Unsettled?

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.

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