enthusiasm from the spring game.

As the game was going on, I was never really feeling great about what I was seeing, and I think that was due to the start and stop nature of our drives. Maybe the defense is just that much better, but I was surprised to see the first team offense going three and out on a couple of drives early in the game.

Maybe it's still a work in progress, so I'm giving up on this unit entirely. And if they can just get to the point where it is a serviceable group, that would help out the offense a lot.

The Charlie Weis Award for "most pressure": Jimmy Clausen and Charlie Weis

Were there really any other people who could win this award?? The two key figures in this program remain Charlie Weis and Jimmy Clausen. Nine times out of ten, all eyes are on them, and they are going to get the credit if we win and the blame if we lose. The pressure coming into this season is going to be entirely on the shoulders of Clausen and Weis. Clausen staked his NFL future on coming to ND and playing for Weis, and Weis has essentially put his future employment at ND entirely in the hands of Jimmy Clausen. Those are the stakes, and there's no turning back at this point.

And with all that lurking in the background, Clausen throws a pick six on the very first drive. Was it his fault?? Absolutely not. Did Robert Blanton make a spectacular play?? Definitely. But you could sense a little bit of a "here we go again" feeling in the stands when it happened. We've been all waiting all offseason to see him, and then the first possession is a pick six going the other way. Just adds to the pressure heading into this season.

I thought Clausen looked fine for the most part, so I'll start with some positives. He looks a little bigger this year and seems to have filled out a little more. He's a little bit quicker and had a nice 15 or so yard run on a scramble at one point. I don't think I've seen that out of him yet this year. He even had a couple nice plays where he moved in the pocket and found a receiver breaking open over the middle of the field. It was almost a Brady Quinn-esque play.

But I still get the lurking feeling that the game hasn't entirely slowed down for him yet and that he's still not quite comfortable playing under pressure in the pocket. I started to think that maybe I was being a little hard on Clausen and needed to have some perspective until I talked to a guy who works down at the courthouse who is a diehard ND fan and went up to the game on Saturday. He had the same feeling about Clausen. Clausen has all the arm strength and accuracy and mechanical things that you could ever want in a quarterback, but there's just something about him that's missing when you compare him to the elite quarterbacks in the game. He doesn't have that "it" factor. If you put him in a QB drill with no linemen and asked him to throw balls, I bet he'd be as impressive as anyone. But playing quarterback is not always like that. I still get nervous every time Clausen goes back to pass. I never used to have that feeling with Brady Quinn.

I think ND can win plenty of games with Jimmy Clausen. He's got the tools, he knows the offense, and he's got the experience. He is clearly our best option at quarterback. But when the pressure is on and it's the fourth quarter against USC or he's facing a monster rush in a bowl game against somebody like LSU, how is he going to respond?? I really have no idea.

My feelings on Weis have been well-documented thus far, so I'm going positive here. I don't know how things will turn out with Charlie Weis, but I give him credit for throwing the kitchen sink at this problem. He is doing everything he possibly can to make this team better. There's a lot of pressure on him, but at least he's out there working. It's certainly more than we could say about Ty Willingham.

The Grab-bagging award for "buzz word of the season": Brooks Brothers Talent

Time for another buzz word!! If there was one defining word for the 2008 season, it would probably be the word "grab-bagging." Between the "pound it" stuff, the playcalling switch to Haywood and then switch back to Weis, the brief flirtation with a Texas Tech spread, the evolution back to the 4-3 defense, the Wildcat formation experiment, and even the "head coach in the booth" thing, the 2008 season was probably the most inconsistent ND season in a number of years. We'd go into a game with a plan to do one thing, and then suddenly we'd be doing the complete opposite by the second drive. The only thing we could even slightly count on through the course of the season was the jump ball and the "scramble mode" two minute drill. Not exactly bread and butter type stuff there that you can hang your hat on.

Anyway, I get the impression that the goal Charlie Weis had for this program in the offseason was to introduce some level of consistency. He brought in some new coaches who can hopefully coax better production out of the offensive and defensive lines, he is really preaching the idea of running the football this year to bring more balance and consistency to this offense, he took back the playcalling for good, and I think he made the right decision to turn the defense over to Jon Tenuta and go back to the 4-3. I think all of these moves were good ones, and I think they will produce an improved football team. Even some of the weaker units (o-line, d-line) will hopefully be stable enough to let this team take advantage of our other strengths. I really have no complaints about how Weis has handled this team in the offseason, and I could tell from the spring game that they are a better team with more depth.

But here's where the disconnect comes in and here's where the buzz word of 2009 comes in. The perception from our fans is that the great recruiting classes of the last few years mean that we now have as much talent as the USCs and Floridas of the world, and that anything less than a national championship run or at least a BCS bowl game would be a failure. In other words, if Weis wins 9 games next year, there are people who want him run out of town because he would be "underachieving" with all of the talent on the ND roster. These same people want ND to bring in Nick Saban or Urban Meyer next year because those guys can presumably take this loaded ND roster and churn out 11 wins and big wins over USC and BCS bowl wins.

But here's the thing about the ND roster. When you watch this team, does anyone really believe that we have as much talent as USC or Florida or Texas?? REALLY???!?!?!? Forget the recruiting rankings for a minute. Just use those two things sticking out from under your forehead and watch our team play. And then turn on a Florida game or an LSU game. Where is the Percy Harvin on this roster who can take a punt return or a screen pass and go 60 yards in the blink of an eye?? Where is the manchild DE like Tyson Jackson who can plow through an o-lineman and blow up a play but also has the athleticism to go sideline to sideline to chase down a running back?? Where is the Rey Maulauga savage in the middle of your defense who lays people out and can cover the field?? Where is the Major Wright on this roster?? Where is the Brandon Spikes?? Where is the physical freak on the offensive line like Andre Smith who can just maul people ten yards down the field but also has the athleticism to take on the lightning quick defensive ends and outside linebackers in the SEC?? Seriously, go search "Andre Smith is a MAN" on Youtube some time if you want to see what a big time offensive lineman looks like. I'll go ahead and link to it. Added bonus is that you get a "MY GOSH!!!!" from Verne Lundquist. I'm already giddy about this guy as the right tackle for the Bengals for the next ten years. More on that later in the week though as we get closer to the NFL Draft.

And then there's this. This clip has been circulating on the ND message boards all week and for good reason.

I want to ask this question for our readers, especially for those who attended the spring game. Where is the BJ Raji on the ND roster??? If you attended the game, did you see anyone who did that kind of stuff out there?? A guy who completely collapses a pocket or blows his man ten yards off the ball?? How many physical freaks did you see out there??

By my count, I see three physically gifted freaks on the ND roster (Ethan Johnson, Darrin Walls, and Golden Tate), two guys who are so highly skilled that they are superior football players (Floyd and Rudolph), and one guy who plays with so much confidence that he could probably play for just about anyone (Blanton). Other than that, when you watch this team, do you see the same types of players that you would see at some of the other big time schools??

I know the recruiting rankings have put ND right into the conversation with the USCs and Floridas and Georgias of the world, but I feel like I'm watching a different sport when I watch those teams. I watch our guys, and I see a different level of athleticism and speed. I talk myself into this notion that ND is loaded with talent, and then I'm reminded every year when I go up to the spring game or go to the home opener that we don't look as talented as our recruiting rankings seem to indicate. I couldn't shake that feeling yet again this year at the Blue Gold game. I see guys like Sam Young and Dan Wenger and compare them in my head to Andre Smith. I see a guy like Hafis Williams or Ian Williams on the d-line. Nice players and all, but would either of them see the field at LSU?? I see guys like McCarthy and Harrison Smith. Love both those guys, but do you think of Major Wright or Taylor Mays when you see either of them?? I watch a guy like Steve Filer get touted for all of this athleticism, but then I think back to how athletic guys like Rey Maulauga and Keith Rivers were at USC and how physically dominant a guy like Brandon Spikes is at Florida.

And that's where this "Brooks Brothers talent" phrase comes in. Maybe we're getting just as many four and five star players as the big boys, but it's quarterbacks and tight ends and white linemen. And I don't mean it as a derogatory thing. It's where we are as a school and as a football program. We are very attractive to two parent family kids, 4.0 kids, student body president kids who want to get an ND degree and know that they are going to get a great education for free. They KNOW the moment they sign with ND that they will get their degree. When you look at the deplorable graduation rates down at Tennessee and Bama and Oklahoma and other schools, getting that degree isn't always a guarantee at other big name schools. The guys on our team are great guys who have a lot more going for them than just football. When we saw Rhema McKnight walking out of the Brooks Brothers store on Canal Street in New Orleans the day before the Sugar Bowl with two bags full of stuff, I didn't even bat an eye. That's the types of guys who ND usually attracts, and I'm totally fine with it.

But when people use the recruiting rankings to trump up some argument that ND has just as much talent as Florida and that anything less than a national title run is unacceptable and that Weis should be fired if he doesn't get us to that level, it's a complete misrepresentation of the level of talent in this program. And I think it's unfair to Charlie Weis. He has talent without question to win plenty of games, and I'm not going to sit here and say that 3-9 and 7-6 are somehow acceptable. They aren't. But any discussion of firing a coach who wins 9 or 10 games and wins the Gator Bowl or goes to a BCS bowl is completely absurd. In the world where ND stands today, that's who we are as a program in terms of our talent level.

ND has talent, but this notion that we have overwhelming talent like the USCs and Floridas of the world is not what I am seeing out there on a weekly basis. The reality is that our talent is only marginally better than the Michigan States and BCs and Pitts of the world. And that's not the fault of Weis who has been working his butt off on the recruiting trail to upgrade this program. Do we have more depth and more guys with big name pedigree?? I think we do. But you are only starting 22 guys at a time. If you watch our 22 against Pitt's 22, the gap is a lot closer than people are willing to admit even if the star rankings say differently. I watched that Pitt-ND game last year and felt like the two teams were evenly matched in terms of talent. The only area where we had a major advantage was at quarterback and maybe wide receiver, but the rest of their team was every bit as talented as our guys. There are a lot of guys on the Pitt roster who were maybe three star players but maybe had more upside when they got to college.

When you start to think about it that way, I think it adds some perspective. Does that justify losing to ALL of those teams like we did last year?? No, not at all. Last year was unacceptable. But if this team goes 9-3 and loses a close game to USC, Michigan State, and Pitt, am I going to stand from the mountaintop and demand that Weis be fired?? No.

A lot of the problems at ND are higher up than the head coach. Our efforts to turn into more of an academic school are commendable, but it's not some coincidence that the talent level on the football and basketball teams have dipped alongside that rise in the US News and World Report rankings.

The Dr. Kevin White Award for "possible program flaw that continues to haunt us": STEROIDS

There's been a lot of talk lately about the ND strength and conditioning program and some recent comments from former ND players about the overall level of conditioning on our team right now. I mentioned this on two different occasions during last season, and I absolutely think it was a huge problem last year. Tired teams don't finish games. They wilt. We wilted down the stretch in games and in the season in general. When you lose four of your last five games in the regular season after starting out 5-2, you probably have a conditioning problem.

I asked this last week, but it comes up in my head again. Would this program be in better shape if more guys were using performance enhancing drugs?? Is this team soft because of a lack of toughness and accountability in the program, or is this team soft because going natural doesn't work in 2008 when so many other teams are featuring these ripped-up Adonis types with bulging muscles and amped up athleticism??

Just something to consider. I think it's too early to tell on the conditioning thing. Weis has said that this team is in much better shape. I don't think we'll really know until the real games start.

So where do we stand??

I walked out of the stadium on Saturday with a mixed review for the team's performance. On the one hand, this team is better than last year's team. The defense is absolutely going to be better. Instead of trotting out the Pat Kuntzs and Justin Browns for 60+ snaps every game, we're going 8-9 deep on the defensive line now with big bodies. Ethan Johnson is a really big dude, Brandon Newman is really big (too big in fact...drop some pounds this summer big fella), Hafis is big, and Ian Williams is big. We have some beef in the interior this year. The switch to the 4-3 gets more of those guys on the field. That will help against the run. And the versatility of using guys like KLM and Neal and Fleming at defensive end in a 4-3 will definitely help with the pass rush.

The back seven is also better overall than they were last year. The Maurice Crums and Terrail Lamberts of the world are now being replaced by more talented players. There aren't many guys you can pick on back there any more. The secondary is really good and has the potential to be among the best in the nation.

Offensively, we were running the ball and Clausen looks like he'll be even more productive in this offense. There are two really good tight ends on this roster now, and we still have a host of talented receivers.

I also think this team is more confident and hungrier this year. When you have a team that knows what they're doing and really has a burning desire to make up for some disappointing years, good things can happen. Look at the 2005 and 2002 teams as evidence of that. Do not discount the possibility that emotion and revenge will play big factors in the 2009 season now that these guys know what they're doing and have been around in college football for a few years.

But with all that said, I still feel like THE TEAM is a little deficient in some areas. While there were some impressive individual performances, I can't sit here and say that I saw a dominant team the other day. I didn't. I think we might see some of the same things pop up that we saw last year. Teams with good defensive lines are going to give our offensive line problems, and teams with good running games are going to be able to run the football on us. When guys like John Ryan are creating pressure on the quarterback in the spring game, it's hard to convince me that we won't have some issues protecting the passer again this year. And while I like the look of our defense, I think a lot of these guys are still feeling their way into college football and haven't quite developed the comfort level yet to shut down a good running attack. Teams are going to have some success on the ground against us again next year.

If I had to put a number on this team, I walked out of the stadium feeling like we were a 9-ish win team similar to the 2006 team. That doesn't mean we'll only win 9 games. The schedule is unusually easy with Michigan and Washington both down this year, and sometimes motivated and hungry teams with good veteran leadership will play beyond the talent or experience on the roster. We saw that in 2005 and 2002 with ND teams that got off to great starts that carried us through the year. Those teams had good senior leaders and rode a wave of momentum that took us beyond what we were expected to do. We've seen that at a place like Penn State where they seemingly out of nowhere to win the Big Ten in 2005 and 2008 behind strong play from their veterans. This team might get some breaks and fortunate bounces, get the ball rolling, and push the win total into the 10 or even 11 range and a top 10 finish. I could definitely see a 10-2 finish this year.

But just like the 2006 team that finished 10-2, there are a number of games that I would mark as toss ups right now that could end up as wins but also could go down as heartbreaking losses. The 2006 team got to 10 wins, but we very easily could have ended up 8-4. That's sort of how I feel about this team. Based on what I saw the other day, the BCs and MSUs and Pitts and Stanfords of the world are going to be the types of toss up games that have haunted this program for years. We may catch some breaks and win all of those games, but I would also not be shocked if we dropped a couple of them. And if that happens and we end up at 9-3 and go to the Gator Bowl, I'm not going to stomp up and down and proclaim that Weis needs to be fired.

Anyway, spring ball is over, and I'm excited for the start of the season. Go Irish.


Mike said...

"Brooks Brothers talent": tremendous and very accurate term. I wasn't aware of that Rhema McKnight back story.

I will be using that phrase constantly once summer training camp rolls around.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, informative and insightful - you make a strong case for "Curb your enthusiasm!" with, "ND has talent, but this notion that we have overwhelming talent like the USCs and Floridas ... The reality is that our talent is only marginally better that Michigan States, BCs and Pitts.." Flip to basketball and it can be stated that Tom Izzo's talent isn't equal to the Carolinas, Kansas & wherever Calipari coaches. The reality is Izzo's talent is only marginally better than Wisconsin, Maryland and Syracuse. Coaching is a bigger factor than the availability of roids. Read a piece on the topic this morning in the NYT.