A bunch of people wanted the position previews split up by team rather than position. I put them all up here, but keep in mind that all of the information is going to get out of date in a hurry as players get hurt, switch positions, rise and fall on the depth chart, etc... Still, most of the names facing the 2006 Irish should be in there somewhere.
Thursday, August 31, 2006
The sleuths over at The Wizard of Odds managed to unearth the voters in the 2006 Harris Poll and have posted the new list. If you may recall from last year, the Harris Poll was selected to replace the AP poll in the BCS Standings soup. The Harris Poll also features a nomination process where each conference gets a say.
Each of the 11 NCAA Division I-A conferences were asked to nominate up to 30 potential voters. Through random selection, Harris Interactive found 10 voters per conference. Notre Dame is represented by three voters and Army and Navy have a combined one vote. BCS conferences will hold a 55 percent majority, according to BCS spokesman Bob Burda.Glancing at the new list, I'm trying to pick out the three ND nominated voters as well as any other voters with ND ties. Here's what I came up with.
Gene Corrigan - Former Notre Dame athletic director.Who did I miss? I can't imagine that Hammond was nominated by ND and if Valdiserri was an independent nominee last year, I'd wager he is again this year. So who's the third ND nominee? Any other names that jump out at you?
Jim Morse - Captain of the 1956 team. Member of the Harris Poll last year.
Tom Hammond - NBC announcer for ND football and women's Olympic figure skating.
Roger Valdiserri - Famed former ND SID. On the poll last year, but not as an ND nominee.
Posted by Pat at 7:00 PM
Ok, so we've taken a look at all of the various positional depth charts and using my patented "Hmmm, I guess this works" methodology, I've ranked all the positions. If you missed that, here are the links: quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends/offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, and defensive backs. Now's the fun part where we add up all of those rankings and see what pops out.
One important thing to keep in mind though. These previews ignored coaching acumen (or lack thereof), offensive/defensive schemes, game location, cheerleader aesthetics, and many other important factors that determine just how hard a team really is to play. This table technically only represents one guy's opinion of how the talent and experience levels of the 2006 opponents stack up against one another.
| Ga. Tech||5||9||5||7||4||2||4||6||5.3|
| Air Force||9||10||12||11||12||12||12||10||11.0|
Taking a look at the final numbers, I have to say the rankings sort of fit my own idea of the hardest to the easiest games. Penn State looks a little low, but its average ranking is pretty much the same as Georgia Tech and Stanford so I'm willing to call those teams about even.
Looking at the distribution of the averages, you can almost make out distinct tiers. Michigan and Southern Cal in Tier 1, MSU in Tier 2, Tech, Stanford, and PSU in Tier 3, Purdue and UCLA in Tier 4, UNC and Navy in Tier 5, and Army and the Air Force Academy rounding out the list in Tier 6. That doesn't really sound that far-fetched, does it?
A few readers wanted me to include where I thought the various Irish positions would fall on this rankings scale, so here's my take on the 2006 Fighting Irish. I'll try to leave my homer bias on the wayside as much as possible. And since I did it for our opponents, I'll include the Phil Steele rankings where appropriate.
Irish Rankings Among Opponents
QB: 1st. So much for eliminating bias, right? Honestly, I think the presence of Brady Quinn (#1 QB) is enough to warrant this rank. The backups are all completely inexperienced, which is a concern, but Sharpley, Frazer, and Jones were all highly touted coming out of high school and Sharpley looked very sharp in the spring game.
RB: 2nd. Only Michigan's combo of Hart and Grady gives them the edge over the Irish. Darius Walker (#11 RB) is a proven, productive running back who had more rushing yards in 2005 than any other running back on the schedule. Travis Thomas, when not winded from playing defense is a very capable backup, and Munir Prince sounds very promising. Returning Asaph Schwapp (#15 - FB) at fullback doesn't hurt either.
WR: 2nd. To me the Jeff Samardzija (#3 WR)/Rhema McKnight (#55 WR) duo is just as talented as the Jarrett/Smith combo at Southern Cal, but the Trojans have more depth so #2 sounds about right for the Irish receivers.
TE: 1st. In a weak year for tight ends, I think John Carlson (#28 TE) and Marcus Freeman are a solid one-two punch and the trio of freshman tight ends provide solid depth.
OL: 3rd. This is the 2nd most experienced offensive line in Notre Dame history with very solid players like Ryan Harris (#17 OT), John Sullivan (#3 C), and Bob Morton (#38 OG). Still, the starting right tackle is just a freshman and there is little depth across the board. I would put them behind only Purdue and Southern Cal, who both have a strong core of experience and depth. Michigan might have been higher, but with Mike Kolodziej out for the year I think putting the Irish ahead of them makes sense.
DL: 2nd. Michigan is perhaps better, but no one else. The entire starting line returns including all three players who started at weakside defensive end last year. Victor Abiamiri (#11 DE), Derek Landri (#26 DT), and Trevor Laws (#30 DT) all should have a great year. The return of Travis Leitko adds solid depth at the tackle position while Pat Kuntz and Darrell Hand are a year older and stronger. The strong showing by John Ryan also helps.
LB: 8th. While Maurice Crum (#43 ILB) returns, I really can't rank the Irish any higher than this. Personally I have high hopes that Travis Thomas proves that he's a natural on defense, but for now, on paper, all of the linebackers save Crum are unknowns and even Crum is a bit of a question mark as he moves from the outside to the middle linebacker position. Phil Steele ranked Mitchell Thomas (#60 - OLB), but there is still the point that he's been a career backup thus far. Like I said, I have high hopes for the group, but for right now, it's clear that PSU, USC, Michigan, Tech, Michigan State, Navy and Stanford all have more proven linebacking corps than the Irish.
DB: 2nd. This pick is probably the one where my Irish bias shows up the most. The results just weren't pretty last year. Still, there is a lot of inexperience on the schedule while the Irish return the entire 2-deep as well as the addition of 2 very highly regarded cornerback recruits who have already impressed the coaching staff. With a veteran Ambrose Wooden (#13 CB) and Tom Zbikowski (#2 SS), I'm going to move the Irish secondary all the way up to #2, just behind Michigan.
So, what do you think? Too high? With these grades, the Irish average out to 2.625, which is the same grade Michigan would get if you added the Irish rankings into the mix. I'd say that is fair. Notre Dame doesn't have much depth at many positions, but the starting 22 are a veteran unit with a number of All-American caliber players.
Posted by Pat at 2:30 PM
Some more info on Minter going up into the box on gameday, with Lewis coming down to the sidelines. Here's what Charlie had to say about it yesterday.
As a matter of fact, we are making a shift on defense. Rick is going up into the box for the first time in 22 years. And Bill Lewis is coming down. Part of it is communication with the secondary. Jeff [Burrow, grad assistant] works with Bill with the secondary so he’s up with Rick.Lewis was also asked about the change yesterday; here's what he had to say:
I felt some of our biggest problems last year were communication problems in the secondary. And I felt the easiest way to take care of that problem was to have the DB coach down on the sidelines. We had to do some practice sessions over in the stadium to see if Rick would feel comfortable in doing that or not, because if he didn’t feel comfortable in doing it, I wouldn’t make the switch.
There’s some give and take. What’s more important, I obviously want Rick to feel comfortable calling the game. I know he hasn’t been up in the booth for awhile but as a play-caller you have a whole different perspective of the game being up in the box because you have less distractions and you see the game a whole lot better. Every time we went into the stadium at night, we went into the booth and worked it out that way. After the second time, he was ready to roll.
I’m asking him, I’m not mandating, hey, what we are going to do, but that’s what we’re doing.
First off, I think it gives Rick an opportunity to get away from all the hustle and bustle of the sideline, so he can see from up top. As far as my being down on the sideline, you need two defensive coaches on the sideline, so with Rick going up I'll be doing what Rick was doing in between series, and that is trying to communicate to the secondary all the things going on in the secondary, and then tying the secondary into the linebackers. Coach Oliver will do what he did last year, being responsible for the defensive line, tying them into the linebackers as far as the running game is concerned.I confess some conspiracy theories swirled about my mind when I first heard of this change, but if you think about it, what Charlie said about Lewis being able to work more hands-on with secondary is the most obvious explanation for the switch.
Rick can then communicate to us what things need to be addressed as far as each of those groups are concerned.
Now when a defensive series ends, Lewis can talk face to face with Zibby and Nedu (and especially the younger DBs) as they come off the field. That's a far cry from last year, where Lewis had to relay instruction through Minter. Last year, according to Lewis, it went like this:
[Before] Rick was on the sideline, and of course he had a feel for what needed to be done with the secondary, and if I had anything in addition to that I could hear what Rick was saying to the DBs, and was able to add anything I needed. Now we just reversed roles; I'll be down there dealing with them, and he'll be hearing what I'm saying.I think this is emblematic of the entire makeover on defense; no stone was left unturned in an effort to improve performance, and having Lewis on the sideline is probably a huge advantage when addressing those "communication problems" we've heard so much about.
Posted by Jay at 10:14 AM
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Here's the final position preview, with a look at the defensive backs on the schedule for the 2006 Irish. In case you've missed any, here are the links to the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight end/offensive line, defensive line, and linebackers previews. The same defensive stats abbreviations are used, and as usual Phil Steele's position rankings (if any) are indicated in parentheses.
CB - Kenny Scott. (#24 - CB) 56 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
CB - Pat Clark. WR in 2005. New starter.
SS - Jamal Lewis. 13 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU. New starter.
FS - Djay Jones. 11 tackles. New starter.
Kenny Scott (right) is the only returnign starter on the revamped Tech secondary and brings plenty of experience and the benefit of having to cover Calvin Johnson in practice everyday. At 6-2, he's a very tall cornerback and will be assigned to cover the best WR on the other team. Pat Clark assumes the starting spot at the other corner position after playing as a wide receiver in 2005. He did have the advantage of working at corner during spring ball so he's not completely new to the position. Still, it might take some time to get used to starting. At safety, Jamal Lewis assumes a starting spot after moving from cornerback. He started as the Tech nickel back for a game last year and did fill in for Kenny Scott when he went down with an injury. Free safety Djay Jones is similarly inexperienced and will need to show he can handle a starting gig. Depth: Battling Pat Clark for one of the starting cornerback spots is Jahi Word-Daniels and either one could start against Notre Dame. Word-Daniels hasn't played yet, but has the athleticism to turn into a good corner. Tony Clark played both corner and safety in the spring and the sophomore might turn up at either position if the starters aren't getting the job done.
CB - Justin King. (#10 - CB) 11 tackles, 2 PBU. New starter.
CB - Tony Davis. 4 tackles, 1 INT. New starter.
FS - Donnie Johnson. 8 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU. New starter.
Hero - Nolan McCready. 9 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF. New starter.
There might not be a more athletic cornerback on the schedule than Justin King (left). An all-everything recruit, King played corner and wide receiver last year but now will focus exclusively on corner and while he's still an inexperienced sophomore, King will draw the opponent's toughest receiver. The other corner, Tony Davis, takes over the starting job after being a backup under Alan Zemaitis and will probably be picked on until he proves he can slow down his man. Hero-back Nolan McCready and free safety Donnie Johnson also rise up to the level of starter after being backups the past few years. Johnson did play as the nickel back at times last year so he does have more experience than the other new starters in the secondary. Depth: Listed as a co-starter with McCready at the hero position is sophomore Anthony Scirrotto. He played in 11 games last year, but still will be pretty inexperienced if he grabs the starting job. Lydell Sargeant played wide receiver last year as a freshman but has since been moved to corner, where he will back up Justin King. An extremely fast redshirt freshman, Knowledge Timmons, is only 3rd on the depth chart now, but might rise as the season progresses.
CB - Leon Hall. (#5 - CB) 61 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 TFL, 4 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR. Returning starter.
CB - Charles Stewart. 4 tackles, 1 PBU. New starter.
FS - Brandent Englemon. 42 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 TFL, 3 PBU, 2 FR. Returning starter.
SS - Jamar Adams. (#13 - SS) 27 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 PBU. Returning starter.
Leon Hall(right) is probably the most highly touted corner on the Irish 2006 schedule and should be in the running for All-American honors this year. He led the team in interceptions last year and is in line for a solid senior campaign. Both of his 2 sacks last year came against ND, where he was named ABC Player of the Game. Charles Stewart played in 10 games last year, but it was mainly on special teams. Now as a starter, he'll have to get ready as teams will probably throw to his man in an effort to stay away from Leon Hall. Free safety Brandent Englemon started 10 games last year, but it was as a strong safety. This year he has been shifted over to free safety, but his experience should ease the transition. Strong safety Jamar Adams came on strong during the 2nd half of the 2005 season as he started the final 6 games. Expectations are high that Adams will turn into a very good safety over his final two years of eligibility. Depth: Listed as a co-starter at free safety with Englemon is Ryan Mundy (#11 - FS), a very talented player who was lost for the year in 2005 with a shoulder injury in the first game. In 2004 he started every game at free safety so he certainly has experience. He might even regain the starting job for the ND game. Morgan Trent (#56 - CB) started five games last year at corner as a redshirt freshman and now will provide very capable backup for Leon Hall. One time ND commit Brandon Harrison has shifted back to corner from safety and now is listed as the backup to Charles Stewart along with fellow sophomore Johnny Sears.
CB - Greg Cooper. 48 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFL, 1 PBU. Returning starter.
CB - Demond Williams. 29 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU. Returning starter.
FS - Otis Wiley. 18 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR. New stater.
SS - Nehemiah Warrick. JUCO transfer. New starter.
The Spartans should have quality safeties this year, but their cornerbacks will be in question until they can prove otherwise. Technically Greg Cooper is a returning starter, but he was moved from free safety to corner in the spring and will have to get used to the new position in a hurry. He's a strong player, but corner skills are different from safety skills. The other corner, Demond Williams, returns as the other corner for the Spartans but really wasn't all that productive last year. At safety, the big name is transfer and JUCO All-American Nehemiah Warrick (left). With an impressive spring, Warrick is poised for a very strong debut season. Free safety Otis Wiley enters the starting lineup at free safety and the sophomore will need to overcome any inexperience quickly in order to make an impact. He is extremely fast though and has the potential to be a decent ball-hawking free safety Depth: The depth chart took a big hit when experienced backup corner Ross Weaver went down with a wrist injury. He might be back later on in the season, but will miss the ND game. In his place, Jelani Nantambu is the backup corner and probably the most likely nickel back on the roster. Other than him, there isn't much depth with little to no experience.
CB - Aaron Lane. Walk-on transfer from St. Francis. New starter.
CB - Zach Logan. 43 tackles, 1 sack, 2.5 TFL, 5 PBU. Returning starter.
FS - Brandon Erwin. New starter.
SS - Torri Williams. Out in 2005 with injury. New starter.
The Boilermakers are undergoing a revamping of their secondary and will field a lot of inexperience to start the year. Zach Logan is the lone returning starter after starting the last nine games of the year for Purdue. He's fast, but it will be tougher on him this year when he has to face the #1 WR for the other team. Aaron Lane is a bit of a surprise starter after walking on to the team as a running back transfer from the University of St. Francis. Torri Williams (right) missed all of 2005 with a broken leg, but is fine now and has high expectations that he'll turn into a very good strong safety for the Boilermakers. Brandon Erwin is another bit of a surprise starter as he' s a true freshman who wasn't very highly ranked coming out of high school. Depth: Of the four players listed on the Boilermaker 2nd string, only one, cornerback Fabian Martin, has played a down at Purdue. And even he didn't record any statistics. The other backup corner, Royce Adams is a true freshman. The backup strong safety, Adam Wolf, is a walk-on while the backup free safety, Justin Scott, is a JUCO transfer. Scott was productive in junior college though so he might be able to add some decent depth.
CB- Brandon Harrison. 67 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
CB - Nick Sanchez. 71 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 INT, 4 PBU, 2 FR, 2 FF. Returning starter.
FS - Trevor Hooper. 40 tackles, 4 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
SS - David Lofton. 35 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU. New starter.
The Cardinal return a veteran unit of sorts, although a few players have moved positions. Brandon Harrison has started the past two years at strong safety but now moves over to the corner position. Harrison is a solid, veteran player, but the transition from safety to corner sometimes takes a few games. Nick Sanchez is another veteran who started every game at corner last year. He was 2nd on the team in tackles, but it's not always a good thing when a corner has so many tackles. Sometimes it can mean he's spending his time tackling the receiver who just beat him for the reception. Free safety Trevor Hooper has 17 career starts under his belt, although 11 of them came in 2003 as a strong safety. Last year battled through some injuries before starting the final five games at free safety. David Lofton started five games last year at free safety when Hooper was down with his injury and now Lofton will slide over to strong safety and take over the starting role. At 6-4, 220 pounds, he has the size to be very effective against the run. Depth: Tim Sims is listed as a co-starter for the Cardinal at cornerback with Nick Sanchez. Sims has had very limited playing time as a career backup but if he's pushing Sanchez he must be improving as a player. Junior Wopamo Osaisai had a very strong fall camp and is arguably the fastest player on the Stanford team. As he gains experience at the corner position, he could see more and more playing time.
CB - Trey Brown. 53 tackles, 1 INT, 10 PBU. Returning starter.
CB - Rodney Van. 22 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR. New starter.
FS - Dennis Keyes. (#27 - FS) 57 tackles, 2 sacks, 8 TFL, 6 PBU. 1 FR, 2 FF. Returning starter.
SS - Chris Horton. 26 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 PBU. New starter.
Trey Brown is the veteran of the Bruin secondary after starting all 12 games at cornerback last year. His 10 passes broken up is a pretty impressive number and Brown should be even better with an additional year of experience. Rodney Van was a backup last year but did get into every game and play at least 20 snaps seven times. Still, now that he's starting he will have to prove to opposing offensive coordinators that he's not a weak link in the secondary. Free safety Dennis Keyes (left, top) started nine games at the position last year and the hard hitting safety is one of the leaders of the Bruin defense. Chris Horton had a wrist injury that kept him out of the first half of the 2005 season and limited his play for the rest of the year. Now that he's recovered, he will take over the starting strong safety spot and add a solid run-stopping ability to the Bruin defense. Depth: Michael Norris saw some time last year as a backup and expects to do the same again this year. He might be the choice when UCLA goes into the nickel. If not Norris, then freshman Alterraun Verner. Verner isn't very big at 5'10, 160 pounds, but the coaching staff is high on his potential. Depth at safety isn't experienced at all as all four backup strong and free safeties are either freshman or sophomores.
CB - Jeremy McGown. 63 tackles, 1 TFL, 4 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
CB - Keenan Little. 73 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 INT, 8 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
FS - DuJuan Price. 62 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU. Returning starter.
ROVER - Ketric Buffin. 19 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT. New starter.
Navy returns a veteran line but the loss of Greg Thrasher, who left the team to concentrate on academics, means that Jeremy McGown will shift over to corner from his usual safety spot where he has started 21 games. One of the best athletes on the team, McGown should be able to make the transition without too much of a problem. At the other corner spot, Keenan Little (right) returns to the same position at which he started all 12 games last year. Last year he was 4th on the team in tackles, which again isn't always a great sign for a cornerback. Free safety DuJuan Price started every game last year at free safety for Navy and returns as yet another veteran member of this experienced secondary. The only new starter, roverback Ketric Buffin, will find it easier with all of the experience around him, but at 5-7, 165 pounds, he might have trouble with some of the bigger running backs and tight ends that he will face. Depth: If Navy needs more height at the cornerback spot, 6-2 Greg Sudderth will be available to help out. Last year Sudderth actually tied for the team lead in interceptions with two. If Navy wants more size at the rover position, Dell Robinson has that at 5-11, 205 pounds. However, he is inexperienced as injuries kept him on the bench for most of last season.
CB - Jacoby Watkins. 19 tackles, 3 PBU. Returning starter.
CB - Quinton Person. 36 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PBU. New starter.
FS - D.J. Walker. 9 tackles. New starter.
SS - Kareen Taylor. 61 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 4.5 TFL, 2 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
The strength of this Tar Heel secondary is strong safety Kareen Taylor (left). He has made 15 starts as the free safety spot and now moves over to the strong safety position due to the injury to Trimane Goddard. His physical, agressive play has made him an All-ACC candidate for 2006. D.J. Walker will try and replace Taylor at the free safety spot, but he is very inexperienced other than his work on special teams. At corner, Jacoby Watkins started every game in 2004 and was doing the same in 2005 until he broke his leg and was forced to miss the rest of the season. The injury also forced him to sit out spring ball. He's back in the starting lineup now and while he may be a bit rusty, should be back to normal by the ND game. Quinton Person filled in for Watkins last year and ended up starting 4 games. Now he's a full time starter without much starting experience, but has collected a decent amount of game experience the past two seasons. Depth: If D.J. Walker struggles at the free safety spot, sophomore Cooter Arnold will waiting in the wings. Arnold, who played running back last year as a freshman, is new to the secondary but is a very good physical athlete. Also, while Walker has dealt with some minor injuries in fall camp, Arnold stayed healthy and got valuable experience running with the first team defense. Kendric Burney also turned heads in fall camp and while the freshman is only 5-9, he has coaches and fans excited about his future at UNC.
CB - Garret Rybak. 6 tackles. New starter.
CB - Chris Sutton. 47 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 INT, 9 PBU. Returning starter.
FS - Bobby Giannini. 92 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 3 INT, 2 PBU, 2 FF. Returning starter.
FALCON - John Rabold. 36 tackles, 1 sack, 2.5 TFL. New starter.
FALCON - Julian Madrid. 27 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL, 1 PBU. New starter.
Bobby Giannini (right) is the major, and really only, star of this Falcon defense. The returning team leader in tackler, Giannini is a hard hitter and one of the best safeties in the Mountain West conference. The other returning starter, cornerback Chris Sutton was moderately productive last year as a starter and should be even better this year due to the additional experience. Joining Sutton at the cornerback position is Garrett Rybak. He took the starting job with a solid spring practice campaign, but will need to be ready for a lot of attention as opposing quarterbacks test him early and often. Falcon backs John Rabold and Julian Madrid are both new to the starting lineup too and will need to work hard if Air Force wants to improve it's 94th ranked pass defense. Depth: Carson Bird has some experience and is a decent backup at the falcon position. He played corner last year so he can also help out there. Nathan Smith is perhaps the team's fastest corner and will back up Rybak to start the season. If Rybak falters, Smith could step into the starting role.
CB - Kevin Opuko. New starter.
CB - Sean Grevious. 3 tackles, 1 PBU. New starter.
FS - Jordan Murray. 3 tackles. New starter.
SS - Caleb Campbell. (#21 - SS) 97 tackles, 2 TFL, 5 INT, 3 PBU. Returning starter.
Caleb Cambell (left) is the best player in the Army secondary and one of the better strong safeties that the Irish will face. He'll have a lot of weight on his shoulders as the rest of the Black Knight secondary is extremely inexperienced. Jordan Murray fills in at the starting free safety spot after a very strong showing in the spring. He hasn't only played in a few games, but has impressed the coaching staff with his development so far. The corners are about as green as they come with Kevin Opuko, a former Army walk-on, getting his first taste of Army football once he steps on the field as a starter. Sean Grevious played in a handful of snaps last year but did win the Army's "Most Improved Player" award for his work during spring practice. Depth: Markenson Pierre has earned high expectations for his work in practice but the sophomore, like many of the Army backups, is very inexperienced and will need playing time in order to develop.
CB - Cary Harris. 9 tackles, 1 PBU. New starter.
CB - Terrell Thomas. 5 tackles, 1 PBU. New starter.
FS - Josh Pinkard. (#12 - CB) 54 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1.5 TFL, 2 INT, 7 PBU, 1 FR, 2 FF. Returning starter.
SS - Kevin Ellison. 6 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FF. New starter.
The Trojans feature a revamped secondary this season, but there is a lot of young talent, albeit untested, lininup in the USC defensive backfield. Josh Pinkard (right) is the lone returning starter, but after starting 6 games at corner last year, he'll have to get used to starting at his original position of safety again. Kevin Ellison was contributing on special teams and as a backup safety before injury sidelined him for the season. He's back and although only an inexperienced sophomore, will look to stay healthy and keep the starting strong safety spot. Terrell Thomas also was sidelined early in last season and was put on the bench for the remainder of the season. He appears to be fully healed from knee surgery and ready to play. He'll probably be rusty for a bit, but should be back to form by the time ND plays the Trojans. Cary Harris was a backup corner last year as a freshman and now the sophomore has earned the starting job for now. Depth: Fighting Harris for that starting spot is another sophomore, Kevin Thomas (#37 - CB). Like Harris, Thomas was a backup corner last year and now is looking at possibly starting. Two freshman are the backups at safety and have a world of potential. The biggest is Antwine Perez, who is already pushing returning starter Josh Pinkard for the starting spot. An all-everything recruit and ferocious hitter, Perez is already a Trojan fan favorite. Meanwhile, Taylor Mays is looking at taking over the free safety spot. Mays has linebacker size at 6-4, 225 pounds and may not be a safety for long, but for now he's impressing everyone with his mix of size and speed.
2006 Defensive Backs Analysis and Rankings.
The first thing that strikes me while writing this is just how inexperienced the 2006 opponent defensive backs are. After looking at the veteran linebackers and wondering how Darius's rushing yardage will be affected, now I look at all of the rookie corners and safeties and wonder if Quinn and his recievers are licking their lips.
Consider that 8 of the 12 opponents are replacing at least 2 starters in the secondary. The only exceptions are Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, and Navy. And considering that Michigan State was 85th in the country in pass defense last season and Stanford was 110th, returning players aren't always the solution. I kept thinking that a certain team would be low in my rankings due to lack of production and experience, only to find that most of the rest of the teams were in a similar situation.
Thinking about Rhema McKnight, he'll likely be matched up with most team's #2 cornerback. Looking back at this list, there are only three games this year (Michigan State, Stanford, Navy) where he'll be covered by a returning starter. The rest of the time he'll be marked by a largely inexperience first time starter.
And of some of that returning starting experience, a fair number of those players are converted safties trying their hand at cornerback. And given the difficulty going from a safety spot where you rarely turn your back on the QB to a position like cornerback that requires much more one-on-one individual skill, I do expect some of those newly minted corners to struggle.
I'm not predicting that Quinn will throw for 500 yards a game, but given the quality of the linebackers on the schedule and the relative inexperience of the accompanying defensive backs, I think Weis will be content to let his Heisman Trophy candidate sit back and throw the ball. To wit, look back at all of the high Phil Steele rankings for the linebackers and compare that to the relative lack of Steele rankings for players on this preview. Would you run all the time if you could pass against players like this? I'd also look for a fair number of draw plays to Walker if opposing teams try to aid their weaker secondaries with numerous blitzes.
Now then, on to the rankings. Normally there are few clear cut winners and losers. But this really is a crapshoot save a team like Michigan that has a decent amount of returning talent. The difference between, say, #2 and #9 isn't really all that great. And of course, depending on how the new corners perform, these rankings could be crap starting with the first set of games this Saturday.
1. Michigan - Leon Hall leads a quality collection of talent and experience.
2. Stanford - A decent group that gets a high ranking based on the returning experienced players.
3. Southern Cal - More potential than any team on this list, but also lots of inexperience.
4. Michigan State - Average returning talent, but Nemehiah Warrick could be a difference-maker.
5. Navy - I really wanted to rank this veteran unit higher, but just couldn't do it.
6. Georgia Tech - Kenny Scott is a solid corner, but the rest of the starters are question marks for now.
7. UCLA - Keyes is the leader and this unit could be better if the new players adapt quickly.
8. North Carolina - Not much experience and not much production outside of Taylor.
9. Penn State - Justin King might be a star. The rest of the group will need to produce or struggle.
10. Air Force - Outside of Giannini, there isn't much in the way of experience or depth.
11. Army - Only the presence of Caleb Campbell keeps the Black Knights out of the last spot.
12. Purdue - When walk-on running back transfers take a starting spot, you're in trouble.
Coming tomorrow....Position preview summary
Posted by Pat at 10:35 PM
What to expect...Yellow Jacket Offense
Patrick Nix assumed the playcalling duties from head coach Chan Gailey during the offseason, but as usual the Tech offense will be predicated on (1) establishing balance between the run and the pass and (2) limiting turnovers. Last year the Jackets ran the ball 464 times and threw 418 passes. While Calvin Johnson might be the most talented receiver in the country, the bread and butter of the Tech attack is a strong running game, with an occasional bolt of lightning to Johnson. If you look at his receiving log from last year, you'll see a couple of games that Johnson dominated, but more often than not he served a complementary role in the offense and wasn't the main focus. He didn't have more than one touchdown in any game last year. (For comparison's sake, see the logs from #83 and #21 from last year). Tech ran the ball 39 times a game last year, and you can bet we'll get a steady diet of Tashard Choice on Saturday.
A note about Reggie Ball. Last year he ran the ball about 10 times a game, yet many of those were intended passes where Ball scrambled to avoid a sack. Tech improved their pass protection last year quite a bit, giving up only 10 sacks all year after giving up 28 in '04. This is as much due to Ball's increased pocket awareness as improved blocking. While he's still an inconsistent passer (only 48% completions, even as a 3rd-year starter last year) he's developed into a canny runner and will pick his spots to avoid a sack.
Frankly, I think the Irish are going to come out in a defense unfamiliar to Notre Dame fans: witness the strategy sessions with the Carolina Panthers, the repeated insistence from Charlie that the defense has been streamlined (or simplified, whichever you prefer), and yesterday's revelation that Rick Minter will be calling the defensive plays from the booth instead of the sideline. I think they've made over this defense pretty well, and it will be interesting to see what they've come up with. But there are some things we can try to gauge. For one, it sounds like Charlie Weis and Rick Minter are finally happy with the nickel and dime personnel groupings. As Minter recently stated:
“Keep in mind last year you didn’t hear us talk about that a great deal because we only had four defensive backs, occasionally five. I played three linebackers and I played four DBs, sometimes five, but that’s about it...What’s in the past is in the past. We coach what we had. We did what we could do. We kind of grew into doing it more and more as the year went on...Now our team is just a little bit deeper than it was a year ago.”Second, I think there may be some schematic changes installed on the defense involving more zone blitzing. If the staff wants to play it vanilla and conservative, we may not even see those until the Penn State or Michigan State games, but we might unveil some new blitz strategies against Tech.
The bottom line...
Linebackers and secondary aside, the key will be the defensive line's ability to neutralize the Georgia Tech offensive line. Whether it's by tying up linemen to allow the linebackers to pursue the ballcarrier, or by penetrating and creating havoc in the backfield, or by generating a strong pass rush, the defensive line will play an integral role in an Irish victory. If the line can stop the run and contain quarterback Reggie Ball, Calvin Johnson won't matter. Ball is too inconsistent to maintain drives on his own; he needs the running game. Additionally, the absence of a second quality receiver or tight end to reduce Johnson's load will hurt Georgia Tech throughout the game.
(P.S. A little birdie told me there might be some no-huddle from Georgia Tech on offense. It'll be interesting to see if this occurs, especially because one of Notre Dame's problems last year was miscommunication in the secondary. Obviously, communication becomes harder when you don't have time for a defensive huddle and you're on the road in a hostile environment.)
What to expect...Yellow Jacket Defense
"We're very aggressive. [Our DC Jon Tenuta] is going to come after you. I think that's the way to play defense, you have to be very aggressive and not too laid back. If you're laid back I think you take the punishment instead of dishing it out. When you are bringing somebody, regardless from where they are coming from, there's a hole in the defense. It's the fact of you covering it up and disguising where it is. Making the offense try and figure out where that hole is. Sometimes it bites you in the butt, but sometimes it pays off big. Can't be perfect so that happens, but the point of it is to try and prevent that from happening is frequently as possible."
If you know one Tech assistant's name, it's probably Jon Tenuta. He's got a reputation as an aggressive defensive coordinator, fearlessly calling blitz after blitz. Below is a Cliff's Notes version of Tenuta's defense, courtesy of 33jacket :
We play cover 3 about 50% of the time, cover 2 about 25-30% of the time and man the rest. We just disguise it with blitzes and coverage rollover. The problem [against ND] will be on how the weakside of the D executes the plan. It is easy to take away one WR...tough to take away one WR, a RB, TE another 2 WRs.What this Georgia Tech fan is describing is actually a scheme that more and more defenses are using every year. The cover 3 has its origins with Dick Lebeau as a counterattack for the West Coast Offense. The most familiar examples to fans might be the Philadelphia Eagles under Jim Johnson, and obviously, the Pittsburgh Steelers under Lebeau. In the college game, Nick Saban used a similar defense at LSU, as did/does Ohio State, although it's my understanding that the Buckeyes used it less last year and more under former defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio (now the head coach at Cincinnati, former Saban assistant at Michigan State). For what it's worth, I know Pete Carroll also loves the zone blitz, but he comes from the Cover 2 school of Monte Kiffin. What all four of those teams have in common is that they either won or played in championship games.
What Irish fans can expect to see is that most of the time Georgia Tech will show a Cover 2 defense prior to the snap, with probably a lot of pre-snap movement by the linebackers. If it's a zone blitz, on the snap of the ball one of the safeties will shift to play centerfield and each corner will take a deep zone. Generally two of the remaining four linebackers and safeties will blitz, with the other two covering underneath zones. Finally, a defensive end will also drop into coverage. Here's an example of a Cover 3 zone blitz:
Now throw in some stunts, and it's a nice recipe for disaster for many young quarterbacks. Last year Kyle Wright was sacked seven times by the Yellowjackets, who sent a blitz on nearly every play. Now-departed defensive end Eric Henderson summed up their attacking philosophy:
"With any quarterback, if we keep pressuring him, he's eventually going to fold. He can't keep getting hit like that all night. No quarterback can."Then top-five-ranked Miami lost 14-10. How can the current top-five Irish avoid a similar fate?
For starters, Notre Dame is catching Georgia Tech at the right time. The Jackets are breaking in three new starters in their secondary, and five new DBs if you count their nickel and dime packages.
Second, it's not as though Weis hasn't seen this defense before. In winning his third Super Bowl with the Patriots, Weis game-planned differently for both the Steelers (AFC Championship game) and the Eagles, despite the fact that both defenses relied on zone-blitzing schemes. Against the Steelers, quarterback Tom Brady was able to hit a 60-yard post pattern pass to Deion Branch and followed it up with another 45-yard pass to Branch down the seam of the defense. On both plays Weis took advantage of a rookie safety, Troy Polamalu. The Eagles on the other hand possessed arguably the best secondary in the NFL, so Weis needed to utilize a different approach. Most Irish fans are aware that Weis played more wide receivers in the Super Bowl to get the Eagles to substitute for 260-lb middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who was a dominant run-stuffer. With Trotter out of the game, the Patriots ran the ball better out of passing formations. Weis may opt to do the same against the Yellowjackets, especially with their ultra-green secondary.
Another wrinkle was identified by Pat Kirwan, who wrote an outstanding preview analyzing the options for the Patriots to attack the Eagles. One of the highlights really struck my attention:
The temptation in playing against [a Philadelphia zone blitz] is to use the draw play more in hopes of getting the defensive linemen who drop out in coverage to initiate the drop, and then have the draw play come right at them.You could mentally substitute Darius Walker for Faulk in this example. Walker runs the draw play so well that it could pay huge dividends for the Irish on Saturday. If the Yellowjackets drop into a zone, it opens up the draw; however, if they hesitate and wait to see whether Walker has the ball or not, short passes could easily be completed, especially considering the talent that Notre Dame possesses at tight end and receiver. It's worth noting that generally, Tech's corners play about seven yards off of receivers (remember, it's a zone defense).
In this game, [Kevin] Faulk should not call off the zone blitz. But the warning to the defensive linemen is be aware of Faulk and make sure he clears the ball before they drop, or else the underneath curl zones could be open for the wide receivers and tight ends. I think tight ends Daniel Graham or Christian Fauria could be factors in the underneath pass attack when Faulk is in the game.
The bottom line...
We saw last year that a talented defense with NFL talent everywhere can stifle the ND offense. We saw this for stretches in the Fiesta Bowl and even after the first drive against Tennessee. Georgia Tech - especially in the secondary (save Kenny Scott) - doesn't possess similar talent to slow down the Irish offense, and Weis will have Brady Quinn ready to dissect Tenuta's defense when Walker isn't hitting draw plays for big yardage.
The one thing that could alter this gameplan is if Georgia Tech comes out and plays a lot more man coverage, and specifically plays more bump-and-run on our wide receivers. If that happens, then the game within a game -- the game of adjustments between Weis and Tenuta -- would be on.
Posted by Michael at 1:18 PM
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Moving quickly through the defensive positions before kickoff, we arrive at the linebackers. Follow the links for quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends/offensive lines, and defensive lines. The DL preview also includes the key for stat abbreviations. Linebacker abbreviations in this post include OLB (outside), ILB (inside), SLB (strongside), MLB (middle), and WLB (weak). Rankings in parenthesis are Phil Steele's positional rankings.
SLB - KaMichael Hall. (#21 - OLB) 64 tackles, 4 sacks, 14 TFL, 2 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
MLB - Philip Wheeler. 64 tackles, 4 sacks, 11 TFL, 4 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF. Returning starter.
WLB - Gary Guyton. 19 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFL, 1 PBU. New starter.
The Yellow Jackets will field a very talented linebacker corp that should contend for the best unit in the conference. Preseason All-ACC 1st teamer and Butkus Award nominee KaMichael Hall (right) is the big name and will entering his third year starting at the strongside linebacker position. Hall led the team in tackles for loss last season and is dangerous at rushing the passer, as he does often in the blitz happy Tech defense. Philip Wheeler is another excellent linebacker that pulled in four interceptions last season as a new starter. Considered perhaps the best athlete on the team, Wheeler was moved from the weak-side linebacker position to the middle where expectations on him are sky high. Gary Guyton is the lone new starter with only one career start to his name. Even though he's at the weakside position, Guyton is the biggest Tech linebacker at 6-2, 230 pounds. Depth: There really is no experienced linebacker depth on the Georgia Tech team. Of the four likely candidates to back up the starters, junior Travis Chambers, sophomore Matt Braham, freshman Shane Bowen, and sophomore Taalib Tucker, only Chambers has played a snap at linebacker thus far. And even then he only has 10 career tackles.
Dan Conner. (#4 - OLB) 116 tackles, 3 sacks, 11 TFL, 3 PBU. Returning starter.
Tim Shaw. (#14 - ILB) 76 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 6.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 2 FF. Returning starter.
Paul Posluszny. (#1 - OLB) 76 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 5.5 TFL, 8 PBU, 1 FR. Returning starter.
I think it's fair to say that this not only the best linebacking unit that the Irish will face, but also the best corp of linebackers in the nation. There is talent, experience, and depth at every position. Because of this, there are rumors they might shift to a 3-4 defense in order to get more linebackers on the field. Paul Posluszny (left) is the star of the group and after winning the Butkus Award last year should be no stranger to any Irish fan. From his outside linebacker position, he can stop the run and defend the pass. The only real question is how he'll return from a vicious knee injury suffered in the Orange Bowl last year. For what it's worth, he says he's back 100%. The other outside linebacker, Dan Connor, is burgeoning star who is extremely fast and made a big impact at the starting outside linebacker spot after being suspended for the first three games last year. In the middle is Tim Shaw, a load at 237 pounds who is very tough against the run and able to exploit an offense that pays too much attention to Posluszny and Connor. Depth: Tyrell Sales started the first three games when Connor was suspended and now provides some experienced depth at the outside spots. When Posluszny went down with the knee injury, Sean Lee stepped in and did a very solid job. He will be expected to do the same again this year if Paul can't go for some reason. If the Nittany Lions go to a 3-4, expect Lee to be the 4th linebacker on the field. Young players Dontay Brown and Jerome Hayes don't have much experience, but are still considered talented players waiting in the wings.
SLB - Shawn Crable. 14 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 TFL, 3 PBU. New starter.
MLB - Dave Harris. (#12 - ILB) 88 tackles, 1 sack, 6 TFL, 3 PBU, 1 FR, 2 FF. Returning starter.
WLB - Prescott Burgess. 81 tackles, 1 sack, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 2 FF. Returning starter.
Another talented linebacker group, Michigan has three returning starters but one is in danger of losing his starting spot. Dave Harris returns as the middle linebacker after winning Michigan's linebacker of the year award for his play last season. A big linebacker at 6-2, 242 pounds, Harris is extremely effective against the run. Shawn Crable played himself into a starting position at the Michigan strongside position after being a backup last year. Another big 'backer, Crable is listed at 6-5, 245 pounds, which is huge for an outside linebacker. The final starter is the player with the most press, but also the one in danger of losing his starting position. Prescott Burgess (right) was honorable mention all Big-Ten last year, but might not even be the starter for the Wolverine opener against Vanderbilt. At 6-3, 245 pounds, Burgess is yet another huge linebacker giving Michigan the chance to have all three starting linebackers over 240 pounds. Depth: If Burgess is beat out, it will be by co-starter Chris Graham (#49 - ILB), who started four games last year at middle linebacker. Compared to the other players, Graham is undersized at 5'11, 225 pounds, but he is a consistent tackler and faster than Burgess in the open field. John Thompson is the main backup for Harris in the middle but the rest of the backups such as Brandon Logan and Chris McLaurin are inexperienced. Expectations were high for freshman linebacker Brandon Graham, but he has since been moved to defensive end.
WLB - David Herron. (#32 - OLB) 65 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 TFL, 2 PBU, 3 FR. Returning starter.
MLB - Kaleb Thornhill. 63 tackles, 1 sack, 4 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FR. Returning starter.
Bandit - SirDarean Adams. (#33 - OLB) 60 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 TFL, 3 INT, 2 PBU, 2 FF. Returning starter.
The theme of experienced linebackers continues at Michigan State where the Spartans return all three starting linebackers. Unlike previous groups though, there are no potential All-Americans on this unit. Still, they are fast, athletic, and veteran players who had enough talent to give ND fits last year. In the middle, Kaleb Thornhill is a physical presence at 240 pounds. He has had some injury problems, but is coming into this season healthy. On the outside, David Herron is a huge outside linebacker at 245 pounds and is probably the best linebacker on the team. He was 2nd on the team in tackles last year behind the graduated Eric Smith. SirDarean Adams (left) plays the Bandit position which is somewhat similar to the now defunct Apache position at ND. Extremely fast, Adams is solid in the passing game and a very strong tackler against the run game. Depth: The backups include inexperienced Steve Jaurez and a trio of players in Tom Dance, Adam Decker, and promising freshman Josh Rouse who didn't play linebacker at all last season. Eric Andino, a promising backup linebacker was moved to tight end.
SLB - Cliff Avirl. 33 tackles, 2.5 TFL. New starter.
MLB - George Hall. (#16 - ILB) 77 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 PBU. Returning starter.
WLB - Dan Bick. 40 tackles, 1 sack, 3.5 TFL, 1 INT. New starter.
The Purdue linebackers are fast and talented, but also injured. The depth chart took a bit of a hit when starting middle linebacker George Hall (right) went down with a leg injury in fall camp. He's had surgery but it's unknown if he'll make it back in time for the late September game against ND. I'll leave him in here for now, but even if he does make it back he likely won't be at 100%. When he is healthy, he's a veteran linebacker who is extremely quick for his size (6-2, 240 pounds). Cliff Avril also has battled some injuries during last year and this fall relating to his back. And it's never good for a linebacker to have back injuries. If he can play pain free, Cliff is the best run stopper on the team and an excellent tackler. Dan Bick has been playing with a shoulder injury through fall camp and it's not sure just how he'll be able to hold up to the pounding of tackling fullbacks and taking on offensive lineman. Especially considering he's a bit undersized at 218 pounds. Depth: Taking Hall's place for the first few games is Josh Ferguson, an inexperienced junior who had a solid offseason and the benefit of playing with the first team defense for much of fall camp. Jason Werner is an extremely fast former safety but like Avril is fighting with back problems and may have to miss some games. Stanford Keglar has 18 career starts under his belt, but has been related to backup status behind Bick for now. If he gets the call, he'll bring a good amount of game experience off the bench.
OLB - Udeme Udofia. 36 tackles, 1 sack, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FF. Returning starter.
ILB - Michael Okwo. 34 tackles, 2 sacks, 5.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU. Returning starter.
ILB - Mike Silva. 57 tackles, 1 sack, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
OLB - Clinton Synder. New starter.
Stanford has a number of experience linebackers returning but also might fight off the injury bug. Starting inside linebacker Michael Okwo broke his thumb and will miss time early in the season, though he should be back in the starting lineup for the ND game. He was also injured last season and though he played in 10 of 11 games, only started in 3. Mike Silva is the other inside linebacker in the Cardinal's 3-4 defense and is the leading returning tackler of the linebackers after starting the final 8 games at the inside linebacker position. If needed, he's fast enough to play on the outside. Udeme Udofia is a physical presence at 6-4, 240 pounds and when the Cardinal switch to a 4-3 is the likely choice to move to defensive end. Clinton Synder is the new starter of the bunch and even though the redshirt freshman has yet to play a snap in college, the coaching staff are already talking him up as a future star. Depth: With Okwo out for at least the opener, Pat Maynor is going to get the starting nod. Maynor has a special teams contributor last season and now finds himself with the potential for a lot of playing time. Backing up Maynor is freshman Nick Macalsuo. Peter Griffin played strong safety for the past three years but now is the backup behind Synder on the outside.
SLB - John Hale. 20 tackles, 1 PBU. 1 FR. New starter.
MLB - Christian Taylor. 43 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FR. New starter.
WLB - Reggie Carter. New starter.
UCLA was hit hard by graduation at the linebacker position and fields three new starters in 2006. They also field the smallest starting linebacker corp on the ND schedule, smaller even than ND's relatively light Thomas-Crum-Thomas lineup. The most productive Bruin starter is Air Force transfer Christian Taylor (left), who only started one game last year in a backup role but was 6th on the team in tackles. He's not that big for a middle linebacker at 6-0, 222 pounds, but is a very physical player. Sophomore John Hale is the most experienced returning linebacker who started 7 games last year. He started games at both the outside and middle linebacker positions, but will start out on the outside for now. Sophomore Reggie Carter hasn't played yet but he's a highly touted recruit and probably the fastest of the three Bruin linebackers. If he can adjust to college ball quickly, he could be the best 'backer on the team come the ND game. Again, another smallish linebacker at 218 pounds. Depth: Still fighting Carter for the starting WLB spot is Eric McNeal, who is actually even lighter at 208 pounds. 215 pound Aaron Whittington is backing up Hale, but is actually starting the first game against Utah while Hale serves out a suspension. Whittington started two games last year but did miss the final four games with a leg injury.
OLB - David Mahoney. 76 tackles, 8 sacks, 16 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FR. Returning starter.
ILB - Rob Caldwell. (#41 - OLB) 140 tackles, 2 sacks, 7.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 3 FF. Returning starter.
ILB - Clint Stovie. 6 tackles, 1 FF. New starter.
OLB - Tyler Tidwell. 67 tackles, 10 sacks, 19 TFL, 2 PBU, 3 FF. Returning starter.
Perhaps the most productive linebacking corp in the schedule, Navy has a very good unit in their 3-4 scheme featuring one of the best tacklers in NCAA football. No linebacker on the schedule had more tackles than Rob Caldwell (right), who finished the year with an outstanding 140 tackles. Caldwell isn't all that big, but is the type of player who is always found near or in the pile after a play is over. Joining him in the middle is Clint Stovie, who at 196 pounds is probably the smallest inside linebacker playing D-1 football. On the outside, Navy returns two talented linebackers in David Mahoney and Tyler Tidwell. Tidwell in particular is a very good pass rusher while Mahoney is no slouch either in that department. Depth: Joe Cylc is a bigger option in the middle at 230 pounds if Stovie isn't able to stop the run while Irv Spencer is an even bigger backup option at 240 pounds. Matt Wimsett offers another option at the outside.
SLB - Larry Edwards. (#25 - OLB) 91 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 8 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
MLB - Mark Paschal. 7 tackles. New starter.
WLB - Durell Mapp. 46 tackles, 1 sack, 1.5 TFL, 1 FR, 2 FF. Returning starter.
The leader of this linebackering corp is strongside 'backer Larry Edwards (left). He led the team in tackles last season and is expected to contend for all conference honors this year as one of the team leaders on defense. Mark Paschal is the surprise starter at the middle linebacker position after a solid showing in the spring and fall camps. Another relatively small middle linebacker at 225 pounds, Paschal will have a lot of attention as the rookie running the middle of the Tar Heel defense. Durell Mapp started the final 6 games last year at middle linebacker for North Carolina but this season was switched to the weak-side spot. He missed the spring due to a shoulder injury and in fall camp sprained his knee. Assuming another injury doesn't hit him though, he should be healed up by the ND game. Depth: If Mapp can't go, sophomores Chase Rice and Garrett White will look to step into the starting lineup and contribute. Victor Woolsey is a veteran backup middle linebacker who holds some weight room records for the Tar Heels, but also has had injury issues in the past.
ILB - Joey Keller. 22 tackles, 1.5 TFL. New starter.
ILB - Drew Fowler. 77 tackles, 1 sack, 5.5 TFL. Returning starter.
Air Force runs a 4-2-5 scheme usually where only two players are technically classified as linebackers. For now I'll leave the hybrid outside linebacker/safety positions for the secondary post. Drew Fowler (right, tackling) is the man in the middle as he was 2nd in the team in tackles last year with 77 despite only starting 9 of the 11 games. Joey Keller was a backup last year and is line for a starting spot, but was injured for some of fall camp. Depth: If Keller isn't a starter by the ND game, Jared Baxely might be the man in the middle. The fastest Falcon linebacker, Baxley is inexperienced but Air Force might need his speed. Austin Randle is another backup looking for playing time on the Falcon defense.
SLB- Charlie Rockwood. 15 tackles, 2 TFL. Returning starter.
MLB - Cason Schrode. 69 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3 TFL. Returning starter.
WLB - Barrett Scruggs. (#59 - OLB) 80 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
Barrett Scruggs (left) is the best player on the linebacker line and the former safety is extremely capable in pass coverage. At 213 pounds he might have some trouble with bigger backs, but he did finish 2nd on the team in tackles last year. Cason Schrode mans the middle linebacker position and he finished 3rd on the team in tackles last year. At 250 pounds he's a load and his 11 career starts give him a good amount of experience too. Charlie Rockwood was named the strongside starter last year and started three games before a season ending injury knocked him out for the year. Back and healthy, the Black Knight coaching staff have high hopes that his athleticism pays off in the form of sideline to sideline coverage. Depth: Luke Pell started six games last year in Rockwood's absence and provides a veteran presence off the bench. Sophomore Frank Scappaticci impressed the coaching staff in the spring and from his backup spot behind Scruggs will likely see playing time as he is groomed as a future starter.
SLB - Dallas Sartz. (#4 - SS) 8 tackles, 2 sacks, 2.5 TFL. Returning starter.
MLB - Oscar Lua. (#10 - ILB) 66 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FR. 1 FF. Returning starter.
WLB - Keith Rivers. (#3 - OLB) 52 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FR. Returning starter.
If Penn State is the best linebacking corp in the nation, Southern Cal is #2. The collection of size, speed, and talent here is really impressive and the fruit of three years of almost unbelievable recruiting. There is so much talent, the Trojans might be tempted to try out a 3-4 defense, but for this preview we'll stick with the 4-3. And even then, the names of the starters aren't set in stone. Dallas Sartz returns from a shoulder injury that knocked him out for all but two games of the 2005 season and regains the starting strongside spot he has held since midway through the 2003 season. At 6-5, 240 pounds, Sartz is tough, fast, and smart. If he can stay healthy, he should have a fantastic year. In the middle, Oscar Lua returns for his second year starting after leading the Trojans in tackles last year. He has a highly regarded player on his heels for the starting job, but so far Lua has played well enough in practice to hold him off. Keith Rivers (right) had a breakout game last year against Notre Dame and the extremely fast junior will likely show up on a few national award lists by the end of the season. Depth: You can see the depth of the Trojan team when you notice the Phil Steele rankings for the Trojan backups. Fighting Lua for the starting job in the middle is Rey Maualuga (#26 - ILB) , a ferocious player that I honestly think will be the starter when ND rolls into town. Brian Cushing (#9 - OLB) has battled through some injury problems and will push Dallas Sartz at the strongside 'backer position. If USC goes to a 3-4, look for Cushing to get the call off the bench. Thomas Williams (#49 - OLB) actually started 6 games at the strongside position last year, but now finds himself 3rd on the depth chart at both the strongside and middle 'backer positions. Luther Brown was a very highly regarded recruit who was sidelined last year with back issues. Once healthy, he may make a move up the very crowded Trojan depth chart. Allen Bradford is a highly touted freshman, but he was moved from linebacker to running back in fall camp.
2006 Linebacker Analysis and Rankings
Of all the opponent positions, I don't think any is as impressive and daunting as the collection of linebackers that the Irish will face in 2006. Originally I had high hopes that Darius was going to have an incredible year with all of the attention put on the receivers, but there are a lot of very good run stopping linebackers on the schedule this year. Penn State and Southern Cal have incredible talent and depth while every team save Stanford, UCLA, and Air Force has at least one starting linebacker ranked by Phil Steele. Another thing to note is all of the experience. 9 of the 12 teams return at least 2 starting linebackers and UCLA is the only team to have a completely new set of starters for 2006.
There is so much linebacker talent that it's interesting to see teams like the Nittany Lions and Trojans flirting with the 3-4 scheme in order to get more 'backers on the field. Navy and Stanford already run this formation and while Michigan seems to be moving to a more permanent 4-3 alignment, they will still probably drop into the 3-4 at times this year.
The good news for Irish fans is that not only is Darius Walker experienced enough to deal with quality linebackers, but he's a fantastic pass blocker so those blitzing linebackers will still have a bit of trouble getting to Quinn. Ditto Travis Thomas when he's in. Of course, I wonder if this will limit just how much Munir Prince sees the field against some of the team near the top of my linebacker rankings. Time will tell.
1. PSU - The best linebacking unit in the country.
2. USC - The 2nd best linebacking unit in the country with a ton of potential on the bench.
3. Michigan - Big and strong starters but other than Graham, the backups are untested.
4. Georgia Tech - A very athletic starting trio. Not much proven depth.
5. Michigan State - A veteran unit that will be the leaders of the Spartan defense.
6. Navy - Outstanding production and passing rushing ability. Caldwell is a tackling machine.
7. Stanford - A decent mix of experience and production.
8. North Carolina - Edwards needs to be a leader. A potentially good linebacking corp.
9. Army - A veteran unit returns with some experience coming off the bench.
10. Purdue - Hall is a solid player and there is experience, but injuries could hurt.
11. UCLA - Decent athleticism, but nearly no experience.
12. Air Force - Fowler is decent, but there really is no other depth on the team.
Next up....Defensive backs.
Posted by Pat at 10:00 PM