Monday, June 22, 2009

Depth-Chartin' | by Pat

Today is the day that the whole team returns to campus for the start of summer classes. All of the freshman are in with the rest of the team showing up during the day. And with this first glimpse of the light at the end of the off-season tunnel, Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune offers up two new articles to provide some excellent "we're getting closer to football season" depth chart conversation starters.

The first concerns the surprising return of Evan Sharpley for his 5th year. Drafted by Seattle in the 50th round of the recent Major League Draft, Evan worked out a deal with the Mariners to allow him to return to ND early enough to participate in all of fall camp and prepare for the 2009 season.. A successful under-the-radar application for a 5th year option last winter kept this option open.

The move gives ND's QB depth chart an instant shot in the arm. Danye Crist is still the expected backup to Clausen, but now the Irish also have a backup who has started a number of games, knows the playbook, and can provide additional team leadership.

Some might wonder why Sharpley is coming back to essentially be a third stringer. The answer is he is working towards a goal of becoming a teacher and coach in case his baseball career doesn't take off and will spend the fall fulfilling his student teacher requirements.

"I think it's not only going to be great from a player's standpoint, but as a future coach's standpoint as well. I'm going to take advantage of being able to look at what goes into the planning and behind-the-scenes stuff. I owe a lot to coach Weis."
Sounds like a win-win situation. Sharpley gets to prepare for his future and ND gets a one-year boost to the depth chart to supplement the talented but inexperienced Crist.

The next article by Hansen is a great off-season rundown on some critical Irish players for the 2009 season. But in addition to fluffy tidbits about Brian Smith, Armando Allen, and Duval Kamara staying near campus rather than return home after finals and Floyd, Tate, and Rudolph spending a week out with Jimmy Clausen in California, Hansen offers up some possible position switches we all might see tried out early in fall camp. First, while talking about sophomore guard Trevor Robinson, Hansen notes a few possibilities. The left tackle move was discussed prior to spring ball, but the second is an interesting twist to what was assumed a set in stone starting five.
Much speculation in the spring had him [Robinson] popping up at left tackle, but fifth-year senior Paul Duncan’s renaissance spring negated that notion. The two likely scenarios: 1) Robinson nudges past senior Chris Stewart at right guard OR 2) Stewart moves to left guard and incumbent starter Eric Olsen slides over to center, with returning starting center Dan Wenger becoming a backup.
I have to admit I'm a bit intrigued by the second option of moving Olsen to center. If the idea is to get the five best offensive linemen on the field, then I can easily see Robinson swapping in for Wenger. There is no doubt the run game would benefit from an interior of Chris Stewart, Eric Olsen, and Trevor Robinson.

However, can Eric Olsen play center? It's one thing to try and find the five best overall players and stick them on the field together. It's another to take a lifelong guard and hope he can successfully execute shotgun snap after shotgun snap. If ND were to do the roster shuffle Hansen highlights, that would leave only Sam Young playing the same position he played last season. All of the line's veteran experience isn't going to mean as much if all the players are learning the nuances of their new spot on the line. In the end, it will probably come down to the play of Trevor Robinson early in fall camp. If the coaches decide he's just too good to keep off the field, look for the likely possibility of OL musical chairs.

The other depth chart scenario involves the defense and specifically the nickel defense, which will likely be ND's most frequent defense given the pass and spread-offense happy nature of ND's 2009 opponents.
Look for [Brian] Smith and Te’o to be the nickel linebackers, safety Sergio Brown the extra defensive back and a surprisingly effective pass-rushing group up front, built for speed. ... Fleming and fellow sophomore SAM linebacker Steve Filer will drop down and play ends, with end Kapron Lewis-Moore and end/tackle Ethan Johnson moving inside.
No kidding that front seven will be built for speed. Ends as tackles. Linebackers as ends. The mantra is clearly rush the passer with a lineup like that. The somewhat surprising note is Filer slotted at one of the end spots. He's one of the better athletes on the team, so this lineup is certainly exciting from a pass-rushin', all-out Tenuta blitzin' standpoint. On the other hand, it's a small line that wouldn't hold up to the run much (granted, nickel defenses aren't designed to do that anyway) and there is a whole lot of inexperience when the lineup consists of one senior, one junior, four sophomores, and one freshman. Consider Fleming, Johnson, Filer, KLM, and Te'o have a combined career playing time of 251 minutes, which is exactly what Brian Smith logged by himself last season.

And what about Kerry Neal? He played more minutes last year than any returning defensive lineman. Will he be a part of the base defense only and leave the obvious passing downs to Steve Filer? Does this mean Filer isn't expected to start at another linebacker position and will specialize as a pass rusher, ala Mo Richardson? With Te'o rumored to be up to close to 240 pounds already, could he just start at middle linebacker from the get-go in both the base and nickel defense? There will obviously be some shuffling in fall camp as the coaches mix and match their way to a base and nickel defense. The battle for starting spots probably won't be fully decided until a few games into the season either. It sure is nice to have actual competition for jobs with more than one appealing outcome, isn't it? Is it September yet?