Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Spring Checkup | by Pat

With informal summer practice sessions looming, here is a brief look at how ND's 2006 opponents fared this spring. Consider this not so much a preview of 2006 as a quick look at some of the major stories coming out of the various programs during their annual spring practices. In a day or two we'll follow up with a BGS roundtable look back at ND's spring practice.

Georgia Tech

The Tech secondary, already lacking in experience, took some sizable hits when projected starting strong safety Joe Gaston hurt his knee and was already knocked out of the 2006 season. With only one returning starter in the secondary in the form of one time ND recruit Kenny Scott, finding capable replacements was the biggest task of the spring. Luckily for Tech fans, the front seven look formidable and continued to work on their blitz happy ways under DC John Tenuta.

On offense, finding receivers to complement All-American Calvin Johnson was the goal along with working on a backup QB capable pushing starter Reggie Ball. The projected starting counterpart to Johnson, James Johnson, missed the spring game with a hamstring injury which allowed one time Notre Dame verbal commit Martin Fierson to showcase his abilities with three touchdown catches. With Reggie Ball sitting out most of the spring with an arm injury, the race for backup QB was more or less decided as Taylor Bennett threw for 5 touchdowns while completing 19 of 25 passes in the spring matchup.

Penn State

All eyes were on new starting quarterback Anthony Morelli and he didn't disappoint with a solid showing in the annual PSU spring game. Sophomore wideout Derrick Williams continued his return from a broken arm and looks to be the kind of multi-positional player Ted Ginn was as a sophomore when he would occasionly line up at quarterback. Williams took a few snaps out of the shotgun in the spring game and actually even attempted a few passes. With the skill positions on offense seemingly in good hands, the big test will come down to the play of the revamped offensive line which returns All-America candidate Levi Brown at left tackle, but has to replace four other OL starters from last year's team.

On defense Paul Posluszny worked more on his knee rehab and didn't suit up for the final scrimmage. Rice transfer Jim Shaw emerged at defensive end where the Nittany Lions need to replace Tamba Hali but Coach Paterno is still looking for a defensive tackle to man the position between Shaw and Jay Alford.

After losing a large number of seniors from last year's team, it will be interesting to see how Penn State rebounds. They have a lot of talent, especially in the sophomore class, but recent history shows that the Nittany Lions are a cyclical team. There is talent on this team, but a lot of it is young and inexperienced.


One of the big adjustments this spring for Michigan was the replacement of long time defensive coordinator Jim Hermann with Ron English. Completing the defensive makeover included Steve Szabo as new linebackers coach and Ron Lee as the new cornerbacks coach. Reports frequently mentioned more intense practices as the Wolverines worked on both 4-3 and 3-4 defensive alignments with the goal of fielding a more aggressive and physical defense.

Reports mention that quarterback Chad Henne had a very productive spring session, although the same can't be said for an offensive line still trying to find five starters and a talented but inconsistent receiving corp. The injury bug hit Ann Arbor when wide receiver/backup QB Antonio Bass went down with a knee injury that might knock him out of all next season. Running back Kevin Grady had a solid spring though and will form an extremely tough 1-2 punch with recuperating star Mike Hart.

Michigan seems eager to put the lackluster finish to last season behind them, but uncharacteristically there are questions at a number of positions, like offensive line, for the Wolverines. As always they will field a tough, competitive team, but at least now it seems things might not be quite up to the level of the past few years.

Michigan State

Comfortable with an offense led by their star QB, the Spartans focused their attention this spring on their defense and kicking game. Sound familiar? On offense, Drew Stanton had a predictably solid spring while sophomore running back Javon Ringer continued to look like a future star.

Defense, however, is the key to the Spartan season and at least one player stepped up. Hard hitting Juco transfer Nehemiah Warrick (left) took over the starting strong safety spot and brought an extremely physical game to a defense looking to replace 5 starters. The kicking game is still up in the air although walk-on Todd Boleski did hit three 40+ yard field goals in a row, including a 55 yarder, during the annual MSU spring game.

Coach John L. Smith clearly lost his team with the 1-6 finish to last season so it will be interesting to see if the team is able to regroup and come out focused early in the season. One late spring note was the transfer of backup QB Domenic Natale to Rutgers. This leaves the Spartans with little QB depth behind Stanton.


The Boilermaker team that showed up for football practice this spring was drastically different from the one that struggled to a 5-6 season last year. In addition to replacing 5 offensive starters and 7 defensive starters, Coach Tiller had to get used to working with the five new assistant coaches on his reconfigured staff.

The offense had a relatively quiet spring as there wasn't too much in the way of surprises, good or bad. Quarterback Curtis Painter had a solid spring and showed improvement as he enters his first season as the defacto starter. Painter also gives Purdue a better runner as the option attack appears to still be a part of the Boiler spread offense. The receiving corp was thin aside from stud Dorian Bryant, but Greg Orton gave the coaches some hope that the 6'4" sophomore can be counted on in the fall.

The main source of concern for Purdue during the spring was the play of the defense, specifically the secondary. To be blunt, their defensive backfield is a mess. The only returning starter was corner Zach Logan and he lost his starting gig this spring to a running back transfer from St. Francis College named Aaron Lane. The other three sophomore starters are either coming back from a season-ending injury or have been shifted over from other positions. Given how easily Lane worked himself into the starting lineup, many Purdue fans hope the incoming JUCO talent will bolter the Boiler pass defense. The front seven had a bit of a better time, but staying healthy proved difficult for key parts of the linebackers and the defensive line is busy trying to replace three multi-year starters.


Stanford had to work through injuries, suspensions, and depth chart shuffling this fall to arrive at a starting 22 for the final scrimmage. Two team leaders, starting tight end Matt Traverso and starting strong safety Brandon Harrison, were both suspended for the spring which opened up competition for their spots. One time ND recruit Erik Lorig fought back from an early injury to impress in one scrimmage at tight end only to get hit with the injury bug again and be sidelined again.

At quarterback, Trent Edwards had a solid spring and should be one of the best quarterbacks that ND will face next year. Edwards will also have two of the better receivers as well in targets Mark Bradford and 6'7" Evan Moore (right), who missed the Notre Dame game last year due to injury. The offensive line that allowed so many sacks last season is all back, but some underclassmen are making a move and displacing some of the 5th year seniors. Another name familiar to ND recruiting fans, Allen Smith, looks to have a lead on the starting left tackle spot, but Stanford coaches are still moving guys around trying to find a solid starting five.

On defense, Stanford is still running the 3-4, but will need to replace a lot of experience in it's front seven. Michael Okwo is a solid inside linebacker and the best player of the bunch while big redshirt freshman and prep All-American Ekom Udofia is the new man in the middle on the defensive line.


Like Purdue, UCLA had to get used to an influx of new coaches as the Bruins adapted to six new assistant coaches this spring. And the coach getting the most attention is new defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker, who is in charge of reviving a rather sad defensive unit (2005 ranking: 113 out of 117). Reports from spring noted that the entire defense was practicing with more energy and a faster tempo than in year's past, but that doesn't always translate into production on the field. Various members of the defensive front seven missed practice time due to injury so the Bruin defense will largely still be a question mark until a game or two into the season. And while you can make the case that losing starters from a celler dwelling defense might not be the worst thing in the world, UCLA will certainly miss the production and leadership of graduated linebacker Spencer Havner.

Over on offense, at first lookUCLA is in for a rough year. Stars Drew Olson, Maurice Drew, and Marcedes Lewis have all moved on and took with them 100%, 62%, and 29% of UCLA's passing, running, and receiving touchdowns, respectively. However, one-time all-everything recruit Ben Olson is presumably ready to pick right up where Drew left off and has all of the so-called "tools" to be an outstanding college quarterback. How quickly he picks up the offense and establishes a good connnection with his receivers will determine just how good he does in the fall. As for the ground game, Drew was a talent, but Chris Markey and Kahlil Bell are both quality runners who should help to keep the pressure off Olson.


Things are looking bright for Navy as the current conventional wisdom is the 2006 Midshipmen will be the strongest Navy team Coach Paul Johnson has fielded while in Annapolis. During the spring practice sessions Coach Johnson got even better news when backup QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada subbed in for injured starter Brian Hampton in the rainy Blue-Gold game and rushed for 195 yards and 2 touchdowns. Hampton should remain the starter come the season, but from the looks of things, Navy will have to choose between the experienced senior Hampton and the extremely athletic freshman Kaheaku-Enhada. Surrounding the eventual starter will be a talented mix of speedy slotback Reggie Campbell (5 rushing touchdowns against Colorado State in last year's Poinsettia Bowl) and rough and tumble fullback Matt Ballard (192 rushing yards against Army last year on only 18 carries).

Defensively, Navy will feature one of the most productive linebackers that the Irish will face in the form of Rob Caldwell. Caldwell notched 140 tackles last year (48 tackles more than ND's leading tackler Brandon Hoyte) and returns along with eight other returning defensive starters.

As always, Navy will have trouble matching up with the size of teams like Notre Dame in the trenches, but this year's Navy team will have some talent and experience at nearly all of the other positions. Another item of note is that Navy will be using instant replay this coming season for all home games, which will be the case against ND.

North Carolina

The Tarheels coaching staff got a bit of a boost when they hired former Fresno State offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti. A coach with a proven track record of offensive output and player development, Cignetti has his work cut out for him in North Carolina as the 2005 Tarheel offense was ranked 102nd out of 117 teams. The quarterback situation is still up in the air as Nebraska transfer Joe Dailey (left) and redshirt freshman Cam Sexton battle it out, but UNC has depth at running back with four or five guys who could see carries.

Another guy that should see the ball in his hands is walk-on Brandon Tate who came out of nowhere to be a great special teams kick returner last year with a 25.8 yards per kick return average. In 2006, it sounds like he will be used more on offense to help compliment returning All-ACC honorable mention wide receiver Jesse Holley.

Air Force

The big motivation for the Falcons is to end the most recent losing skid. Air Force has had back to back losing seasons for the first time since 1980-81. Offensively Air Force should be potent as nearly the entire backfield returns, including record setting quarterback Shaun Carney. The offensive line also returns three starters in addition to Caleb Morris, who was a part-time starter as freshman before sitting out all of last year due to injury. Running the triple-option will keep the Irish offense on their toes, but after facing Navy two weeks earlier, ND won't be a stranger to the pitch-happy ground attack.

On defense, the Falcons only return five starters, but they are spread out over all of the positions so there are no obvious weak spots. The secondary will help lead the defense early as three of the five returning starters play there. Still, after barely cracking the Top 100 in total defense last year, Air Force will need substaintial improvement to finally break the positive side of a .500 record.


It's likely that Army will be the worst team on the schedule next year, but Coach Bobby Ross is only in his third year at West Point and improvement is likely over last year's 4-7 campaign. Defense is clearly the strength of the team as it took two overtimes for either team to score in the annual Black/Gold game. After being ranked the worst defense in D-1 in 2004, the 2005 version jumped up to 37th best in the rankings. Strong safety Caleb Campbell led the Black Knights in tackles last year as a sophomore and could be one of the best safeties that the Irish face next year. However, the play of the defensive line will determine how effective the defense can be over the course of the season. Defensive end Cameron Craig is a skilled player, but lack depth and talent levels at defensive tackle could leave Army hurting late in the season.

The Army offense appears headed in a different direction from the defense. After a top 50 showing in 2004, it dropped down to 101st in the nation last season and has to replace a number of starters in 2006. New starter David Petevo is a big (6'5" 229 lb.) quarterback, but only has 12 pass attempts to his name while none of the candidates at running back have a single carry logged in the stat book. If Army is going to mount any challenge to the Irish, the offense will have to be much improved before the November 18th game at ND.


The big spring battle between John David Booty and Mark Sanchez(right) fizzled when back issues sidelined Booty. Sanchez had nearly the whole spring to work with the first team offense and looked solid, but Carroll still named Booty the #1 guy after the final spring practice. Recently Sanchez has been dealing with a sexual assualt charge that could affect his availability in the fall.

The other big spring news was the lack of scholarship running backs available for practice. A knee injury took Hershel Dennis out of the picture while Desmound Reed, Michael Coleman, and Chauncey Washington all sat out for injury and academic related reasons. The backfield was so empty that a linebacker turned fullback, Ryan Powdrell, had the most rushing yards in the annual Trojan Huddle spring game. Dennis and Reed are not expected back next season, but five incoming running back recruits will help the team depth. Recently it was announced that Chauncey Washington got the grades necessary to rejoin the team in the fall.

Sophomore wide receiver Patrick Turner had a bit of a coming out party with two touchdowns in the game. He's going to be a good one and between him, Dwayne Jarret, and Steve Smith, the Trojans will have the most talented WR corp in the nation this fall.

The defense will probably have to work harder this coming fall since the offense might take a few steps back, but the spring reports read like a who's who of former prep All-Americans. With Pete Carroll taking on a more active role with the offense, he hired Nick Holt to be USC's new defensive coordinator and help mold all the prep talent into a top defense.