Friday, February 27, 2009

Return Engagement | by Pat

We usually try to wait for the 5th year players to be officially named to do this post, but it seems that announcement won't be until the start of spring practice at the earliest. In the meantime, the spring roster was up on briefly and this Blue and Gold Illustrated article noted the five 5th year players on track to return for the 2009 season.

Before getting to this year's numbers, if you want to stroll back down memory lane, here are the returning stats for the 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 seasons.

Now then, let's see what ND has coming back for 2009. Overall, ND will return 82% of the offense and 65% of the defense. These numbers are very close to the 2006 team (80%,64%) and the 2008 team (79%,64%). When you factor in career playing time, the 2009 ND team is probably closer to the 2006 version than the 2008 one experience-wise. Anyway, on to the individual positions. As always, these numbers come from the excellent Lou Somogyi at Blue and Gold Illustrated.

Legend: PT = playing minutes, ST = special teams appearances, * = walk-on or walk-on turned scholarship player, all players are listed by academic class, not eligibility.

Quarterback - 95%

2007 was the only season where the returning QB percentage was under 95%. Like steady starter Brady Quinn in 2005 and 2006, Clausen ran just about every play in 2008 and will return for this third year as ND's starting quarterback. However, the same issue of a completely inexperienced backup once again rears its ugly head. Charlie's affinity for sticking with one quarterback and rarely playing the backup was evident again in 2008. With Sharpley deciding to move on, the backup options behind Clausen are two redshirt freshmen, Dayne Crist and walk-on Nate Montana. Clausen certainly proved his durability last season, but hopefully Crist will see playing time that involves more than just handing the ball off to run out the clock.

Quarterback ST Appr.
PT Minutes
Clausen (jr) 0 375
1 19
Return Pct.

Running Back - 81%

For the first time during Charlie's time at Notre Dame, every running back from the previous season will be back. The only reason the returning percentage isn't 100% is because I included the fullbacks along with the running backs. If you look at returning carries, 99.7% of all running back and fullback carries are back. If ND is ever going to have an effective running game under Charlie, we will see evidence of it in 2009. The depth chart is as deep as it has been in a long time, with Allen, Hughes, and Aldrige all having starting experience and plenty of career carries. Add in Jonas Gray, Cierre Wood, and Theo Riddick and ND's running back depth chart is almost Holtzian. Fullback is a different story as multi-year starter Asaph Schwapp is replaced by linebacker turned fullback Steve Paskorz. He didn't play much last season, but at least got a fair amount of special teams work -- more than any other offensive player save Golden Tate -- during the year. It will be interesting to see if he sees a massive jump in playing time or if ND tweaks the offense a bit and uses the fullback less.

Running Back ST Appr. PT Minutes
Allen (jr) 59
Hughes (jr)
Aldridge (sr)
Paskorz (jr)
Gray (so)
Return Pct.

Offensive Line - 80%

Like 2009 should be now or never for the running game, the same can be said for the offensive line. Six of the top seven linemen in terms of playing time return and this chart doesn't even include former starter Paul Duncan, who sat out 2008 with an injury. If he can earn back the starting left tackle position he held in 2007, it is very possible that ND's starting line will consist of one 5th year senior and four seniors by class. You can't get much more veteran than that. No player in 2008 played more minutes than Sam Young and, as Lou Somogyi points out, he's on track to become ND's first 50 game starter in school history. The line made a noticable improvement in pass protection from 2007 to 2008. Now they will need to do the same with run blocking in 2009.

Offensive LineST Appr.
PT Minutes
Young (sr)
Wenger (sr)
Olsen (sr)
Stewart (sr)
Robinson (so)
Romine (jr)
Dever (jr)
Nuss (so)
Cave (so)
Return Pct.

Wide Receiver - 77%

Hopes will be high in 2009 with the burgeoning star tandem of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd back. David Grimes is the only scholarship wide receiver not to return and while he was a dependable option the past few seasons, there are intriguing young options in Deion Walker, John Goodman, and Shaquelle Evans to battle 2007 leading minute earners Duval Kamara and Robby Parris for playing time behind Tate and Floyd. The percentage of total WR receptions returning isn't too far off from the minutes played at 80%, which means not all passes were thrown Tate and Floyd's way last season. That means there will be plenty of opportunity for another receiver, possibily/hopefully Karama, to step into Grimes's shoes and provide a 3rd option in the offense.

Wide ReceiverST Appr.PT Minutes
Tate (jr)
Floyd (so)
Kamara (jr)
Parris (sr)
Gallup (sr)
West (sr)
Return Pct.

Tight End - 90%

Over the past year and a half, ND's tight end depth chart took a massive hit. John Carlson left for the NFL. Konrad Reuland and Will Yeatman transferred. Mike Ragone was knocked out for the season with a knee injury. Luke Schmidt had to eventually stop playing football due to multiple concussions. The tight end depth chart halfway through the 2008 season was basically down to two freshmen and whatever offensive linemen would line up at tight end. The good news is that Kyle Rudolph exceeded his already lofty expectations and is set to be a dominant tight end until he decides to leave for the NFL. More good news is that Ragone will return from injury to add a bit more veteran depth to the TE depth chart. Both incoming freshmen, Tyler Eifert and Jake Golic, would benefit from a year in the weight room before playing so hopefully ND can avoid any more tight end attrition in 2009. Lou Somogyi notes that Kyle Rudolph's 370 minutes played smashed the previous record for true freshman playing time of 292 minutes set by Sam Young in 2006.

Tight EndST Appr.PT Minutes
Rudolph (s0)
Fauria (so)
Return Pct.

Defensive Line - 45%

Here is where things get interesting. For the 4th time in 5 years under Charlie, the previous season's top minutes earner won't be back. This is the only position where ND doesn't return a majority of playing time from the previous season. No matter how the 3-4 versus 4-3 issue plays out, ND will have a young defensive line in 2009. One potential starter, Kapron Lewis-Moore, didn't even play at all in 2008. Nor did possible 2009 2nd teamers Brandon Newman and Hafis Williams. The talent and potential is there for the defensive line to be pretty good, but there will be a fair amount of inexperience regardless of how they eventually line up. One other thing to consider when looking at these numbers is that they don't show are in-season trends. For example, John Ryan and Darius Fleming played nearly identical minutes in 2008. But 80 of Ryan's 93 minutes came in the first half of the season, compared to only 26 of Fleming's 92. Look for a whole lot more of Fleming, as well as classmate Ethan Johnson, in 2009.

Defensive LineST Appr.PT Minutes
Neal (jr)
Williams (jr)
Johnson (so)
Ryan (sr)
Fleming (so)
Richardson (sr)
Nwankwo (jr)
Mullen (sr)
Wade (sr)
Return Pct.

Linebacker - 76%

This percentage has the possibility of being very deceiving. In all likelihood, Harrison Smith will be moving back to free safety. It hasn't officially happened yet and he may move back to linebacker in the fall, so for now I'm keeping him listed here. But common sense suggests that all-Smith linebacking corp will lose a member come 2009. If he does, then the returning playing time percentage drops to a low 37%. At that point, the only guarantee to start is Brian Smith. Filling in the rest of the starting lineup will be one of the main areas of interest during spring ball. Will the younger players like Filer, Posluszny, and McDonald (or possibly Manti Te'o or Zeke Motta) grab a starting spot and keep Brian Smith in the middle? Will veterans Scott Smith and Toryan Smith solidify the middle and let Brian Smith move back to the outside? Will players like Kerry Neal or Darius Fleming, both still listed as linebackers on the official roster, stop playing with their hands on the ground every play and add a bit more experience to the linebacking corp?

LinebackerST Appr.PT Minutes
H. Smith (jr)
B. Smith (jr)
T. Smith (sr)
S. Smith (5th)
Filer (so)
Return Pct.

Safety - 61%

David Bruton's journey to the NFL could set in motion a number of changes to the safety position. Sergio Brown, who primarily played as the nickel back last season, is in line for the now vacant free safety spot but will likely have to beat out former linebacker Harrison Smith. What isn't up for much debate is the starting strong safety spot. Kyle McCarthy will be back for one final year and will add an experienced presence. Speaking of experience, notice how all four returning safeties are either seniors or 5th year seniors. All but Gordon won't be able to return in 2010, which means either ND will have to get some of the younger safeties playing time in 2009 or experience a big drop in depth in 2010.

SafetiesST Appr.PT Minutes
McCarthy (5th)
Brown (sr)
Herring (5th)
Gordon (sr)
Return Pct.

Cornerback - 73%

Another position that doesn't take into account a player who missed all of 2008, the cornerback spot will greatly benefit from the return of former starter Darrin Walls. The fight between Walls, McNeil and Blanton for the two starting cornerback spots will be another fun thing to watch this spring. Gary Gray has been effective in the limited time he played so where he winds up will be interesting as well. And of course, Mike Anello won't play much at corner, but his impact on special teams will continue to give ND a big advantage on kickoff and punt coverages.

CornerbacksST Appr.PT Minutes
McNeil (sr)
Blanton (so)
Gray (jr)
Anello (5th)*
Return Pct.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My Favorite Martin | by Pat

This post is a few weeks overdue. So without further ado....

It's more than rare that a head coach gets to announce a new public commit, mainly because NCAA rules severely limit what they can say about prospective recruits. But Charlie got to spill the beans on Signing Day about the newest member of the Class of '10 when answering a question about when he expected to see dividends following the Manti Te'o commit.

Q. When you got Jimmy Clausen to commit to Notre Dame you were able to get more elite offensive talent to follow him. Do you think Manti could have that same impact on the defensive side?

COACH WEIS: Well, we got one about 15 minutes after he said yes, Pete. If you are asking about 15 minutes later, we had already stated paying dividends. Now you guys always find out the answers anyway and you'll end up finding that out.
Shortly after the presser, the media tracked down the new commit and California linebacker/defensive end Chris Martin made an already good day even better. It's still very early in the recruiting evaluation process, but the 6'4 225 pound Marin is already earning rave reviews. Here's a quick summary from Rivals.
Will be a serious candidate for five-star status when rankings are released. Martin had a monster sophomore season with 108 tackles and four sacks. He then hit the camp circuit where he dominated everywhere he went. This included a stop at the always loaded USC Rising Star Camp. He was impressive in one-on-ones and drill work with his explosive first step and his frame that could eventually allow him to spin down to defensive end.
Scout is equally effusive, making Martin one of 10 junior recruits, along with fellow commit Lombard, to already get a 5-star ranking.

In addition to his ND offer, Martin had an offer from USC, LSU, Georgia, Nebraska, and many other schools. SC was after him pretty hard after his showing at the afromentioned USC Rising Stars camp. You can see him in action in this video of his day running by recruits a year older than him. These types of drills usually favor the defensive lineman, but it's still a very impressive showing by Martin.

Don't expect Pete Carroll or other programs to stop recruiting Martin just because he committed to ND. But Martin is going to make it harder on at least Pac-10 schools by looking into a transfer to Hun School , Tyler Stockton's alma mater, in New Jersey.
"We are in the process of doing all the paperwork and I still have to get accepted," said Martin, who orally committed to Notre Dame on Feb. 4. "It is still very early, but if everything does follow through then I will be going out there. There is a chance that I might not be going, but that is up to my mother."

The highly-recruited linebacker wants to go through the early enrollment program at Hun School and then enroll at Notre Dame for the spring of 2010. That would make him available for spring practices.
Getting Martin not only a few thousand miles away from a top recruiter like Carroll, but also prepped for early admission to Notre Dame is great news for ND. Martin is the edge pass rushing talent that was missing from the last class. More than that, he sounds like he will be one of the premier pass rushers in the next recruiting class.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Swarbrick's First "Offseason" | by Kevin

(ed. note-- welcome to our buddy Kevin, who's joining the BGS braintrust! This is his first post.)

Jack Swarbrick has packed an eventful first year into his first seven months.

Before and after mid-November's surprisingly unsurprising home loss to Syracuse and the annual thrashing by Troy, Swarbrick's office had been the center of speculation, controversy and encouraging new developments. Confounding critics and prognosticators, Charlie Weis is back. However, for the first time in the Weis Era, his offensive coordinator/running back coach and defensive and offensive line coaches are not. Both a dedicated running back coach and a "run-game coordinator" are among the job descriptions within Weis's reconfigured staff.

In other Joyce Center news, the building is losing a tenant: the hockey team will move into a new, stand-alone home in 2011, complete with space for a title banner or ten.

In recent months, Swarbrick has provided glimpses into his evaluation of the football team, his post-USC sit-down with Charlie Weis, and his vision for the future of Notre Dame's Athletic Department. Let's run through some of the bigger items to cross his desk this winter.

Charlie Weis. Swarbrick and Weis met at the beginning of December to discuss Weis's future at Notre Dame and what that future might need to resemble if it will extend beyond 2009. In a December 4th interview with the Chicago Tribune's Brian Hamilton, Swarbrick explained that "I went into [the meeting] with a view that if he and I have a shared vision of what needs to happen with the program, he'll continue as the coach." Swarbrick did not elaborate in detail what that "vision" entailed, but it was apparently comprehensive. Swarbrick explained to Blue and Gold Illustrated's Todd Burlage that he "looked at every aspect" of the football program, and that he and Weis discussed "everything I saw about the program, and everything he saw about the program, and comparing where we thought the program was, and what we thought we needed to do going forward." As the story goes, in a serendipitous turn of events for Weis, the two men shared visions, and Weis remained the Notre Dame head coach.

Did Swarbrick prescribe Weis's staff changes? If Weis does at long last commit to and achieve a more potent running attack, can these developments be attributed to Swarbrick? The truth likely lies somewhere closer to "football coach addresses football problems" than "Jack Swarbrick diagnoses problems and saves team." Indeed, in a January Q&A (now archived) with the South Bend Tribune's Eric Hansen, Swarbrick disclaimed responsibility for evaluating Weis's assistants, while still revealing a discussion that veered toward the granular:

Q: As you move away from your meetings with head football coach Charlie Weis back in December in California, are you starting to see your shared visions unfold? Are you happy with the way that's going?

A: "Very much so. There were a host of things that we agreed we wanted to do, and we're in the process of pretty systematically going after those things. I could not be more pleased with our working relationship and the collegial nature of how we approach problems together. He's been a real good partner."

Q: When you shared your vision of the program in the meetings, did it get down to the kind of specifics such as who should be calling plays and such as personnel on his staff? Did it get down to that much detail?

A: "It was very detailed. I want to be clear, it was not as much about people as it was about functions -- greater clarity of responsibilities in the staff. How do we approach the offensive game plan? Play-calling? So it was that level of detail, but it's not for me to evaluate assistant coaches. The head coach does that, does it well."
For his part, Weis detailed his post-season post-mortem, which in part focused on the oft-discussed run-game shortcomings: “I've done a lot of study on our football team and where our football team is at this point in comparison to BCS championship caliber teams, and we're a distant trailer, in the run game in particular,” said Weis. “So I felt that just me being the coordinator, I felt that I needed somebody that had to put an emphasis on the run game."

That ND had trouble running and stopping the run could not have been a revelation to Weis. Did he need a little nudge to jettison line coaches who had worked with him since the 2004-2005 offseason, or did he simply provide the right answers to Swarbrick's question? These answers are best left to readers more astute than I. In any event, Weis is back for another year, he's made some changes, and both Bryant Young and I like them.

Football Scheduling. In more global matters, Swarbrick also spoke to his feelings about the often-toxic subject of the 7-4-1 scheduling philosophy championed by former AD Kevin White. Some ND fans found encouragement in Swarbrick's introductory comments last July that "Notre Dame must participate in leading the "extraordinary change" he predicts will soon greet intercollegiate athletics. However, Swarbrick appears to, in broad strokes at least, embrace the concept of scheduling seven games at Notre Dame stadium, four true away games, and a 12th "neutral site" game of debatable contours. Swarbrick's January 19th comments to Eric Hansen (now archived; linked again to the free abstract), that off-site games such as the October 31st game against Washington State in San Antonio have "virtually nothing to do with football" caused quite the cyber-stir. He provided a little more scope to his view in a September 16th discussion with Michael Rothstein at the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette:
I embrace the 7-4-1 concept and I embrace it because I very much like the notion of using the off-site game to promote Notre Dame. This isn't just about playing a football game somewhere else. This is about bringing Notre Dame to a marketplace for a few days. Social service projects, educational seminars, all of that, religious functions. I want to make sure as we build that off-site element into our schedule, we're getting, we're spanning a lot of geography, scheduling attractive games. There's that part of it.

The other part of it is to find a way to maximize the number of home games. It's great for the student-athletes, it's great for the teams, it's great for the fans. We're not alone in that. Everyone's trying to do it. That's the challenge, with everyone trying to do it how do you find enough opponents? You can't fill that schedule with home-and-homes. It doesn't work. The math doesn't work. So you have to try and find, forge partnerships, try to find people who will come in and play, be attractive opponents. And then I want to be really mindful of the tradition and history of the place. We have very important rivalries that are important to college football, important to Notre Dame. You want to protect those.
Something for everyone, I suppose. For one, the prospect of coordinating an off-site game with Notre Dame's popular fall service project program or other community service opportunity is intriguing. Time will tell how Swarbrick plans to use this structure: will we see matchups with Alabama in the South, or is another Washington State around the bend?

The New Hockey Arena. Additionally, after years of championship-quality play in an intramural-quality facility, Jeff Jackson's hockey team can finally expect a venue befitting the team's stature. Last week, Notre Dame announced plans for a stand-alone, 5,000 seat, two-sheet hockey arena. This plan supplants designs to simply remodel the team's current Joyce Center rink. The icers will open their new home in the 2011-2012 season. Notre Dame's press release also mentions that the arena will serve "the community as a whole, and, in particular, to the many area youth hockey and figure skating programs that are in need of an additional venue." This added benefit was likely no coincidence; in September 2008, Swarbrick explained:
I want to make sure that building on the facility side, in building those facilities, while we look carefully at the core sport function, we're asking ourselves how we can maximize the use of the facility. Can it have community applications, both in the broader Notre Dame community but also in the greater geographic community. Can we program it effectively to use it as an outreach tool for the university? How can you design it so it can have multi-function purpose when it's not being used for the sport application? That's my orientation on the facility side.
In corporate speak, the new hockey arena is a win-win. String that word together ten more times, and it has the makings of a nice 2009 football schedule.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Aced Out | by Michael

The title of "Strongest Man" on the Irish football squad has been relinquished-- fullback Asaph Schwapp has decided to forego a fifth year and enter the NFL draft. No official announcement has been made, but #44 is conspicuously absent from the official spring roster.

The original "rocked up unit," Schwapp may likely be remembered best for his physique and bench press records (530 pounds last summer) rather than his play. However, his career at Notre Dame -- and more specifically, how he was used -- sparks great debate and interest about the role of the fullback in a Weis offense.

As a true freshman in 2005, Schwapp entered the fray immediately. Although Rashon Powers-Neal was the returning fullback on the roster, Schwapp supplanted him in several personnel groupings. (At the same time, though, Powers-Neal was still utilized as the "big back" in other groupings.) In 2005, Schwapp carried the ball 17 times for 47 yards in normal game action (plus a handful of other carries in mop-up against BYU). The majority (12) of those carries occurred in short yardage situations, and Schwapp converted eight of those for first downs. However, all four failures came in the loss to Michigan State, as he was stuffed three times and also fumbled away a critical fourth and goal.

For the rest of the year, though, Schwapp was unstoppable; he converted his last seven attempts, including two against the vaunted Buckeye defense in the Fiesta Bowl. Weis also tried to incorporate Schwapp into the passing game, but without much success. Schwapp was thrown eight balls, but only three were completed for 27 yards. Of course, one cannot talk about passes to Schwapp without mentioning the incomplete pass from Brady Quinn on 3rd & 8 from the USC 17-yard line. Schwapp was wide open in the flat but the ball sailed over his head. Did he slow down too much? Was Quinn not accustomed yet to throwing that pass to Schwapp? Did Powers-Neal's suspension prevent the Irish from having a more natural receiver in the pattern? Regardless of who should be assigned fault, the image of Schwapp all alone in the flat has been etched into the collective consciousness of Irish fans. Not only did the Irish, who were up by three points, fail to score a touchdown on the drive, but they also missed the subsequent field goal. Scoring on that drive would have probably iced the win.

For the first game and a half of 2006, it seemed that Weis intended to utilize Schwapp in the same manner as the previous season. Prior to a season-ending injury against Penn State, Schwapp had four carries for 15 yards and converted both of his short yardage situations. One ball was thrown in his direction, and he dropped it. There were also some missed blocks against the athletic Georgia Tech defense that garnered the critical eye of fans. Then he was injured, and the fullback all but disappeared as a ball carrier for the rest of the year. (Ashley McConnell, Schwapp's nominal replacement, had 3 rushes and 2 catches the rest of the way.)

Schwapp returned in 2007, but it seemed as though he was still recovering from his injury, both physically and mentally. He ran the ball 12 times behind the young and inexperienced Irish offensive line, and managed only 14 yards. Worse yet, he fumbled twice, against Air Force and Stanford. It also appeared as though Weis was no longer relying on Schwapp as a reliable short yardage runner but rather as a rare changeup against unsuspecting defenses. A surprising number of carries came on first and ten, which is also why the fumbles were that much more frustrating to fans. Ironically, that usage is exactly what fans have criticized Weis for in 2008; many believe that more fullback dives and counters should have been called to keep defenses from keying on the halfbacks. As a lead blocker, the mistakes tolerated by fans as "he's a freshman" in 2005 began to generate heavy criticism. Too many times, Schwapp was spotted in replays running past the defenders he was supposed to block.

Schwapp's blocking greatly improved in 2008 and should even be labeled a strength. He opened a number of holes, especially in short yardage situations. Consider this: the Irish faced 3rd or 4th and short eight times in 2008 with Regular (2 backs, 1 TE) personnel, and they converted seven times. The only time that the defense stuffed them was against Hawaii. On the flip side, nine times the Irish used Two Tites (2 TE, 2 backs), and only four times were they successful. However, Schwapp's block was successful in each of those plays -- the breakdowns occurred elsewhere.

The days of carrying the ball, however, were long gone. Schwapp was given one carry all year long, a fullback draw of all things, against Boston College. He was thrown the ball just twice, play action both times, and not surprisingly, he was open both times, for 13 yards. By the end of the season, the fullback had devolved into a one-dimensional player whom defenses could essentially ignore. Three touches in twelve games. Three out of 850+ offensive plays. Here are the three times Schwapp touched the ball.

It's understandable that the coaches preferred giving the ball in short yardage to Aldridge or Hughes, but the "highlight" reel raises the question: why not force defenses to account for all of the skill position players on the field? Why not give the fullback a carry or two per game to keep the defense honest; why not throw him the occasional pass in the flat to prevent linebackers from drifting toward the tight end and other receivers?

plays by the fullback
passes to (comp or inc)
The last time the Irish put a fullback on the field that deserved such attention from defenses was Powers-Neal in 2005. As the rumors about Schwapp's departure grew, a nostalgia for Powers-Neal has also been on various message boards, and it was also noted by Lou Somogyi a few weeks ago, although one item needs to be clarified. Of Powers-Neal's 31 carries that year, only three were from the fullback position. The others came as a big back in other personnel groupings, including Two Tites, Goal Line, and Detroit (2 TEs, 1 back). In fact, Schwapp had more carries as a fullback than Powers-Neal in the games prior to Powers-Neal's suspension. Nonethless, Powers-Neal caught most of his passes as a fullback, and defenses had to account for him. When he was on the field, there was always the threat of a screen pass, and his routes to the flat commanded attention-- they stretched underneath defenders.

So what's in store for the fullback now that Schwapp has graduated? As the coaching staff prepares for spring practice, these are the likely options available to them.

Develop Steve Paskorz.
This is the most obvious move. Paskorz played during mop-up duty last year, but it's important to note that he was used much differently as a fullback than Schwapp was. Whereas Schwapp was used primarily as a lead blocker with man blocking, Paskorz never led the halfback through the hole. Instead, he would block the backside defensive end on inside zone runs (6 carries, 28 yards), or he would block a playside defensive end on a counter (8 carries, 24 yards). There were three other miscellaneous runs, but the inside zone and counter were the bread and butter runs when Paskorz was in the game. As far as a ballcarrier, his background as a high school halfback probably gives him an edge over Schwapp, and he is supposedly a much better pass receiver. For what it's worth, only one other fullback, junior walk-on Mike Narvaez, is listed on the current roster.

Use less Regular personnel.
One of the solutions that exists - and should be considered - is that the Irish could simply use Regular (traditional halfback and fullback) less of the time. In 2005, it was a staple, used by Charlie 20% of the time. In 2006, when Schwapp's injury moved Ashley McConnell into the line-up, it fell to 12%. Last year, it was called more than ever before: 22% of the time. Given the talent assembled at receiver and tight end, and the relative inexperience at fullback, Weis could easily choose to use two backs less often.

Let Robert Hughes play some fullback.
The key word here is some. Robert Hughes is too valuable as a halfback to move permanently to fullback. However, the Irish playbook is full of opportunities to take advantage of a two-halfback backfield where the bigger back is lined up as a fullback.

Although Regular was used primarily to run the football in 2008 (64% rushing), the Irish passed more often in 2005 (54% passing) and 2006 (52% passing). We believe that the combination of Armando Allen and Hughes in the backfield would cause defensive coordinators some late night tossing and turning. Consider the possibilties of a Hughes/Allen backfield:
  • Double screen. Jimmy Clausen fakes the screen to Allen, then spins and fires a screen to a wide open Hughes on the other side of the field.

  • FB counter and dive. Give the ball to Hughes quickly up the gut or against the grain of the defense as Allen runs wide.

  • Play action pass in the flats. Both are solid at blitz pick-up, and underneath defenders would have a tough choice: continue drifting with the downfield receiver or recover to defend the flats against check down passes.

  • Motion Allen out of the backfield. Then run the ball with Hughes or find the open receiver, keeping in mind that Allen covered by a linebacker or safety is a favorable match-up.

  • Run the ball with Allen but ask Hughes to block defensive ends, not lead through a hole to find a linebacker. With his size, he can get in the way of backside defensive ends without a problem, whereas finding a linebacker or safety can be a little trickier.
Such a backfield would force defenses to defend every inch of the field. It's also how the Irish operated at times in 2005 with Powers-Neal. (Although one key difference: Powers-Neal was used as a lead blocker and did not block defensive ends as we're suggesting for Hughes.) Not only was he used as a fullback, but he was also the starting halfback in two of the multiple-TE personnel groupings. Hughes would be able to do the same. And there's still no reason why the Irish couldn't run a more traditional backfield with Paskorz and a halfback while running the same plays (and hopefully some isolation plays with a lead blocker).

As far as Schwapp's future, only two fullbacks were drafted last year in Owen Schmidt (5th round, Seattle) and Peyton Hillis (7th round, Denver), and so it's unlikely that the finance major (with an interest in investment banking) will be picked before the 6th or 7th round, if at all. After all, the fullback position has been relegated to not much more than an afterthought in today's NFL. As Baltimore Ravens fullback Lorenzo Neal noted:
"I look at the fullback position as sort of like the onion," he says. "I mean, say you have a nice bowl of fruits and vegetables. People are going to look at the strawberries. And the cherries. And the blueberries.

"It all looks so inviting. So does the watermelon. And the cantaloupe. People even look at the broccoli."

Neal pauses for effect before continuing.

"But they never want the onion," he says. "Nope, never want the onion."

Until they do.

"I'll tell you what, when you want that good hamburger, you call on that onion," Neal says. "When you want that good soup, you put that ol' onion in there for flavor you wouldn't get anywhere else. So when you're on the field, and you want a good lead dog, and you want to send an attitude, you bring in that ol' onion, and that's the fullback."

Unfortunately, over the last three years Weis has peeled off the layers of his fullback until there was nothing left but a one-dimensional blocker. To his credit, Schwapp accepted the lesser role, never complained, and improved his blocking dramatically in 2008.

Here's to hoping he finds a home in the NFL...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hard Reset | by Jay

Remember that board game -- I think it was called Boggle -- where you press the plastic bubble, and all the letters pop up and get rearranged? I felt a little bit like that on Friday, like someone had pressed the bubble on the Irish football program, and all the pieces went flying up in the air, settling down into a new and unfamiliar pattern.

A tremendous amount of news was just dumped upon us, and I'm still trying to sort it all out. Wade on in; here's a link to all the presser videos from Friday to get you started, with plenty more coverage at all your local Irish media outlets. We'll pull out a few quotes, title changes, and responsibility re-orgs to talk about in greater depth this week, but let's see if I can summarize the entire offseason shakeup to date:

  • Haywood left to take the job at Miami-Ohio.
  • Alford hired at RB (after negotiating with one or two others).
  • Latina fired.
  • Verducci hired at OL (after negotiating with Ron Prince for the job).
  • Oliver fired.
  • Defensive line coaches interviewed: dallied with Fickell, Stripling & Crennel for DL -- coach officially still TBD, but it looks like it's Randy Hart, recently let go from UW.
  • Titles shuffled on defense: Corwin "promoted" to Assoc. HC (while retaining co-DC title), Tenuta to DC.
  • Tenuta to call the plays on defense.
  • Polian relegated to ST only.
  • Ianello granted new title (and presumably new responsibilities).
  • Bryant Young hired as defensive GA.
  • Brian White hired as offensive GA.
  • Verducci added "run game coordinator" to his job title.
  • Did not pursue an offensive coordinator -- Charlie named himself as such.
  • Charlie announced he might call plays from the booth.
Whew. The only guys left untouched were Powlus and Parmalee. Did I miss anything?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Signed, Sealed, Delivered | by Pat

Alright, let's dig into the 2009 Recruiting Class. First up is the breakdown, followed by our annual recruiting roundtable where we discuss the class and I tab some unlucky player as the sleeper of the class. (Sorry Kevin Washington)

• The Official Notre Dame Signing Day Central
• Charlie Weis's Signing Day Press Conference (Transcript /Video)
• 2008 Recruit Bios and Highlight videos
• Offical Signing Day show video
• Behind the Scenes on Signing Day video
After you get through the transcript, make sure to watch the behind the scenes video if you haven't already. If you want to embrace your inner-Lemming, feel free to watch the highlight videos and offer your thoughts in the comment section.

Here's where the three major recruiting rankers slotted ND.
21st - Rivals
24th - Scout
14th - ESPN
As you can see, a little bit of disparity between the services, but the overall theme is that this is a Top 20-ish class. Given the way the sites do their rankings, size of the class does play a significant role. With only 18 players, and a few two-star special teamers to boot, ND is on the smaller side, which no doubt dropped the team a few spots. If you subscribe to the theory that "average star ranking" is a meaningful metric, ND finished 12th on Rivals and 9th on Scout.

Here is the breakdown of players who will be suiting up this fall, complete with links back to our original posts on them when they went public with their commitments.
QB - none
RB - Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick
WR - Shaquelle Evans, Roby Toma
TE - Jake Golic, Tyler Eifert
OL - Chris Watt, Alex Bullard, Zach Martin, Tom Freeman

DL - Tyler Stockton
LB - Manti Te'o, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox, Zeke Motta
CB - E.J. Banks
S - none

Special Teams
K - Nicholas Tausch
P - Ben Turk
LS - Jordan Cowart
Tom Freeman?

You may notice an unfamiliar name in the offense lineman group. It appears that Notre Dame has picked up a preferred walk-on, much like Nate Montana last year, to add to the class. Tom Freeman, the 6'3" 275 pound son of former ND offensive lineman Tom Freeman, Sr., will head to South Bend as a preferred walk-on. Freeman sounds like a pretty decent addition for a walk-on. He had scholarship offers from Northwestern, South Florida, Ball State, Air Force, Army and a few Ivy League schools. Rivals lists him as a 3-star recruit and the #16 center. Scout has him unranked while ESPN gives him a 78 rating and tabs him as the 20th best OG recruit (much higher than Alex Bullard as it turns out...interpret that as you may) For now he is slotted as a center behind Wenger, Cave, and Golic.

Double Dip

I still like to use a 2-year windowing function to lump together the incoming class with the class from the previous year. This year the numbers are remarkably similar to last year's numbers as the 2009 class is similar to the 2007 class. What does jump out is the lone safety recruit in the past two classes. Some of the corners may wind up playing safety, not to mention 2008 linebacker Harrison Smith, but it is still a position that will need to be a focus in the coming recruiting class. The DL looks relatively ok with 6 players in the last two classes, but with only a lone tackle and no defensive ends in the incoming class, ND will need to repeat the DL successes of the 2008 class.
QB - 1
RB - 3
WR - 5
TE - 4
OL - 7
LS - 1
DL - 6
LB - 8
CB - 3
S - 1
K - 1
P - 1
Skipping Out

This year ND had two recruits pull the trigger for ND and later change their mind. As it turns out, both recruits, Marlon Pollard and Nyshier Oliver, committed to one school very early in the process, flipped to ND for some time, and then ultimately decided to go back to their original commitment.

Speaking to the larger issue of decommitting, with schools pushing for earlier and earlier public commits and many recruits obliging, the number of decommits will continue to skyrocket. ESPN did something unique and tracked decommitments during the year and, as you can see, there are well over 1000 of them. As this trend continues, the push for an early signing period will grow louder and louder. While I used to think football would stay away from it, I think it's only a matter of time now.

Moving Up, Moving Down

One thing we noted this year was where each recruit fell in the recruiting rankings when they announced for ND. Part of the reason was just to show how respected they were by recruitniks. The other reason was to see just how much their rankings shuffled between when they announced and when they faxed in their letter of intent. It's common for rankings to chance and evolve over the course of the year, especially for recruits that commit early in the process. Still, some claim ND recruits unfairly get a rankings boost by virtue of being an "ND recruit". Some ND fans on the other hand see an anti-ND bias at work whenver a recruit drops a few spots.

The data collected here is an extremely limited sample size so keep your jump to conclusions mat tucked away for now. Still, it was interesting that Zeke Motta is the only member of the class who saw his stock rise on Rivals from when he committed (unranked #10OLB) to now (#54 overall, #5 OLB). Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, Shaq Evans, Tyler Eifert, Chris Watt, Alex Bullard, Zach Martin, Tyler Stockton, and E.J. Banks all saw their ranking fall from when their commitment broke until now. Wood, Riddick, and Evans were the biggest changes, dropping 74, 100, and 106 spots in the overall rankings respectively.

Scout was slightly more balanced with Christ Watt, Zach Martin, and Zeke Motta moving up a bit while Wood, Evans, Eifert, and Calabrese were dinged.

Now then, with the facts and formalities out of the way, time to turn things over to the worn, but comfortable BGS Lounge and talk recruiting. If you want to chime in with your answers, feel free to do so in the comments.

Biggest Get:

Jay: Manti Te'o. He matters the most both for football reasons (being able to immediately fill a hole) and for perceived momentum. Without Te'o, signing day would have been a total bust, and the story would have been how N.D. couldn't close on any of their final targets. Instead, we were the big story of the day.

Mike: The answer is self-evident. Biggest Mainland Get was Tyler Stockton. Any prospect that draws frequent Trevor Laws comparisons is a major get in my book.

Brian: You mean besides Te'o? I'll go with Tyler Stockton. Defensive line was a major need in this recruiting season, and we got a good one in Stockton. Unfortunately, we otherwise struck out on defensive line recruits, so we can only hope that Stockton plays with the ferocious intensity and intense ferocity of two men.

Mark: In the category of Biggest Get (non-Hawaiian), I think it's a tie between Tyler Stockton and Zeke Motta.

Pete: I've got nothing really to add here. Manti Te'o is arguably a bigger commit than Clausen, simply because he was far from a sure thing. Not a whole lot of suspense with Clausen's South Bend announcement. Getting Te'o garners a lot of headlines and likely will lead a lot of upcoming recruits to linger a bit longer on Notre Dame.

Pat: I agree with everyone else that the answer is pretty obvious this year. While guys like Cierre Wood and Chris Watt are tremendous talents at positions of need, the impact of landing Manti Te'o was a shot in the arm of the program when one was desperately needed.

Biggest Miss?

Mike: Xavier Nixon. Our top earlier target at left tackle. It was frustrating to watch his interest in Notre Dame dwindle as his name made its way up the rankings.

Jay: Definitely Nixon.

Mark: Jawanza (Agent) Starling is my pick this year.

Michael: Nixon, we needed a LT. Were there any DTs or DEs that we ever legitimately had a shot at? I can't think of guys for whom we finished 2nd, and the only one (Lalotta) that I can remember was slotted for OT by many who saw him play.

Brian: Ryan Kelly (Wrong sport, I know, but it still stings.) For football, I'm gonna say Eric Shrive. You can never have too many top-notch offensive tackles, but what makes this hurt more is that conventional wisdom said that Shrive was Notre Dame's to lose, until Joepa Terno swooped in (to the extent that Coach Terno is physically capable of "swooping" at this point of his life) and convinced Shrive to ply his trade in Happy Valley.

Pete: Again, hard to find anybody more substantial than Nixon. I don't really like the idea of either having to play guys not naturally suited for the position there, nor the idea of starting a youngster at the spot.

Pat: Notre Dame really needed to get a safety in this class and Byron Moore and Jawanza Starling were two top notch players that just slipped away. Still, Xavier Nixon is probably the more logical choice. While I'm not quite as sold on the "sure thing" LT recruit idea, Nixon certainly does appear to have a very bright future as a left tackle and Notre Dame was definitely in the market for one this year.

Class Sleeper?

Jay: I'll go with Nick Tausch. Although Brandon Walker finished the season in fine form, Tausch has a chance to compete right away for starting kicker, a specialty that has been a trouble spot for the Irish special teams for a couple of years now. If Tausch is as good as advertised, he could end up being a 3-4 year starter for us at a key position.

Mike: E.J. Banks. If he can fully recover from his knee injury, I think people will look back and wonder how he was only a 3-star prospect.

Mark: Zach Martin. From what I've heard Ferentz and the staff at Iowa thought Martin had as much potential as any OL in the midwest.

Michael: Dan Fox. He has great size and good speed. My prediction is that he and Motta are going to make the SAM 'backer spot a strength.

Brian: WR Roby Toma will prove to be more than just "the other guy" from Punahou School. It would be nice if kicker Nick Tausch could become a stabilizing force on special teams.

Pete: Tyler Eifert. Say what you will about the man, but Weis knows how to get production out of his tight ends.

Pat: The sleeper predictions are all over the map this year and I'm not about to break the tie, so I'll pick Theo Riddick. He was overshadowed by Cierre Wood early in the recruiting year and is definitely under the radar as far as expectations. A tough runner and solid receiver out of the backfield, I think Riddick is going to be a Weis favorite when it comes time for running screens.

Favorite Recruiting Moment?

Pete: I'd go with Shaquelle Evans switching from USC to ND. While we all sit here and lick our wounds over the last season, we could all take a modicum of satisfaction from taking a guy right out of Carroll's fist.

Jay: Te'o's signing is obviously the freshest in our minds, but I'll go with when Cierre Wood committed, way back in April. Recall at the time that he was five stars, considered the #1 running back in the country and was the #3 offensive player overall (per Rivals). Coming off of the stellar haul last February, Wood's signing that early in the next recruiting season was an indication that the Irish recruiting train was still powerfully chugging along. Although his ranking has slipped since then, I'm still very excited to see him in action, and he is the offensive counterpart to Te'o in this class.

Michael: When it was all over. Not because we landed Te'o, but because recruiting brings out the worst in people. the whole process needs to be reviewed. recruiting websites have turned it into a circus.

Brian: When Jake Golic ended months of speculation by giving a verbal commitment to Notre Dame. That was really hit or miss for a while. The entire staff deserves tremendous credit for convincing Golic that Notre Dame was somewhere he wanted to be.

Mike: Probably when Pat described Te'o's commitment as "Charlie Brown finally kicked the football." Based on our pre-Signing Day emails, it looked like we were all expecting crushing disappointment when Te'o announced. You could sense the attempts to manage expectations, even though we all were sucked back in as the announcement approached.

Pat: What Mike said. Not getting "Bookered" (Leaked?) on Signing Day, along with ending the bowl losing streak, made for a nice wrap-up to a very uneven 2008 season.

Parting Thoughts?

Michael: Polian!

Mike: This class is strong on headliners (Te'o, Wood, Watt, Evans, Stockton), but short on depth. There's not much of a margin for error if there are significant injuries or a number of the headliners don't pan out. Fortunately, the preceding class was strong and deep. I would expect a 10 or more win season in 2009 to produce another strong and deep class. If it ends up being sandwiched between two classes like that, we'll look back at this class and remember it for the stars. But if the Irish struggle on the field in 2009 and land another class lacking in depth, when we look back at this class the superstars will be overshadowed by the limited numbers.

Brian: With Chris Martin committing to the Irish for next year's recruiting class on signing day, joining the previously committed Christian Lombard and Daniel Smith, things are well ahead of schedule for a class to rival 2008's both in quality and, as lacking this year with only 18 commitments, in quantity. Also, Martin was funny as hell on "Extras".

Pete: This was a very tough year for Notre Dame, both on the field and recruiting-wise. There weren't a ton of players that had Notre Dame high on their list, and unlike in 2007, it was much tougher to sell the whole "See how bad we're playing? That's why we NEED you" card. However, Weis and staff deserve serious kudos for making a relatively tasty lemonade out of a big pile of lemons. How they managed to convince Te'o to come to Notre Dame when his visit was that putrid Syracuse game, I'll never know. I nearly decommitted from Notre Dame at the end of that one. Nonetheless, great job keeping struggles on the field from seriously slowing momentum on the recruiting trail.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Last Minute Addition | by Pat

The last piece of the Class of 2009 recruiting puzzle was completed late last week when Hawaii receiver Roby Toma decided to fax in his letter of intent to Notre Dame rather than UCLA. A teammate and long-time friend of linebacker Manti Te'o, Toma had mentioned he would consider following his buddy to college if possible.

Back in September, when Te'o had cut his list of nearly three dozen offers to five, Toma said in an interview with the Star-Bulletin that he'd probably follow his buddy anywhere. If Te'o chose BYU, Toma said he'd probably find a way there, even though Toma is not a Mormon.

"I didn't really talk to Manti," Toma said of the last two days. "Even on signing day, he thought I signed with UCLA."
But he didn't sign and instead took an extra two days to figure out what he wanted to do before officially becoming the 18th and final member of the recruiting class of 2009. According to him, Notre Dame offered him about a month ago, looking at him as a speedy slot receiver. At that point slot WR Nyshier Oliver was still committed to ND, but shortly thereafter switched his commitment back to Tennessee. ND then pursued former UT commit Damien Thigpen, who committed to UCLA. That left ND still looking for a slot receiver as the Bruins added another player at Toma's position. (hence the recruiting as soap opera theme I usually reference)

After going back and forth and weighing another last minute offer from Hawaii, Toma decided to commit to the school he's never visited before. He had spent time with Charlie Weis and Polian before on their trips out to visit Manti, but hasn't been to South Bend yet. At least he was born in Ohio and has seen snow before.

At 5'9" 160 pounds, Toma will certainly have to add a bit of strength before seeing too much time on the field. His relative lack of size is probably one of the reasons he was lightly recruited. His only other offer other than ND and UCLA was from Army and the recruiting sites all had him as a 3-star level prospect. Scout also listed him as the 103rd ranked WR while ESPN dug even deeper and slotted him as the 197th best WR in the country.

Despite his size and the low rankings from the recruiting sites, he was still named 1st Team All-State player his junior and senior year as well as being named Honolulu Advertiser Co-Offensive Player of the Year in 2008. He participated in the Hawaii vs. Mainland All-Star game that featured a number of other Irish recruits, scoring the only TD for the Hawaii team, and was a late addition to the Under Armour All-American game on ESPN. He earned a bit of recognition during the game weekend when he won the Hands Competition portion of the Skills Competition. Check picture 6 at this link to see him navigating the obstacle course during the competition.

Here's a collection of his senior year highlights. I'm also going to link his junior year highlights, solely because I've never seen football highlights set to (an extreme wailing guitar version of) Pachabel's Canon in D.

ND has some room scholarship-wise and did need a quicker slot receiver in this class so while Toma probabaly wasn't at the top of the wishlist, he does fit a need. His size will work against him, but he certainly appears to be a quick and shifty receiver with good hands. If he can continue to run precise routes and catch whatever is thrown his way he'll eventually work his way onto the field. There is also the fact that at the Under Armour All-American game he worked as a holder on field goals. Given his hands, it just might be that he will make his first impact on special teams.