Wednesday, March 21, 2007

the New Road Ahead | by Pat

Heading into the third spring practice since BGS opened up shop, one thing struck me as I reviewed my previous Top 5 Spring Questions posts. The past two year, for the most part, the team on the whole wasn't much of a mystery and we were able to focus on the specifics. Who will play right tackle? Which backup will switch positions? The program was already street legal, and we were just deciding on the few finishing touches before heading out on the interstate. Now, however, the car is up on blocks and we're looking at a total engine rebuild. Some parts will fit better than others and ND has a scant few number of practices to get them integrated before kickoff later this year. Time to get to work.

In some respects, this marks a new beginning of sorts for Charlie's tenure at ND. The starting roster is nearly a clean slate and Weis will switch from managing and fine-tuning incumbent starters to making tougher, complicated personnel decisions for the multitude of new faces, many of whom have had limited, if any, playing time. And on top of that, Charlie is bringing in a rookie defensive coordinator who will attempt to implement a brand new defensive scheme. It's the kind of thing that makes fans giddy with anticipation and coaches wake up in a nervous sweat.

A few questions, among many...

1. Who will be Notre Dame's starting quarterback?

The obvious, A-number-one thought on everyone's mind? Of course. But there's no getting around that this is one of the most interesting position battles in the past decade at ND. It's a position that offers incredible amounts of celebrity and invites equally incredible amounts of criticism from fans and foes alike. There are four contenders and all four are under the microscope starting now.

Fairly or not, Jimmy Clausen brings the "LeBron James of football" tag with him and anything less than taking the starting job this spring will lead to mutterings of "overrated". The chatter about bone spurs and the uncertainty about the health of his throwing arm only serve to add more intrigue to the most heralded ND football recruit since Ron Powlus, the position coach now helping to oversee the QB battle. Demetrius Jones brings a lot of charisma and adds a mobility factor that makes him an intriguing choice. While still a passer first and runner second, Jones does present an additional skill set not found in the other candidates. Plus, he requested the heralded #3 jersey for the year, which to me is a great sign of a player who has confidence in his own abilities and isn't scared to raise the level of expectations on himself. If the race has a dark horse, it's Zach Frazer. Overlooked by many ND fans, Zach has a very strong arm, comes from a pass-friendly offense in high school, and has the size to take the punishment that usually comes with revamped offensive lines. Last but not least, Evan Sharpley (above, right) is the only one of the four that has actually taken a snap during a game for ND. Then again, Sharpley beat out David Wolke last spring when Wolke was the only one of the two with game experience. Will history repeat itself or will Sharpley be able to hold off the talented trio of young QB's?

It's likely that a starter won't be announced in the spring and the competition will carry over into the fall. But by the Blue and Gold game the race likely will be down to a two-man race. According to Coach Weis, everyone has a 25% chance right now, but most ND fans have already picked out their favorites. In order to get a good snapshot of the current fan consensus, we invite you to take this BGS QB poll. We'll discuss the results later on as a true leader emerges.

BGS QB POLL (View Results)

2. What will ND's front seven look like on defense?

Almost as noteworthy as the battle for quarterback is the fact that ND will undergo a defensive makeover this spring in a move to a 3-4 defense. Weis has said that it will still be a 4-3 defense with "3-4 personnel", but schematic differences aside, the kind of guys who fit the "3-4 personnel" mold aren't always the ones who were natural fits in a true 4-3. In other words, last year's depth chart is pretty useless.

So what will the defense look like? Will Trevor Laws, a quick but undersized defensive tackle in the 4-3, find greater success at defensive end now? And if so, who among ND's inexperienced defensive tackles will step up to man the physically demanding nose guard spot in the middle of the line? Pat Kuntz and Paddy Mullen are two possibilities, though a bit undersized, while a jump to defense for large man Chris Stewart is a very attractive rumor for Irish fans looking to field a stout line. Derrell Hand also has the size to help out but he will have to avoid the injury bug that has plagued him during his time at ND. And what about veterans Justin Brown and Dwight Stephenson, Jr? It's just about their last shot to make a serious run at playing time.

At linebacker, it's very possible that sophomore former defensive ends Kallen Wade, John Ryan, and Morrice Richardson could see early time as newly minted outside linebackers. Of course, this would push Joe Brockington into the middle, where he would have to battle fan favorite Toryan Smith and veteran star Maurice Crum, Jr. Along with Laws, Crum is about the only sure starter on defense. It's expected that Travis Thomas will resume full-time offensive duties which will help to clear some room for veteran guys like Anthony Vernaglia, Steve Quinn, Kevin Washington, and Scott Smith.

With so many different ways to plug in players, look for different names and different lineups to be mentioned in every practice report. A few positions might be nailed down this spring, but as at QB, look the starting front 7 probably won't be nailed down until Georgia Tech week.

3. Who is going to run the ball?

Out goes Notre Dame's #4 all-time leading rusher and in his stead is a collection of very talented running backs. But with only one football, just how is the distribution of carries going to shake out? Travis Thomas (left) is a team leader and likely will be back on offense full time ready to pick up the slack in Darius Walker's absence. A battering-ram, Thomas has the experience, size, and speed to be an effective every down back. But James Aldridge is similarly talented and after a freshman year slowed by knee injuries, he could be ready to flash the potential that made him a 5-star recruit. Another intriguing prospect is early enrollee Armando Allen, a lighting-quick back from Florida. He's still on the way back from a leg injury that knocked him out of his senior year, but when healthy he could be the home run hitter than ND fans desire at the running back position. Munir Prince seemed to have an up and down year last year and ultimately might wind up at either receiver or cornerback if he is deemed to be more useful there.

My guess is that ND will use more of a running back rotation this spring and into next year in order to take maximum advantage of the strength of Thomas, the power of Aldridge, and the speed of Allen. With a new quarterback, the ability to help out in the blocking game will be a huge key to increased playing time, as will the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Rather than fret over which player will turn into ND's feature back, I'm genuinely excited that ND is back to having a solid and deep corp of talented running backs; one that will get even better when Robert Hughes and Golden Tate show up in the fall.

4. Who is going to catch the ball?

Until proven otherwise, it's a safe bet that ND teams under Coach Weis are going to throw the ball more than they run it. For a passing offense to work you need a strong group of receivers, but right now the 2007 Notre Dame Fighting Irish receiving corp is a huge question mark. Stovall, Samardzija, and McKnight are all gone and a collection of players short on either height or inexperience remain. David Grimes really had his moments last season and should start the spring as the leader of the receivers. But how will he adapt from being the 3rd or 4th option to being the main man and drawing the most attention from the defense? His classmate D.J. Hord is battling back from a leg injury that knocked him out for the year and will have to shake off a considerable amount of rust. But we're all hopeful he's the one player to add more of a speed threat to the Irish corp. Duval Kamara might be able to make an impact on the depth chart when he shows up in the fall, but this spring Darrin Bragg, Rob Parris, Richard Jackson, George West, and Barry Gallup all have the chance to prove to the coaches that they are the ones who will join Grimes in the starting lineup.

If Weis wants to keep with the "tall" receiver theme established the past two years, look for Jackson or Parris to see plenty of balls thrown their way. And don't overlook the ability of the receivers to throw blocks too. Gallup and West certainly have the speed to contribute, with West already proving his worth on a nice end-around run for a TD against Purdue, but in the end the size of Jackson and/or Parris might be too much to pass up.

5. Who will have breakout spring?

This is the annual fun question heading into spring. What unsung player is ready to take that next step and really emerge as someone the team can't afford to keep on the bench? The list includes just about the entire roster this spring as nearly everyone will have a chance to show what they can do. Will David Bruton finally turn from special teams speedster to stud free safety? Can either Darrin Walls or Raeshon McNeil cement one of the open starting cornerback spots? Will Armando Allen steal the spotlight this spring?

I could go on and on with the names on this list, but in order to make it more interesting, I'll present a list of possible breakout names at positions that would be most beneficial to the team for 2007. Not all of these guys will emerge this spring, but if I could pick which guys I wanted to shine, this would be the list.

1. Derrell Hand (right) - ND needs a dependable nose tackle. A breakout player at this position is ideal.
2. Toryan Smith - A tough and stout middle linebacker is very high on my wish list.
3. Demetrius Jones - I want someone to challenge and push the veteran Sharpley and prep phenom Clausen.
4. Ryan Burkhart - For field goals and kickoffs, ND needs a strong kicker in the worst way.
5. Mo Richardson - In the 3-4, the outside linebackers are the key to a strong defense. Cue Richardson.
6. David Bruton - His speed plus proper positioning equals interceptions.
7. D.J. Hord - Keeping with the speed theme, a deep threat would greatly benefit ND's new QB.
8. James Aldridge - No more mediocre 3rd and short conversion rates. Let's get back to power ND football.
9. Paul Duncan - Locking down the tackle spot opposite Sam Young would be a boon to the new ND offense.
10. Tom Zbikowski - Time to shake off last year's performance and truly shine this coming season.

It's going to be a really fun spring.