Thursday, June 01, 2006

BGS Springtime Roundtable | by Teds

As the spring practice session closes and Charlie Weis and his troops begin to look forward to the 2006 football season, BGS sat down recently to tackle a few pertinent issues that face the ND football team.

Do you feel more confident today about the team's chances in 2006 than you did before spring practice?

MARK: More confident? No. I still feel the same as I did when spring practice started - this team has a mixture of talent, experience, and coaching that bodes very well. It also has depth problems that will have it living on the edge.

MICHAEL: The same. Not really sure that any questions were answered…were they? If anything, I'm not sure the FG kicking question loomed as much as it did prior to spring ball.

PAT: Yes. Hearing postive reviews attached to players like David Bruton, Ray Herring, and Terrail Lambert gives me a bit more comfort about the depth of the secondary. There are still concerns, especially at linebacker. But hearing good things about the defense, as well as the lack of major injuries, has me feeling better after spring ball.

PETE: More confident. Seeing us play arguably our worst game to end the season last year, and looking for the first time outmatched in terms of athleticism, it was nice to see the team come back from that extended hangover to pick up where we left off: playing sharp, productive, nasty football.

JEFF: Less. The FG kicking looked really bad. If it doesn’t improve, expect us to miss a few extra point tries next year. I’m glad we’ve shown such acumen at putting the ball in the end zone, since I’d hate for a game to come down to a last second field goal. I expected to see some crisp, march-down-the-field, 12-play TD drives, but really didn’t. In general, I got the feeling that many players were not playing at “normal” intensity, almost to the point that play seemed a bit lackadaisical at times. Perhaps that is the nature of BG games in general, but I hope the offense isn’t coasting through practices resting on their laurels from last season.

TEDS: A bit more, I guess. Mainly, this has to do with the fact that we avoided any major injuries in the spring session, unlike some of our 2006 opponents. Last year, the fortune of avoiding a serious injury to a key player was the difference between playing in a BCS bowl and suffering through a season much closer to .500. Even in the games we did lose, you could see the impact of playing without somewhat unheralded starters like Frome and Powers-Neal and how it had a hand in those defeats. Sidestepping injury to players like Quinn, Harris and essentially every starter on the DL will continue to be a major theme in the fall, though I suspect fears over lack of depth will begin to lessen as the year progresses and the huge incoming freshman class starts to fill some of the cracks in the depth chart.

Who stood out to you in the spring session that you believe can make an impact in the fall?

MARK: Mitchell Thomas. From everything I have read and been told, he has all the physical talent to be an effective MLB. It's up to him this summer to take the proverbial next step.

MICHAEL: Maybe Derrell Hand or Pat Kuntz. Both seemed to have good springs, and during the last few years we've rotated in a third DT to keep our line fresh. Hopefully one of these guys can do the same in the fall.

PAT: I only have one Blue-Gold game to go off of, but a stronger, faster Travis Thomas will let Walker take a few carries off each game to catch his breath. That will pay dividends as the season progresses. Geoff Price seems to have improved on his punting consistency, as well, and nothing will help out the defense more than the ability to pin opposing teams deep to start a drive.

PETE: Rhema McKnight. With Georgia Tech having a decimated secondary, Penn State having to replace seniors all over the field, Brady ready to rev up his Heisman campaign, and all the attention being placed on Samardizja, McKnight is primed to have a humongous start to the season as he may be able to slip under a lot of radars. It's important to remember that he was once believed to be the best receiver on the team by a decent margin.

JEFF: I was impressed with the play of the secondary, Travis Thomas, and the backup QBs. The QBs played well for both squads, and I never saw a big mistake from the secondary. I didn’t realize that Thomas had such good speed.

TEDS: Anyone Weis would mention by name is a good candidate here, but I think that Paul Duncan is someone who seemed to separate himself during the spring and stands to play an important role in 2006. Of course, he'll have another test in the fall, not only from other incumbent linemen but heralded OT recruit Sam Young, as well. Regardless, we'd been looking for some of the young players to stake their claim to the few starting roles available during camp, and Duncan appeared to be the one guy more than anyone else who did just that.

Any disappointments, whether it's individual players, units or aspects of the team's play?

MARK: The linebacking corps still being up in the air. Hard to be too upset since both Crum and Brockington were limited, but I had hoped one of the candidates would have really locked down a spot, which doesn't seem to be the case.

MICHAEL: FG kicking.

PAT: I was really hoping that one of the linebackers not named Maurice Crum would make it a no-brainer that they would be in the starting lineup in the fall. It still seems like no one knows who is going to join Crum out on the field in Atlanta.

PETE: The kicking game. It's hard to believe that relying on a walk-on for the past couple years that we could still have such a regression in reliability once we started using scholarship players again. The real danger with this area is that unless Burkhart can come in and immediately provide a stable kicking game, we're stuck with kicking troubles all season, which could prove to be a big problem in a game that goes down to the wire.

JEFF: FG kicking, as mentioned above. I also thought that Quinn was focusing too much on Samardzija, and Shark is also going to have to be much more careful about pushing off.

TEDS: I know it's popular to fret over our linebackers, but I don't think you can pass judgement on any unit in which two-thirds of the projected starters don't even participate. Weis and the staff still seemed to be harping on the safety play and biting on play-action in particular, and I believe that's one area in which we simply can't afford not to improve. A lot of good work from the entire unit can be undone if that last line of defense is not sound. Competition from both David Bruton and Ray Herring as well as the incoming safeties will hopefully engender better and more consistent play.

Regarding the impact of Clausen's commitment -- do you believe it will pay meaningful dividends with the rest of the recruiting class, or is the idea of that overblown?

MARK: Yes, it will. I doubt it will on the defensive side of the football but without question I believe elite WRs, TEs and RBs - not to mention OL - will pay attention and be influenced by this committment.

MICHAEL: Well, last year fans expected the same of Zach Frazer but it was James Aldridge who pulled in some prospects. Ultimately, I think the formula relies more on charisma and personality than number of recruiting stars and position. Time will tell on Clausen.

PAT: I do think it will pay dividends in this class, although it may not rope in all of the top guys on every recruitnik wish list. At the very least, his commitment will keep a large number of recruits curious about Notre Dame. It's up to Weis to turn potential interest into a signed Letter of Intent, though.

PETE: I don't think recruits are ready to drop to their knees and convert to Clausenism just yet, but even if Clausen never lives up to his potential (which I doubt), the sheer amount of visibility Notre Dame has received on the recruiting front from this is going to yield its own rewards. I'll welcome top wide receivers, running backs, and lineman, but I'm really hoping for a linebacker or cornerback recruit who is giddy over toying with the idea of playing against the Lebron of high school football on a daily basis.

JEFF: I think Clausen is getting way too much hype; I’m hearing echoes of Beano’s Heisman and NC predictions. However, I do think the impact of the Clausen commitment will be strong, and this should be the best Irish recruiting class in 15 years or so. Recruits are nothing but potential, but I’d much rather have players with highly regarded potential than a group of no-name guys who I hope will surprise.

TEDS: Yes, I think it will. Whether or not Clausen is as good as advertised is practically irrelevant to the matter. It's all about the buzz created, and his pledge seems to have made a stir unlike any other in recent memory. On top of that, it now becomes an issue of how active Clausen is in trying to play the role of pied piper, and early indications seem to be that he's a highly dedicated and goal-oriented kid. It remains to be seen how much of an impact he might have on defensive recruits, but I think that the momentum he's able to generate with top skill players around him will spill over with a handful of preferred targets on the other side of the ball, too. I'm not expecting the world but hopeful about the momentum working in our favor here.

Now that Clausen's in the fold, which uncommitted recruit do you want the most?

MARK: Its a tie between Ben Martin and Marvin Austin.

MICHAEL: Marvin Austin

PAT: Marvin Austin

PETE: Gotta go with Austin.

TEDS: Austin and Martin are 1 and 1A here, as both fill obvious needs and represent the type of players we've mostly gone without over the past decade. If I had to pick one, I'd go with Austin. Full-grown, blue-chip DTs like him are so rare.

If you could add one recruit we lost during the Willingham era to the team as currently constructed, who would it be?

MARK: Joe Thomas, the OL at Wisconsin.

MICHAEL: I'm cheating -- I'll take two. Offense: Joe Thomas. Defense: Dan Connor.

PAT: Aside from senior-to-be Reggie Bush? I'd probably agree with Michael and take Dan Connor, although I certainly wouldn't turn down Joe Thomas or Lawrence Wilson.

PETE: It's amazing to look back and see the players we obsessed over and died when they committed elsewhere, and then try and remember why we cared all that much. I'm specifically thinking of Brian Brohm, who, if we had got him, would only increase the logjam we're soon to have at quarterback. I know there's no such thing as too much talent at a position, but that scholarship could have (had a certain someone recruited correctly) gone someplace more useful. And it's tough to say "no" to Reggie Bush on your team, but putting him on our roster and taking him away from USC's may have tilted the scales just enough to keep Willingham here, and no one player is worth that. I'd have to go with a lineman, any lineman, even just an obese guy that fits into a helmet. That would the biggest help, right now.

TEDS: Have to go with Dan Connor, primarily because linebacker appears to be our most glaring hole in the returning lineup. However, I reserve the right to change my answer to DE Lawrence Wilson if he proves to be as disruptive this fall as is being speculated.

What's going to be the hottest individual position battle in August?

MARK: Right Tackle. Sam Young is going to be given every opportunity to earn the job, and with his recruiting hype and the examples of Winston Justice, Ryan Harris, Mike Rosenthal, Jon Runyan, etc. it's not out of the realm of possibility.

MICHAEL: Either MLB or RT. Money is on MLB.

PAT: Middle linebacker. I suspect they will settle early on a right tackle so that he can get a healthy number of reps with the first-team offense, but the starting middle linebacker job might stay open right up until kickoff. Mitchell Thomas not only has to fend off Scott Smith and incoming freshman Toryan Smith, but he also has to play well enough to give the coaches confidence to keep Maurice Crum on the outside. The outcome of this battle will determine the makeup of the rest of the linebacking corp.

PETE: Linebacker. From having that position accounted for during the past couple years, now it's blown wide open, and hopefully somebody is ready and willing to come in and fill the spots.

TEDS: Probably MLB, because you have not only the legitimate candidates to fill the position but also the potential of Crum sliding inside, something that I suspect many of us would prefer to avoid if possible.

From what you've seen of ND and know of other potential contenders, does this team deserve to be ranked in the preseason top 5?

MARK: Yes. ND has a substantial edge in terms of returning starters over other contenders like Ohio State, USC, etc. Only a handful of teams from last years Top 10 are returning their starting QB. I think it's interesting that people assume that Player X at a place like Ohio State or USC will be more effective as a new starter than guys like Tom Zbikowski, Trevor Laws, Victor Abiamiri, Ambrose Wooden, Rhema McKnight, etc. Based on our front line guys, our top thirty players or so, ND should be among the best. It's a question of how healthy those players remain and what kind of development can be coaxed from the next tier of players.


PAT: I think so. There doesn't seem, at least this year in the year, to be a dominant team or two out there. Every team has a few holes to fill. ND might not have to depth to carry them all season long, but at the outset I'd say this is definitely a Top 5 team.

PETE: I'd have to say yes. It's not so much that Notre Dame has gotten significantly better (though they do look improved), it's that so many other established teams seem to be regressing this year. Texas and USC have huge holes to fill, and remember: if a certain Zbikowski touchdown stands, Notre Dame plays a very close game with OSU, who is the team other than ND that looks to be as good as they were last year. The title is really up for grabs this year, and Notre Dame has got quite a few returning hands to reach for it.

JEFF: Absolutely, this team finished in the Top 10 last season, and is losing very little. There is no way that five other teams are better positioned than the Irish going into next season. Think about how far this team has come in one year. Hopping in the Wayback Machine, and looking at where we were in April of 2005:

- Weis had installed a fraction of his offense, perhaps 50% at best

- The players were still learning to execute the fundamentals

- Recruiting was on the road to recovery with good players like Prince and Frazier on board, but still not the Top 5 classes Holtz perennially produced

- Everyone expected a better team, but perhaps not a significant improvement in record due to a tough schedule

- I was still a little disappointed that we didn’t land Urban Meyer but thought that Weis would be a good long-term hire

Unless this team undergoes a significant “Sophomore Slump” there are plenty of indications that the 2006 Irish will be stronger than the 2005 Irish on both sides of the ball. We should be favored in every game this season, except possibly USC.

TEDS: I don't see why not. Peruse any early list of popular 2006 title contenders, and you'll find teams shoring up entire defenses (OSU), others replacing three-year, Heisman-caliber starters at quarterback (SC, Texas) and others whose biggest advantage appears to be the presumed weakness of their schedule (West Virginia). Meanwhile, Irish fans are wringing their hands over a top-ten team coming up with a couple of new starting linebackers, a right tackle and someone to handle kickoffs. In the larger scheme of things, I think we're in excellent shape to compete with anyone, assuming again that injuries don't unnecessarily expose those nagging depth issues.

Based on what you saw this spring, what incoming freshman do you think will have the most impact next fall?

PAT: Ryan Burkhart. In addition to Carl Goia's field goal adventures during the Blue and Gold game, ND needs a kicker with a leg capable of getting the kickoff into the endzone more times than not. If ND is going to make a championship run, they are going to need a strong legged kicker to help get them out of a few jams.

MARK: Without question, Burkhart. USC and Penn State both featured freshmen placekickers last season.

PETE: Burkhart. Please God, let Burkhart have an impact, otherwise it's likely that Notre Dame could lose one game and have it entirely attributed to kicking problems. This team has too much going for it to have such a specific, yet vital part of the game be a fatal flaw. Also, I don't want to see poor student managers be trampled when players return kicks that land on the 20 yard line.

TEDS: Given the cavalcade of players arriving, picking Burkhart is obvious and sensible but not much fun. I'm more inclined to consider someone like Raeshon McNeil, who proved his mettle against top-shelf WR prospects in the Army all-star game and could potentially shore up our nickel package or even shake up the status quo in the secondary sooner rather than later. Toryan Smith is another player I really like, someone who might not necessarily be starting against Georgia Tech but who I consider a possibility as a more active and valuable participant as the season progresses. I think he has "three-year starter" written all over him.

We hear a lot about ND being "back" or "on the way" back. What does "back" mean, and in your estimation,what benchmark would indicate to you that we're indeed "back"? Are we "back" already?

PAT: To me, "back" means that before the season the words "Notre Dame" and "championship contender" are being uttered seriously by various talking head media types. ND fans have been thrilled with what Weis has done in all facets of his job so far, but when the rest of the college football world starts to take notice and pencil ND in as contenders, that's when I think it's safe to say the program is "back". That doesn't mean the program is at the level it needs to be at, but it does mean that everyone admits that getting there is a likely outcome.

PETE: Notre Dame is "back" in a public sense, but I don't think they're "back" on the football field yet. I was a impressionable freshman during Willingham's first year, so I've learned the hard way to not view a single season as a definite sign of things to come. Of course, it's a dramatically different situation now, but there are a few things ND still has to accomplish on the field to be considered "back" in terms of actual accomplishments. #1 - Win a bowl game. That thing has turned from a monkey to an orangutan to a silverback gorilla on ND's back, and it needs to be exorcised ASAP. #2 - Win a game with some ND "magic." Be it green jerseys, dramatic weather changes, the supernatural forces of the football gods have to do their part in returning ND to college football lore. Even then, those two qualifications are relatively minor, if ND continues to perform this year like they did in 2005, I'd probably be ready to call them "back," as it shows that this is a positive trend that we can rely on to continue.