Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Returnin' Irish | by Pat

Well, we kicked off last year with a lot of roster question marks, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Now, after a full season of play, our coaches have had ample opportunity for in-depth evaluation. Going into the '06 campaign won't be nearly as murky as it was last year.

Luckily for them, the staff won't have to make too many depth chart moves: the Irish return a highly veteran team in 2006. Right tackle and linebacker are really the only spots that don't have a natural incumbency.

Here now is a breakdown of each position and playing-time percentage returning in 2006. (Keep in mind that the numbers only include regular season games, and not the Fiesta Bowl.)

Overall, the Irish will return 64% of the offense in 2006 and 80% of the defense. If you recall last year, the numbers were a bit more lopsided with 89% of the offense coming back and only 36% of the defense. We all saw the giant leap forward the offense made last year -- with much credit of course going to the coaching staff -- so hopefully the returning experience on defense will spark a similar improvement in production in 2006.

Quarterback - 99%
Once again, Notre Dame returns nearly all of the quarterbacks who took a snap during the regular season. Quinn of course played neary every down, piloted the program to a BCS bowl, and will return for what Irish fans hope is a season for the ages. And while the backup options are still inexperienced, at least Wolke upped his playing time from 2 minutes last year to 22 minutes this season. He even threw a few passes this year. Three to be precise. What this means is that Notre Dame will have perhaps the most experienced quarterback in the country next year (32 career starts for Quinn) but the backup situation will still be a rather large unknown. With Wolke, Sharpley, Frazer, and Jones on the bench, the Irish finally seem to have shored up the depth issues at QB, but Wolke's three pass attempts are all those four players have to show in terms of production.

Quarterback '05 Minutes
Mooney 5
Total 354
Returning 349
Difference (5)
Return Pct. 99%

Running Back - 90%
Darius Walker will enter the second half of his Notre Dame experience as the primary ball carrier in the Irish rushing attack. Schwapp got more playing time than pretty much anyone expected after a strong showing in fall camp and the eventual suspension of Rashon Powers-Neal. The Powers-Neal case is one that makes the percentage in bold rather unscientific. His official playing time stats have not been noted on und.com so I'm forced to make my best guess at his PT and hope you all agree. If his bio is updated I'll update this post as well. Travis Thomas earned more carries as the season progressed and that should carry over to the next season as well. Also, Irish fans shouldn't count out freshman James Aldridge who is now on campus and will add to the running back depth during spring practice.

Running Back '05 Minutes
Walker 249
Powers-Neal 50
Jenkins 12
McConnell 9
Hoskins 3
Total 495
Returning 445
Difference (50)
Return Pct. 90%

Offensive Line - 63%
The most veteran line in Irish history will lose two starters, but return four players with significant experience. Ryan Harris will be a four year starter at tackle and the leader of what should still be a very veteran line. The only question mark looms at filling Mark LeVoir's shoes at right tackle. Brian Mattes, Paul Duncan, and Mike Turkovich are the main challengers for the spot and all three played just about the same amount of time last season. The only real difference is that Mattes will be a 5th year senior whereas Duncan and Turkovich will only be sophomores. There's also the case of incoming freshman Sam Young, who has the size to make things interesting in the fall. With no backup offensive lineman in the senior or junior class, the opportunities for the other five freshman recruits will be plentiful. If for whatever reason 5th year candidates Scott Raridon or James Bonelli don't return, the depth chart will get even younger.

Offensive Line '05 Minutes
Harris 330
Stevenson 303
Bent 26
Mattes 21
Raridon 16
Minutes 1760
Returning 1105
Difference 655
Return Pct. 63%

Wide Receiver - 50%
The numbers for wide receiver are a bit misleading because while ND does lose breakout star Maurice Stovall and dependable Matt Shelton, it will welcome back Rhema McKnight, whose 28 minutes in 2005 pale in comparison to the 499 minutes of game time he accumulated in his first three years under the Dome. But while Samardzija and McKnight will give the Irish a recieving duo that I'd put up against any in the country, there is plenty of room for a third (and fourth) receiver to establish himself above the rest of the pack. Chase Anasatcio has the edge in seniority and over all experience, but it seems that Grimes had the upper hand during the season as the slot receiver/Shelton replacement. DJ Hord is the wildcard as many hope he can provide the stretch-the-field type threat to compliment Samardzija's and McKnight's strengths. A darkhorse is freshman speedster George West who is already on campus and will get the benefit of working with the team in spring practice.

Receiver '05 Minutes
Samardzija 304
Shelton 102
McKnight 28
O'Hara 8
Minutes 734
Returning 366
Difference (368)
Return Pct. 50%

Tight End - 42%
Losing Fasano to the NFL Draft will definitely cut back on the returning experience at tight end. Replacing him might be more of a committee approach next season. 5th year senior Freeman is an veteran player who had an excellent year as a blocker and hopefully will be able to become more of a threat in the passing game. Carlson has a bright future and should really emerge next season as both a receiver and blocker. The Irish ran 3 tight end sets a fair amount last season but might not as much in the coming year unless either Joey Hiben or incoming recruit Konrad Reuland can prove capable of handling the blocking duties.

Tight End '05 Minutes
Fasano 314
Carlson 143
Freeman 63
Minutes 545
Returning 231
Difference (314)
Return Pct. 42%

Now to the other side of the ball, where the veteran presence on the line and in the secondary is negated by a big hit in returning linebacker experience.

Defensive Line - 91%
At first glance it looks like defensive line will be a major strength next year as only one player from the two-deep will not return. However, that is a bit misleading since Beidatsch was the primary backup at both defensive tackle spots. At defensive end, Ronald Talley played well after Chris Frome went down with a knee injury and Justin Brown has potential, but next year the interior of the line will be extremely unproven behind stout veterans Landri and Laws. If Travis Leitko can return he will help to add experience, but the Irish will still need Pat Kuntz, Dwight Stephenson, and Darrell Hand to add size and strength so that they can contribute at the tackle spot in the fall.

Defensive Line '05 Minutes
Laws 214
Talley 137
Frome 98
Beidatsch 96
Brown 70
Kuntz 12
Stephenson 11
Chervanick 9
Minutes 1105
Returning 1009
Difference (996)
Return Pct. 91%

Linebacker - 36%
No position will be harder hit by graduation than linebacker. Hoyte and Mays not only led the unit in minutes played but also were the team's top two tacklers and team leaders. Crum will return and has plenty of football ahead of him, but the Irish are going to need to find two new starters from a group that offers a decent mix of speed, size, and inexperience. Expect the battle to earn a starting linebacking spot to be the major story of spring practice. Vernaglia, Brockington, Borseti, Thomas, Smith, and Quinn all have a legitimate shot at getting the nod. As with cornerback last year, this unit will be a favorite of depth chart engineers during the off-season.

Linebacker '05 Minutes
Hoyte 267
Mays 233
Brockington 11
Borseti 10
Minutes 789
Returning 285
Difference (504)
Return Pct. 36%

Defensive Backs - 99%
Only quarterback returns a higher percentage of experience than the defensive secondary. The only definite departures are all walk-ons although Carney's decision to return for a 5th year won't officially be known until spring ball. And of course, if the coaches decide to move Nduwke to linebacker to bring experience to that depleted unit that would open up a chance for one of the inexperienced underclassmen to move into the starting lineup. David Bruton is a fan favorite to fill that spot and his scant 4 minutes of playing time is bolstered by 144 special teams appearances that don't count in the official playing time calculations. Ferrine emerged as the nickel back although Lambert should make a push for more playing time based on a decent showing in garbage time this past season. Of course, heralded recruits Raeshon McNeil and Darrin Walls are expected to make a push for early playing time as well.

Defensive Back '05 Minutes
Zbikowski 268
Ndukwe 267
Richardson 255
Wooden 253
Hedgemon 7
Herring 5
Whitney III5
Minutes 1207
Returning 1194
Difference (13)
Return Pct. 99%