August 29, 2011

WeIs Roundtable: Preseason Edition, Expectation-Meter Trending

Week 1 is upon us.  So much ground to cover.  So little time.  Tailgate menus to contemplate, beer runs to make, bags tossing form to fine-tune and biggest-available-SUV to pack for an early trip to the lots.  The team that runs out of the tunnel has been practicing for weeks, but we don't get any dry runs for Saturday's opening bacchanalian fest of the season.  It's go time.  Any oversights/improvements can be made in time for Michigan State (unless you're a masochist and plan to visit the brothel-zone that is Ann Arbor).  Before we get to game day, a few topics and predictions on the coming season that has the blue and gold denizens excited.

Summer Story/Development Followed

Jeremy: Since I occasionally receive derision for paying a bit too much attention to high school kids, I guess I’ll go with the recruiting angle here.

Kelly and Co. have come under some criticism for their recruiting efforts thus far, but I must say I’m quite perplexed by these opinions. It seems like more of an overreaction to what’s going on in Ann Arbor, but of course that won’t stop ND fans from making broad generalizations about our “small timey” coaching staff. Irish fans chuckled a bit when Dave Brandon announced the termination of Rich Rodriguez, gleefully opining that Michigan’s fanbase would finally have to deal with some of the karmic backlash that has plagued ND Nation ever since Lou Holtz walked out of the locker room for the last time. Brady Hoke has proven himself to be perhaps the perfect hire for Michigan in the current environment - he’s energized the fanbase by acting like a mini-Schembechler, and basically filling a recruiting class before the season has even begun. That he’s filled the class with mostly Midwestern kids without a ton of star power seems to evade Irish fans. He’s taking advantage of the troubles in Columbus and grabbing some kids that would probably not give Michigan a second look most years.

But this doesn’t mean that Kelly is lagging far behind in his recruiting efforts. Much like last year, Kelly has identified positions of need and done well to fill them with a nice mix of elite and blue-collar kids. Last year, it was the defensive line, this year it's the secondary. Ronald Darby (Maryland) and Tee Shephard (California) are two of the best corners in the country, and ND is in the mix for several other top CBs as well. Verbals at the safety position (Nick Baratti, CJ Prosise, John Turner) are not as highly ranked, but have great size. ND is also very much involved with Shaq Thompson, arguably the best safety in the class.

After last year’s haul, ND has not exactly been tossing around offers on the D-line, but they have snagged a verbal from Sheldon Day of Warren Central in Indianapolis, one of the best HS football programs in the state. He’s a highly-ranked DT who may be able to slide over to the SDE in the 3-4. Another DL prospect is Romeo Okwara of Charlotte, NC. Okwara is from Prince Shembo’s high school, and is frighteningly similar to Shembo (big, tall and raw). The Irish might be done along the line, with perhaps only Jarron Jones of New York as a future target.

ND also apparently feels fairly comfortable with their LB situation. Apart from Okwara (who could become a Shembo-type jumbo OLB), the most likely LB prospect among the current verbal commits is local product David Perkins of South Bend Washington, who could play anywhere from RB to OLB to S. The Irish remain involved with Centerville, OH star Ifeadi Odenigbo, who would most likely end up as an OLB in Diaco’s defense.

On the offensive side, Kelly has verbals from two O-linemen - Mark Harrell of Charlotte Catholic (probable interior OL) and man-mountain Taylor Decker of Vandalia, OH (6’8’’, 315 lbs!!). There are a number of elite OTs who will be paying a visit to South Bend in the fall, most of them for the prime-time game against 'SC in October.

Kelly has stated that he needs to start upgrading the skill position talent, and WRs Justin Ferguson (FL) and Deontay Greenberry (CA) should go a long way to help doing so. Expect at least one more WR, likely at the slot position. The staff has a bunch of offers out to elite RBs, and expect Kelly to take two before it's all said and done. A big year from Cierre Wood would go a long way to helping the Irish land some great talent in the backfield.

There has been some (perhaps justifiable) criticism lobbed Kelly’s way about passing on a QB in this class, but 1) there isn’t a whole lot of elite talent in this QB class, and 2) at the present, the ND QB depth chart is a bit clogged. I would expect Kelly to take two signal-callers in the next class.

Bottom line: Kelly has the Irish well-positioned for a Top 10 type class, provided he can finish strong with some elite skill position talent, at least one stud OT, and one or two more athlete types who could play LB or in the secondary. Once again, ND is lining up the SC game in October as their big pitch for the 2012 (and 2013) recruits. Expect many of the verbal commits, and many of the top-flight guys left on the board to be on campus for that one. A crazy environment, and a big Irish win, could start the falling dominoes and turn this into a Top 10 class.

Mike: For me, the most compelling and important offseason story was the saga of Michael Floyd. As any current Notre Dame student or semi-recent alumnus is aware, the University’s Office of Residential Life and Housing (ResLife) has forged a reputation for being Draconian, heavy handed and unreasonable in its treatment of students. Likewise, ResLife has shown a penchant for doling out excessive punishments to athletes, as evidenced by the Kyle McAlarney and Will Yeatman examples. Unsurprisingly, the actions of ResLife have reinforced the commonly held opinion that Notre Dame is a place where fun goes to die, thereby providing opposing schools with grist for the negative recruiting mill.

Against this backdrop, it seemed probable that Floyd would be suspended for the 2011 fall semester or otherwise punished so severely that he would leave school. Thankfully, however, ResLife caught a (hopefully permanent) case of common sense and decency in its decision not to suspend Floyd from school. Likewise, Brian Kelly decided to punish Floyd in his own way, which did not include any missed playing time. The ramifications are important. For the short term, Floyd’s return ensures that the offense will have its most dynamic playmaker at a position that is short on depth and experience. From a long term perspective, it would be extremely encouraging if ResLife is indeed experiencing a philosophical shift in its disciplinary approach. Predictably, the reinstatement of Floyd has led several sportswriters to dust off their tired and ignorant “Notre Dame Has Sold Its Soul for Football Glory!” articles, but who cares? For now, Irish fans can rejoice that their most important offensive weapon will be back on the field on Saturdays and, barring injury, rewriting the Notre Dame receiving record books this year.

Handicap the QB Derby (yes, after the fact, though Jeremy and Mike wrote their answers before 8/23, I swear)

Jeremy: Up until last week, I would have told you that I’d be shocked if Dayne Crist were not named the starter for the South Florida game. But according to practice reports and interviews with Kelly, this thing is entirely up in the air. Kelly didn’t make things any easier when he had Crist taking the 2nd team snaps during the recent lengthy media session. Plenty of people have interpreted this to mean that Rees might have a little leg up on Dayne for the starting job, but Kelly has made it clear that both guys would get plenty of 1st team snaps this fall in practice.

By now, everyone has recited the differences between the two: Crist is usually identified as having all the “tools” while Rees has the “intangibles.” Which is probably just a fancy way to say that Rees went 4-0 as a starter. Crist is maddeningly inconsistent, while Rees is a game manager.

There is of course some truth to some of these points. My enduring memory of “Crist as starter” last year tends to be either 1) the Navy debacle, or 2) Dayne short-hopping a 5 yard out that wasn’t going anywhere anyway. He also tended to take some pretty awful sacks. But he didn’t have the benefit of the great defense that finally came to life after the Tulsa game. And in their euphoria over the USC/Miami wins, Irish fans seem to forget that the Rees-led offense wasn’t really any better or more efficient.

I think the Irish can win a bunch of games with either guy under center, so this is not something that’s going to cause me to lose sleep. As long as they hold on to the ball, complete handoffs and make sure that at least 50% of the throws are heading in #3’s direction, I’ll be happy. I still expect Crist’s “tools” to win out, but I won’t be disappointed if Rees wins the gig. That would suggest to me that Rees has improved quite a bit over last year.

Jimmy: Crist offers the highest ceiling for performance.  Provided he's fully recovered and ininhibited by his knee inury, Dayne should have the full confidence of the team and coaching staff.  It's a good situation to have a backup you can trust in Tommy Boy Rees in case Crist falters or suffers another unfortunate injury.  Competition breeds better results at other positions, so why would QB be any different?

Mike: Assuming that Crist wins the QB job, as I hope he will, I expect to see marked improvement in his second year of Kelly’s system. His line: 63-65% completion, 3500 yds, 27 TDs and 10 INTs.

Impact of Golson?

Jeremy: I believe that the utilization of Golson has the potential to be the most fascinating storyline of the entire season. Anyone who watched the practice video from last week has to be at least a bit concerned that Andrew Hendrix is having some trouble grasping the nuances of the offense. If this is actually the case, then it makes no sense to redshirt Golson if he’s the more effective choice as the “change of pace” QB. As much as I would like to preserve a year of Golson’s eligibility (as he clearly seems to be the “QB of the future”), if he can help now, then he should be out there. In this, as in with the choice of the starting QB, I trust Kelly. As many have said before, he’s shown the ability to develop/handle QBs and just about every QB situation. The hope (and fear) of all Irish fans is that he’s not simply juggling 3 ineffective options this year.

Best case scenario - Golson sees a series or two every half, leading a few scoring drives here and there, but generally keeping the opposition’s defense on their toes.

Jimmy: If BK has his druthers, Hendrix will red-shirt, while Golson will get nibbles of game-action as the "change of pace" QB.  Whether it's a Wildcat package or sprintout option reads, the added wrinkle would give opposing teams more to think about.  If he finds early success, perhaps Kelly uses him more than expected.  He's still pretty raw, but if his athleticism can't be denied, he'll find the field.  

Mike: Based upon all accounts, Everett Golson has improved substantially from spring to summer. Having said that, Golson, as expected from a freshman, remains somewhat prone to tossing interceptions, particularly on longer throws downfield. As such, I would expect any package for Golson in 2011 to be limited to simple option reads and safe throws (and hopefully no fleaflickers in his first game…ugh). Regardless of his play this year, I am very high on Golson and I expect him to beat out Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix in 2012 or 2013 for the starting job.

Let's Get Defensive: Team Leaders for TFL? Sacks? INTs? Crowd Raise the Roofs?

Jeremy: We’ve heard this storyline before: Darius Fleming will emerge from “nice player” to “force of nature” this year!! Kelly and his staff have gone so far as to predict that Fleming will play at an All-American level this year. I freely admit to being immersed in the Kool Aid, but I really think he’s on the verge of having a huge year. This defense is built to allow the OLBs to make the big plays, and while Kerry Neal had a fine year last year holding the line, Fleming now has Prince Shembo opposite him. My prediction is that Fleming is the biggest beneficiary of the returning experience and (new) talent in the front seven, allowing him to lead the Irish in tackles for loss and sacks.

Although his talent was never questioned, there were plenty of Irish fans who bemoaned Brian Kelly’s decision to move Harrison Smith back to safety after his lackluster 2009 campaign at that position. But Smith has now become a stalwart in the secondary, and although it might seem like a cop out, I’ll take him to lead the Irish in INTs again this year. Credit to Diaco, Chuck Martin and Kerry Cooks for turning Smith into one of the better safeties in the country.

There’s really only one answer to the “raise the roof” question. It's gotta be Robert Blanton, right? That kid was born for the spotlight, and he finally takes center stage as a starting corner opposite Gary Gray. Looking forward to what he’ll bring to the table in terms of prepared celebrations.

Jimmy: Ethan Johnson corrals the most tackles for loss in his last hurrah.  Quite the underrated career that we'll be lauding by the end of the season.  The defense is designed for the rush ends - Fleming and Shembo, among others - to ring up the sacks with more frequency than Irish fans are accustomed to.  Fleming outduels Prince in the end-year tally.  For INTs, expect a drop off in INT numbers for Harrison Smith, though his impact will be huge.  I'll take Gary Gray for team lead in picks with 6.  And nobody will play to the crowd more than "D**** in the Dirt" Blanton.  High entertainment to come from #12.

Mike: OLB Darius Fleming is poised for a monster year. Look for Fleming to notch double digit sacks, which will cause him to shoot up the draft boards in April. Similarly, I expect a significant spike in production from Ethan Johnson (5 sacks, 1 TFL last year) and Kapron Lewis-Moore (2 sacks, .5 TFL) in their senior years.

At inside linebacker, Manti Te’o will match his production last year (133 tackles, 8.5 TFL), thus placing him in the conversation for the Butkus Award. Te’o’s counterparts (damn, that double apostrophe was fun to write), Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese, will combine for about 80 tackles and several TFLs.

In the secondary, I expect another solid year for the lone team captain, Harrison Smith, but 7 INTs will obviously be difficult to match. Both Robert Blanton and Gary Gray will increase their interception totals (2 and 1, respectively) though.


RB with 850+ yards rushing (1)

Jeremy: I’ll take the “push” here, with the caveat that this applies only to Cierre Wood. If Wood stays healthy, I think he’s due for a big-time year. But if he goes down for any extended period of time, I believe the Irish rushing game will suffer greatly. A healthy Wood goes well over 1,000 yards.

Jimmy: Over.  I'll take blame for the poorly phrased category.  I meant will we have any RB gain more than 850 yards.  So I guess it should be O/U (1/2).  Whatever.  Cierre Wood grows into the role as the feature back and shows an explosive gear that Armando couldn't find nearly enough.

Mike: Over. Cierre Wood will break that mark…barely.  Wood will improve on his 2010 statistics, but will fall short of 1,000 yards. I predict 851 yards for Wood at a 5.5 yards per carry clip with 5 rushing TDs. Jonas Gray will chip in 400 yards and 7 TDs as a change of pace back and goal line specialist.

Consensus 1st or 2nd team All-Americans (2) at end of season

Jeremy: I know its wildly optimistic, but I’ll take the “over” here. Te’o and Floyd seem like shoo-ins, though Floyd will probably get some serious competition at the WR spot. I predict that guys like Tyler Eifert, Darius Fleming, Harrison Smith and perhaps even Kapron Lewis-Moore will be household names by the end of the season. One of them will find their way onto an AA list.

Jimmy: Under.  Te'o gets honored.  A man on a mission (nay, putting off his mission).  Floyd will be in the discussion, but will face some negative media backlash, whether its merited or not.  A host of other honorable mentions and awards finalists.

Mike: Over. Floyd, Te’o and Fleming (seriously) will turn the trifecta.

Season Ending Win Total (9)

Jeremy: I don’t know if this is cheating, but I’m including a bowl game as part of the “season.” WIth that caveat, I’m taking the “over.” I think the Irish win 10 games this year. A 10-win regular season would probably put them up against an SEC team in a BCS game, which they’re probably not quite ready for. A 9-3 regular season would likely put them in the Champs Sports Bowl (or something similar), and I think they’d be able to handle their respective opponent in a mid-level bowl.

In looking at the schedule, I can’t see too many games in which the Irish will be underdogs. But that opening 4-game stretch doesn’t leave much room for error, and I think the Irish will probably drop one of those games. I also can see them losing either the SC or the Stanford game. Its admittedly a high bar, but I’ll be somewhat disappointed if Kelly doesn’t have the Irish in a BCS game this year.

Jimmy: Cannonballing into the kool-aid kiddie pool with 10 wins or bust.  Whether they get that 10th in a bowl game or regular season is beyond my Miss Cleo powers.

Mike: Over. I anticipate 10 regular season wins and perhaps a bowl win.

Offense National Ranking for Year (35)

Jeremy: I’m going “under” here. I think Kelly is still at least one year away from really getting the offense clicking on all cylinders. He doesn’t seem to be terribly thrilled with his QB options, and he’s still looking for other weapons in the skill positions. I do believe guys like Eifert and Riddick will continue to emerge, but depth in the RB and WR positions is definitely a concern. I’ll put the final ranking somewhere between 40 and 50.

Jimmy: Over.  In BK the offensive mind I trust.  With Floyd in the saddle and a healthy Theo Riddick growing into his position, points and yards will come in flurries.  Crist's learning curve will be evident from Week 1.  Think the team will average 30+ points/game.

Mike: Over. This is a tough one to call, but I think we’ll land somewhere right around 25-30. Improved QB play is critical, of course, and a rightful cause of concern.

Defense National Ranking for Year (25)

Jeremy: The talent is there for a Top 25 type defense, but I think the schedule has just enough power to knock the Irish out. I’ll take the “under” and a 30-35 ranking for the defense.

Jimmy: Under. My how four games can create a complete 180 in perception.  After the Navy and Tulsa debacles, the white towel waved vigorously and a to-go order for Bob Diaco's termination had been placed.  Then, 39 combined points allowed to Utah, Army, USC & Miami.  ND Nation celebrated like it was 1990.

If anything, it's great to see a swagger back on the defensive side. ND has legit ball players now - the kind that could line up for, dare I say, SEC schools.  The last Golden Age of the Holtz Era prided itself on dominating the trenches, LBs making plays all over the field, and ball-hawking DBs.  The list of NFL stalwarts from that 10-year period is impressive.  Since then, the prospect talent well has dried up significantly, both in numbers and the level of All-Pro impact.

At long last, the Irish might be dipping back into that same well of coveted depth, size and athleticism.  I think the unit is one year away from becoming a reliable top 25 force to be reckoned with. I see a few bend but don't break type games on the schedule - Denard, Cousins, Barkley and Luck will probably put up their fair share of points and yards.  But the defense will rise to the occasion and start making a habit of coming up big when needed.

Mike: Over. I can’t express how much I would like to see a consistently dominant defense that lands in the top 15 every year like Virginia Tech or LSU. With a senior laden starting lineup and a number of elite freshman who can be used in spot situations, expectations should be very high for Bob Diaco’s defense.

Other odds and ends predictions for the year from your uncharacteristically bullish author (Mike):

WR: Floyd, as mentioned above, will shatter the career record books with another stellar season. I look for 85 catches, 1,200 yards and 14 TDs for Floyd en route to a Biletnikoff Award finalist year. From the others, Theo Riddick will improve as well with 55 catches, while TJ Jones and Robby Toma will each catch about 25 balls. Also, Tyler Eifert will emerge as the next great pass catching tight end at Notre Dame with 50 receptions and a handful of touchdowns.

As far as the freshman go, I really have no idea. I would hope that Aaron Lynch can contribute with 4 or 5 sacks and that Davaris Daniels will catch 10-15 passes, but predicting freshman production is like trying to handicap a maiden race on a rainy day without a racing form.

Most Valuable Assistant Coach

Mike: Chuck Martin takes the award here. Although Martin’s scope of responsibility seems somewhat limited (“safeties coach” in 2011), his influence is significant. As secondary coach last year, Martin was critical in developing two tough, physical cornerbacks and a top flight safety whose career had been disappointing. Martin, who also serves as recruiting coordinator, landed Stephon Tuitt last year and his prior experience as a head coach surely allows him to be an important sounding board for Brian Kelly.

Runner Up: Tony Alford. It seems that every elite program in college football has at least one “star recruiter,” such as Ed Orgeron at USC, Tony Johnson at Penn State and Trooper Taylor at Auburn. For the Irish, no coach has been as successful at recruiting as Alford, who has been able to build strong relationships with recruits from the talent rich state of Florida. Alford’s work in Florida is particularly impressive because many of the prospects are not familiar with Notre Dame, nor do they attend traditional “feeder schools.” Moreover, Alford is often recruiting against assistant coaches armed with a bagman and a defective moral compass.

Mike's Parting Shot

This is a critical year for the Irish. Expectations are sky high, the schedule is manageable and there is no shortage of talent and experience. If the team can build on last year’s momentum and win big this year, it is almost certain that the staff will land a bumper crop of recruits in February.

Having suffered through so many years of bad football and heartbreak, Irish fans are clinging to signs that Brian Kelly is the guy to lead the team back to the promised land. While I usually like to manage expectations given said heartbreak, I am cautiously optimistic about 2011. Notre Dame will be favored in most, if not all, games this year, although the lack of “bodybag games” will complicate the task. Ultimately, I believe that the Irish will be improved on both sides of the ball, which will allow them to win 10 games and land in a BCS bowl. Since the goal at Notre Dame is always to win a national title, a 10 win season would not be a total success. Nonetheless, it would allow Kelly to finish strong on the recruiting trail and it would convince many Irish supporters that the program is moving in the right direction.

Finally, on a personal note, we really, really, really need to beat Michigan soundly. I can’t stress this enough. Nothing would warm my heart more than running up the score in Ann Arbor.

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