Wednesday, September 12, 2007

the Past and Pending | by Mike

A couple days ago, Dylan and I mentioned the role Willingham's recruiting plays in this year's struggle. Neither of us placed the blame for the offense's struggles solely at Willingham's feet. I specifically noted that the Willingham regime's lingering stench did not completely exonerate Weis & Co. ("Even without the upperclassmen options available at the vast majority of programs, I'm still surprised that the offensive coaches have not been able to produce a line capable of even modest success at opening holes or sustaining a pocket.") Nonetheless, the mere mention of Willingham's partial culpability left several people howling in outrage. These people are just going to have to deal with it. As shadyirish pointed out on on NDNation:

It is useful, when analyzing the last two weeks, to separate what appear to be problems that relate to situations under the control of the current staff (e.g. playcalling and gameplanning, player development, personnel decisions) and things not under the control of the current staff (e.g. recruiting shortfalls under previous staff). In fact, discussing the former while ignoring the latter is sure to produce a terribly flawed analysis of the situation.
We're quite concerned about playcalling, gameplanning and development issues. However, it's impossible to assess the coaches' shortcomings in these areas this year without reflecting on what the coaches have to work with. Back in our February 2005 Recruiting Roundtable, we were concerned with the long-tail effect of deficient OL recruiting. As Pat stated at the time:
The biggest "get" in this class was Paul Duncan and Michael Turkovich. Offensive lineman, especially tackles, were a top priority and by all accounts ND got two good ones. That only gives Notre Dame six offensive lineman in the past three years which is really going to hurt in a few years unless the young players develop and develop fast. I'm of the opinion that the play of the offense depends largely on the play of the offensive line. Even the best QB in country can't do much if he's being chased around the field. And even though ND missed on a few other tackles and guards in this class, Duncan and Turkovich appear to be quality players and fill the position I figured was the most glaring need this year.
Also consider the following post made by Hickster on NDNation in April 2005, before the first game of the Weis era:
Here is what I see should happen if things work out the way that we anticipate, under Coach Weis' ability to recruit, develop and coach:

2005: Next year could be strong, if we are lucky enough to catch lightning in a bottle for the 2nd time (back in '64 when Ara took over in the 1st year). Unfortunately, systems seem to be more difficult to pick-up than back then.

2006: System in with good experience. Last full year of the last strong recruiting class in 2003 with players not redshirted BQ, RH, JS, on offense and VA, CN, FP on defense, plus some good experience from some 2002 redshirted players. This year's 2006 strong recruiting class get a chance to get used to the system...some skill players and only "man-child" lineman will see the field.

2007: New starting QB. No depth with OL and 6 of top 7 players from the good 2003 recruits have already used up their eligibility. This is the year for 2006 recruiting class and new QB to get allot of experience. This reminds me of 1972 when a lot of sophomores (Tom Clements and crew) got experience and get ready for 1973's NC year.

2008: 2006 recruiting class are juniors combined with those stronger players and overachieving players from previous classes will be playing. Also, there should be Top 5 to Top 10 recruiting classes from here on out to insert outstanding sophomores and start to maintain the program at the highest level.
While Freddie Parish did not live up to expectations and Weis implemented his system sooner than expected, that is a rather prescient analysis. It also shows that the current year's drop-off could be seen coming years away. Yet even with these concerns, I don't think many would have expected that the offense would fail to score a touchdown in the first two games. That has left us disappointed in Weis & Co., but just how disappointed should we be? That's a question that can't be answered without considering certain factors attributable to the previous regime - and we're not going to ignore these factors simply to avoid offending the hyper-delicate sensibilities of some. What can be expected from an offensive line that includes the following class distribution of scholarship linemen will probably be debated throughout the course of the season
5th-year seniors
At this point, it's hard to deny the significance of the big donut in the senior class.

Jay brought up another point that really brings the depth and experience issues with the offensive line into stark relief: our backup left and right tackles are Matt Romine and Taylor Dever, respectively, both "true" freshmen. During the Georgia Tech and Penn State games, the Irish coaches experimented with different options at the interior positions - starters Turkovich, Sullivan, and Wenger were spelled by Eric Olsen, former walk-on Thomas Bemenderfer, and Matt Carufel. However, I believe tackles Paul Duncan and Sam Young played every single down throughout both games (someone please correct me if I'm wrong). It's possible the other tackles simply haven't spent enough time on campus to develop the strength and conditioning necessary to hold up in game action.

At this point, you may be asking, "If the issues at OL were such foreseeable consequences of the Willingham regime, why didn't your predictions reflect this?" That's a good question, and one I've been asking myself quite a bit over the last week and a half. At this point, I would say that the previous staff's recruiting is not the sole reason for the OL's struggles. The coaches with responsibility for the line - Latina and, yes, Weis - have not lived up to my expectations in this area. However, I think I overlooked two other key factors, both of which relate to relate to the longer development period for offensive linemen than most other positions.

First, I overestimated Notre Dame's ability to establish a power running game. While I realized that the young turks would have problems with pass protection as they gained experience, I thought the highly touted underclassmen would be able to make up for these problems with punishing run blocking. Two games without positive rushing yards later, this has clearly not been the case. I now find myself asking whether the young guys have developed the strength necessary to impose their will on defensive lines. Duncan and Turkovich have only spent two offseasons in a collegiate strength and conditioning program, while Wenger and Young have only had one. A typical starting OL will be full of guys that have been through offseason strength programs three or four times. This is significant because one of the first things college athletes discover is how much harder college S&C programs are than what they knew in high school. In particular, college athletes commonly discuss building strength in their lower bodies that they never could have imagined, and lower body strength is of utmost importance in the trenches. I previously mentioned how I hoped the OL could adopt the style of the '93 OL, who in Kevin McDougal's absence so thoroughly controlled the Southern Cal defense that backup QB Paul Failla only had to attempt five passes. When asked about the Irish line, a Trojan defender said, "They were like trees." At this point, we may still be waiting for some saplings to grow into trees.

Second, turning a highly touted high school lineman into an effective college lineman requires considerable development both individually and as part of a unit. There's a reason Sam Young was the first player in the history of ND football to start at tackle from Day 1 as a freshman - it usually takes significant physical, technical, and mental development after high school before one can play the line. In addition to developing his individual skills, a lineman also needs to learn how to play with the other members of his line. It's easier for a running back (say, Armando Allen) or receiver to crack the lineup and produce than it is for a lineman. While a receiver, for example, needs to get his timing down with the QB, that only requires being on the same page as one other member of the offense. Linemen need time to learn how to block in concert with the linemen/TE on either side of them, if not with the whole OL. This brings us back to why having only Romine & Dever as the top backups is so precarious.

One sidenote about the paucity of linemen in the upper classes that bears mentioning is the limited options for filling that donut hole. After a 6-6 record his first year, Pete Carroll guided Southern Cal to a 10-2 record his second year and the Trojans haven't looked back. There are many reasons for this. First and foremost, Carroll is an exceptional college head coach. He also inherited a team with quite a bit of talent, and Carroll has recruited his ass off since his arrival. And as Michael mentioned in our 2005 Recruiting Roundtable, Southern Cal received significant contributions from junior college players, including offensive linemen Taitusi Lutui and John Drake. Weis has recruited several very highly touted prospects that already appear ready for major roles (Darrin Walls, Jimmy Clausen, Armando Allen, etc.). Yet when teams need quick fixes along the OL, it's much easier to turn to the JUCO ranks than high school prospects. At Notre Dame, this isn't an option. Thus while Weis has been able to address the linemen issues in the younger classes, there's really no way he could fix the void Willingham left in the upper classes. We've had to start filling at the bottom, and it's going to take time.

As we've repeatedly said, we think the current coaches could do a better job with this year's offensive line. The confusion among linemen, the missed assignments, and the penalties on display in the first two games point to inadequate preparation and repetition, which falls on the coaches. However, the role of the previous staff in our current predicament is impossible for the intelligent fan to ignore. Thus if any discussion that involves the lingering deleterious effects of the Willingham regime offends you, there's no point in sniping about it in the comments. Blinding ourselves to salient data would preclude the type of discourse we strive for on this blog, and you can probably expect ongoing discussion, consideration, and reconsideration of the interplay between coaching and depth issues along the OL throughout the season.