Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Roster review | by Pat

There were a lot of new faces out there on the field on Saturday. Here's some quick reaction on individual players before we delve into some deeper gameplan analysis...

Before I start though, hats off to the Georgia Tech team. Everyone is worried about how horrible ND looked and what went wrong with the Irish, but that detracts from a stellar Yellowjacket team that played exceptionally well. Kudos to Gailey and the crew for getting the team ready to play and to the players themselves for doing a fantastic job.

QUARTERBACK It's going to be interesting to see what happens with Demetrius Jones over the course of the season, because Saturday wasn't pretty. I hope he gets another shot somewhere down the line to redeem himself, because I don't believe he's nearly as bad a player as he looked on Saturday. But the brutal truth is that he had an awful game and that trumps whatever he shows in practice. Even the best runner has trouble when the opposing defense keeps 8 or 9 guys in the box, but Jones didn't do himself any favors by not showing much patience in the pocket. He just didn't look comfortable, although most of the credit for that goes to the Tech defense. Despite immediate impressions that all Charlie did was call runs, there were a number of called passes and screens for Demetrius. However, on most of them Jones just decided to make a play with his feet rather than stand in the pocket and try to deliver the ball. I wondered why ND didn't move the pocket very much or try to roll him out, but the one play where they did resulted in a pretty ugly pass to the feet of Robert Hughes.

Evan Sharpley came in to run the 2-minute drill at the end of the first half and his play earned him the nod for most of the 2nd half. He did show much more patience in the pocket than Jones. The problem was that he showed too much patience. With the pocket collapsing all around him he took too much time with his reads and getting through his progressions. He earns some kudos for the way he bounced up from some vicious hits and his quick thinking on one of the fumbled snaps. But it takes more than moxie to lead the team against some of the talented defenses that ND will face the rest of the season. When he did get a pass off, he showed some zip on the ball, but his accuracy -- the play action to a wide open Grimes comes to mind -- was a bit off on the longer passes. For his first taste of non-garbage time play, I thought he showed some promise even if at times he did play like the inexperienced quarterback he is.

Jimmy Clausen came in to the cheers of many, but it's hard to really take away too much from his performance. He certainly didn't look all that bad, but he was also playing against a 2nd string defense and Tenuta had for the most part called off the dogs. Still, he made quick decisions, got the ball out in a hurry, and kept his eyes downfield the entire time when he was flushed out of the pocket. There's still the question of if his arm is strong enough for a full game of throwing out routes and accurate deep balls. It looks like we'll all find out together on Saturday as he has already been named the starting QB.

RUNNING BACK One of the few bright spots on the day, Armando Allen has the look of a future star. While all of the other backs struggled to pick up more than 3 yards a carry, Allen averaged 8.3 on his three carries. Whatever the reason he didn't play more in the 2nd half -- and I'm sure his inexperience at pass blocking was it -- don't look for him to be lacking carries for very long. As the starting running back, Travis Thomas had a rough day. He didn't have much running room, but he still didn't do a great job hitting the hole when he did. His pass-blocking was on and off, with a few solid blocks likely overshadowed by getting run over by the Tech strongside linebacker on one of the many Yellow Jacket sacks. James Aldridge didn't do too much, but watching him run through a tackle or two certainly was encouraging for the future. It wouldn't surprise me to see his number of carries rise as well. It also wouldn't surprise me if he finished the year as ND's leading rusher. Junior Jabbie played more in the second half as ND attempted to throw the ball more. He looked solid pass blocking and some pretty good hands pulling in one slightly off-target screen pass. Robert Hughes saw the field a lot earlier than I thought he would, but both screen passes that were designed for him failed before he could get the ball.

Frankly, Asaph Schwapp had a rough game. He's built like a fire hydrant and one of the strongest players on the team, but for whatever reason that rarely translates to his blocks. Too often he either failed to sustain a block or was easily sidestepped by more athletic linebackers. Either he needs to improve or I wouldn't be surprised to see more of Luke Schmidt when ND uses a fullback.

WIDE RECEIVER Yes, Notre Dame did have receivers on the field the entire game. They were the guys who didn't really have anything to do in the first half. In the second half we got to see a few glimpses and there does appear to be some potential. David Grimes looked faster than I remember blowing by the Tech corner on a nice out and up move. Robby Parris showed some good hands and cemented the Samardzija comparisons for the rest of his career. It was great to see D.J. Hord finally running down a deep ball after years of frustrating injuries. He also showed some good hands catching a quick out from Clausen with a man right on him. George West looked quick but the lack of height issue became obvious when a high pass from Sharpley went right over his out-stretched hands. Duval Kamara certainly doesn't lack any height. Watching him catch the quick slant pass from Clausen and drag a defender for an extra yard or so brought back many Quinn to Stovall memories. I suspect that starting with Penn State this weekend we'll see a lot more of what the receivers can and can't do. The Nittany Lions have a tremendous secondary so their work is certainly cut out for them.

OFFENSIVE LINE Ouch. Seeing as how the 2005 and 2006 offensive lines were the first and second most experienced offensive lines in the history of the program, respectively, a drop-off in OL play was to be expected. Still, I don't think anyone was ready for just how much the line struggled. Again, much credit to the extremely fast, aggressive, and confusing Tech defense. Still, the line play was far below acceptable and it wouldn't surprise me to see changes in the lineup if things dont' improve immediately. The biggest disappointment was Sam Young. Not that he was horrible, but with all of the expectations and his size and talent, he missed a fair number of blocks. When he did get his hands on a guy, he was great. But too often he was off-balance and wasn't able to set up a good block. In Dan Wenger's first start he certainly showed his inexperience with a few plays where he was looking the wrong way and let a defender fly by him untouched. But overall he showed quick feet and and a very aggressive attitude. It's going to be fun watching him develop over the next four years. Sully had his usual game where he buried the defensive tackle a number of times but also got beat on a speed move now and again. He's in line for another strong year, although he's not going to stonewall everyone.

The left side of the line is the one that had the most trouble against the Yellow Jackets and is where opposing defensive coordinators are going to continue to attack until it proves it can handle it. Even though he lost a fair number of them, Mike Turkovich showed some strength in one-on-one battles. It was the speed of the Tech defenders however that was just too much for him. ND kept pulling the guards on passing plays and too often Turk had trouble getting over to his spot before the oncoming Yellow Jacket defender. Maybe it was just nerves and inexperience, but he has to know that he's now going to be where teams send their blitzes. He also has to know that there are a few promising young players right behind him on the depth chart looking for an increase in playing time. Paul Duncan had a few cringe-worthy plays as well, including one where he was just off-balance and fell down without touching anyone. Like Turk, I don't imagine he is going to have a very fun film review session this week. He did show some strength in the run game, but pass blocking is going to be an adventure this year.

TIGHT END The Irish kept John Carlson on the line to help block for most of the game and he definitely showed improvement in that area from last year. Still, his strength is in the receiving game and hopefully he'll get to show that more in the future. Will Yeatman played a lot as the second tight end and I thought that he was the best blocker out there for most of the game. While most Irish players had trouble with the speed and agility of the Tech defenders, Yeatman consistently was able to keep his balance and hold the block. He also made a pretty nice grab on the pass from Clausen late in the game. He's going to be a good one.

DEFENSIVE LINE A guy on defense who played really well was Trevor Laws. That likely won't be the last kick he blocks and he was all over the field both as an end in the 3-4 and a defensive tackle when ND lined up in a 4-3. Pat Kuntz was overwhelmed at times, but he held his own on a good number of snaps. I think he's going to be better than most people expected this year, but he's definitely going to need help so that he doesn't tire as the game (and season) drag on. Ian Williams got some time at the end of the game and he's certainly a big body. That he got as many tackles as both starting outside linebackers is a good sign for him (and a bad sign for the starting outside linebackers) Hopefully he can provide Kuntz with a few breathers during the year. Justin Brown is another guy that showed some potential, until his costly personal foul. I'm sure he's going to catch hell for that from the coaches but he should be right back in the starting lineup for the Penn State game. Dwight Stephenson had a much tougher time after Brown got ejected. Most of Choice's runs went to Dwight's side of the line as he wasn't able to hold his ground very often. There isn't much in the way of depth behind him, so hopefully he's able to pick up his play. Otherwise, ND is going to continue giving up large rushing totals.

LINEBACKER Good news/bad news here as the linebackers looked aggressive and generally did a solid job tackling. However, they still had trouble fighting through blocks, particularly on outside runs and anytime you give up that kind of yardage on the ground, the linebacker play wasn't adequate. Mo Crum was Mo Crum. He got blocked out of a few plays, but also showed great instincts and was always around the ball. His increased bulk seemed to help him out too when it came to head on tackles. Joe Brockington also picked up where he left off last year and efficiently picked up tackles. He's not the kind of guy you notice too much during the game, but he always winds up near the top of the tackle list. Toryan Smith on the other hand only finished the game with one tackle. He's going to need to be more productive or he'll lose more snaps to Brockington. John Ryan and Anthony Vernaglia did a good job crashing down the backside of the line on running plays, but when the run was to the outside they had a hard time fighting off blocks and getting to the ballcarrier. Ryan in particular saw a number of Choice runs go right by him as he fought to get away from a lineman or tight end. Vernaglia did look much more aggressive than we've seen in the past and that's a good thing. Mo Richardson and Kerry Neal both got in later in the game, mainly during passing downs, but there really wasn't too much to draw from their play.

DEFENSIVE BACK It was David Bruton's first game as a starter, and I was impressed, considering when we last saw him against USC. He looked very fast in the defensive backfield, was a solid tackler, and did a good job on the blitz. And as usual he was fantastic on punt return coverage. Most importantly, he was always around the ball on the few deep passes that Tech attempted. Zibby had a quiet game, which somewhat can be attributed to the fact that Georgia Tech ran the ball so much. He was sent in on a few blitzes, but the called play nearly always was run away from him. I'm still interested to see how he does in pass coverage on a more consistent basis. Darrin Walls apparently left the game and was replaced by Ambrose Wooden, but while Walls was in I was impressed with him. He looked extremely fast and, like Charlie said, was much more physical than last year. It should also be noted that Tech kept picking on Terrail Lambert and stayed away from Walls. Lambert actually had some pretty good position though on most of the passes and turned around to make a play on the deep balls. He knocked away one and one was just a very nice catch by the taller receiver. All in all, I think ND's secondary is going to be much improved this year, assuming ND can generate a better pass rush than what was seen on Saturday.

SPECIAL TEAMS Quickly, Geoff Price had a few bad punts, but I'm not too worried about him overall. He'll bounce back. The good news was seeing freshman Brandon Walker split the uprights right down the middle on the lone ND field goal attempt. Sure, it was a chip shot, but given the uncertainty at kicker I'll take it. And it's a good thing he got one under his belt before he has to kick one that counts for something. Armando and Golden Tate looked quick returning kickoffs and I really do think it's just a matter of time before one of them returns one for a touchdown. Zibby didn't do much on the punt returns, largely because of the solid work of Tech's All-American punter.

Overall, the result was obviously disappointing and immediate improvement is needed. There were a few bright spots, but that still makes for a very small silver lining on an otherwise large gray cloud. It will be interesting to see how the players respond to this embarrassing loss. Entering into a very hostile environment on Saturday, it's not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination. Will the players come in focused and determined to put on a better performance, or will they allow the stench of last week's game to flow into this week's? Considering that there should be a few players playing for their starting jobs, I would hope the answer is the former. We will see.