Friday, January 06, 2006

Balancing Act | by Michael

Ugh. Watching the Buckeyes' defense fly all over the field on Monday was frustrating, yet impressive. Bobby who? Ohio State certainly didn't miss Carpenter, but what would have happened had the Irish lost arguably one of their best back-seven defensive players, like Brandon Hoyte or Tom Zbikowski?

Imagining this scenario of horror, I started thinking about our recent defensive struggles at linebacker and safety. What was the biggest difference between Ohio State's defense and ours? Was it purely talent? Maybe, but as I explored the two depth charts, I found it's more about numbers...and specifically, balanced recruiting classes.

Ohio State Linebackers
Bobby Carpenter – 2002
Mike D’Andrea – 2002
AJ Hawk – 2002
Reggie Smith – 2003 (grades)
Anthony Schlegel - 2003
(transfer from Air Force)
John Kerr - 2003
(transfer from Indiana)
Marcus Freeman – 2004
Chad Hoobler – 2004
Curtis Terry – 2004
James Laurinitis – 2005
Austin Spitler – 2005
Ohio State started Carpenter at SAM, Hawk at WILL, and Schlegel at MIKE. Kerr backed up Hawk, Laurinitis backed up Carpenter, and Hoobler backed up Schelgel.

But look at the balance between the classes. In 2002, the Buckeyes landed three solid LBs. In 2003, they landed another promising LB, and they added two more via transfers. Then in 2004 they brought in three more LBs. Last January, they signed another two. It shouldn't surprise anyone that the Buckeyes could easily withstand injuries to two of their most talented and experienced LBs (D'Andrea and Carpenter) as well as the academic casualty of Smith.

By contrast, let's look at how Notre Dame has hauled in LBs over the same time period.
Notre Dame Linebackers
Brandon Hoyte - 2001
Corey Mays - 2001
Corey Jones - 2001 (transfer)
Nick Borseti - 2003
Joe Brockington - 2003
Mitchell Thomas - 2003
Abdel Banda - 2004
Maurice Crum - 2004
Anthony Vernaglia - 2004
Steve Quinn - 2005
Scott Smith - 2005
Kevin Washington - 2005
Notice that the Irish didn't land a single LB in 2002, and soon after that year's National Signing Day, Jones announced he would be transferring to Washington. Now ask yourself, where would Ohio State be without transfers Schlegel and Kerr? Those two are two of their top six LBs. Then remove D'Andrea, then remove get the picture? Obviously, quality depth is essential at most positions. Balanced recruiting, you might even say, is more important.

Now let's take a look at another much-maligned Irish position, safety.
Ohio State Safeties
Nate Salley – 2002
Brandon Mitchell – 2002
Tyler Everett – 2002
Curt Lukens – 2003
Darius Hiley – 2003 (grades)
Donte Whitner – 2003
Sirjo Welch – 2004
Nick Patterson – 2004
Donald Washington – 2005
Anderson Russell – 2005
Jamario O’Neal – 2005
The Buckeyes' two-deep consists of Salley and Whitner, with Mitchell and O'Neal backing them up, respectively. Notice how easily they withstood the loss of Hiley, not to mention Ira Guilford (who had been recruited as a SS/RB and was playing RB prior to being kicked out for criminal activity). Again, let's look at the Irish side of the ball.
Notre Dame Safeties
Jake Carney - 2002
Freddie Parish - 2003
Tom Zbikowski - 2003
Chinedum Ndukwe - 2003
Tregg Duerson - 2004
Kyle McCarthy - 2005
Ray Herring - 2005
David Bruton - 2005
Ohio State had five safeties from their 2002-2003 classes, while Notre Dame had just three in their 2002-2003-2004 combined (considering the departure of Duerson). That number also includes one player playing his third position in three years (Ndukwe).

Conclusions? While coaching can obviously influence the outcomes and win games outright, it can't always overcome weaknesses at certain positions that may result from deficient recruiting classes. It's a basic point, but teams need players; they need quality depth and internal competition for starting spots. I can't help but think that some of the imbalances at key positions have contributed to some of our on-field woes. What if we had landed two LBs in the 2002 class, one being Mizzou star Dedrick Harrington? Had all the eggs not been placed in one basket, could the LB depth and on-field play been better because there were more bodies? Ditto could one more recruited safety in 2002 have changed the depth chart, how could it have pushed the starters? Could it have done the same when Quentin Burrell appeared to be playing hurt in 2004?

Charlie might agree that a key factor is personnel. Prior to taking the ND head coaching job, he said the following in September of '04:
Really, the NFL only comes down to only a couple of things. Personnel is number one, and what they do and what you do. That is what it comes down to. Who are their players? Who are your players? Where are their strengths? Where are their weaknesses? Where are your strengths? Where are your weaknesses, because you have to try to hide your weaknesses now and play to your strengths, and at the same you want to attack their weaknesses and stay away from their strengths. I am talking generically, but this is really the way football goes.
Ohio State planned ahead and took two transfers when they didn't meet their quota for LBs in 2003. The plan worked brilliantly, as the Buckeyes were able to withstand the loss of talented LBs, whereas any hit to the Irish LB, FS or SS depth chart would have been absolutely crippling.

Now, the argument could also be made that the lack of balanced recruiting classes at LB and safety failed to relieve some personnel weaknesses in the first string, but we'll leave that discussion for a rainy day. After all, it's only January 6th. Nevertheless, the argument for using the 2-year method (that is, looking at two consecutive classes together) in evaluating recruiting classes is flawed. Imbalances always bite a team in the ass down the road, and the every-other-year for a position is incredibly shortsighted. Three quarterbacks in two classes looks balanced, but did it really work out?

The remedy? Bringing in a balanced class necessary to fill in all the gaps, every single year. That's precisely what Weis has done in 2005, with one glaring exception so far. There is a chance that the Irish will whiff on both primary DT targets, Butch Lewis and Gerald McCoy. That simply cannot happen for the sake of future Irish defenses, even if Weis goes out and lands two stud DTs next year. What if one gets hurt? What if one transfers? What if one is a bust? The necessity for balance cannot be overstated.