Thursday, October 12, 2006

Taking Inventory: the Offense | by Pat

We've hit the halfway mark of the season and the Irish are enjoying a much-needed bye weekend. With six games under their belt, here's my armchair take on the First-Half Irish, position by position. I'll start off with the offense. But first, a few medals.

• MVP - Brady Quinn. Sure, he had a rough game against Michigan. But Quinn has been the driving force in every win, especially in the close Georgia Tech game and the incredible comeback against Michigan State. As he goes, so goes our season.

Most Improved - John Carlson. His blocking is still inconsistent, but no one really expected him to surpass Fasano's contributions in the passing game this quickly. He's got the best hands of a tight end that we've seen in a long time, and he can motor, too.

Top Newcomer - Sam Young. The obvious choice. He's pretty much the only new starter and a freshman to boot. Oh yeah, he's pretty good.

Biggest Surprise - The lackluster play from the interior of the offensive line to start the year.

And a recap of the offensive positions...

Quarterback. Quinn had a slow start to the year -- slow, relative to Heisman-level expectations -- and he's been rattled when subjected to constant pressure, especially up the middle. But he seems to be back in his 2005 groove, making sharp, accurate passes and smart decisions with the ball. With a few more games against lesser secondaries, he should be in top form for the matchup with the Trojans. The Heisman isn't lost, but Quinn is going to have to earn it now with superior play, especially in L.A. The backups are still a question mark; so far they've done little more than look over Quinn's shoulder during sideline conversations with Weis.

Running Back. Despite ND being in full-fledged passing mode for nearly two whole games this season, Darius Walker's rushing stats haven't lagged: he's still on pace for 1,000+ yards. Some Walker critics have raised the volume this year, but I'll gladly trade his lack of flash and top-end speed for his heady running, great hands, solid pass blocking, and reliability in holding onto the ball. At the backup, Munir Prince hasn't broken many tackles this year but hopefully he will start to get a few more meaningful carries, and maybe even a few receptions, each game. The debut of James Aldridge was a bit of a surprise and while we should keep in mind he was running against the backups of the nation's worst run defense, he looked pretty good out there. Good enough for me to be content with leaving Travis Thomas on the defensive side of the ball for the time being.

Fullback. Losing Asaph Schwapp for the year hurts, but so far the only real drop-off with new starter Ashley McConnell is in tough-sounding names. There are still a few missed blocks here and there, but Asaph was guilty of that too. Looks like the now-patented Weis off-season diet plan success story count is up to three now with the slimmer McConnell joining Stovall and Ndukwe as the latest player to benefit from shedding unecessary extra weight. Against Stanford, tight end John Carlson came in as a fullback a handful of times; will he be a fixture in the backfield going forward? Freshman Luke Schmidt might make a late season appearance, but I think a hand injury has slowed down his acclimation to college football.

Tight End. Filling Anthony Fasano's shoes was a big challenge coming into the season, and so far John Carlson has made a spectactular impact on the offense. He's not quite the blocker Fasano is, but he's got flypaper hands and the speed to be a deep threat down the middle of the field. Carlson might be playing himself into a first day draft pick; now we'll have to sweat out him returning for his 5th year. Marcus Freeman has been pretty quiet so far, but when Quinn has thrown the ball his way he's made the catch and looked good doing so. Will Yeatman and Konrad Reuland have picked up some garbage time minutes but both look pretty big and athletic moving around out on the field. I think tight end at Notre Dame is in good hands for the foreseeable future.

Wide Receiver. The dynamic duo of Samardzija and McKnight are excellent. Although the Shark has disappeared at times as teams bracket him on the field, and McKnight dropped a few easy passes early on, both have been very dependable of late, and have shown growing chemistry with Brady as the year has unfolded. The lack of a dependable 3rd wide receiver is still somewhat worrisome; David Grimes has been in and out of the lineup with an injury, and while Chase Anastacio's downfield blocking has been excellent, so far he's been quiet as a pass catcher. ND has four very strong receivers in Samardzija, McKnight, Carlson, and Walker, but I'd still like to see just one more receiver consistently contribute on the offense, if only to give us more peace of mind for next season. If I had to guess, I'd say that Anasatcio is the closest to making a regular contribution.

Offensive Line. It's sad to say, but overall, the OL has been disappointing. There have been too many missed blocks and not enough push in the running game. They can really turn it on and dominate a defensive line at times (see Stanford), but it's rarely a game-long consistency. For such a veteran line, they haven't quite lived up to the lofty expectations set for them, especially the interior of the line. One possible exception is Ryan Harris who has been very consistent and is really doing a solid job in both the run and pass game. At right tackle, the major question mark on the offense coming into the year, Sam Young came out of fall camp the starter and so far he has looked great for a freshman. He has a very, very bright future. Even better is the recent trend of subbing in Paul Duncan for a few series a game, who has more than held his own in competitive situations against Michigan State and Purdue. The dual benefit of not wearing out Young early in the season while at the same time building depth and experience for next year is quality coaching. As for the rest of the backups/freshman, it was great to see Turkovich, Olsen, and Carufel all get in there towards the end of the Stanford game. At this point I think we might have to wait a year to see Bartley Webb and Chris Stewart, whereas I expect to see center Dan Wenger in there once he gets that cast off his hand. Hopefully Olsen and Carufel get some more PT since they just might be starting next season.

Bottom Line? I was surprised at how shaky the offense looked at the beginning of the season, but everything seems to be in fine form now, especially the passing game. Conservative play, "taking what the defense gives you", and dominating the time of possession seem to once again be the hallmarks of the Irish offense. Sam Young and John Carlson have been fun to watch, and I can't wait to see more of Prince and Aldridge. For the rest of the season I see the offense getting better and better as it fine-tunes itself against weaker competition before the big showdown in L.A.