Fall practice starts today. Earlier in the year, we wrote a series of 5 questions heading into spring practice, and while those are still unanswered for the most part, here's a new set of five as we kickoff the autumn session. It's got to be the most anticipated fall practice in long, long while.
1. Will some dependable backup offensive linemen emerge?
Notre Dame will have perhaps the most experienced offensive line in all of college football this season: all five starters return, and they average 22 starts per man. But behind the starters is a scary lack of depth. All of those bullish 8-3 predictions (some on this staff, in fact) are based largely on the hope that none of the front five are left lying on the ground clutching their knee after a vicious block. But as we all know, injuries to linemen are common occurences, and we should expect at least one of the hawgs to get banged up and miss a few games. Thus, developing a few replacements is of vital concern.
The best backup so far is Dan Santucci. A tough, scrappy player, he actually started in the Insight.com bowl last year, and this his fall he might even push Bob Morton for a starting spot at left guard. So that's one backup, but we're going to need more, especially at tackle. There is no heir apparent at left tackle, and should the unspeakable happen to stalwart LT Ryan Harris, I'd expect Mark LeVoir to slide over and take his spot.
Brian Mattes appears to have the best shot at being the first tackle off the bench but only has 16 minutes of playing so far entering his senior year. This will be a very important fall camp for Mattes to prove to the coaches that he'll be able to handle extended playing time.
2. What's going on at receiver?
We're almost as experienced at receiver as we are on the O-line this fall -- but that doesn't mean there won't be some storylines developing at wideout.
Issue number one to look out for is how Matt Shelton bounces back from his knee surgery. After his breakout year last season, a healthy Shelton will be an excellent weapon to stretch opposing defenses. He should be at full strength, but recovery from knee injuries is never a sure thing.
Another source of drama among the receiving corps: will Jeff Samardzija pass Maurice Stovall on the depth chart? While Stovall struggled through an inconsistent and injury-filled 2004, Samardzija steadily improved as the year went on, even to the point where he lead the team in receptions in the bowl game. Could he be our starting split end under the lights of Heinz Field? Personally, I don't think so. Judging from the roster, Stovall is lighter now than he was last season -- he really seemed bulked-up -- which is a good sign that he's buying into the new coaching and training regimen. If he can stay healthy, I expect Stovall to finally show that he can physically dominate smaller cornerbacks when the ball is in the air. He's shown us flashes over the past three seasons. Now it's time for him to put it all together.
And rounding out the fleet, what will be the pecking order behind McKnight, Stovall, Samardzija, and Shelton? Chase Anastacio has size and speed, but only caught one ball last season, and because of a broken bone in his foot (and perhaps some subpar special teams coaching) he didn't always look comfortable running in the open field. It will be interesting to see if Chase can have a solid fall camp and claim that fifth receiver role as his own. Another candidate for the 5-spot is incoming recruit D.J. Hord. Assuming he picks up the offense quickly, I'd expect to see Hord on the field very early in the season, if only to gain experience for future seasons when the depth at wide receiver takes a nose dive. Hord's classmate David Grimes will probably have to spend this year getting bigger and stronger, so DJ and Chase seem like the two favorites to see action as the primary backups.
Then again, they might find competition from some players who aren't even currently listed at receiver. I expect Ambrose Wooden to stay at cornerback, but if Shelton's knee slows him down, Wooden might be called into service as a deep threat. Two more possibilities to throw out as contributors -- so I can claim I told you so if it comes to pass -- are versatile Justin Hoskins, and a certain quarterback who's rumored to have already moved to wide receiver. (No, not Matt Mooney, despite his nifty Mooney-to-Mooney touchdown catch in the Blue and Gold game).
3. Which freshman will see the field in 2005?
It's unlikely that any freshman will make a big impact this season. The class was small, and some of the most hyped recuits are coming in at deep positions. Still, every year a few guys do make it into games. In the past few seasons, McKnight, Stovall, Nduwke, Abiamiri, Harris, Samardzija, Quinn, Hoskins, Vaughn, and Walker all saw the field as true freshman. The best bet in this class, as mentioned above, is D.J. Hord. Another pick with potential is quarterback Evan Sharpley. He's been on campus all summer working with the team, so today won't be his first time throwing to his future teammates. Who knows if he can beat out Wolker for the second-string position, but I'd also like to think we'll have at least one or two games this year where we actually see some third-stringers get some PT.
The only other likely way for freshmen to see the field (barring injury among the frontliners) is through special teams. It's possible/probable that guys like Ray Herring, Scott Smith, Joey Hiben, and Asaph Schwapp might get to log some time running around and knocking heads around on kickoff coverage.
4. Will Price pitch in at punter?
Perhaps not as pressing as other issues, but one that could really impact the team. Will Geoff Price develop consistency in his punts? Practice reports are that he follows up booming kicks with slices worthy of a former coach's golf game. I'm sure the coaches would love to take some of the workload off of D.J. Fitzpatrick. If Price can let Fitzpatrick concentrate on kickoffs (and field goals...let's not forget about those) hopefully we'll see more and more touchbacks and less chances for our coverage teams to end up on the wrong side of a SportsCenter highlight.
Now, some will see "kicker" and "workload" in the same sentence and start to snicker, but I certainly don't want to see a Reggie Bush or Steve Breaston routinely catching a kickoff at the 8-yard line with a running start.
5. Who are our starting cornerbacks?
Ok, so I lied. I wanted to pick five new questions, but this is just too important. This is still the biggest question mark on the team, our biggest "known unknown", as it were.
Right now, Mike Richardson seems like a near-lock starter for the Pitt game, as he held down one corner all throughout the spring. The other side is still a crapshoot; the names to keep an eye out for are Leo Ferrine, Ambrose Wooden, Terrail Lambert, Junior Jabbie, and Labrose Hedgemon. Right now, there's no definite second starter, so it should be a fun battle to watch -- and Tyler Palko and Greg Lee await the winner.
So, all kinds of questions. Will we have the answers in a couple of weeks? We're gonna have to. Fall practice should help us narrow things down, and show us what we've got heading into Pittsburgh. (For even more detail on positional questions and depth chart issues, be sure to check out Mike Frank's Practice Battles article on IE).
The one thing I do know for certain is that football is officially back in session at the University of Notre Dame. I can't wait for September third. I know movie quotes are hackneyed (especially from this movie), but this sort of sums it up for me:
I find I'm so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. -- Red