Friday, March 20, 2009

Fave Five | by Pat

It's springtime. Football, like life itself, is born anew. Five questions to ponder as we kick off camp, which starts today.

1. Who will rush the passer? I know it's a hot topic, but let's just bypass the 3-4 versus 4-3 terminology confusion; instead, let's talk about the players themselves, and how the coaching staff will mix them and match them to generate a consistent pass rush (while still being stout against the run). The candidates to fill up the depth chart along the interior of the line and at middle linebacker are fairly set, but that's not the case along the edges.

Kerry Neal and Darius Fleming are rumored to be slowed by off-season surgeries, so they might be limited this spring. If that is indeed the case, who's going to take their places? How about Kapron Lewis-Moore, this year's off-season fan favorite? Can he really come in and lock down a defensive end position as many are hoping? Mo Richardson, who saw spot duty at defensive end last season, is now a veteran; but rather than compete against KLM, might he be moved over to the other side of the line? It's very likely that Ethan Johnson will be starting on the defensive front. But where? Will he be an oversized end, or a slightly undersized tackle? And Kallen Wade is down to now or never if he's going to be anything more than a career bench player.

Things get even more interesting at linebacker. With Brian Smith likely set to patrol the middle and Harrison Smith transitioning to safety, ND will need to find a new pair of outside linebackers. Darius Fleming has been mentioned as the replacement for Smith at the strongside 'backer spot. The depth behind him, as it currently stands, is undefined. Fifth-year Scott Smith and early enrollee Zeke Motta are really the only two penciled in at the strongside right now, although the coaching staff will obviously try out other players. It's a bit crazy to think that Zeke will be in the running for the first team right off the bat, but it's certainly a possibility.

At the other LB spot, Steven Filer has a fantastic opportunity to grab a starting job and make it his own for the next few years. David Posluszny had an entire fall and winter to add some bulk and will probably be considered here too. When you look at all the players involved, the outside linebacker spot is laden with promise, but also features a whole lot of youth and inexperience. Filer, Posluszny, and Motta are all freshman and while Scott Smith is a senior, he hasn't played all that much in his career. Is it possible that if none of them truly nail down the starting position that Harrison Smith would shuttle between safety and linebacker for the next few weeks, like he did last year? Hopefully for the sake of ND's defense, it won't come to that.

2. Who's the new left tackle? It's not spring practice if there isn't a question about the offensive line. For this year, someone will need to take over for Mike Turkovich, and hopefully prove a reliable pass blocker for Clausen's blind side. Paul Duncan was the starter at left tackle for most of 2007 and was fighting for the job in 2008 before being sidelined with an injury. He certainly has the experience, and is probably in the driver's seat for the starting job right now. Looking back at when I went through the 2007 sacks, Duncan's problems seemed to be more related to strength and technique than athleticism. If he's back, healthy and stronger, and knows what he's doing, he just may be a quality successor to Turk.

The two players most likely to push Duncan for the starting slot are Matt Romine and possibly Trevor Robinson. Romine was the backup last season and has the highly regarded recruit label upping the expectations. Injuries have slowed him down the past two years so hopefully he can at the very least make it through the spring healthy. Robinson seems to me on the path of being an All-American caliber guard, but if the idea is to get the best five offensive linemen on the field, I can comprehend why rumors of him moving to tackle are floating around.

Lane Clelland and Taylor Dever are further options, but for now it's probable that Clelland will spend at least another year apprenticing, while Dever would contine his role as Sam Young's heir apparent at right tackle.

3. Will the tight end-friendly offense finally have the tight ends it needs? This might seem a bit of an unanticipated question. After all, Kyle Rudolph shone in his first year at tight end, and has a world of potential ahead of him. But Weis's offense has always been very dependent on tight ends, and ND really needs a second (and third while we're at it) to allow the offense to flourish. With the recent losses of Will Yeatman to Maryland and Luke Schmidt to injury, the depth chart isn't quite what we had hoped it would be heading into 2009.

The good news is that Mike Ragone will be back from his knee injury; the question is, has he fully recovered? If he can regain the speed he had in high school, then ND's offense could really be impressive in 2009. A stronger and more confident Rudolph combined with Ragone's aggressive play would also do wonders for ND's run and pass blocking. If Ragone needs some time to shake off the rust, eyes will turn to the only other scholarship tight end on the spring roster, Joseph Fauria. Fauria has the height for sure at 6'7" to be a tremendous passing target. But he was still skinny as a frosh last season and in need of a solid off-season in the weight room. If Fauria shows up this spring looking a whole lot bigger than last Fall, and Ragone is running from drill to drill without a big, bulky knee brace, we'll be sitting pretty. If not, we might be looking at a repeat of 2008, with a continuing lack of diversity on offense.

4. How about a free safety? The 2009 secondary has the chance to be one of the most athletic and deep in recent memory. Raeshon McNeil, Robert Blanton and the returning Darrin Walls give ND a trio of dependable corners. Gary Gray isn't enrolled this semester which will give Jamoris Slaughter a great opportunity to work himself into the playing rotation. Kyle McCarthy should hopefully build of a very efficient 2008. The only real question mark: who will fill David Bruton's extremely large shoes?

Harrison Smith is the favorite out of the gate, but with a very solid showing at the nickel through most of last year, Sergio Brown should make it interesting. Neither played more than a handful of downs last season at free safety so both will have to adjust to the new role and its responsibilities. The good news is that both guys are extremely athletic and would be able to do a solid job. It's a nice problem to have. The Irish are finally getting to the point where an open starting spot means a legitimate competition between qualified players, instead of someone backing into the job because there's no one else available.

5. Who will be that "breakout player?" And now for everyone's favorite springtime guessing game: who will "surprise?" This question always induces a "shiny new toy" syndrome among fans, a fascination that tends to overlook the quality veteran backups on the roster in favor of newly-minted recruits. And yet, it's also the time of the year for the younger players to take their best shot at moving up the depth chart. Let's not forget that just last year, both the offensive and defensive MVPs from the Blue-Gold game were still freshmen.

Kapron Lewis-Moore is the one many fans hope can follow the Harrison Smith development model and go from pine-riding freshman to springtime star. Among his classmates, maybe Jonas Gray and Jamoris Slaughter will make the running back and cornerback rotations that much deeper. And has a winter under Coach Mendoza benefitted defensive linemen Brandon Newman and Hafis Williams?

Of course, it's not all about the new guys. Will Duval Kamara emerge in the second half of his college career as a reliable receiving threat on par with Michael Floyd and Golden Tate, both of whom have eclipsed him? Can Scott Smith have a late-breaking, Corey Mays-like fifth year at linebacker? Will Paul Duncan make those left tackle worries fade away?

Oh, and what about that Dayne Crist guy? Clausen's got a solid grip on the staring job, but I know I wouldn't mind if Crist at least pushed him a bit and made things interesting.

And one bonus. How about that "new" coaching staff? This spring is going to be important not just to the players -- it's also going to be critical for the new assistant coaches: Tony Alford, Frank Verducci, and Randy Hart. They'll use the spring to get acclimated to their fellow staffers, familiarize themselves with the players, and settle in to their new digs. For us fans, taking stock of the new coaches from video snippets and interviews is a patchy process, but we can probably glean a few things: what kind of coaching style do these guys exhibit? Will they introduce any new drills to the practice regimen? And what kind of creative language are they fond of using? It should be fun to watch the reportedly hard-to-please Coach Hart barking orders to the defensive line, watch Alford drilling his ball carriers, and see what Verducci has in store to revitalize the offensive line.

Rogers Hornsby once said, "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." It's the same for us, only for football. Welcome to spring!