Posts Tagged ‘Eric Olsen’

In defense of John Latina (?)

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

A lot has been made of the awful mess that was the 2007 Notre Dame offensive line. Some of this blame has gone towards Charlie Weis, in particular for to his decision to run non-physical practices that lacked real hitting. A significantly larger portion of the criticism has been directed at the offensive line coach, John Latina, who many believe has failed to generate a dominant unit in his tenure at Notre Dame.

I think both of these criticisms hold some merit, though neither gets at the whole story. My gut reaction on the criticisms of Coach Latina is to say “Hey, forget the situation - a winner wins and this man hasn’t been able to do his job.” Nevertheless, after reflecting on the situation it’s clear there are plenty of other reasons why the Irish have been hamstrung up front with the big uglies. As the season ends and the coaches head out on the recruiting trail, it seems increasingly likely that Latina - who has paid visits to Hafis Williams and Kenneth Page in the past few days - will be with the Irish into 2008. Thus it seemed worth looking more closely at the past three years to see whether the calls for his firing are valid or not.

First, though, a bit of background on Coach Latina for those unacquainted with his resume: during his six-year period as an offensive line coach at Temple from 1983-1988, Latina had three lineman drafted by the NFL and four signed as free-agents. Temple tailback Paul Palmer led the nation in rushing in 1986. Following that, he produced seven NFL linemen in five years at Kansas State (1989-1993), six All-ACC linemen at in five years at Clemson (1994-1998), and eleven NFL linemen in six years at Ole Miss (1999-2004). Ole Miss allowed the fewest sacks in the SEC, and in two of his years at Clemson the Tigers were among the top two in the ACC in rushing yardage.

All of this sets him up as a man who came to Notre Dame with quite a distinguished background and an excellent resume. But all that really ought to matter to Irish fans is the job he’s done since 2005. So let’s take a look, shall we?

2005

Situation: Weis is entering his first year and the Irish have an offensive explosion, jumping to one of the top rated offenses in the nation. Brady Quinn has a breakout year, and Darius Walker rushes for nearly 1200 yards.

Offensive Line:

  • LT - Ryan Harris (6-5, 288, JR) - Mike Turkovich (6-6, 290, FR)
  • LG - Dan Santucci (6-4, 290, SR) - Brian Mattes (6-6, 285, SR)
  • C - Bob Morton (6-4, 292, SR) - John Sullivan (6-4, 298, JR)
  • RT - Dan Stevenson (6-6, 292, SR) - Scott Raridon (6-7, 304, SR)
  • RT - Mark Levoir (6-7, 311, SR) - Paul Duncan (6-7, 292, FR)

Evaluation: This was clearly the best offensive line of the past three years. ND had an almost all-senior starting line and all were legitimate talents. The biggest glaring spots here are the lack of sophomore and junior depth as well as how light all these seniors were. Ty Willingham preferred the lighter/quicker offensive lineman, which doesn’t gel with Weis’s pro-style offense. Latina seems to have been able to install the system well with good players despite their physical limitations.

Grade: B+

2006

Situation: The Irish come into the year ranked #2 in pre-season polls and looking to improve on their 9-3 record and BCS bowl loss. Brady Quinn is looking to be one of the top Heisman candidates, and most of the skill players are back to back him up.

Offensive Line:

  • LT - Ryan Harris (6-5, 292, SR) - Mike Turkovich (6-6, 290, SO)
  • LG - Dan Santucci (6-4, 290, 5th) - Eric Olsen (6-4, 290, FR)
  • C - John Sullivan (6-4, 298, SR) - Bob Morton (6-4, 292, 5th)
  • RG - Bob Morton (6-4, 292, 5th) - Brian Mattes (6-6, 287, SR)
  • RT - Sam Young (6-7, 292, FR) - Paul Duncan (6-7, 292, SO)

Evaluation: The team as a whole didn’t live up to the hype, getting beaten soundly by top competition. While most of the blame lies with the defense giving out points to anyone who asked, the offense looked lost at times, and certainly didn’t dominate like they did in ‘05. The linemen were about the same size as the previous year, so either they hit a ceiling for gaining weight or they were not coached well in terms of gaining size. Young started all thirteen games as a freshman and did well for the situation while having some struggles. Clearly depth was becoming a pressing concern as the two-deep now had two sophomores, two freshman, and one starter being a potential backup for Sullivan. In the NFL draft, Harris was selected in the third round and Santucci in the seventh.

Grade: C

2007

Situation: Notre Dame is turning the page, having lost most of its starters from the previous year. Though no one is actively saying it is a rebuilding season, all signs point to a downturn from the previous two. Virtually the entire two-deep is being replaced along the line, and there are new receivers, running backs, and quarterbacks. However they are all more highly touted coming out of high school and ND looks to use youthful talent over experience.

Offensive Line: (granted there was a lot of movement)

  • LT - Sam Young (6-8, 310, SO) - Taylor Dever (6-5, 289, FR)
  • LG - Mike Turkovich (6-6, 301, JR) - Thomas Bermenderfer (6-5, 285, JR)
  • C - John Sullivan (6-4, 303, SR) - Dan Wenger (6-4, 287, SO)
  • RG - Eric Olsen (6-5, 303, SO) - Dan Wenger (6-4, 287, SO)
  • RT - Paul Duncan (6-7, 308, JR) - Chris Stewart (6-5, 339, SO)

Evaluation: Well, the team was awful, and a lot of the troubles extended from the o-line. The Irish gave up record numbers of sacks, penalties, and negative yardage plays. That being said, this fact can be traced largely to the fact that there were only had two returning starters among the ENTIRE two-deep, one of whom was a true sophomore. The unit showed moderate improvement as the year went on, but still lacked any real luster. Sullivan did not look like his old self, and Wenger actually looked like one of the best players on the unit by season’s end.

Grade: D

The upshot of all of this is that it would be wrong to lay all of the blame for ND’s struggles up front at the feet of Coach Latina. Sure, we’re three seasons in and the Irish have yet to have an overpowering offensive line unit, but a lot of it is attributable to size issues in 2005/2006, depth issues in 2006/2007, and inexperience issues in 2007. It seems that Weis may hold off passing judgment on Latina until the end of the 2008 season and I would advise others to do so as well. While we haven’t seen much in terms of a finished product, the Irish have been working hard to develop their current players (18 lbs. by Young in one offseason - whew!), and it’s highly unlikely that they’ll have another situation where they have to replace almost the entire unit in one season. In any case, next year eight of the nine players who were listed along the two-deep from the end of the 2007 season will be back: the line’s performance in 2008 should give us a much better indication of whether Latina is up to the task.

Taking Stock, Part II: Identity crisis

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

(This is Part 2 in a series of three posts evaluating the first eight weeks of the season and looking forward to what’s ahead. Part 1, “19 reasons why Notre Dame’s offense has sucked so badly in 2007,” is available here.)

Will the real Charlie Weis please stand up?

In the span of a mere three years, the head coach of the Fighting Irish has gone from an unknown quantity with a whole lot of jewelry on his fingers, to the savior of a program that had been mired in a decade of mediocrity, to a clever schemer with a penchant for running up the score on service academies who couldn’t win the big game, to an inept loser arrogantly presiding over the downfall of his alma mater’s proudest athletic program. The following numbers might be able to give some sense of the reasons for this transition:

Put another way, for those of you who prefer graphical representations to hard statistics:

And again, if you’d really just rather have it summed up in a picture:

Nope, there’s no way to get around it: the 2007 version of the Fighting Weises has been bad - really bad, especially on the offensive end. And I argued yesterday that none of the eighteen other explanations we might give of this team’s struggles can carry as much weight as the one that starts and ends with the head coach himself. In case my argument wasn’t good enough for you, though, here’s Weis saying pretty much the same thing in his Tuesday press conference:

Q. For those of us who haven’t followed Notre Dame football as closely as those people who cover it on a regular basis or are fans, could you kind of just quickly summarize what you feel has happened this year? Is it simply a case of being hit hard by graduation and the younger players who have been asked to fill in just haven’t performed or were not ready or the inexperience? In your overall big picture analysis, what’s led to 1 and 7?

COACH WEIS: Well, that’s a loaded question. (laughter) Well, first of all, let’s start with coaching, because what you just did in your question is gave me about 15 different excuses for us being 1 and 7, so why don’t we just start with 1 probably, with the transition that we’ve had from last year to this year, have not done the best job of having the team ready to go on a week in and week out basis, and we probably should leave it at that one because if you are looking for me to give you a whole dossier of problems that have happened this year, there would be too many things. If you want good fodder, let’s just throw me out there, okay.

Q. But in general, though, the fact that you have such an inexperienced team is a crucial factor…

COACH WEIS: It’s a factor, but that’s what it is. It’s a factor. It’s not the factor. There’s a lot of things that come — I think when you do that — once again, it would be easy for me to sit there and say, well, if these five things weren’t the case we’d be 7 and 1 right now. Well, the problem is they are the case. I started with what I felt was the number one reason, and I think that if you start with the head coach doing a better job, then you’d probably have a better record.

Now, all of this raises a natural question: which Weis is the real Weis? The one whose team had nineteen wins, many of them in blowout fashion, in 2005 and 2006, going to two straight BCS bowls and re-writing the offensive record books in the process, or the one who’s the head coach of a bowl-ineligible team that’s currently 1-7 and on pace to re-write those record books in quite a different way?

The primary schools of though on this question break down into two major groups:

  • The Dr. Jekyll Theory: Charlie Weis is an offensive genius and a brilliant head coach who’s simply been crippled by an undertalented and inexperienced roster this year. Sure, he’s made some mistakes in the way he’s done things - e.g. by not having enough full-contact practices, or doing too much scheming instead of taking a more piecemeal approach - but on the whole there aren’t any problems he can’t fix. We just need to be patient with him, and give him a chance to get his players on the field.
  • The Mr. Hyde Theory: Charlie Weis is the worst coach in the universe. He’s too fat, too stupid, too stubborn, and too ugly. He rode the coattails of Tom Brady while he was with the Patriots, and did the same with Brady Quinn and the rest of Tyrone Willingham’s recruits in his first two years at Notre Dame. Now, without a bunch of stars to carry him along, his true ineptitude is being exposed.

The argument I want to make here is that Charlie Weis is actually both of these characters at once: he’s Dr. Jekyll AND Mr. Hyde, the creative genius AND the over-scheming fool, the coach who squeezes the most out of his veteran players AND the man lucky enough to ride his star talent to victory. In other words, what we’ve seen in 2007 is just the other side of the coin from the previous two years.

Here’s why I say this. In the first place, I think the advocates of the “Mr. Hyde” theory are right to insist that the deficiencies in Weis’s coaching this year have gone far beyond problems of the “learning curve” variety: for example, while there’s no doubt that Weis was speaking truly when he said that he’s never been part of a team that practiced full-speed during the season, it’s also the case that he has a number of assistants on his team who presumably have seen that done, as well as other college coaches he knows who can tell him how they practice with their own squads. And even as Weis has begun to alter the way he runs practices, the reports I’ve seen indicate that the changes have been less than wholesale (with the possible exception of the “back to training camp” week following the Michigan game). In other words, the fact that Weis runs his practices in this particular way seems to be more than just an accident, more than just the result of ignorance: it’s plausibly an essential, if not quite central, aspect of the way he thinks that teams should prepare for games.

Similarly, consider the case of game-by-game adjustments in the offensive schemes. There’s no doubt that this sort of thing is a crucial part of Weis’s approach to gameplanning, and that it was a huge element of his success in the NFL and in his first two seasons with the Irish. But there’s also no denying that it’s been a big part of what’s kept this offense from generating any consistent production. The key thing, though, is that this sort of constant tinkering is just a part of who Weis is: if he doesn’t do it, he simply isn’t going to be successful; but when he does do it, it’s sometimes going to blow up in his face.

In other words, both of these examples - and I think there are many, many others - suggest that the aspects of Weis’s coaching style that have doomed the 2007 squad aren’t just accidental traits of a coach trying to figure out the college game. Rather, they’re just parts of what make him Charlie Weis, as opposed to Tyrone Willingham, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, or Pete Carroll. And so on reflection, it really shouldn’t be surprising that with Weis at the head, this particular Irish team has performed so poorly. He simply isn’t the right coach to make this group look even mildly respectable against teams like the ones they’ve played so far.

But on the other hand … there’s NO reason to deny the obvious fact that VERY SAME coaching style was a HUGE part of Notre Dame’s success in 2005 and 2006. Given a (relatively) experienced group of savvy veterans, a quarterback who soaked up the playbook like a sponge and practically had to be dragged from the practice field when it was time for his backup to take some snaps, a versatile tailback and a group of wide receivers who together were proficient at every aspect of the game (rushing, blocking, route-running, pass-catching, blitz-pickup, and so on), an experienced offensive line with the ability to make game-by-game adjustments, and so on, Weis was able to put together an offensive attack that had his team in national championship contention for two straight years. Chalking that up solely to dumb luck, or even to the undeniable greatness of Brady Quinn & Co., smacks of the sort of myopia that one expects only from a delusional Michigan alum.

In other words: my proposal is that it’s just a fact about Charlie Weis’s talents and coaching style that, given an experienced group of talented veterans, he can put together a dynamic offense with a chance to win a national championship. At the same time, though, its a fact about those very same talents and that very same coaching style that they don’t work well at getting a bunch of scrappy youngsters consistently to piece together any semblance of an offensive attack. It’s a both/and, not an either/or.

What this means, though, is that the biggest challenge facing Charlie Weis isn’t necessarily that of “learning how to be a college coach”: he’s already given ample evidence that he can do a damn good job of that, given the right players. And note once again that by “right players” I don’t mean “superstars all around”: with the exception of the quarterback position, Notre Dame never had the level of talent on offense in 2005 and 2006 that teams like USC and Michigan had. The crucial task, in other words, is that of transforming Jimmy Clausen, James Aldridge, Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, Duval Kamara, Robby Parris, Golden Tate, Will Yeatman, Mike Ragone, Dan Wenger, Sam Young, Matt Romine, Eric Olsen, and the rest into the kinds of players that Quinn, Darius Walker, Jeff Samardzija, Maurice Stovall, Rhema McKnight, John Carlson, Anthony Fasano, Mark LeVoir, Dan Santucci, Ryan Harris, Bob Morton, and John Sullivan were in 2005 and 2006: not just a bunch of players with enough talent to win a lot of games, but a group of hard-working players who showed up ready to go each week, were competent enough to do what he asked them to do, and - by and large, anyway - responded well to Weis’s coaching style. Given that, there’s every reason to think that Weis can once again make the Irish a team to be feared.

The question is, how do we get from here to there? It’s not just about allowing players to mature physically, drilling the playbook into them, or even teaching them the proverbial fundamentals. Rather, I think the key question is whether Weis can get these young players to keep their heads in the game, to continue working hard - on Saturday afternoons as well as on the practice field, in the weight room, in film study, and so on, both through the remainder of this season and through the offseason that will follow it. And the difficulty is that with the way the first eight games of 2007 have gone, the possibility of having players get discouraged and just give up is a real one.

But that’s a topic for tomorrow’s post …

Unsettled?

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

One thing that has been partly a symptom but also to some extent a likely cause of Notre Dame’s struggles this year is the way the lineup has shifted around from week to week. As I’ve discussed in some detail (see here and here), each of the last two weeks has seen major changes to the Irish depth chart, and when we compare the chart from the current week from the one at the start of the season (helpfully summarized here by Ben Ford), we find a remarkable number of changes:

  • At only three offensive positions (tight end (with the exception of Konrad Reuland’s departure), “Z” wide receiver (with the exception of Barry Gallup dropping off the chart), and fullback) and four defensive ones (defensive end (with the exception of Derrell Hand’s return from his suspension), “Mike” linebacker, free safety, and right cornerback (with the exception of Munir Prince catching up to Raeshon McNeil)) is the depth chart the same at mid-season as it was at the start.
  • Six players (Duval Kamara, Eric Olsen, Robby Parris, Evan Sharpley, James Aldridge (who is low on the depth chart this week only because of injury), and Kerry Neal) currently listed as starters weren’t starters or even co-starters at the beginning of the season, and two other current starters (Sam Young and Paul Duncan) have switched positions. (Sharpley was of course officially listed as a co-starter, but only as a smokescreen.)
  • A total of eight players (Young, Taylor Dever, Thomas Bemenderfer, Dan Wenger, Olsen, Brian Smith, Anthony Vernaglia, Morrice Richardson) are listed as having switched positions. (Though note that most of those switches, with the exception of Vernaglia’s, are relatively minor, and simply involve being on the other side of the offensive line or linebacking corp.)

Moreover, in part because of injuries but also because of depth chart changes, only ten positions (left guard, center, tight end, fullback, left defensive end, nose tackle, “Jake” linebacker, both safeties, and right cornerback) have had the same starter for each game so far, and only twelve players (Duncan, Young, Mike Turkovich, John Sullivan, John Carlson, Trevor Laws, Pat Kuntz, John Ryan, Maurice Crum, David Bruton, Tom Zbikowski, and Terrail Lambert) have started at some position or other in every game so far. (Since they opened with three wide receiver sets, Asaph Schwapp wasn’t in on the opening plays against Michigan or BC, but perhaps he should count as number 13 on this list.)

(A more complete breakdown, both of game-by-game starting lineups and of depth chart changes, is available here. Note that I haven’t included any of the special teams positions, though there has also been considerable variability at punter, place-kicker, and on kickoffs.)

No matter how you spin it, that’s a lot of guys moving around. (For comparison’s sake, last year’s Irish team had sixteen players start in every one of their thirteen total games, not including Zbikowski, who sat out against Stanford with an injury.) And it’s easy to look at this situation and think that it reflects poorly on Charlie Weis and his staff: either they did a poor job of evaluating talent at the start of the season, or they’ve been doing too much shuffling around from week to week and so have kept the team from settling into a real rhythm, or whatever. But when we look more closely at where many of the changes have come, we see a different story.

Here are the cases where the need to make changes in the depth chart clearly wasn’t the fault of the coaching staff:

  • “X” receiver: George West was listed as the starter here at the beginning of the year, but now the true freshman Kamara, who was originally third-string behind West and D.J. Hord, has moved up to the #1 spot. This is clearly a matter of a player showing what he brings to the field and taking the job away from a more experienced guy who was legitimately ahead of him at the start of the year, not a case where talent was misevaluated in any way.
  • “Z” receiver: Parris is now listed ahead of Grimes for the #1 spot, but that may be in part a product of Grimes’s injury. In any case, Grimes’s solid play last year clearly earned him his early-season starting position, just as Parris’s play this season (second on the team in receptions with 19 and the first in receiving yardage by a long shot with 272) may have done the same for him at mid-season.
  • Right guard: Wenger was the starter here at the beginning of the year, but he suffered an injury against Michigan and hasn’t played since. (He should be back this week, though, and Weis has indicated that he’ll be the primary backup for all of the interior positions along the o-line.) Matt Carufel was Wenger’s replacement for three games until he was beaten out by Olsen last week - but once again, having a player perform surprisingly well at a “need” position (especially when he overtakes someone who was originally a backup) is hardly something a coach can be criticized for.
  • Right defensive end: Early season co-starters Justin Brown (who missed several games with an injury) and Dwight Stephenson Jr. started off dividing playing time between them, but Stephenson has now risen to the #1 spot. During one of the games when Brown was injured, Derrell Hand started in this position, and there have been others where the team started off in a nickle package and either Neal or John Ryan was listed as a defensive end.
  • Right outside linebacker: This is where Neal has been playing extremely well, and taken the starting job away from the once-again disappointing Vernaglia (who’s now listed as the backup to Crum at the “Jake” linebacker spot).

In other words, all of the above personnel shifts can be chalked up either to injury (Grimes, Wenger, Brown) or unexpectedly solid play from underclassmen who hadn’t seen much if any game action before (Kamara, Parris, Olsen, Neal), and so it would be wrong to blame the staff for them.

But that’s not to say that there aren’t some other positions where the coaching staff is arguably at least partly at fault for the fact that there was so much uncertainty through the early part of the season:

  • Running back: This one really is something of a head-scratcher, since it became clear to most fans that Travis Thomas wasn’t going to get the job done long before he stopped getting a significant number of carries, and even though he didn’t actually start after week one, it took until the Michigan State game in week four for Aldridge to take over that position instead of Armando Allen. Allen has shown himself to be a good change-of-pace back who has a chance to be a dynamic every-down player in the future, but he’s not there yet, and trying to work the offense around his speed instead of building around the skill and power of Aldridge was pretty clearly a bad decision. When the guy who is obviously your best running back is basically your third option for the first third the season, something seems to have gone wrong in decision-making.
  • Quarterback: It’s been argued - with considerable force, in my mind, though I don’t think Jimmy Clausen deserved to be pulled before this week - that Sharpley should have been named the starter at the beginning of the season, and that the team would have been better off in the long run if that had been the decision made. It seems clear enough in hindsight that the choice of Demetrius Jones as the starter against Georgia Tech was a disaster, and that the time spent practicing a spread-style offense would have been better used working on more traditional sets. If Clausen would in fact have been the starter if not for his elbow surgery, then replacing him with someone who would run the same type of offense may well have been the best bet. Once again, this seems to be a matter of the staff getting to “cute” with schemes and crafty personnel decisions rather than taking a more careful, “building-blocks” approach.
  • The offensive tackles: The two-game experiment with moving Sam Young to right tackle clearly didn’t go very well, though it’s not as if he’s been stellar since going back to his original position. But if Young is in fact that much more comfortable playing on the left side of the line, then there’s a natural argument that says he never should have been moved in the first place. [EDIT: See Matt's comment below. What I should have said was that the experiment with putting Duncan on the left side of the line and leaving Young on the right did not work well, though it's not as if the line has been airtight since they were switched back. But the need for a mid-season switch like this with relatively veteran players suggests that there were some mistakes made in preseason evaluations.]

The fact is that these four positions - tailback, quarterback, and the two exterior linemen - are obviously crucial to the success of a football team, and so if Weis and his staff did make bad decisions with how they managed them, then it’s very likely that that had adverse effects on the way the team played on the field, as well as on the overall progress the team was able to make, through the early part of the season. And while in each case the questionable decisions I’ve highlighted here were understandable, it seems reasonable to put some blame at the feet of the coaching staff if they really did mis-evaluate their talent in these kinds of ways.

But at the same time, looking at these position changes as a whole reveals two really positive things about the state of the Irish: first, that there are lots of talented underclassmen playing extraordinary football; second, that the coaching staff has continually been willing to put those players on the field and even in the starting lineups, no matter how much seniority may have been had by the players they were replacing. If we continue to see more personnel moves over the remainder of the season, it will probably be for these kinds of reasons rather than the more worrisome ones suggested in the second category above. This is an extremely young team, and it’s going to take everyone a while to settle in.

Personnel notes

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

With the Southern Cal (yeah, that’s what I said) game just a few days away, there’s a bunch of news to cover regarding depth chart moves, injury updates, and the like. I’m going to run down the highlights position-by-position, but for the quick version, see the summary below:

  • Running backs: First-string tailback James Aldridge suffered a high ankle sprain against BC and is officially listed as “doubtful” for Saturday’s game, and Michael Rothstein quotes Charlie Weis as saying that while Aldridge “intends to play this week,” “the odds of that happening aren’t that high.” Given that all season even players who have been described as “probable,” “game-time decisions,” or even “ready to go” haven’t ended up playing much if at all (think David Grimes, Dan Wenger, and Maurice Crum last week), I’d say there’s just about no chance that Aldridge ends up seeing the field, which is really bad news for the Irish. With the injury to Aldridge, former co-#2’s Travis Thomas, Armando Allen, Junior Jabbie, and Robert Hughes are now listed as co-#1’s on the new depth chart, with Aldridge’s name in italics. Here’s what Weis said about this in his Tuesday press conference: “Well, I think what we would not do this week, since this is USC, is just throw Robert (Hughes) in and Armando (Allen) in there right off the bat. I think that we would go a little heavier with Travis (Thomas) being involved in this mix, too, more than he has this year. I think that that would be part of that combination. I’m not saying by committee, but I think that he would probably take off some of the pressure of James, and obviously Robert and Armando would be much more involved.”
  • Wide receivers: David Grimes didn’t play against BC, but Weis said in his Tuesday presser that it sounds like Grimes has “a legitimate chance of playing” in the Southern Cal game: he “was close to being able to go on Saturday (vs. Boston College), but it’s always tough when you haven’t practiced all week long to try to go when you haven’t had a meaningful rep in practice.” Meanwhile, as Rothstein notes in his excellent breakdown of this week’s depth chart changes, Grimes is now listed behind Robby Parris at the “Z” receiver slot, and fellow former #1 George West is now behind freshman Duval Kamara at the “X” position. Golden Tate, meanwhile, is still listed as third string for the “Z” slot, and Weis made a helpful clarification in his presser as to why Tate didn’t play much on offense against BC, saying that it wasn’t because of injury: “That was because we were going to play a significant amount of no huddle in the game, and in the no huddle our outside receivers do not flip flop positions, so they need to know both outside positions both as the weak side receiver and the strong side receiver. And really at his experience level, you want him to be able to play one position. Not (put him in a position) where he has to know both the X and the F and know both right and left. That was not the type of game that you want a guy with very little experience to be involved in.”
  • Offensive line: As I noted earlier, Dan Wenger sat out his fourth straight game last week with a leg injury. But when asked about Wenger’s health on Tuesday, Weis was unambiguous (for once): “He’s back. I think I would list Tom (Bemenderfer) down there [as the backup at right guard], but I think if I needed a backup inside, Danny (Wenger) would be the first backup inside at all three positions. I know I only list him at one. I list him (Wenger) as the backup center but he’d probably go in first at right guard and he’d probably go in first at left guard, as well.” On the new depth chart, Wenger is in fact listed as the backup to both John Sullivan at center and Eric Olsen at right guard, with Bemenderfer listed as Mike Turkovich’s backup at the left guard slot. Weis also noted that Chris Stewart, who saw the first game action of his career against BC, has been working both at right tackle and at right guard in practice, though the former position is his primary responsibility. Finally, Rothstein notes that Matt Romine, who’s missed several games with a right elbow injury, was wearing a “slightly less bulky” brace on Tuesday. He’s still probably a ways away from being back, though.
  • Linebackers: I also noted that Maurice Crum sat out the BC game, because of a turf toe injury he suffered against UCLA. Weis described Crum, like Grimes, as having a “legitimate chance” of playing against SC, noting that he “is walking without a limp this week, and that’s a good thing.” But both Rothstein and Ben Ford note in their reports from Tuesday’s practice that Crum looked a bit slow, so it’s perhaps reasonable to think that his status may be up in the air. The new depth chart, meanwhile, lists Anthony Vernaglia, who had been a starter at outside linebacker until last week but saw time at ILB against UCLA as well as BC, as Crum’s backup, with freshman Brian Smith taking over Vernaglia’s position from last week as the backup to John Ryan, and Morrice Richardson now in Smith’s old position as the backup to Kerry Neal.
  • Cornerbacks: Thankfully there’s no injury news to report here, but there has been a little bit of shifting on the depth chart: Darrin Walls is now listed as a co-#1 with Ambrose Wooden at the left cornerback spot, and at RCB, former tailback Munir Prince - who as I noted before the BC game has been seeing more playing time recently - is now listed as a co-#2 with Raeshon McNeil, behind Terrail Lambert.

Okay, that’s all. Here’s a quick summary for anyone who might have been overwhelmed by all that text:

  • James Aldridge is injured and probably won’t play against Southern Cal. Travis Thomas will play a key role backing him up, together with freshmen Robert Hughes and Armando Allen.
  • David Grimes will probably be back for the SC game, though he is now listed at second string behind Robby Parris. George West has also been bumped to second string, by freshman Duval Kamara. Golden Tate is not injured.
  • Dan Wenger is healthy and back on the offensive line, listed as a backup at two positions (center and right guard). Tom Bemenderfer is the backup at the other guard position.
  • Maurice Crum has reportedly looked a little slow in practice, so it’s fair to say that his status for Saturday may be uncertain. Anthony Vernaglia is now listed as his backup, with Brian Smith taking over Vernaglia’s spot from last week as the backup to John Ryan and Morrice Richardson taking Smith’s spot behind Kerry Neal.
  • Ambrose Wooden is now listed as a co-#1 with Darrin Walls at one cornerback slot, and Munir Prince as the co-#2 with Raeshon McNeil at the other.

That’s it! I’ll be back tomorrow with some analysis of the team’s depth along the offensive line, pre- and post- the departure of Matt Carufel.

It’s the execution, stupid.

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

Amidst all the armchair analysis of Saturday’s loss to Boston College, many excellent points have been raised about what the Irish are and - especially - aren’t doing right: offensive line and quarterback play on the bad end; the all-around liveliness of the defense and the play of individual standouts like Trevor Laws, Brian Smith, and Darrin Walls on the good. But one point that many people, both on the IrishEnvy boards and elsewhere, have kept coming back to as an area that has hurt the Irish is Charlie Weis’s play-calling. I’ve said in many little discussions already that I think this argument is silly, but I thought it was worth writing a longer post detailing exactly why I think this.

Let me preface my argument by saying that I’m well aware that I know absolutely nothing about play-calling. Heck, I don’t even play Madden. But given the specific sort of argument I’m going to make here, I think that’s a good thing: I’m not going to sit here and tell a Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator how to do his job; instead, I’m going to show you exactly how the plays that Weis called against BC regularly put the Irish in a position to convert simple first-downs and so move the ball down the field. My focus, in other words, will be (once again) on specific boneheaded mistakes rather than abstract generalities.

To start, let’s look at OCDomer’s breakdown of Saturday’s offensive drives:

  1. 6 Plays, 3 yards, punt.
  2. 5 plays, 16 yards, punt.
  3. 3 plays, 9 yards, punt.
  4. 3 plays, 9 yards, punt.
  5. 10 plays, 22 yards, ball turned over on downs when punter’s knee touches ground while fielding low snap.
  6. 5 plays, 9 yards, Clausen pass intercepted.
  7. 1 play, 0 yards, Clausen pass intercepted.
  8. 7 plays, 79 yards, TD pass from Sharpley to Parris.
  9. 3 plays, 7 yards, punt.
  10. 6 plays, 16 yards, punt.
  11. 6 plays, 15 yards, missed 41 yd FG attempt.
  12. 11 plays, 53 yards, ball turned over on downs.
  13. 4 plays, 0 yards, ball turned over on downs.
  14. 1 play -1 yard, game over.

It’s certainly easy to look at that drive chart, together with a box score that shows that the Irish had only 222 total yards to BC’s 459 (not to mention the fact that ND is still ranked 111th or worse in every major (andminor“) offensive category) and conclude that coaching is at fault, and - as I’ll argue shortly - I think you’d be quite right to do that. But that doesn’t mean the fault is with PLAY-CALLING. Here’s a breakdown of what brought those drives to a halt (some of which is noted by OCDomer):

  1. 6 Plays, 3 yards, punt. [Holding by Young forces 2nd-and-20.]
  2. 5 plays, 16 yards, punt. [Clausen fails to hit open Parris in near field on two consecutive throws.]
  3. 3 plays, 9 yards, punt. [Allen fails to convert on third and three.]
  4. 3 plays, 9 yards, punt. [Hughes fails to convert on third and one.]
  5. 10 plays, 22 yards, ball turned over on downs when punter’s knee touches ground while fielding low snap. [Olsen false starts on 2nd-and-10; Clausen under huge pressure next two plays.]
  6. 5 plays, 9 yards, Clausen pass intercepted. [Drive starts with 1:19 on clock. Young called for holding on 1st-and-10.]
  7. 1 play, 0 yards, Clausen pass intercepted. [Dangerous pass by Clausen bounces off Carlson's hands and is picked off.]
  8. 7 plays, 79 yards, TD pass from Sharpley to Parris.
  9. 3 plays, 7 yards, punt. [Kamara drops a first-down throw on 3rd-and-3.]
  10. 6 plays, 16 yards, punt. [Sharpley misses on two consecutive downfield passes to Parris.]
  11. 6 plays, 15 yards, missed 41 yd FG attempt. [Turkovich whistled for holding on 1st-and-10; Duncan burned badly to give up a sack; Walker misses FG attempt.]
  12. 11 plays, 53 yards, ball turned over on downs. [Turkovich called for holding on 4th-and-1 TD throw.]
  13. 4 plays, 0 yards, ball turned over on downs. [Parris drops a downfield throw by Sharpley; Sharpley throws the ball to nobody on 4th-and-10.]
  14. 1 play -1 yard, game over. [Kneel-down to run out clock.]

So there you go. Out of twelve failed offensive drives (obviously the last one doesn’t count), the Irish had five that were handicapped by penalties along the offensive line, two that ended on failures to convert short yardage on third down, two that each involved a pair of poor throws to open receivers, and two others that ended when third-down throws were dropped by wide receivers. Put that together and you get six of twelve drives that would have been sustained if not for straightforward offensive incompetence (dropped or mis-thrown passes and an inability to convert short yardage) and five more where the offense had to face extra-long yardage situations because of penalties. That’s eleven of twelve failed drives (the one that is left out here is the one that started and ended with Clausen’s second interception) grinding to a halt because of nothing but old-fashioned on-field ineptitude.

So here’s my question: how is ANY of this the result of the plays that were called? It seems to me - and perhaps someone who knows more about football can show me where this is wrong - that all a coach can do in the play-calling department is put his team in a position to convert one first down at a time so that they can move on down the field. This is going to be immensely hard to do when the offensive line moves your team backwards rather than forwards with dumb penalties, and it is also going to be hard to do when you call plays that should be good for first downs and your team FAILS TO EXECUTE THOSE PLAYS. So far as I can tell, not even ONE of ND’s failed drives on Saturday is attributable to Weis having called the wrong plays (whether it was not running enough, not passing enough, not passing the ball downfield enough, and so on and so forth): instead, in every case where there weren’t penalties along the o-line to move the team backwards (and indeed in some of those cases, too), the offense had a chance to convert a third down and extend their drives, a play was called on which they could clearly have done just that, and they failed to do their job. It is simply beyond me how this loss could be ascribed to the plays that were called rather than what was done with them once the huddle was broken.

None of this is to say that Weis’s play-calling has been beyond reproach in PREVIOUS weeks; I no longer have my notes on them, but I sincerely doubt you could make this same sort of argument (at least with this same force) in those cases. (The Georgia Tech and Michigan games are especially striking examples of goofy scheming.) Nor - as I’ve already mentioned - is it to say that he’s beyond criticism for Saturday’s loss. In fact, I can think offhand of at least ten other things for which Weis deserves a lot of flack:

  1. An offensive line that can’t block.
  2. The fact that the (in many case most veteran) members of said line continually commit dumb penalties.
  3. A team that is unable to convert in short yardage situations.
  4. A pair of quarterbacks who were barely above 30% passing on the day.
  5. A veritable smörgåsbord of dropped passes by the wide receivers.
  6. The fact that his team seems regularly to come out flat in big games.
  7. The fact that his practice routines didn’t get his players ready for “game speed.”
  8. The way the wheels have tended to fall off for this year’s team as soon as they’ve faced the tiniest bit of adversity.
  9. The fact that many of the members of his coaching staff don’t seem to be able to get their jobs done.
  10. The fact that the Irish are 1-6 this year (and 1-8 in their last nine games).

All of these things are, in part at least, the fault of the head coach, and many of them bring out the sorts of problems that doomed the Irish against BC. Weis DESERVES to be blamed, in other words, for the way his team has failed to execute: but last Saturday at least, the plays he called would have enabled his team to move down the field if they’d managed to do just that (i.e., execute).

(While we’re at it, let me point out a few things that handicapped the Irish against BC but were NOT Weis’s fault:

  1. The fact that his #1 tailback (Aldridge) left the game with an injury after getting only five carries.
  2. The fact that his #1 wide receiver (Grimes), his top middle linebacker (Crum), and a starting offensive lineman (Wenger) as well as a backup (Romine) all weren’t able to play because of injury.
  3. The fact that that was one of the worst-officiated football games I’ve ever seen.
  4. The fact that BC has sold its soul to the devil in exchange for theological liberalism and a win-streak against the Irish.
  5. Ty Willingham’s recruiting (yes, that old hat).

Again, I’m certainly not saying Weis is blameless - on that, see the above. I’m just saying we’ve got to keep the whole picture in mind.)

Whew. That was a long post for such a silly argument. But in many ways I think the complaints about the plays that were called on Saturday illustrate people’s inability to look realistically at a game and diagnose what actually went wrong as opposed to trotting out the same old gripes week-in, week-out. There is a LOT that is wrong with this team, and a LOT of that is arguably the fault of Charlie Weis. Foremost among these problems is a failure to move the ball on offense - but so far as I can tell, the chief problem against BC wasn’t on the sidelines. It was on the field.

Stop beating yourself.

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

Ugh. Now that I’m done throwing up, here’s an initial take on the game.

The reason this loss hurts so effing much is that the Irish have no one but themselves to blame for it. BC racked up 131 yards on 15 penalties, the defense played great and harassed Matt Ryan into a subpar passing performance and returned an interception for a touchdown, and Evan Sharpley had a strong performance in relief of the disappointing Jimmy Clausen. But throughout the game, the Irish were hamstrung by penalties, turnovers, dropped or mis-thrown passes, and many other stupid mistakes. These are the sorts of things that I termed “Inexcusables” after the Michigan State loss, and I argued after the Purdue game that they were the chief reason why the Irish were unable to pull out a win in West Lafayette. The same goes for today’s game, I think, and Charlie Weis’s post-game remarks suggest that he felt the same way:

“I think we had a chance in this game, but the bottom line is they won 27-14,” he said. “If I sit there and say, ‘God if we were just better on that snap, or if we would have hit this one pass or if we didn’t get a penalty. …’ But the thing is, we did.”

And did they ever. While there are many statistical measures of this sort of sloppiness - seven penalties, two turnovers, an average starting position of the ND 42.5-yard line on BC’s four scoring drives, under 21 minutes of possession time, and so on and so forth - it seems to me that a bit of “color commentary” on some of the major blunders is in order. So sit back and relax; this is going to take a while.

[UPDATE: If you want the quick version, read this great post by Ben Ford, where Weis describes six plays from the game which he thought showed "the difference between winning and losing." I've gone back and marked five of those plays in red below; the sixth was Andre Callender's 52-yard run from scrimmage to set up BC's first touchdown, but I decided not to count that as a "bonehead" play so much as a matter of getting flat-out beat.]

The first half:

  • Notre Dame’s first offensive series was highlighted by a pair of pass-blocking blunders. After two rushes and a nice reception by James Aldridge picked up a first down, Sam Young was called for holding on 2nd-and-10. The player Young was blocking, defensive end Allan Smith, got to Jimmy Clausen anyway on the play, and gave him a nice hit as he thew away the ball. Two plays later, on 3rd-and-17, Aldridge whiffed badly on blitz pickup but Clausen got rid of the ball in time to avoid a sack.
  • The second offensive series for the Irish was similarly error-filled. After another solid run by Aldridge and a completion to George West led to ND’s second first down of the day, Clausen hit John Carlson for six yards but then made two awful throws in the direction of Robby Parris, and the Irish were forced to punt. Geoff Price’s kick was good for only 32 yards, and the Irish failed to pin the Eagles back.
  • The Irish didn’t manage to pick up a first down on either of their next two offensive series, both of which ended in failed conversion attempts on third-and-short. After a six-yard completion to Carlson, Aldridge picked up one yard on 2nd-and-4 but had to leave the game with an injury. Armando Allen replaced him but was given no hole to run through on 3rd-and-3; he picked up only two yards and the Irish had to punt again. The next series started off well once again with a six-yard completion to Duval Kamara and a three-yard run by Robert Hughes, which got ND to the 46-yard line. But on a toss play to the right side, Hughes was stopped for a loss of a yard on 3rd-and-1, and the Irish lined up to punt once again.
  • Notre Dame’s next drive, which came right after Trevor Laws’s block of a BC field goal attempt kept the score at 6-0, perhaps summarized the team’s woes. The drive opened with an incomplete pass, but Clausen followed that up with an 8-yard completion to Carlson, and then Asaph Schwapp had a nice run for a first down. Clausen then threw incomplete to Carlson, a nicely-thrown ball on what I think was his first deep pass of the night, followed by a run by Hughes that was stuffed for a gain of one yard and then a beautiful 26-yard completion to Parris to convert another third down and bring the Irish to the BC 41-yard line. But after Hughes was stopped for no gain on first down, Eric Olsen (together with what seemed to me to be the rest of the offensive line) false-started on 2nd-and-10, and Clausen came under huge pressure on both of the next two plays, and the Irish were forced to punt from the BC 36. But here’s the kicker (as it were): J.J. Jansen’s snap was low, and Price let his knee touch the ground as he bent down to pick it up: twelve yards were officially lost on the play, but BC was able to start from the Irish 42-yard line instead of their own 20. Less than five minutes later, after a drive that included a dreadful pass interference penalty on Ambrose Wooden on a mis-thrown ball that could not have been caught, the Eagles were in the end zone, with a 13-0 lead.
  • The ensuing drive ND started with 1:19 on the clock, and the Irish scrambling to get some points on the board before the half. John Sullivan snapped the ball over Clausen’s head on first down, but the freshman managed to get rid of the ball without being sacked. A poorly-thrown pass to Kamara on second down was redeemed when DeJuan Tribble was called for a personal foul, and the Irish had 1st-and-10 at their own 43-yard line. On the next play, though, Sam Young was called for holding once again, and then Clausen threw an incompletion on second down, scrambled for four yards on third, and then was intercepted by Tribble on a pass thrown downfield to Kamara that looked to be at least five yards short. The Irish went into the locker room lucky to be down only by two scores, and with the sputtering offense constantly throwing away the momentum the defense was able to generate.

What’s so frustrating about looking back at the first half is that these plays show how many of the team’s woes - especially those of the offense, though a defense that gave up a 52-yard run from scrimmage on their opponent’s fourth offensive play is hardly beyond reproach - are the fault of an inability to get the “little” things right. Receivers were getting open, quarterbacks were being protected, yards were being gained … and yet the Irish ended up with only 60 yards passing and 16 rushing at halftime, because of missed throws, penalties along the offensive line, and - especially - an ongoing inability to pick up yards on third down and short. Put all that together and you get a two-touchdown hole going into the locker room.

The second half:

  • The second half started off well for the Irish, as BC’s opening drive was stuffed, and Johnny Ayers’s punt was good for only 36 yards, allowing ND to start from their own 36, their second-best field position of the day. But on the very first offensive play, Clausen threw a dangerous pass and it bounced off of John Carlson’s hands and into those of BC’s Tryone Pruitt. The interception was returned 30 yards to the ND eleven-yard line, and three plays later the Eagles were in the end zone and the lead stood at 20-0.
  • It was at this point that Evan Sharpley came in to replace Clausen, and while he started off shakily - nearly being picked off on his first throw after Kamara tipped it up into the air, and badly overthrowing Allen on his second - he settled down and went four of five for 64 yards the rest of the way, leading the Irish to a touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, the Eagles were stopped at the 21-yard line, and the game clearly seemed to be swinging ND’s way. A minute and a half later, Brian Smith picked off a Matt Ryan pass over the middle and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown. Just like that, BC’s lead stood at 20-14, with almost 24 minutes remaining in regulation.
  • After Smith’s touchdown, though, the Irish were penalized for excessive celebration in the end zone, and were forced to kick the ball off from their own 15-yard line. Nate Whitaker’s bloop kick got only as far as the BC 38, and it was returned 18 yards by Brad Newman as the Eagles lined up to start their second in three drives on the Irish side of the field. Five plays and less than two minutes later, they were on the board again. The lead was back to two scores and the Irish seemed to have lost much of their momentum.
  • ND’s next drive went three-and-out, ending after Kamara dropped a pass on 3rd-and-3 following a seven-yard run by Armando Allen. After the defense forced BC into a three-and-out of their own on the next series, Sharpley led the Irish to a first down around midfield but then threw three straight incompletions in the direction of Robby Parris: Pruitt nearly got his second interception of the game on the first of them, and the third down throw landed in the open field as Sharpley and Parris appeared to have gotten their signals crossed. (This drive also featured the “inadvertent whistle” that seemed to suck out whatever life was remaining in the stadium.)
  • After another BC three-and-out, Tom Zbikowski had a nice punt return, and a holding penalty on the Eagles moved the Irish to the BC 39-yard line, their best starting field-position of the day. Sharpley was nearly intercepted once again on his first pass downfield, and then overthrew Carlson on second down but was bailed out when BC’s Roderick Rollins was flagged for a late hit. But on first down and ten from the BC 24, Mike Turkovich was called for a hold as Armando Allen broke of a nine-yard run. Sharpley did hit Kamara for 13 yards on 2nd-and-20, but then Paul Duncan was burned badly and Sharpley was sacked for a loss of three yards. Brandon Walker then missed a 41-yard field goal attempt wide to the right, and the Irish wasted another golden opportunity handed to them by BC’s sloppy play.
  • BC’s next drive ate up 5:34 on the clock, but they were thwarted on a fourth-down conversion attempt and the Irish started up from their own 25-yard line. Sharpley moved the ball downfield effectively, completing a pair of screen passes to Armando Allen for gains of nine and five yards, and generating some positive net yardage with his feet with a pair of runs despite being sacked on one play by BC’s Ron Brace, who bursted untouched through the middle of the line. Then a 21-yard pass to Parris then had fifteen more yards tacked on because of another personal foul on the Eagles, and suddenly the Irish were at the BC 22. After a pair of incompletions, Sharpley made a spectacular play getting the ball to John Carlson as he was going down under heavy pressure, but after a lengthy review it was determined that Carlson had been stopped just short of the first down marker. No matter, though: Sharpley hit Parris for a 13-yard touchdown on fourth down, and the Irish were back within a score … or maybe not. Mike Turkovich was called for holding once again on the play, the Irish were forced to line up again and try for 4th-and-11 from the 23, and everyone knows how that story ends. The Eagles ran the clock down to under three minutes on their next drive, Sharpley went 0-for-4 (though one of those should have been caught by Parris) on the ensuing series, and the upset bid was over.

Obviously the penalty on fourth down that had the touchdown brought back is the one that sticks in our minds, but note this: if Turkovich hadn’t been called for the first of those two holds (the one that came on 1st-and-10 from the BC 24), then a pickup of even a few yards by the Irish would have allowed Walker to attempt a field goal from within 40 yards. If he’d been able to convert that then the score would have been 27-17, and the Irish could have been happy to kick another field goal on the next drive to cut the lead to one score, instead of going for the TD on fourth down. (Walker, who showed some leg strength but was way off to the right on his kick, is obviously not without fault himself.) This game was not lost on one or two plays: it was the frequency of ND’s errors - bad penalties, dropped passes, missed blocks, misthrown balls to open receivers, and so on - that repeatedly stalled the offense just as it got going, and placed far too much of the burden on the Irish defense. Was the excessive celebration penalty understandable? Coming from a guy who was dancing around the room making obscene gestures and yelling “SUCK IT” in front of his wife and son, I’d have to say yes: but in a sense, so were the holding penalties. The point is, they were dumb moves in big spots, and the Irish have nobody but themselves to blame for having made them.

Perhaps I should end by quoting what I said after the Purdue game:

If the Irish are going to avoid going 0-8 to start the season, their so-far steady diet of these sorts of mental and physical mistakes is going to have to change. Some of them can be attributed to underclassman jitters, others to players trying to do too much to help a team dig itself out of a hole, and others perhaps to frustration. But they’ve got to stop, and it’s hard to believe that the coaching staff doesn’t know that.

0-8 is no longer a possibility, but a 1-7 start that would put the Irish out of contention for a bowl game looms ominously in the horizon. We’re past the midseason mark now, and so youth and inexperience no longer carry much weight as excuses.

There is no question that this team has got the talent to beat USC next Saturday. But they won’t be able to do that if they can’t stop beating themselves.

Gameday news and notes (ND vs. BC)

Saturday, October 13th, 2007

Here are few updates on the Irish depth chart, and the health of ND’s various injured players, heading into this afternoon’s game against Boston College.

* * *

It was reported on the Web Thursday night, and yesterday the Chicago Tribune picked the story up: sophomore offensive lineman Matt Carufel, who started the past three games at right guard after classmate Dan Wenger went down with an injury and was listed to start again against Boston College, has been excused from the team for undisclosed personal reasons and will miss today’s game:

Irish guard Matt Carufel, who started the last three games, has returned home to Minnesota and is expected to decide on his future at Notre Dame by Sunday, the Tribune has learned.

Carufel has been excused from practices this week due to “personal reasons.” On Friday, Carufel was at his former high school in St. Paul, Cretin-Derham Hall, spoke extensively with assistant coach Andy Bishoff, and indicated that he may not return to the Irish.

“He’s struggling with if he’s going to stick around there or not,” Bishoff told the Tribune. “He just doesn’t know if he fit at Notre Dame like he thought he would.”

Carufel also could return to Notre Dame to finish out the semester. If Carufel decides not to return to the Irish, Bishoff said Minnesota and Iowa are two schools likely to be at the top of the list of potential destinations.

Apparently Carufel was absent from practice on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. His departure, together with the elbow injury (I am told it involves torn ligaments) that is going to keep freshman Matt Romine out for the foreseeable future and the obvious questions of whether Wenger’s leg is 100% healed, suddenly leaves the Irish almost paper-thin along the offensive line. Carufel’s backup on this week’s official depth chart (which I’ve already discussed at some length here) is fellow sophomore Eric Olsen, who had previously been listed behind Mike Turkovich on the other side of the line at left guard, and who has played in ever game except the loss to Michigan. Olsen saw the field by far the most of any of the backup offensive linemen through the first five games, so hopefully he’ll be ready to play.

But after that, the rest of the second string o-line consists of freshman Taylor Dever behind Sam Young at left tackle, junior transfer Thomas Bemenderfer behind Turkovich at left guard, Wenger behind fifth-year senior John Sullivan at center, and sophomore Chris Stewart behind Paul Duncan at right tackle. If Wenger is ready to go, it’s obviously not a stretch to see him splitting minutes with Olsen in Carufel’s place, since Sullivan essentially never leaves the field. Stewart and Dever, meanwhile, haven’t gotten into any games yet this year.

(It’s perhaps worth noting that the Notre Dame depth chart published in the South Bend Tribune this morning lists Stewart as the starter at right guard, with Olsen listed as backing up both Stewart and left guard Turkovich, and Bemenderfer as the backup center to Sullivan. Wenger, meanwhile, is completely absent from that chart, though Romine is listed as Duncan’s backup at right tackle. It’s hard to believe this chart is accurate, though, since there are also several other funny things about it, including Eric Maust listed ahead of Geoff Price as the team’s punter, and Anthony Vernaglia absent from the chart altogether.)

So obviously we’re not going to know for sure who’s going to play where until the game is underway, but I’d be surprised if what we see at the right guard position doesn’t primarily involve Olsen and/or Wenger, depending especially on the health of the latter (on which see below).

* * *

Up next, a couple of quick injury updates:

  • David Grimes, who ended up not dressing for the UCLA game because of an ankle injury suffered against Purdue, was back in practice this week, albeit with a heavily taped ankle. Watching Grimes on Wednesday, Ben Ford thought that he was “still having a little bit of trouble with the initial burst and explosion when he makes a break from a standing position.” Charlie Weis was quoted in Eric Hansen’s excellent column in today’s SBTrib as saying that Grimes hadn’t participated in any cutting drills this week, and that he would be a game-time decision, but that he “still doesn’t look full speed to me … If he doesn’t look close to full speed, then I just won’t play him.” My gut here says that we don’t see Grimes on the field today.
  • Meanwhile, I haven’t seen any reports of how Dan Wenger looked in practice this week, but an article from Wednesday’s SBTrib has this little nugget: “We’re finally getting him back on a more full-speed basis this week,” Weis said of Wenger. “He’s not automatically going to get thrown (into the right guard mix). He’s going to have to earn his way back out there.” It could be, in other words, is that the reason Wenger was made the backup to Sullivan on the depth chart for this week is that he’s not fully healthy, and less will be expected of him there because of how little Sullivan comes out of the game. But once again, I wouldn’t read into the fact that Wenger isn’t listed in the SBT depth chart, since they list Romine as a back-up, and Weis has said that he’s at least a few weeks away from returning.

* * *

Finally, one more personnel-related note. Pat at BGS noted earlier this week that sophomore Munir Prince, who was recruited as a tailback but made the switch to cornerback in the off-season, saw some playing time on defense against UCLA. A question in Michael Rothstein’s mailbag from this week picked up on this point:

I noticed late in the UCLA game when the Irish were on defense, Darrin Walls nor Raeshon McNeil were on the field. Is this because the Irish were running a prevent zone and those guys match up better in man-to-man, or did the coaches feel better with the more experienced dime lineup of (Terrail) Lambert, (Leo) Ferrine, (Ambrose) Wooden, (David) Bruton, Zibby but then there was (Munir) Prince, what gives? Thanks.
-Pete McLoughlin

Pete,
Honestly, we’re not sure. From the television view we had, we didn’t even notice the shift in this package and who was in. What we can tell you is we noticed Prince in the game a lot. It shows more than anything that the sophomore is finally adjusted to his move to cornerback. As for that package, we’ll take a good look this week when we’re back on site for games.

Anyway, just thought that was worth noting. That’s great for Munir, and hopefully he’ll continue to get on the field and play well the rest of the season.

[UPDATE: The always-insightful OCDomer has this to say, over at NDLNA:

I noticed Munir in at corner for stretches against UCLA. It seemed he was man-up on UCLA's best wide-out. Coach Weis has always said Munir was very fast. If he has developed his footwork at DB to the point that he is trusted to cover the fastest receivers on the other team, that's awesome. It means we shouldn't see the other team's speed burner running wide open down the field any more. It's also great for Munir. He's obviously been working very hard to learn the new position - hats off to him!

Good stuff.]

* * *

That’s all for today. Go Irish!

Musical chairs

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

As Michael Rothstein noted yesterday, the latest version of ND’s official depth chart is out, and it’s different in some pretty significant ways from previous installments. Rothstein does a good job of noting the major changes, but I thought it was worth looking in a bit more depth at who’s moved where, and also relating these changes to some of Charlie Weis’s remarks from his Tuesday press conference.

Running back: James Aldridge / Travis Thomas OR Armando Allen OR Junior Jabbie OR Robert Hughes

What this means: I noted last week that there were reports that Aldridge had been made the official #1 tailback, but this is the first time I’ve seen it reflected in the depth chart. This is also a sort of a promotion for Hughes, who had been listed behind each of the other four backs in previous depth charts. While the Irish will certainly continue to change personnel in their backfield, it’s likely that a bit more consistency will help this team to establish a real offensive identity.

“Z” Wide Receiver: David Grimes / Robby Parris / Barry Gallup Jr. / Golden Tate

What this means: There’s actually no change here, though some may be surprised to see Tate still listed so far down. Weis was asked about this in his press conference today, and he said that Tate “got dinged a little bit in the [UCLA] game. He got knocked in the head a little bit.” But he insisted that Golden “will be involved in this mix right here.”

Center: John Sullivan / Dan Wenger

What this means: Wenger, who had been the starter at the right guard position earlier in the season, has been out the past few weeks with an injury suffered against Michigan, but he did travel to Pasadena and was supposed to be available, though he didn’t end up playing. Weis said in his press conference today that Wenger “hasn’t practiced that many reps full speed yet,” and that he won’t “just automatically get thrown in there” until he’s completely ready to go. The position switch could be simply a matter of putting him behind a more experienced player so that less is demanded of him, but it’s hard to know for sure.

Left Guard: Mike Turkovich / Thomas Bemenderfer

What this means: Bemenderfer had been listed as the backup center behind Sullivan, so this is a position switch of sorts for him, though he hadn’t seen more than a couple minutes of playing time in the first five games according to Lou Somogyi’s breakdown from last week. Once again, it’s hard to know whether it’s permanent.

Right Guard: Matt Carufel / Eric Olsen

What this means: I’ve already noted that Ben Ford wrote something last week about how Carufel didn’t want to give Wenger his starting position back, and it’s possible that he’s succeeded there. Meanwhile, Olsen had been the backup to Turkovich at left guard, so this is a switch for him, and a strong indication that Turk has managed to hold on to his position.

Right Tackle: Paul Duncan / Chris Stewart

What this means: Matt Romine had been listed as the backup to Duncan a few weeks back, but now he doesn’t appear on the depth chart at all, and Weis said in his press conference today that his elbow injury is “a little ways away” from being sufficiently healed, and that “I don’t expect to see him any time soon.” Stewart, meanwhile, had previously been listed as the backup to Matt Carufel at the right guard position.

Left Defensive End: Trevor Laws / Derrell Hand OR Paddy Mullen

What this means: Hand had been listed as the third-string right defensive end, so this is a minor position switch for him. Mullen, meanwhile, had been listed as Laws’s sole backup but had only seen a few minutes of playing time. Bringing Hand over to help the sophomore out might mean that Laws will be able to take a few more breathers, though Weis also indicated (see below) that Justin Brown might be the first off the bench to spell Laws.

Right Defensive End: Dwight Stephenson Jr. / Justin Brown

What this means: Brown and Stephenson had been listed as co-#1’s before, and when Brown went down with an injury Stephenson didn’t always start in his place. Stephenson did start last week, but Weis said in his press conference today that Brown could be in the game for either Stephenson or Trevor Laws, and that he’ll “go in first,” before Hand or Mullen.

Right Outside Linebacker: Kerry Neal / Brian Smith / Morrice Richardson

What this means: With the freshman Neal starting, senior Anthony Vernaglia is now a backup at the other OLB spot (see below). This is a big move for Neal, who’s played really well the last few weeks but of whom Weis said after the Michigan State game that he wasn’t ready to play consistently against the run. Weis said in his press conference today that Neal has “a bigger body than some of those other guys, and he’s more of a — he’s not as tall as John — but he’s more of a John Ryan type of player. So it kind of gives you — when those two guys are out there — it gives you more of a mirrored look on the right side and the left side.”

Left Outside Linebacker: John Ryan / Anthony Vernaglia

What this means: When asked why Vernaglia played at inside linebacker against UCLA, Weis said that this was done “out of need,” but that “this week he’s going to practice at both inside and outside. He’ll be listed at one (position on the depth chart). I think I put him as the backup Sam behind John Ryan. I think that’s where I put him, as the best backup left outside linebacker, but he’ll practice at both inside and outside this week.” We’ll see how much this ends up affecting Vernaglia’s playing time, but it’s clearly hard to see it as anything but a demotion for a player who has only thirteen total tackles on the season.

Strong Safety: Tom Zbikowski / Sergio Brown / Ray Herring

What this means: Herring had been ahead of Brown on the depth chart before, but Zbikowski rarely comes off the field except to bring in an extra cornerback, and so it’s hard to see this as a very big deal. (By Somogyi’s count, Herring had played a total of 6:23 at safety through the first five games, and the game participation statistics don’t show him as having played at all the past two weeks, even on special teams.) It’s perhaps worth noting, though, that there had been some whispers that Brown might be unhappy with his roles on the team and thinking of leaving, so the fact that he’s moved up on the depth chart may make him feel a bit better about his future.

Place-Kicker: Brandon Walker / Nate Whitaker

What this means: After he won the kicking competition this past week and hit two field goals, including a 48-yarder, against UCLA, there was little doubt that Walker would be ND’s placekicker for the foreseeable future. Whitaker will still handle kickoffs, though.

Punter: Geoff Price / Eric Maust

What this means: Maust replaced Price in the Michigan State game and handled the punts against Purdue, but Price returned last week and had a strong game. Weis said today that Price’s biggest problem has been with inconsistency:

We all know that he’s got the leg that can hit the ball 70 yards. But when you go out in the game and hit two or three crummy ones and then drop a snap on top of it, at that position you can’t hide.

I never call a player out, but there’s certain positions, the quarterback throws three interceptions, everybody in the stands sees it. An offensive lineman misses three blocks, you might not see it, depending on what happened on the play. But when a punter is out there and the ball goes 25 or 30 yards, it’s tough to hide that.

But I think that he’s really working on his consistency. I think that last week with the exception of one kick that he didn’t hit very well, I think that he kicked — he punted nine times and I think he had a very, very good day.

Hopefully Price can return to the consistently excellent performance we saw in 2006 that made him a preseason All-American candidate this year.

Anyway, that’s all I see for now. I’ll try to find some time tomorrow to write something about BC.

I’ll take it

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

Like OCDomer said (as well as Pat, I guess), a win is a win is a win. Even if it did come against a third-string walk-on freshman quarterback and a coach who did his best Karl Dorrell impersonation by running the ball only four times and asking said walk-on freshman to throw the ball constantly after falling behind by two scores despite the fact that there were over fifteen minutes left on the clock. And even if the Irish did manage only twelve first downs to UCLA’s twenty, and 140 offensive yards to UCLA’s 282. A win is a win is a win. And to be quite honest, it feels like a bit more than a win when it comes on a day that we get to see this face:

Good stuff. Oh, and by the way - Trojan fans, I got your “Booty for Booty” right here. (Word is, he prefers that kind anyway.)

Anyway, here are some thoughts on the game.


The game ball goes to …

I know the easy thing to do here is to go with Maurice Crum Jr. (seven tackles, one sack, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, two interceptions, and a touchdown), but doing so would indicate that he actually had a better game than, say, Trevor Laws (five tackles, one sack, two pass breakups, and an all-around great job of being a pain in the butt), which in my mind is hard to say. Plus, there were two plays in the first half - eight-yard rushes by Joe Cowan and Kahlil Green, respectively - when he whiffed pretty badly on his tackles. But no question that Crum played a great second half and largely redeemed what has been a mediocre season for him so far.

In my mind, though, credit needs to go to the defense as a whole, rather than to any one or two individuals: Pat Kuntz, for instance, led the team with eight tackles and also had two pass breakups, Joe Brockington had another solid game with six tackles, and Tom Zbikowski showed some signs of life with five tackles, a sack, and a beautiful strip to force a fumble. These guys were bouncing around the field like I haven’t seen them do in years - they actually looked to be enjoying themselves. Kudos to Corwin Brown for the job he’s done in bringing this unit around.


By the numbers

Offense:

  • I already noted that the Irish had only 140 total offensive yards on the day. But that’s a bit of a misleading statistic, since the average starting field position for Notre Dame’s four scoring drives was the UCLA 27-yard line. If you don’t have far to go, you’re not going to get many yards. That said, five three-and-outs, a turnover on downs, and a drive that started at the opponent’s twelve and resulted in four yards and a field goal, do not a good offensive day make.
  • If we take out the yards lost on UCLA’s three sacks and the kneel-downs at the end of the game, Notre Dame ended up with a somewhat respectable 81 rushing yards on the day, which is right at UCLA’s average for the season (though that number includes sacks, of course). James Aldridge netted 52 yards on his 22 carries, and Armando Allen provided a nice change of pace with three carries for 19 yards. Not good enough, to be sure, but also not disastrous against the Bruin defense.
  • While Jimmy Clausen completed 17 of his 27 passes, they netted only 84 yards - an average of 3.1 yards per attempt. Clausen didn’t make any awful mistakes, but there were some times when he held on to the ball too long, and he didn’t look very good throwing the ball long downfield. Each of John Carlson (six catches for 38 yards), Aldridge (three for 18 yards), and Duval Kamara (two for 20 yards) had a nice day, but this passing game is going to have to do a lot more if the Irish want to beat Backup College or the Spoiled Children.
  • While time of possession was evenly divided in the first half, Notre Dame held the ball for 20:15 after halftime.

Defense:

  • As mentioned above, UCLA totaled 282 offense yards on the day, more than double the production of the Irish. 193 of those yards came through the air, on 16 completions - an average of 12.1 yards per completion, and a clear sign that the Irish pass defense has got to tighten up. The Bruins netted only 89 yards rushing, but that that number jumps up to 140 if we discount the yardage lost on Notre Dame’s five (!!) sacks. Still, though, all these numbers look really good against a UCLA offense that averaged 199.4 rushing yards and 225.2 passing yards coming into yesterday’s game.
  • After recovering three Bruin fumbles and intercepting four passes, the Irish defense now ranks ninth in the nation with 19 forced turnovers on the season. They also rank fourth in total pass defense (and 22nd in pass efficiency) and 41st overall defensively.

Mistake-free football

Well, not quite. We saw some pretty awful tackling at times in the first half, and there were a few times when our offensive linemen got toasted by the UCLA pass rush. There were some bad penalties, too: Raeshon McNeil getting called for a block in the back on a Zbikowski punt return a bit before halftime, pushing the Irish back to their own 30 instead of enabling them to start from midfield; Toryan Smith handing UCLA a first down on a bad pass interference penalty just after the half; Eric Olsen picking up an awful personal foul penalty that turned 3rd-and-9 into 3rd-and-24; and TWO holds called as Aldridge broke a nice run on 3rd-and-eleven near the start of the fourth. The Irish also failed once again to convert in short yardage, as Clausen’s fourth-down sneak attempt with ten minutes to go in the fourth quarter went nowhere.

But there’s no doubt that there was a major improvement in this department: my list of “inexcusables” was less than half as long as it was last week, and UCLA’s complete offensive incompetence more than made up for ND’s handful of errors.


Worth noting:

  • Leo Ferrine, David Grimes, and Dan Wenger all made the trip to Pasadena, but sat out the game with injuries.
  • Justin Brown returned after missing the past two games, though he didn’t impact the box score.
  • Robert Hughes didn’t see the field, nor did Matt Romine, Ray Herring, or Morrice Richardson. Chris Stewart made the trip to Pasadena, but didn’t end up playing. This was also the first game all season in which Evan Sharpley didn’t play.
  • Geoff Price replaced Eric Maust as Notre Dame’s punter, and averaged 40.3 yards on nine punts, with three downed inside the twenty yard-line.

All in all …

There’s no doubt that this team is improving, on both sides of the ball. If we take out the Michigan game, Notre Dame’s margin of defeat dropped constantly up until yesterday, from 30 points against Georgia Tech, to 21 against Penn State, to 17 against Michigan State, to 14 against Purdue. Notre Dame’s offensive line seems to have turned a corner since the debacle at the Big House, and the Irish defense has given up a total of 208 rushing yards the past two games after yielding an average of 232.8 yards in the first four weeks. Suddenly the possibility of making it to a bowl game doesn’t seem as utterly far-fetched as it once did.

Accomplishing that, though, will require pulling off a huge upset against Fredo or the Condoms. Look for the Notre Dame campus to be energized this coming week, and the stadium to be jumping when the Eagles come to town. The monkey’s off their back - now the Irish just need to keep on improving from week to week.

Week four changes to ND’s depth chart

Friday, September 21st, 2007

(Cross-posting from Irish Envy.)

After this week’s free-for-all there were a few changes to ND’s depth chart, but nothing really major. Here’s a rundown, in what I take to be approximate order of significance and/or surprisingness.

  • Dan Wenger’s undisclosed injury has him out for at least this week, with Matt Carufel starting in his place at RG and human planet Chris Stewart as the backup.
  • Duval Kamara has moved ahead of D.J. Hord for the #2 “X” receiver spot, with George West still the #1. Grimes, Parris, Gallup, and Tate are listed in the “Z” spot, in that order. Sorry Tate fans, looks like you’ll have to wait a bit longer.
  • Just like last week, Sam Young will be starting at LT rather than RT, with Taylor Dever as his backup. The Paul Duncan-Matt Romine combination is at RT, with Duncan still the #1, for now anyway. Mike Turkovich is still the starter at LG, with Eric Olsen behind him.
  • Derrell Hand is listed behind #1a Justin Brown and #1b Dwight Stephenson Jr. at RDE.
  • Kerry Neal is now the #2 LOLB. Morrice Richardson, who had been the #2 there, moves to ROLB, where Neal had been the co-#2, but Richardson is #3 behind #1 Anthony Vernaglia and #2 Brian Smith.
  • The depth chart now lists Travis Thomas, James Aldridge, Armando Allen, and Junior Jabbie as all tied for the #1 RB spot, with Robert Hughes behind them. In week one, Thomas was listed as the lone starter.
  • And of course, Jimmy Clausen is our #1 QB, with Evan Sharpley listed as his lone backup.

Everything else seems to be the same as it was in week one. Ben Ford has some more thoughts here - they are worth reading, as always.

UPDATE: This exchange from Charlie Weis’s Thursday press conference is worth noting in this connection:

Q. Not a lot of change in the depth chart. Did that mean the starters all showed you something this week?

COACH WEIS: The most important thing for us was not to create sacrificial lambs. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be quick hooks in some cases, okay? But if I all of a sudden start pulling people and say, `”this guy is going to start, this guy is going to start,” the obvious thing that goes with it is, “well, it’s their fault.” I think we’re all part of the problem. I think there’s a lot more bodies that you might see show up in the game this week.

As is this one, which was discussed at UHND:

Q. The physical practices, I would think, would lend themselves for some players to look better than others just based on their style of play being more physical. I would think James Aldridge is a back that this is a week where it would be a chance for him to shine.

COACH WEIS: This is a James Aldridge-type of week. That’s exactly right. I would expect to see James early and often.

Q. How has he relished this opportunity? Do you see him as a guy that knows this is his chance to step up and do something?

COACH WEIS: He knows that he’s going to get plenty of opportunity. That’s what he knows. So I would imagine he’s very excited.

And finally, a couple of questions about our kickoff returns, where Armando Allen has been notably absent the past couple of weeks:

Q. Armando Allen no longer returning kicks?

COACH WEIS: He might be back there some returning kicks. Most of these kickers kick it to one spot, like this guy usually kicks it to one spot. Golden (Tate) will get the brunt of it. And with Junior (Jabbie) back there, Junior is a good returner, but he’s also a very good blocker. So if you’re going to feature one guy, we’d rather not Golden or Armando be the lead blocker. We’d rather them be the guy with the ball in their hands.

Q. Do you always want to have one blocker?

COACH WEIS: No, you want two returners if the guy sprays the ball all over the place because you would like two equally good returners. I think with Armando and Golden, we have two guys that are explosive returners. If a guy is going to hit the ball one spot all the time, that’s when you use a returner back there with better blocking ability.