Saturday, March 19, 2005

Questions Abound | by Pat

The start of spring practice is right around the corner and the only sure thing is that chesterlep will be there to photograph it. The defense will have to replace eight starters and while the offense returns all eleven starters from last year (counting Walker as a co-starter), no one really knows what the new coaching staff will end up doing with players and positions. Here's an early stab at some of the major questions going into spring practice.

1. Will a definite second string QB emerge?

Brady Quinn is the starting quarterback. That's pretty obvious. But after him the depth chart is both shallow and full of inexperience. Will Quinn's eventual backup solidify his position this spring or will this debate continue into the fall when Evan Sharpley and Dan Gorski show up?

Dillingham is moving on with his post-college career so that only leaves two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster this spring. David Wolke has the playing time advantage over fellow sophomore Darrin Bragg with a whopping 2 minutes of game experience last season, but who knows what Weis and Cutcliffe (who's first priority this spring is to recuperate from his recent heart surgery) will see in each player.

My guess is that the 2nd string debate will wage on into fall practice as the bulk of the limited spring practice time will be dedicated to tutoring Quinn on the new offensive system. Getting a solid backup some quality reps would be ideal, but the reality is that you need to make sure your starting quarterback is comfortable before you move further down the depth chart.

2. Where will Justin Hoskins end up?

Ever since Hoskins hurdled a tackler during his first career kick return against Washington, fans have been hoping #33 would see more and more playing time. Injuries and questionable special teams coaching decisions kept him off the field for much of the season, but he did start at running back in the bowl (where in true Diedrickian fashion he threw a pass on a fake play to open up the game). As one of the more athletic players on the team, Hoskins appears to be able to contribute at multiple positions. So, aside from fielding more punts and kickoffs, where will he end up?

While he finished the season at running back, according to many he might have the ability to play cornerback next year. He also could be moved to wide receiver if the coaches feel they need more speed at that position. Obviously the secondary needs some help and Hoskins might be the answer, but I'm betting the offensive coaches would like to keep Hoskins with the ball in his hands. Then again, with Darius Walker the assumed starter at running back, Hoskins may be moved just to get on him on the field more.

In the end, his move to the secondary will probably be dependent on if other young players like Terrail Lambert, Ambrose Wooden, Junior Jabbie, and Leo Ferrine make solid improvement this spring. The optimistic take on Hoskins' future is that the secondary will improve on its own and that his speed will help out a running back position that has talent but no other true "burners". Of course, it's also possible that he will end up playing both ways. Weis himself mentioned at a coaching clinic that it's possible one player on the team will play on both sides of the ball. Perhaps this spring we'll find out if Coach Lewis was able to convince Weis to share one of the team's best athletes.

3. Who is going to start in the secondary?

In all honesty, this is probably Question #1 for the spring. The play of our secondary was ND's achilles heal last year as multiple quarterbacks bolstered their Heisman chances against the Irish secondary. The hiring of Coach Bill Lewis from the Dolphins is reassuring, but he has his work cut out for him as the roster is filled with youth and inexperience. And even the lone returning starter, Tom Zbikowski, might not stay at the same position. Coach Lewis has mentioned that "the slate is clean" in terms of the past and everything will start anew in the secondary this spring. Sounds like some of the fiercest competition in the spring will be found in the defensive backfield.

Mike Richardson has the leg up on other cornerbacks in terms of playing experience and seniority so he might see the field at corner first. His main competition will most likely come from Terrail Lambert, one of the fastest players on the team. Knowing that Lambert was named top performer at the 2003 Army National Combine, ND fans have been impatiently waiting for him to claim a starting corner spot since he stepped foot on campus. One of the other names that many Irish fans hope will emerge this spring is Ambrose Wooden. Wooden seemed much improved in the bowl and I wouldn't be surprised to see him start out as the other corner. At safety Zibby is a good bet for one of the safety positions. My guess is that he will slide over to strong safety as he was impressive against the run last season, but struggled at times in coverage.

After that, the roster is filled with plenty of unproven speed and talent that could fit in at multiple positions. Finding slots for Freddie Parish (my pick for starting free safety), Junior Jabbie (dark horse starting free safety candidate), Anthony Vernaglia, Jake Carney, Leo Ferrine, Tregg Duerson, and Chinedum Ndukwe will keep Coach Lewis and Coach Polian very busy this spring.

4. Who will end up switching positions?

Hoskins has already been mentioned here as a candidate for switching positions and with a new coaching staff, I'm sure he won't be the only one moving around. With the end of Jamie Ryan's playing career, the offensive depth chart is extremely thin after the five returning starters. (anyone else getting tired of reading "depth chart" and "thin" in the same sentence? But I digress...) Looking at the roster, Brandon Nicolas appears to be a prime candidate to make the move to the offensive line. He was considered one of the best offensive lineman in the L.A. area in high school and still has four years of eligibility. Considering there are no current offensive guards on the roster who will be juniors, sophomores, or freshman next year, someone is going to have to move this spring and Nicolas seems like a good bet.

Another player who is a prime candidate for a move is Anthony Vernaglia. Thankfully the reasons are his versatility and not the need to plug another depth chart leak. Currently he is still listed as a safety, but many armchair coaches think he could also be very effective at outside linebacker, tight end, or wide receiver. He should stay on defense as tight end and wide receiver are our deepest returning positions and keeping Vernaglia at safety would add size to a position that only has one other player over six feet tall. However, I think he will be moved to outside linebacker this spring. Specifically, I'd look for him to push Mitchell Thomas for playing time at the strongside linebacker position. It's possible that Vernaglia could shuffle between the safety and linebacker position, but I suspect linebacker is his future home. Coach Minter is going to want to put as much speed on the field as possible while not sacrificing too much size. That seems to fit Vernaglia's description. And while I'm at it, you can replace Vernaglia's name with Chinedum Ndukwe and everything else stays the same. These are two extremely versatile guys and it will be very interesting to see how the staff utilizes their mix of size and speed this spring.

5. Who is going to be the big surprise this spring?

This is the annual spring question as every year Irish fans love to look at the younger players and try to find the potential All-American just waiting to make his move, or the upperclassman player who finally puts it all together. And while the results in the spring don't always translate to production in the fall, it's still fun to speculate which players will announce their presence during the March and April practices. With all of the openings on the defensive side of the ball and a new coaching staff claiming that everyone is going to have to earn a starting spot, the field is wide open at this point.

This spring, the convential wisdom is that Terrail Lambert and Justin Hoskins are two players to watch. But I'm looking for a bit less obvious choice here, so I'm going to offer up two names that I feel might surprise people this spring: Travis Thomas and Maurice Crum, Jr.

Thomas has to be ecstatic that his position coach has changed from Buzz Preston to Michael Haywood. I could do the crappy car to sports car analogy here, but I think the coaching upgrade is rather obvious. Now, Thomas is not exactly a surprise as he had a great fall camp last year, but ill-timed fumbles last season and the rise of Darius Walker might have caused some fans to write Thomas off. However, Thomas' fumblitis problems last season appeared to be mental and I fully expect the new staff to get him back on the track that earned him a starting spot in last year's BYU game. Walker will probably remain the starter, but I think Travis Thomas is going to give him some serious competition this spring and become a dependable power back for the Irish next fall.

On the defensive side of the ball, Coach Rick Minter loves to have his defenses play fast, aggressive, attacking football. I wouldn't be surprised to see Crum make a push to be the starting weakside linebacker with current weakside starter Brandon Hoyte moving to middle linebacker. Hoyte is a team leader and one of the best hitters on the team, but playing against the pass is not his strong suit. A starting linebacker group of Crum and Mitchell Thomas on the outside and Hoyte in the middle would be a definite increase in speed over last year's excellent linebacker trio while still stout enough to stop the run.

Depth Chart

Ok then, as long as I'm making predictions for the spring, I might as well take a crack at a two-deep depth chart for the end of spring practice. Here's what I think it might look like. Be sure to clip and save for future mocking purposes.

Brady Quinn
David Wolke
Victor Abiamiri
Travis Leitko
Darius Walker
Travis Thomas
Trevor Laws
Brian Beidatsch
Rashon Powers-Neal
Ashley McConnell
Derek Landri
Brian Beidatsch
Maurice Stovall
Jeff Samardzija
Chris Frome
Dwight Stephenson, Jr.
Rhema McKnight
Matt Shelton
Mitchell Thomas
Anthony Vernaglia
Anthony Fasano
Marcus Freeman
Brandon Hoyte
Corey Mays
Ryan Harris
John Kadous
Maurice Crum, Jr.
Joe Brockington
Bob Morton
Dan Santucci
Terrail Lambert
Mike Richardson
John Sullivan
Bob Morton
Ambrose Wooden
Leo Ferrine
Dan Stevenson
Brandon Nicolas
Tom Zbikowski
Chinedum Ndukwe
Mark LeVoir
Brian Mattes
Freddie Parish
Junior Jabbie