Posts Tagged ‘Golden Tate’

“Here we go again …”

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

A phantom personal foul after a long completion just outside the goal line. A missed field goal. An inefficient drive following a defensive stand, and then a late hit in punt coverage that gets flagged for 15 yards. These are the kinds of plays that have killed the Irish offense all year long, and for a while on Saturday they did the same.

Mistakes breed mistakes like rabbits in the Spring: a false start on fourth-and-two, a beautiful pass on fourth-and-17 that goes through the receiver’s hands, and suddenly you’re staring at 0-0 halftime score against one of the worst teams in college football.

And then, the momentum changes: the defense forces turnovers on consecutive drives, and each of them is turned quickly into seven points. It’s 14-0 at the half. You’ve got things back under control.

THAT’S the storyline that matters from Saturday’s game. Not the 400 yards of total offense, not the three touchdown passes by Jimmy Clausen, not even the explosive emergence of Robert Hughes or the always-gratifying Senior Day win. For once, this team showed a bit of resiliency: they didn’t let themselves get overwhelmed when things went badly. And say what you will about the quality of their opponent, but a 28-7 win (which could very well have been more like 42-0 if not for mental mistakes and bad calls) is a 28-7 win. Suddenly the future looks a lot brighter.

A few numbers to take away from the game:

  • Hughes (17 carries for 110 net yards, and a reception for another 13) obviously earned that game ball, though Armando Allen (nine rushes for 43 yards, and two receptions for 17) and James Aldridge (eight carries for 28 yards, plus a catch for another seven) had solid days as well. One of the biggest challenges facing Charlie Weis (or whoever is calling the plays) in 2008 will be finding a way to get enough carries for each of his three horsemen, together with throwing enough balls in the direction of Duval Kamara, George West, Robby Parris, and Golden Tate, not to mention David Grimes, Will Yeatman, Mike Ragone, and Michael Floyd. The talent is there; I imagine they’ll enjoy letting the spotlight fall where it may.
  • Clausen’s numbers (16-of-32 for 194 yards and three touchdowns) don’t speak to how well he played, especially given that at least four or five catchable balls were dropped. He also showed some good presence in the pocket, and did a good job of avoiding pressure, picking up 25 yards on his six scrambles.
  • The offensive line continued to show some signs of improvement, though pass protection was still a bit spotty at times. It was especially nice to see the screen game start to click.
  • Joe Brockington, David Bruton, Trevor Laws, and Darrin Walls each had a half-dozen tackles, and the defense on a whole played very well. This was the first time this year we saw freshmen Kerry Neal and Brian Smith both starting at the outside linebacker position, and they had quiet but solid days with three tackles a piece. Freshman Ian Williams getting his first start at the nose guard position, also played well, picking up three tackles and generally doing a good job of clogging up the middle.
  • The Irish possessed the ball for over 35 minutes, the first time all year they’ve really managed to control the clock - their previous high had been 32:02 against UCLA.

Finally, a few areas where a good deal of work is still needed:

  •  I’ve already mentioned the troubles in pass protection, as well as the dropped balls by the wide receivers. Clausen’s never going to be able to win those seven Heismans if his teammates don’t help him out.
  • While the Irish pass defense was largely sound, giving up only 138 total passing yards, there were still some blown coverages, and Duke could have picked up some more yardage if open receivers hadn’t been missed.
  • J.J. Jansen’s long-snapping was iffy once again, though Eric Maust made a remarkable play to bail him out and get the punt away under pressure.
  • Notre Dame continues to lack any semblance of consistency in the kicking game, as Brandon Walker missed his lone field goal attempt, from 30 yards out. It may have had something to do with the weather, but those are the kind of kicks you’ve got to make. It will be a shame if the Irish continue to cripple themselves by having to go for broke on fourth down instead of putting points on the board the cheap way.
  • Lastly, penalties were a problem once again: the Irish were whistled eleven times for 103 yards, after committing only nine penalties in their previous three games combined.

All in all, a solid day against an undermanned opponent. There should be plenty more of those in the future as this team continues to develop.

100 reasons why I love Charlie Weis and am glad he’s our coach

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

With his team at 1-9 and its offense mired in the pits of Division I-A, Charlie Weis has taken a lot of much-deserved (and some undeserved) flack for the job he’s been doing as head coach of the Fighting Irish. And since I’ve been about as negative as anyone - well, maybe not quite ANYONE - about Weis, I think it’s time for me to come clean and make it known that my opinion of him is by no means exhaustively negative. Hence here are 100 reasons why I love Charlie Weis and am glad he’s our coach:

1. He’s a Jersey guy. Me too, or at least I was until I moved to California. And Jersey guys stick with Jersey guys.

2. He’s a Notre Dame alum. Again, me too, though I only got a lousy graduate degree. And if I love the place this much never having lived on campus for an extended period of time or gone through all the rest of the crazy brain-washing (an ND logo stamped into the middle of your WAFFLES?!), think of how much he cares about it.

3. He’s a family man. Seeing the way he relates to his wife, son, and daughter is really heartwarming. And say what you will about having Charlie Jr. on the sidelines: the fact is that it shows a level of attachment and devotion to his son that’s remarkable in a guy who works 20-hour days. Speaking of which …

4. He works like all hell. Want to catch Coach Weis on his way to work in the morning? Try tripping past the Gug on your way back from closing down the ‘Backer. In any case, be flexible with your definition of “morning,” and DEFINITELY don’t wait for the sun to rise.

5. He’s as pained by the losing as anyone. Do not - I repeat, do NOT - mistake his occasional press-conference brashness for a lack of awareness of how bad things have been this year, let alone a glib attitude about it. If your team got its butt hammered in, you got booed, and then you were dragged in front of an audience of overeager reporters with lots of dumb questions, you’d get pretty pissy as well. And hey, what do you want him to say? “We suck, we have sucked, we will suck, and I quit”? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

6. He gives back. Lots of ND football coaches have started charitable organizations after they’ve retired, but Hannah and Friends has been running from day one. And a lot of Weis’s efforts have been tied directly to the local community, which is admirable given the touchy history of town-gown relations between South Bend and the university. Even his lawsuit, which I must admit wasn’t my favorite decision (you know, high cost of medical services due to malpractice insurance, lawyers = scum of the Earth, etc.), was going to be used to help others rather than pad his own pockets.

7. He cares about his players. Weis got a lot of praise for driving Robert Hughes back to Chicago after his brother was killed, and rightly so. But the fact of the matter is that this fits right into a much more overarching pattern: sure, he manages to anger or even alienate some of his players, but at the end of the day they know it’s just because he’s trying to push them to do well, like an overbearing dad making his kid practice the piano because he really, really, REALLY wants him to be good at it. Peel away those layers, my friends, and you’ll find love at the core.

8-26. Nineteen wins in two years. Say what you will about ‘06 having been a disappointing campaign, but ten wins is ten wins. Say what you will about the quality of the opponents he beat, but you can only win the games you play (and it’s not as if Michigan, Tennessee, Georgia Tech, Penn State, and UCLA are a bunch of nobodies). Say what you will about losing the “big games,” but he’s run into some downright juggernauts, especially in the postseason. If his teams had had any semblance of a D-I defense, not to mention better offensive lines and maybe some more talent at the tailback position, they very well might have won a pair of national titles. After the misery of the decade or so that preceded ‘05-’06, those wins were glorious to behold.

27-30. Four Super Bowl rings. Yeah, I know he wasn’t the head coach, and I know he was able to ride the coattails of Parcells, Belichick, et al, but championships are championships, and I’ll take a guy who’s won them over a guy who hasn’t.

31-98. Jimmy Clausen, Armando Allen, James Aldridge, Duval Kamara, Omar Hunter, Kerry Neal, … well, you get the point. That’s 68 recruits in three years, with a bunch more on the ‘08 “big board” who still have lots of interest in the Irish. Compare that to his illustrious predecessor, who recruited a total of 52 in his three seasons, barely more than Weis & Co. brought in through their first TWO. It’s not just about the rankings, either: you can’t win with an empty cupboard, and trust me, Ty left it BARE.

99. His players believe in him. Make no mistake about it: you don’t have top-notch recruits with offers from Everywhere breaking down the doors to play for you the week after being present for a 38-0 spanking if you’ve “lost the team.” Nor do insomniac offensive linemen pad over to your office in rainbow flip-flops and knock on your door at 5:30am to ask how to be a better leader unless they think that leading is a worthwhile endeavor. Sure, there may be some players, especially among the upper classes, who’ve sort of thrown in the towel, and there’s no doubt that this team has often played tentatively and has had a tendency to get discouraged when things have gone wrong, but a lot of them seem genuinely excited about the future of the program. And that’s a hell of an accomplishment when you’re 1-9.

100. The glimmers of hope. Clausen dropping a beautiful pass over two defenders. Kamara stiff-arming an undersized defensive back and plowing through a pair of tacklers to pick up eight yards. Armando Allen bursting around the outside for a gain of eleven. James Aldridge running over a would-be tackler at the line of scrimmage. Golden Tate snagging a touchdown bomb, with his FINGERNAILS. Kerry Neal and Brain Smith playing like men possessed on the outside. Darrin Walls looking more and more like a shut-down corner every week. Chris Stewart crushing defensive linemen to open up holes for his tailbacks. And on and on the list goes … no doubt this year’s team has been a HUGE disappointment, but the flashes we’ve seen (and yes, they’ve only been flashes, and have been few and far between the lengthy stretches of awfulness) have made it clear that Weis and his staff have brought in some extraordinary talent. At this point it’s about developing these kids and teaching them to win.

Of course, none of this counts as evidence that Weis will definitely, or even probably, be able to accomplish what he needs to in order to right this oh-so-sunken ship. But just as he’s responsible for a big portion of the damage, it’s also going to be his task to repair it, at least for the time being. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Benchmarks

Friday, November 9th, 2007

At 1-8 after a crushing loss to Navy last Saturday, Notre Dame needs a win this week if they’re going to avoid having lost to TWO service academies in the same season. Perhaps even more than the win itself, though, the Irish need to build on the few successes they’ve had so far this season, to prove to themselves and their fans that at least they’re developing, as individuals and as a team. Here are some benchmarks to look for in tomorrow’s game (statistics via und.com, ncaa.org, and cfbstats.com).

On defense

The Irish held Navy to 278 yards of total offense through four quarters of regulation last week, and also stopped the Midshipmen on one of their three overtime drives: not a dominant performance by any means, but more than good enough to keep the Irish in the game (recall that seven of Navy’s points came off a fumble recovery). This week, their opponent is once again dangerous on offense (the Falcons’ 272.8 rushing yards per game rank fourth nationally), but at the same time much less consistent overall: Air Force has been held under 350 yards of total offense four times this year, and under 250 once. Their running game has also been contained on occasion - 146 net yards against BYU and 133 against TCU, as well as 212 against New Mexico - and while the Falcons have had a few good days passing the ball - 176 yards against South Carolina State, 193 against Utah, and 237 against Navy - they rank only 118th nationally in this department. But against the wishbone attack, it’s hard to say exactly what would count as success: if, like last week, the Irish defense can force a turnover or two and hold the Falcons to 24 points on the day, it will be hard for me to complain.

On special teams

The Irish averaged 26.2 yards per kickoff return against Navy, and their two punt returns went for 37 yards. It would be good to see them continue to build on that success, though it won’t be easy against an Air Force team that has yielded an average of just 18.1 return yards on kickoffs and 8.7 on punts. Special teams coverage will be important as well (the Falcons average 12.3 yards per punt return), and it goes without saying that the kicking game is a huge question mark. But at the end of the day, what Notre Dame really needs is one or two “big” plays from their special teams: think a punt return for more than 20 yards, a kickoff return past the 40, a punt downed inside the 10, a blocked punt or field goal attempt, and so on.

On offense

This is obviously where the big question marks are, since it’s the place where ND has been by far the suckiest this year. So here’s my laundry list of Things They’d Better Do:

  • Average at least 5.0 4.5 4.0 yards per carry on offense: Air Force opponents have averaged only 3.48 so far this season, so this is by no means a guarantee. I’ve already noted that last week, against a Navy team that was yielding an average of over 4.5 yards per run coming in, the Irish picked up just 3.7 yards on their average carry. But given the once again substantial size differential between the Irish offense and the Falcon defense - there’s a 40-lb. gap in the trenches, and Asaph Schwapp has 30 pounds on the average Air Force linebacker - Notre Dame has no excuse not to some improvement here.
  • Pass for at least 180 170 160 yards: Maybe this is the day Jimmy Clausen finally busts out, but maybe not. So we should keep our expectations reasonable: the Air Force pass defense is actually one of their stronger points, yielding just over 200 yards per game on the season, good for 33rd in the nation. If Clausen - who has averaged only 7.6 yards per completion, 4.4 yards per attempt, and 88.3 passing yards per game so far - completes, say, 17 of 26 pass attempts for 157 yards, Irish fans should be pretty happy.
  • Stay out of second- and third-down and long: Those of you looking for Clausen to start off his first series with a bomb to a streaking Golden Tate have (or had better have - you listening to me, Charlie?) another thing coming. I’ve noted that last week the Irish passed the ball nine times on first and ten - hopefully we’ll see them go to the run early and often tomorrow. (The other side of the coin here is offensive penalties, which killed the Irish through the first half of the season but dropped off sharply in their last two games. Hopefully this is a trend that will last through the rest of the year; this offense just isn’t good enough to be constantly digging out of 1st-and-15 or 2nd-and-20.)
  • Give up no more than two sacks: Obviously this will also play a key role in keeping the offense out of long-yardage situations. Yielding four against Navy last week was worse than bad: it was inexcusable. And Air Force comes in as the much more dangerous pass-rushing team of the two, averaging over two sacks per game (Navy had a total of five through their first nine contests). Keeping the undersized Falcons below that average would be a real positive for this offense.
  • Don’t turn the ball over more than once: Interceptions and - especially - fumbles have been an Achilles heel for this team all season long, and it’s time for that to stop now. Air Force opponents have turned the ball over a total of 25 times this year (14 interceptions, 11 fumbles lost): it’s one thing if Clausen throws a pick, but this team needs in particular to stop putting the ball on the carpet.
  • Make turnovers into points: Obviously this is especially important for drives that start on the opponents’ side of midfield, and this is an area where the Irish offense has been especially shaky this year. Here’s a guideline: if you start the post-turnover drive inside the opposing 40, three points is the minimum; if you start inside the 20, it darn well better be seven.
  • No more than one empty trip to the red zone: Somehow Air Force opponents have managed to convert fewer than two-thirds of their red zone chances so far this year, though that’s due in part to their 65% success rate on field goal attempts. (Irish opponents have averaged over 88% scoring from inside the 20.) But the Notre Dame kicking game has been - how shall we put it? - less than dynamic as well, so a big part of the burden here falls on the rest of the offense. In any case, this team just doesn’t move the ball well enough to blow the few scoring chances it does manage to get.
  • 400 375 350 yards of total offense: The fact of the matter is that this is asking an awful lot, especially after ND put up only 375 against the woeful Midshipmen defense. But at the end of the day, against an Air Force offense that comes in averaging just under 400 total yards a game, that’s probably what will be required if the Irish are going to have a real chance to win.

When you sit down, look at the numbers, and consider (1) what the Irish offense managed to do last week against a defense markedly worse than the one they’ll face this Saturday, and (2) the fact that the Air Force offense is almost certainly going to be good for a few scores, the specter of a possible 1-9 record heading into the Duke game becomes a real one. Here’s hoping the Irish can put their demons to rest.

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 …

Taking Stock, Part I: 19 reasons why Notre Dame’s offense has sucked so badly in 2007

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

I don’t know about you, but it feels like the middle of the season to me: Fall Break and the bye week are behind us, the complexion of the schedule has changed dramatically, and we’ve hit what can only be described as rock bottom after the Loss that Shall Not Be Discussed. So it’s in this spirit that the Irish Roundup brings you “Taking Stock,” a three-part series (wow, doesn’t that sound fancy?) evaluating the 2007 season up to this point and looking ahead to its remainder.

Up first, a detailed evaluation of why the Notre Dame offense has been so dreadful this year. We all know the statistics, so I’m not even going to bother listing them again: the question I’m going focus on here is “Why?” rather than “How bad?” Here are what I - with the invaluable help of the rest of the IrishEnvy crew - take to be the nineteen biggest problems, in inverse order of importance:

19) Too much hype: No doubt Charlie Weis did the right thing by refusing to throw his players under the bus by calling 2007 a “rebuilding” year, but did we all have to believe him? Nearly all ND fans had the Irish winning at least three of these first eight games – a clearly unreasonable expectation. The team’s current 1-7 record would be completely satisfactory if they’d played hard, scrappy football and shown improvement from week to week, but the burden of everyone’s high hopes can’t have been a help in making that happen.

18) Scheduling: A calendar front-loaded with top-notch opponents, with all of the easy games at the end of the year. Four of the first six games played on the road. A bye week after USC (though having extra time to prepare for Navy never hurts). No doubt it’s difficult to put together ND’s schedule, but this year’s version was just atrocious.

17) Recruiting: Many are going to wonder why this isn’t higher on the list. The reason for that is that the talent gap between the Irish and their opponents doesn’t even begin to account for the awfulness of their offensive (ha!) game. No doubt the paucity of upperclass talent feeds into many of the more serious problems in a major way, but in itself it’s only the tip of a very large iceberg.

16) Too much shuffling of the depth chart: I’ve already been over this in some detail, and I still stand by the analysis I gave there, namely that while many of these shifts have been due to injuries or other unpredictable things, some – in particular taking so long to settle on James Aldridge as the #1 tailback, and even then giving too many carries to other players – were clearly mistakes.

15) Distractions: The obvious example of this is Demetrius Jones not showing up for the team bus to Michigan, after which the Irish played what was clearly their worst, and least-inspired, game of the season. But there have been other cases as well, such as Derrell Hand’s arrest, the ongoing quarterback controversy, the departures of Konrad Reuland and Matt Carufel, the rumors of dissension among Irish players, and so on. These are not the sorts of things that help a young team get over their struggles.

14) Penalties: Obviously there are some – Mike Turkovich’s touchdown-negating hold against BC, for one – that stick in the forefront of your mind, but the fact is that false starts, holding calls, and other offensive penalties have been a huge problem all year long, regularly putting the offense in a position where it has to pick up huge yardage to move the chains. Thankfully there were far fewer such mistakes against USC, so maybe that’s the beginning of a trend.

13) Injuries: Aldridge, David Grimes, Matt Romine, and Dan Wenger have all missed significant time with injuries, and Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate have been banged up as well. For a team as thin as this one is, having front-line players like these get injured is obviously a big problem, and keeps the squad from developing a consistent rhythm.

12) Play-calling: Once again, this is a factor that a lot of people are going to want to put a lot higher, though see my lengthy post from after the BC game for why I thought that in that case at least, this issue was WAY overblown. There’s no doubt, though, that there have been some huge mistakes made in this department: the obvious examples are the crazy schemes employed at the starts of the games against Georgia Tech and Michigan, though there are others as well. This team has to do more than just develop its “bread and butter” plays in practice; it has to run them on the field as well. Of course, that’s hard to do when players consistently fail to execute the plays you’ve called.

11) Inexperience: You could try to lump this in with recruiting, but it’s really a different issue, since it’s meant to pick out the fact that many of even the more “veteran” players – Turkovich, Paul Duncan, Evan Sharpley – saw very little playing time before this year, and so aren’t able to do as much as one would hope to bring the younger players along. I’ve been told that last year, Bob Morton and the other offensive linemen were telling Sam Young what to do on almost every play – this year, there’s only one lineman with more than one year of experience other his belt.

10) A rift within the team itself: I’m putting this right in the middle of the list only because I obviously don’t know if the various rumors that have swirled around are true. But the fact is that there have been some pretty clear signs – both on the field and off – that this squad hasn’t really come together well. Some of this is natural, as younger players and veterans compete for playing time, but if it’s as bad as some have said it is, then its ramifications may be extensive indeed.

9) Lack of leadership: This isn’t just about the veterans; underclassmen can be leaders as well. Some of this is the result of the “musical chairs” that has been played with the depth chart, whether due to injuries, poor personnel decisions, or surprising performances by players (whether of the good variety or the bad). No matter what the cause, though, not having players who can bring everyone together in the huddle or on the sidelines and focus their energies on the task at hand is going to be a huge problem for any team.

8) Failure to execute the “finesse” plays: What I have in mind here are the dropped passes or missed receivers that we’ve seen so often this year. In countless cases, a player has been open and either the ball has gotten there and he’s failed to catch it, or the ball has been thrown over his head or at his feet. Mistakes like this stall an offense like nothing else, except perhaps for …

7, 6) Poor pass- and run-blocking: I can’t figure out which of these to put first, since each feeds into the other in countless ways. But it’s important to emphasize that the problems here haven’t just been with the offensive line: whether it’s tailbacks whiffing or getting run over on pass protection, fullbacks failing to open up holes in the running game, or wide receivers missing blocks downfield, there’s no getting around the fact that the blocking on this team has been atrocious at every level.

5) Lousy position coaching: When you have a team composed almost solely of either young players recently out of high school and “veterans” who’ve barely played a down, what you need is a group of assistant coaches able to teach them the proverbial fundamentals. So far this year, there’s been little evidence that that’s happened, and the lack of week-to-week progress suggests significant deficiencies in the sort of training these players are receiving.

4) Practice routines: The influence that having had contact-free practices for so much of the season and pre-season has had on this team probably can’t be overstated: once again, many of these players are new to college football, and they just don’t know what real “game speed” looks (and feels) like. But there have been other problems as well: to give just one example, there is no doubt that the decision to develop overly creative plays rather than taking a “building-blocks” approach did a great deal to set this team back and prevent real progress in the early weeks.

3) Tentative play: The USC game was a paradigm of the tendency among offensive players to look like they’re more concerned with avoiding mistakes than with doing something right. Whether it’s the overly-complicated character of the offense they’re running, the shock of game speed, the burden of high expectations and the consequent fear of criticism, or whatever, there’s no doubt that many of this offense’s failures – dropped passes, missed blocks, inability to hit holes in the running game, and so on – can be attributed to an all-around tentativeness.

2) The “snowball” effect: With the exception of the post-halftime spurts against Purdue and BC, one steady tendency for this team has been that when things go bad, they get worse. The offense has shown very little resiliency, whether to their own mistakes or to those of the defense and special teams, and we’ve often seen the proverbial wheels fall off at the first sign of difficulty (the Michigan State game was the paradigm instance of this). Once again, this can be traced to many of the other problems above, but it’s clearly a place where this team’s many defects have often come to a head.

1) Charlie Weis: Sorry coach, but the buck stops with you. I’m going to have more to say about this in a post tomorrow, but for now just let me say that I think Weis has done a simply terrible job coaching this squad, and while I don’t think this one season is sufficient to show that he’s the “worst coach in the universe,” I also don’t think that the old “learning curve” excuse is good enough. In my mind, there’s reason to think that Weis is a good-to-great coach for seasoned veterans, and an outright terrible one for young players. If this is right, then the key question is whether he can transition this group from the latter category to the former without doing irreparable harm to them – I’ll have much more to say about this tomorrow and Thursday in Parts II and III of this series.

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.

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.

Talk of the Town

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

A bit more than a month ago, just before Notre Dame’s season opener against Georgia Tech, NBC’s John Walters posed the following question:

Will freshman wide receiver Golden Tate emerge as a cult favorite, inspiring a freshman cheering section who dub themselves “Golden Taters” and toss Ore-Ida crispers after each score?

From what I’ve heard this hasn’t happened quite yet, though a recent opinion piece in the Observer - written last week, while Tate was merely “our best young kick returner,” and not yet college football’s hottest young commodity - does include in its byline the suggestion that “Golden Taters” should become a staple at ND’s dining halls. (No word on that one either.)

In any case, there’s no doubt that Golden’s been on our minds: based on a quick glance over the transcripts from Charlie Weis’s Sunday and Tuesday press conferences, I see at least six questions dealing specifically with Tate, and a quick spin on Google reveals 99 news articles and 20 blog posts that talk about the superstar frosh - all of these since Monday.

That Tate has become a hit should hardly come as a surprise to any of the nearly 20,000 people who have watched his high school highlight video.

Put all of this together and there’s reason to think that Golden Tate, and not George West, is the diminutive Irish receiver soon to be a household name.

While we’re on the subject of names, though, let me just go on the record as saying that while “Golden Boy” is definitely okay, it’s been done - more than once, in fact - and so I’d prefer something more along the lines of “Jumpman23” or even “His Airness,” though if it turns out that Adidas won’t allow those, I could definitely live with busting out a classic once again.

But all of this hype pales in comparison to what the kids at Keough Hall are up to:

I mean, you can’t be an Irish legend until you’ve been immortalized on a bestselling t-shirt, right? At present they’re available for 15 bucks via Facebook, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the parking lot a week from Saturday. Nearly 80 have been ordered already, and it’s hard to imagine that there’s a ceiling on how many of these could be sold when all is said and done.

In any case, freshmen of Notre Dame, I think it’s time to make Walters’s prediction come true.

Available at a Meyer near you, while supplies last.
Just make sure to defrost them first - we don’t want anyone to lose an eye.

Some News and Notes

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

Based on the reports of yesterday’s practice from Michael Rothstein and Ben Ford, as well as the transcripts of Charlie Weis’s press conferences from Tuesday and Sunday, here’s an update on some of the major news swirling around the Irish universe.


First up, the quarterback situation. Weis said on Tuesday that he still wasn’t sure whether freshman QB Jimmy Clausen was completely recovered from the injury he suffered against Purdue, though it was expected that he would be:

I’m not 100% sure what Jimmy (Clausen) is going to look like. He’s supposed to be set and ready to go. I have to see that, you know? Some guys are set and ready to go, and they don’t play for another two weeks. Other guys that are set and ready to go, they’re ready to go that day. I’m going to have to see visually on the field how it goes right there, because (quarterbacks coach) Ron (Powlus) and I met today, and we didn’t even script who was in for what plays because we figured we will go by what we see when they’re out there.

He made it clear, though, that only an unexpectedly slow healing process would keep Clausen from starting against UCLA:

Q. If Jimmy (Clausen) is healthy enough, he’s the starter?

COACH WEIS: That’s what it would be. If he’s healthy enough, he’ll start.

Ford says, though, that during the stretch of practice he witnessed, Clausen “ran laterally, seemingly pain-free, which you’d think would be tough to do if he had an injured hip.” So at this point there’s clearly no reason to expect to see Evan Sharpley starting in his place on Saturday.

One point that Weis made in his press conference which seems to have been overlooked by many of those who’ve called for Sharpley to start on the basis of his performance against Purdue is that the basis for these decisions also involves what happens on the practice field:

I don’t think there’s ever such a thing where there are two guys that are equal. They might play like that in a game, but I think when it’s all said and done, you have to evaluate just not — not just solely by game day. Sometimes game day — like in last week’s case, both quarterbacks did a lot of good things, neither one of them were perfect, but I think the evaluation is based on a whole bunch of things, not just one game.

When asked how Sharpley has handled being Clausen’s backup, Weis said that it hasn’t been a problem, though he emphasized once again that nothing is set in stone for next Saturday’s game:

Evan is probably one of the most prepared people on the team, so he knows whether or not he starts or not that he’s going to be ready as if he is starting. Right now I can’t tell you for sure exactly how this is going to go down. I don’t know what Jimmy’s health is for sure, I don’t know how it’s going to happen in a game, but I do know that Evan will be ready to play when his number is called.

So we’ll see how this plays out, but at this point there’s obviously no reason to expect that Weis is going to make any changes unless he’s forced to.


Up next, other news on the injury front. As both Ford and Rothstein note, junior wideout David Grimes, who injured his ankle against Purdue, was absent from practice yesterday. Weis said in his press conference, though, that Grimes is healing surprisingly well, but that he’s “questionable” for Saturday’s game:

He was in much better condition than we were anticipating. He probably won’t go today, I would say — I can give you my day to day answer, but I would say he’s probably 50/50 for the game. So if I went to my background — I would call him questionable, not doubtful, but not probable, either. I would say he’s questionable.

Meanwhile, sophomore offensive lineman Dan Wenger, who’s been out the past two weeks with a leg injury suffered against Michigan but was expected to possibly be able to return for the UCLA game, was practicing with the team. Ford, though, says that Wenger looked to be “moving slowly,” while Weis said in his press conference that Wenger, like Grimes, was “questionable” for Saturday’s game - obviously we’ll have to keep an eye on this one.

Ford also notes that defensive end Justin Brown, who also sat out against Michigan State and Purdue, looked to be moving a bit better in Tuesday’s practice than he had the previous couple of weeks:

Justin Brown was still running gingerly, but at least this week he was running laterally with the rest of the team, which is an improvement.

Weis, meanwhile, called Brown “probable” for UCLA. Brown was supposed to be a “game-time decision” against Purdue, but he didn’t end up making the trip to West Lafayette. Obviously getting him back and healthy is very important for the Irish, who are very thin along the defensive line.

No word on the health of freshman offensive lineman Matt Romine, who missed the Purdue game with an arm injury, or sophomore cornerback Raeshon McNeil, who has been rumored to have been seen on crutches this week.


Up next, a bit of news on special teams. Both Ford and Rothstein note that senior punter Geoff Price, viewed a preseason All-America candidate in the eyes of many after a very strong 2006 season, has apparently lost his starting position to sophomore Eric Maust, who replaced Price in the Michigan State game and handled all the punts against Purdue. Weis had this to say about the situation in his Tuesday press conference:

Q. With your punting situation, is Geoff Price healthy?

COACH WEIS: He is.

Q. So it’s performance-based?

COACH WEIS: Eric (Maust) punted last week, and Eric will be punting again this week.

Weis also emphasized that he thought Maust did a “nice job” punting the ball against Purdue. Ford, meanwhile, notes that Price was holding the ball as Brandon Walker practiced kicking field goals - Evan Sharpley, meanwhile, was the holder for Nate Whitaker, who Ford notes didn’t do as well - at least on Tuesday - as Walker did:

Walker, with Geoff Price holding, missed wide left from 32 yards and Whitaker, out of Evan Sharpley’s hold, was good from that distance. But from there it was all Walker. He hit from 35, 40 and 43 yards, while Whitaker missed from those distances. So edge to Walker in the kicking game, at least Tuesday.

Once again, we’ll just have to wait and see how all of this shakes out.


Finally, a few words on the talk of the town, freshman wide receiver Golden Tate. Weis was probably asked as many if not more questions about Tate than about the quarterbacks, and here’s some of what he had to say:

I used Golden Tate this morning as an example to the entire team as what you can do by running full speed on the show team. We had this conversation on Sunday with the team. Sometimes when people are running the “look squad” to simulate the opponent’s offense or defense, they look at that like it’s a penalty. Other guys use it as a way to get themselves down the other end of the field, and that’s what he’s done. He’s just gone down — for the last two or three weeks he’s easily been the best player on the field going against our defense. And when you watch the tape, and you see him make these plays, then you want to get him on the field on offense.

We have a guy who can run fast down the field and catch the ball, can go up and get the ball. We see that in practice every day, and if you go back to — what game was it, the Penn State game where we threw it up the left sideline and it got called back for holding. He was in the game for one play — no, for a couple plays, but one that we threw to, he goes up there and gets it, but it’s not his fault it was called back. He’s in a jump ball situation and he comes down with it. He has an uncanny ability to do that.

While Weis made it clear that Tate isn’t going to be relegated to show team this week, he did emphasize that the Golden Boy still has a ways to go:

we all found out the other day that he can run go routes and catch the ball in traffic. That’s what he’s done in practice every single day. Now we have to make sure he can run a handful of other routes and run them with some type of precision, so you’re not guessing where he’s going to be on different routes. That’s what we’re going to work on this week.

Weis emphasized that the “draw it up in the dirt” strategy he was able to employ with Tate on Saturday against Purdue can only get the team so far:

 

Q. When you see these guys making big catches in games and another one and another one, are there situations where maybe you will put them in on plays that they haven’t practiced and say the play before, “Hey, this is what you’re going to do, now go do it”?

COACH WEIS: Well, we sort of did that the other day, grabbed them and said, “Come in here and run a go,” and they said, “What?” I said, “Run right by that guy,” and the (defensive) guy is sitting there listening to you, and he’s looking at you like you’re a liar, and he runs right by him. You can’t do that with all the routes, now, because sooner or later they figure that out.

Weis also went back to the comparisons he’d made before between Tate, who played primarily at running back until his senior year in high school, and fellow frosh Duval Kamara:

As we talked about the other day, Duval has been up the whole time because Duval was a more polished receiver. Golden just might be one of the best athletes on the team, and he’s certainly one of, if not the fastest one on the team. So it’s one of the things that we felt we needed. We need more straight-line speed to stretch this field right here, and he certainly does that. I think Duval is ahead in route running, but you can’t coach speed. Either you have it or you don’t.

Anyone who doubts whether Tate’s got it, of course, needs to take another look at this.

Youth Movement

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

Against Purdue last Saturday, true freshmen and sophomores accounted for 48 of Notre Dame’s 71 rushing yards (67.6% - sacks not included) and 268 of their 377 receiving yards (71.1%). This continued what has clearly been one of the stories of the season for the Irish: they start a true freshman at quarterback in Jimmy Clausen, and each of their three leading rushers (James Aldridge, Armando Allen, and Robert Hughes) and four of their six leading receivers (Robby Parris, George West, Duval Kamara, and Golden Tate) are just one or two years removed from high school. On the season, 362 of Notre Dame’s 391 rushing yards have come via true freshmen or sophomores, as have 582 of their 822 total receiving yards - numbers good for 91.2% and 70.8% of the team’s offensive output in those categories.

How do these numbers stack up to other Division I programs, whether national championship contenders or teams in “rebuilding” mode? [NOTE: While I've done my best not to include redshirt sophomores in these statistics, I've probably made some mistakes somewhere. Where possible, I've also tried not to include sacks in the rushing totals, though that doesn't really work for teams with dual-threat quarterbacks.]

Let’s start with top-ranked LSU and USC. The Tigers start an upperclassman at quarterback in Matt Flynn, and while their #1 rusher is an upperclassmen, each of the five players who follow him in total rushing yardage are true freshmen or sophomores. Still, though, only 750 of LSU’s 1117 total rushing yards, or 67.14%, have come from underclassmen - much less than Notre Dame’s 91.2%. Meanwhile, among their receiving corps, LSU has only two underclassmen with more than 100 receiving yards on the season, and true freshmen and sophomores account for a total of 416 of their 1084 total receiving yards, or 38.4%.

USC, meanwhile, also starts an upperclassman at quarterback, but four of their five leading rushers are true underclassmen. On the whole, true freshmen or sophomores account for 71.2% of USC’s rushing yards, still far less than the percentage for Notre Dame. Only two Trojan underclassmen have 99 or more receiving yards, though, and underclassmen account for only 330 of 898, or 36.8%, of their total receiving yards.

It also seems worth looking at a few other programs with third-year coaches. One such team is the Florida Gators, who start a true sophomore at quarterback in Tim Tebow. Tebow is also the team’s leading rusher, and fellow sophomore Percy Harvin leads the team in receiving yards and is also their third-leading rusher. But on the whole, the Gators’ offense is still much less dependent on underclassmen than Notre Dame’s: 71.4% of their rushing yards come from true freshmen or sophomores, to go with 53.6% of their receiving yards.

The Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois are also in their third year under head coach Ron Zook. They start a true sophomore at quarterback in Juice Williams, but three of their four leading rushers - Williams is #2 - are upperclassmen, and underclassmen have accounted for only 267 of their 1278 rushing yards (20.9%) so far this season. Meanwhile, the leading receiver for the Illini is freshman Arrelious Benn, with 286 yards on the season, but overall their underclassmen have accounted for only 55.6% (438 of 787) of Illinois’s receiving yards.

Finally, let’s take a look at the University of Washington, in their third year under former Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham. The Huskies start a true sophomore at quarterback in Jake Locker, and he is also the team’s leading rusher. But Locker is the only UW underclassman with substantial rushing yardage, and true freshman and sophomores have accounted for 503 of the Huskies’ 804 yards on the ground so far, or 62.6%. Moreover, all of Washington’s top receivers are upperclassmen: true freshmen and sophomores have only 17 receiving yards so far this year for UW, a mere 1.97% of their 861 total.

Here’s a chart detailing those statistics:


What these numbers make clear is that Notre Dame’s offense is MUCH more reliant on true freshmen and sophomores than other programs. Moreover, the fact that the Irish have fallen behind in each of their games so far this year means that very few of these numbers are based on performance in “mop-up duty”: ND’s depth chart lists a true freshman or sophomore at either first- or second-string for every offensive position except center. Thus far this year, a huge portion of the offensive burden has been placed on players only one or two years removed from high school - and judging by how things have gone, there is no reason to think this state of affairs won’t become even more pronounced as the year goes on.

None of this is meant to excuse an 0-5 start that is the worst in Notre Dame’s history. This team has underperformed, and they have no-one but themselves to blame for that. But comparisons like this certainly help to put things in perspective.