Sunday, April 27, 2008

NFL Irish

Congrats to the ND players taken so far in the 2008 draft. Hopefully a few more Irish players can sneak in towards the end of the day, but for now, welcome to Sunday ball!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Happy Draft Day

Happy Draft Day everyone. For those of you interested in what kind of work goes into drafting a player in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns Team Site has a nice 3 part video series on what went into drafting 2006 pick Kamerion Wimbley that can be found here.

Good Luck Irish Players!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Spring Game Reaction

Neither of my predicted most valuable players received MVP honors Saturday, but both of them were named captains, and I was also able to somewhat predict 3 out of Blue and Gold's top 5 spring surprises, so it looks like spring is at least off to a good start for my prediction making. Here are a few of my observations from the Blue Gold game:

The most noticeable improvement in Jimmy Clausen is definitely
his improved accuracy and throwing strength, indicating that Weis obviously worked him in the NCAA '09 passing skeleton. It was very comforting to see Clausen missing on fade routes by overthrowing his target (and the coverage) instead of lofting up passes that fell dangerously short. Also, JC appears to have improved on his ability to recognize when to throw the ball away instead of forcing throws or running out of bounds for a loss. However, there are still a few concerns. Everyone has been bailing out his 10/27 completion percentage on drops from receivers and throwing the ball away, but the reality is that WRs do drop passes in games, and Clausen was unable to establish any real consistency on offense through the air. Fortunately, it makes sense for Clausen's completion percentage to increase with more practice heading into the fall, so that aspect of his game should improve. What I am more worried about is live pocket presence; Jimmy did a fine job of stepping up into pressure with the red jersey on, and he was even able to make some great throws as the defense was 'bringing him down,' but it is a lot easier to step into the hit when you know its not coming. Hopefully Jimmy can carry the poise he showed in the Blue Gold game into the season.

Barring something extraordinary happening in summer camp, Robert Hughes is the guy. Aldridge didn't do much to lose the job, but when one runningback in a heated competition for playing time receives 22 carries, it is a sign that the coaching staff is testing and expecting that back to step up. With 100 yards, a touchdown, and offensive MVP honors, Hughes was able to mix up his truck stick and juke skills enough to see significant PT early next season. It also seems that Allen will play the change of pace back, receiving exactly one carry for every two of Hughes' and gaining a comparable 50 yards while looking just about as fast as I've seen him. With top quality young runningbacks coming in fast, Aldridge will need to step it up over the summer to earn his carries this year.

Despite the occasional drops, I liked what I saw of Kamara, Grimes, and Tate. Kamara and Clausen need to develop some better chemistry in the red zone (the fade was thrown 3 times and despite being covered by a much shorter CB, Duval never really came down with it), but he seems otherwise to be a capable receiver, and I like Grimes working in the middle of the field. Tate also seems more polished, but if not, Robby Parris returning from injury and Michael Floyd coming in the fall should provide enough depth and competition to give ND a solid group.

Speaking of Floyd, he was in attendance with Dayne Crist and some of the other incoming freshman and recruited rising seniors at the game. Welcome to Notre Dame, class of 2012/13!
The O-line looks better than I thought it would. Hughes and Allen were both able to average nearly 5 yards a carry, and while the defense landed a few of their stunts in passing situations, the rate that they were successfully picked up seemed markedly better than it was early last season. The other thing I learned is that Eric Olsen is a high-energy player. I'm not just talking about his roles in the team fights this year or his ability to fire off the ball at defenders, but on Tate's long reception at the end of the game, Olsen was the second player (behind Allen) to reach the celebration. Any lineman that can sprint fifty yards at the end of a game to congratulate his receiver is okay in my book.
This site knows that sometimes, a little nastieness can be good in the trenches
Anytime Notre Dame is in a short yardage situation, the Haywood should automatically call a run behind Chris Stewart and Sam Young until opposing defenses begin overloading that gap. I am confident that I could have scored the touchdown if I had been given the ball instead of Hughes.

Mike Ragone looks like he
has the ability to make some big plays this year, and while he may be the only scholarship tight end on the roster this year, at least he seems capable of contributing in the passing game. As a rising sophomore, however, he does not yet have the necessary size to be a force in the running game, which is why every Irish fan should be crossing their fingers that Yeatman will be able to play in the fall. Will was the most physical blocking receiver on the team last year, and a fortunate side effect of him missing the lacrosse season is that he should be able to focus on improving his strength in the spring.

That's it for today. I'll put up a defensive recap post

Friday, April 18, 2008

Thoughts of Blue and Gold Part Deux



It isn't much of a stretch to say that the Irish will be missing the services of their recently graduated defensive linemen. The optimistic approach for ND fans is that Pat Kuntz will return in the fall and play as well as he did last year, and one or two of the incoming freshman will be able to contribute. However, a more conservative approach that includes one or two unforeseen injuries combined with an average freshman class leads to an Irish front 3 (or 4) that will struggle to stop the run and pressure the quarterback. Because of this, it is especially important for the current defensive linemen on the team to take advantage of the extra reps they're getting now so that the unit can have some depth heading into next season. I'm going to be paying attention to rising junior Maurice Richardson who has been spending less time at linebacker and more time as a DL in a 4-3 scheme; any flexibility ND can get from moving a backer to a contributor in the trenches will improve the depth heading into fall.


'Hole Fillers!' 'Runningback Killers!' Those were the phrases the linebackers on my high school team used to get each other jacked up, and that's exactly what we should have this season. A talented and experienced Mo Crum will lead a group of young exciting players in an attempt to maximize the effectiveness of Tenuta's blitz packages. An aggressive and hard nosed junior in Toryan Smith will look to stuff the run and playmaking sophomores Kerry Neal and Brian Smith will hope to use their speed and playmaking ability to contain the outside and rack up a few sacks. I mentioned before that the O-Line should be able to get a decent push up front, but the more interesting development will be seeing how the O-Line will be able to handle this group of backers in the spring game. The player to watch is without question rising junior John Ryan. After a rough season in 2007, Ryan should feel the heat of the underclassmen challenging for his playing time; Saturday will give fans a chance to see if he is up for keeping his starting spot.


Returning Blue/Gold defensive MVP David Bruton will quarterback the secondary which looks to improve under their second season working with Corwin Brown. With the addition of sophomore Gary Gray (who missed last year with an injury) and plenty of help on the way with the safety/CB hybrids in the incoming freshman class, it looks like Notre Dame will have some quality depth in the secondary for the first time in a few years. Kyle McCarthy will be the player to watch; can he beat out Sergio Brown and Jashaad Gaines to earn the starting safety spot opposite Bruton?
MVP Predictions

As listed in the OC Domer spring preview, the MVPs of the the spring game usually go on to have a pretty good (if not great) season/career at Notre Dame. Last season, the Irish felt the loss of McKnight and Shark at WR, and I think that this spring, David Grimes will be able to take over the leadership role at that position and take home the offensive MVP honors. On the defensive side of the ball, I like Maurice Crum setting some fear into future opponents eyes by making some big plays and earning the remaining MVP award.
That's it for my spring ball preview. All that's left to do is to pray for safe travels and good weather Saturday.

Go Blue! Go Gold! Go Irish!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Thoughts of Gold and Blue

As Notre Dame approaches its annual spring game, I am officially obligated as a blogger to post some sort of preview, so here it goes. First and foremost, for anyone that says the spring game doesn't matter, I'd take a look at OC Domer's spring preview where he makes a convincing argument that anemic offense in the spring game translates to low scoring in the fall (and the sample size is bigger than just last year). Accordingly, I am most interested in watching the offense this year.

Last year, the four-headed quarterback race lead to a group of under prepared athletes standing under center in the spring game, and the result was 11/24 passing for 77 yards, 1 TD and 2 INTs. Clausen has looked healthier and more confident in all of the practice videos I've seen this year, but dropping back in Loftus wearing a red jersey is different from scrambling to avoid pressure in a live game. The spring game should give us a better idea of how far JC has progressed since last season.
Notre Dame returns virtually every contributing back and receiver coming into 2008, so the question isn't who will play as much as who will improve. It would be nice to see Kamara build off of his spectacular freshman year and develop into someone who can break tackles and become a reliable red zone target. Grimes has been having an impressive spring, and like Clausen, it will be nice to see what he can do in a higher pressure situation. Of course the biggest WR question is was coach Ianello able to mold the talented Golden Tate into the playmaking receiver that he can be? Behind the QB, the 3 runningbacks figure to impress for some playing time. My guess is that Allen will fill the role of 'change-of-pace' back, but a standout performance by Hughes or Alldridge may be the difference between playing and sitting at the start of the season.

I personally have high expectations for the GCG combination of Olson, Wenger, and Stewart; the physical play of Olson and Wenger are perfect for the trenches, and seeing Stewart anywhere on the field makes me smile. Also worth watching in the spring game is how comfortable Young and Duncan look at tackle; both have seemed more comfortable on the right side so far, so it would be nice to see one of them settle in on the left. I expect the front five to be able to get a good push on our thin defensive front in the run game, but it will be interesting to see if the group can work as a team to stop Tenuta's tricky blitz packages from reaching the quarterback.
That's it for now, hopefully I can get a post up to preview the defense tomorrow.
Go Blue! Go Gold!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Tale of Two Freshman Part III

At long last, I finally found time to conclude my three part article comparing Jimmy Clausen's freshman year to the first year Quinn played for the Irish. After analyzing everything from how the young QBs performed game by game to the supporting casts that surrounded them, the basic conclusion was that Brady had a better year, but it wasn't better by much, and Clausen was leading a far less experienced team. So is Clausen's slightly less impressive year counterbalanced purely by the lack of playmakers he gave the ball to? Does this mean that JC will end up being better than Brady Quinn during his four year career at Notre Dame? At this point, it may be a case of comparing apples to oranges; there are simply too many variables to make any concrete conclusion. However, perhaps we can speculate how the Irish might do in 2008 based on a quick recap of how Brady and his lads did in '04 compared to '03.

How did the frosh finish?
The 2003 squad finished the year with three positive wins over Navy, BYU, and Stanford, but they dropped the last game in an embarrassing loss to Syracuse, lowering their record to 5-7 and eliminating the possibility of playing in a bowl game. It's difficult to say whether or not this deflating end of the season loss had anything to do with Notre Dame opening the '04 season noticeably flat in a loss to BYU, but it is a possibility. Clausen's group, on the other hand, was able to end a disastrous season with two straight wins; for the first time, the Irish seemed capable of establishing an offensive rhythm and making defensive stops when necessary. Hopefully the current team can use this momentum to start the season off strong against San Diego State.
Who left?
The most noticeable void in the 2004 team was shown immediately in the season opening loss to BYU. Willingham was unable to establish a ground game without Julius Jones, and it took an extra week to figure out that Marcus Wilson and Travis Thomas were probably not the best suited players to become ND's next runningback. Fortunately, a 115 yard 2 TD performance by newcomer Darius Walker solved this problem, and (with the help of a strong group of returning receivers) the 2004 offense was able to put up some decent numbers during the season. The 2008 team figures to be in a slightly better position with its entire receiving corps returning, only one loss on the offensive line, and a (hopefully) strong group of running backs to choose from. It would be great if incoming freshman Jonas Gray turns out to be the next D-Walk, but it is much more likely that either Aldridge, Allen, or Hughes (who already come with valuable playingtime) will be able to step up and carry the Irish running game on his shoulders.
Is there a difference in the schedule?
2003's team faced a front loaded schedule (#14 Washington, #4 Mich, #13 Purdue, #1 USC, #8 FSU in the first 8 weeks) similar to 2007's schedule (#14 PSU, #4 BC, #14 USC in addition to other bowl opponents in the first 8 weeks). However, in 2004 the four ranked opponents were spread more evenly throughout the season, giving the team more time to prepare for (and recover from) the tougher games in the season. As mentioned by many other ND fans, the 2008 schedule is much more favorable for a rebuilding team; the tough games are sandwiched between games that should (theoretically) be winnable.
How did the soph perform?
In 2004, Notre Dame went 5-1 in games where Brady threw for under 200 yards compared to winning only 2 of 7 games when he threw over that mark. Of course there are natural football explanations for this (i.e. you run more when you are winning, you throw when you are behind), but it is worthy to note that Quinn wasn't by any means hurling ND to victory all season. His TD/INT ratio improved from about .50 to 1.7, but ND's record was more positively correlated with the ground game and defense than his passing numbers. While running the ball and playing tough Brown/Tenuta style defense will still play a large role in the 2008 season, I feel that Clausen is actually more capable of carrying a team through the air in his sophomore season than Quinn was. JC's relatively more conservative passes in 2007 hint that he should be able to more consistently pick up yardage through the air with less incomplete passes and interceptions. Also, anyone that has been watching video of ND's spring practices has been able to see that since healing from the elbow injury that bugged him most of freshman year, Jimmy has been putting much more zip into even more accurate passes. Call it wishful thinking, but I think that this will be the biggest difference between Clausen in '07 and Clausen in '08.

So while both quarterbacks seemed to have similarly difficult freshman seasons, it seems that Jimmy and his team are at least as capable of (if not more prepared to) making the jump that Quinn's 2004 team made. The downside, of course, is that this improvement only consisted from moving a 5-7 team to a 6-7 team over one year, but as a stereotypically optimistic Notre Dame fan, I have full confidence that 2008's improvement will definitely be at least one game better than last season (how can it get any worse?).

Go Irish! Beat Aztecs!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Spring Fever

As spring practices begin to start up, I've noticed that my 1-2 posts per week have been getting noticeably shown up by the plethora of other ND blogs itching to start talking some pigskin instead of any sort of roundball. Unfortunately, the last month of the school year comes with things like 'tests' and 'papers' and 'two-a-days for bookstore basketball,' so I hope no one will be too offended at my lack of obsessive coverage.

All other time commitments aside, I still find myself sacrificing some extra sleep every night trying to take in all of the great practice videos other sites have been posting, and from what I can tell so far, the theme for this spring seems to be perfecting the fundamentals.
The concept seems easy enough; stay low, hit hard, follow through. Pursue, eyes up, head on a swivel. We've all heard most of these phrases going all the way back to pee-wee football leagues, and while everything sounds straight forward, the truth is that it takes a lot of repetitious development to create fundamentally sound football players. Little things like getting runningbacks to protect the ball and run square through the hole can make a difference between a win and a loss.
Take new linebackers coach John Tenuta for example. I've watched two practice videos where he's worked on nothing but the LB's first steps. Excerpts taken from in between Tenuta's obscenities in this clip display his emphasis on the basics:

"Bring your feet!"
"Don't get caught arm tackling!"
"Don't drop your head!"
"Do it again, and get the dropstep right this time!"
This period of development is so crucial for a team like Notre Dame that needs to become more physical in order to have success next year. In the upcoming months, the players must build a solid foundation in the basic techniques required for their positions because they will need to focus their attention on mastering a plethora of plays, and after that, opponent specific gameplans. For anyone that has seen Will Ferrell's latest movie, Semi-Pro (if you haven't seen it, you're not missing anything, trust me), this is where the team learns the 'puke play.' This puke play is in reference to the fact that the players should have practiced these basics enough times that it caused them to puke, and hopefully, the intense repetition allows the basics to become second nature. When it gets to the fourth quarter and everyone's tired, they must be able to fall back on their unmovable foundation and trust it to finish the job.

That being said, I'm overly excited to see the upcoming developments on both sides of the ball this month, but the addition of Tenuta on defense has had most of my attention, and that is why he earned the honor of being featured for this quote of the week:

“You don’t want offensive dictating to you, you want to dictate to offenses,” Tenuta told the media before later stating, “We’re going to be an aggressive, ball hawking defense. I’m always going to aggressive.”

Bulls**t! Downhill!
Go Irish!