Monday, July 17, 2006

2006 Opponent Preview - Quarterbacks | by Pat

As we did last year, here's our position by position preview of the 2006 Irish opponents. First up, the quarterbacks.

GEORGIA TECH - Reggie Ball. 2005 stats: 182-379, 2165 yards, 11 TDs, 12 INTs. Returning starter.

Reggie Ball is one of those rare four-year starters who has gotten statistically worse every year. Each year, he never threw for more touchdowns than interceptions, and his completion percentage has dropped from 52% as a freshman to 49.7% as a sophomore to 48% as a junior last year. That last number was accomplished even with the presence of All-American wide reciever Calvin Johnson as a target. Still, Ball can be dangerous, as he's a mobile QB who's more and more adept at avoiding the pass rush. After being sacked 26 times in both his freshman and sophomore year, he was only sacked 8 times as a junior. His rushing totals aren't all that impressive for a so-called mobile QB -- career high is 384 net rushing yards as a freshman -- but until the Irish defense proves otherwise, we're still susceptible to quarterbacks who present the pass/run option. Depth: Backup Taylor Bennett started in Ball's place for the UConn game last year and appears to be the top challenger for the 2nd team job. Throwing for five touchdowns in the spring game certainly didn't hurt his cause. Redshirt freshman Jonathan Garner was a Top 20 QB coming out of high school but pushing Ball out of the starting job by the first game of the season will be very tough.

PENN STATE - Anthony Morelli. 2005 stats: 13-20, 155 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs. New starter.

Anthony Morelli is a one-time ND recruit who has bided his time at Penn State and now has the starting quarterback job all to himself. The junior's calling card is his strong arm, perhaps the strongest of any quarterback ND faces this year; when he was a freshman, he was once inserted into a game when the Lions needed to throw a long Hail Mary pass. The big question on Morelli is how he'll adapt to the mental aspect of the game in terms of reading defenses and recognizing blitzes. His two years studying the position certainly help, but the Notre Dame game will mark his first road game as the starter. Still, his strong performance at the PSU spring game has Nittany Lion fans optimistic. Depth: Morelli barely got in games himself last season and his new backup hasn't seen any action at all. Sophomore Paul Cianciolo hasn't thrown a pass in a game and frankly had a pretty awful spring game to boot. Pushing him for the backup spot will be redshirt freshman Kevin Suhey and hopeful quarterback of the future, freshman Pat Devlin.

MICHIGAN - Chad Henne. 2005 stats: 223-382, 2526 yards, 23 TDs, 8 INTs. Returning starter.

After a very solid freshman year, Chad Henne hit a bit of a sophomore slump. But I expect him to rebound and be one of the best quarterbacks that Notre Dame faces next season. His arm strength is top notch and as he enters his third year starting experience certainly isn't an issue. What remains to be seen is if he can improve his accuracy and touch on the shorter passes and become a trusted leader on offense. He can struggle on the road -- six of last year's seven interceptions came away from Michigan Stadium -- so that will be another obstacle for him to overcome. Still, he has the talent to make things very difficult for the Notre Dame defense in September. Depth: Redshirt freshman Jason Forcier is now the backup after 5th-year senior Matt Gutierrez transferred to Idaho State. Forcier is an extremely mobile quarterback but his passing at this point isn't probably where the coaching staff wants it to be. Forcier also hasn't appeared in a game yet, so lack of experience is also a concern. Senior career backup Jeff Kastl is another option but unlikely to push Forcier out of the backup spot.

MICHIGAN STATE - Drew Stanton. 2005 stats: 236-354, 3,077 yards, 22 TDs, 12 INTs. Returning starter.

Finally healthy to start the season last year, Drew Stanton proved himself to be one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. His stats suffered a bit during the annual Spartan collapse down the stretch, but he still finished the year as the 9th-most efficient QB in the nation. His combination of mobility, experience, arm strength, and leadership abilities mark him as my pick for the best QB that the Irish will face next year. He led the Spartan comeback against ND in 2004 and gave the Irish defense fits in 2005. He is a bit injury-prone, but when he's on the field, he's very dangerous. Depth: Brian Hoyer is the returning backup for Stanton and he's really the only one now with the transfer of backup Domenic Natale to Rutgers. Hoyer played in five games last year and even threw for two touchdowns so he's not completely inexperienced, but he's not exactly someone Spartan fans hope to see under center.

PURDUE - Curtis Painter. 2005 stats: 89-170, 932 yards, 3 TDs, 5 INTs. Returning Starter.

Curtis Painter didn't begin the 2005 season as a starter, but he replaced struggling Brandon Kirsch and ended up starting the final five Purdue games. A redshirt freshman playing his first year of college football, Painter understandly struggled and should show improvement in 2006. Still, he has a ways to go in terms of becoming a more efficient passer (96th in the nation last year). He's got some mobility, which should give Purdue a more legitimate option threat and help Painter get out of trouble if he can't find the open receiver. Purdue will need Painter to be effective if they hope to be rebound; after Kyle Orton threw for four touchdowns against the Irish in 2004, the 2005 Boilermakers only threw for 10 touchdowns all season. Depth: Joey Elliot is another redshirt freshman who hasn't taken a college snap yet. More of a pocket passer than Painter, Elliot was prolific in high school, but outside of a decent game in the spring game, he's an unknown as far as what he can do for the Boilermakers.

STANFORD - Trent Edwards. 2005 stats: 168-268, 1934 yards, 17 TDs, 7 INTs. Returning Starter.

Trent Edwards is the most experienced quarterback that the Irish will face in 2006, and also one of the best. He was having a very solid game against ND before being knocked out with an injury, which unfortunately was a trend for Edwards: injuries forced him out of the UC-Davis, Oregon State, and Cal games as well. When healthy, Edwards is a smart quarterback who can make long and short throws with ease. He should be a very strong leader for the Stanford offense in his final season in Palo Alto. Depth: Backing up Edwards is senior T.C. Ostrander, who ND fans might remember for his role in the scare at Stanford last year (11-15, 197 yards, 1 TD in relief of Edwards). With nearly 200 career pass attempts to his name, Ostrander is an excellent backup with experience and the skills that made him a 5-star recruit out of high school.

UCLA - Ben Olsen. 2005 stats: 2-4, 11 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs. New starter.

Formerly the #1 high school QB recruit in 2002, Ben Olsen signed with BYU and then went on a two-year Mormon mission. Upon returning he transferred to UCLA where he backed up Drew Olsen (no relation) last year. After pushing Drew for the starting spot in the fall, Ben hurt his hand and effectively sat out the year, only attempting four passes while Drew led UCLA on multiple 4th-quarter comeback wins. Now the starter, Ben has the size and arm strength to be a terrific college quarterback. However, after taking the two year mission away from football and then sitting on the UCLA bench for a year, Olsen might be rusty out of the gate. If he can get into a groove early, he should have a very solid year. Depth: Behind Olsen, there isn't much in the way of experience. Pat Cowan is the backup, but hasn't thrown a pass for the Bruins yet. He's big at 6'5" and even faster than Olsen, but likely won't be called into games unless Olsen can't go.

NAVY - Brian Hampton. 2005 stats: 6-19, 99 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs. New starter.

It seems lately that Coach Paul Johnson can just plug any quarterback into his option-attack offense and watch him have a productive year. This year the honor falls to senior Brian Hampton, who served as backup to Lamar Owens last year. Hampton played in all 12 games so he won't be completely inexperienced when he steps under center. Navy quarterbacks are rarely called upon to throw the ball so it's hard to tell just how Hampton will do in that department, but his arm is supposedly pretty good for a running QB; his lone touchdown pass last year did come against Notre Dame. As long as Hampton holds on to the ball while running the option and makes smart decisions with his handoffs, he should be fine. Depth: Freshman Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada is an extremely fast freshman who offers a better running threat than Hampton, but is pretty raw when it comes to throwing the ball. He is an exciting prospect and if he can avoid fumbling the ball, he might beat out junior Troy Gloss for the backup spot behind Hampton.

North Carolina - TBD. New starter.

The two challengers for the Tarheels' job are Nebraska transfer Joe Dailey (right) and redshirt freshman Cam Sexton. Dailey has the benefit of starting 11 games at Nebraska, but after throwing 19 interceptions versus only 17 touchdowns with a paltry 49.4% completion percentage he's hardly a proven college quarterback. Seeing as how Dailey was recruited to Nebraska as an option QB, he's very mobile and good when he's on the move, but at some point a quarterback needs to become confident in the pocket to succeed. Sexton is also a mobile quarterback who has a good chance to beat out Dailey, but has yet to throw a pass in college. He was a highly-regarded prep QB and was considered the backup QB as a freshman before a broken ankle sidelined him. Depth: The loser of the Dailey/Sexton battle will become the backup for the team. Joey Bozich, who was the backup QB last year and is the only returning Tarheel who threw a pass last year, was moved to fullback in the spring.

AIR FORCE - Shaun Carney. 2005 stats: 95-148, 1393 yards, 7 TDs, 7 INTs. Returning Starter.

Shaun Carney will enter his third year starting for the Falcons and the junior has the talent to be one of the top quarterbacks in the Mountain West Conference. While most Air Force quarterbacks of late have been better runners than passers, Carney is in the mold of a passing quarterback; while he did gain 720 yards on the ground and score 11 touchdowns, his strength is still throwing the ball. Despite a limited number of passing attempts, Carney completed an impressive 64.1% of his throws. However, his 7/7 TD/INT ratio isn't exactly the greatest and highlights that perhaps his decision-making needs some work. Depth: Jim Ollis switched from halfback and is the likely choice to backup Carney. Being a former running back, Otis is solid running the ball, but will need to improve his passing skills if he wants to be effective at the quarterback spot.

ARMY - David Pevoto. 2005 stats: 6-12, 68 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INTs. New starter.

As the backup for Army last year, David Pevoto only played in the fourth quarter of the loss to Connecticut. At 6'5, 229 pounds, Pevoto has plenty of arm strength, but accuracy and a lack of experience should hold him back some at the beginning of the season. For as big as he is he's decently mobile, so he should be able to move around in the pocket and maybe even run the occasional option play. Depth: Pat McDonald and walk-on Kevin Dunn are on the roster as backups, but many Army fans are excited about incoming freshman Carson Williams. The 6'5 QB turned down offers from NC State, Vandy, and Arkansas to attend West Point. If Pevoto struggles initially, maybe Williams will be the starting QB when the Black Knights visit South Bend in October.

USC - John David Booty. 2005 stats: 27-42, 327 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs. New starter.

Technically the starting job is still up for grabs; either junior John David Booty (left) or redshirt freshman Mark Sanchez could be the Trojan signalcaller come September. Booty has the edge on experience and for now seems like the favorite to take the job. Of course, the Trojans don't play Notre Dame until November, so it could very well be Sanchez under center by then. Booty was Matt Leinart's backup last year and the favored first-stringer in the spring before a back injury sidelined him for the nearly the entire practice session. A former #1 high school QB recruit, Booty certainly has the talent to be one of the best quarterbacks the Irish face, but his balky back and inexperience make him a wildcard. Will his tranistion to starter be as successfull as Leinart's, or will there be a drop-off production? Depth: Sanchez, another #1 high school QB, has earned nothing but rave reviews from practice sessions. Even if Booty stays healthy, Sanchez could beat him out. With more mobility and a bit more size than Booty, Sanchez certainly is an attractive option and a tremendous talent. Still, there will always be question marks until potential is turned into production. Junior Michael McDonald and incoming freshman Garret Green round out the talented, but inexperienced QB depth chart.

2006 Opponent Quarterback Analysis and Ranking

With all of the concerns over our pass defense heading into the season, the opposing quarterbacks the Irish will face this year is of major interest to ND fans. Last year's quarterback lineup was quite talented and experienced, with only one team breaking in somebody brand new. This year, we've got five greenthumbs (Penn State, Southern Cal, UCLA, Navy, Army). However, while the experience isn't there, the potential for this year's opponents is still sky-high. Consider that while UCLA and USC don't have a returning starter under center, collectively they do have the #1 high school quarterback recruits of 2002, 2003, and 2005. And even though that trio have only combined for 58 pass attempts to this point, all of them have the luxury of getting a few games under their belt before facing the Irish. How Olsen and Booty/Sanchez evolve could mean the difference between a lighter challenge, or facing a steady stream of NFL-caliber QBs.

As for the much-dreaded "mobile quarterback", Stanton returns and he'll have Irish fans holding their breath on every third down play. Ball has the ability to tuck and run when he needs to, but he lacks Stanton's accuracy when throwing. Painter is fairly mobile and capable of running the option from time to time. Both of UNC's quarterbacks have the ability to sneak out of the pocket for the first down if they need to. And of course, Navy and Air Force run the ball much more than they throw.

Now for the rankings of the 2006 QB units that the Irish will face. Remember that for these rankings I'm only going from the quarterbacks themselves, not who is coaching them or what kind of offense they are running. I'm looking at the skills and experience of the starter and the quality of the team's overall quarterback depth. With that in mind, here's my take on the 2006 quarterback units. I've also added Phil Steele's Quarterback Rank in parentheses where there is one (Steele ranks 64 quarterbacks).

1. MSU - Stanton (#3 in Steele's) is my pick for best opponent QB and Hoyer has a decent amount of experience.
2. Stanford - A talented duo at quarterback with plenty of experience. Edwards (#17) is a leader and Ostrander is starter-quality.
3. Michigan - Henne (#7) is now a veteran poised for a big year. Forcier is still a question mark.
4. USC - All the potential in the world, but scant production yet from Booty (#24) or Sanchez (#26).
5. Georgia Tech - Will Ball (#59) keep regressing? Bennett is a decent backup.
6. Purdue - Painter (NR) will need to improve his accuracy but should be another solid Purdue QB.
7. UCLA - Olsen (#53) has plenty of size and talent. Now he just needs to shake off the rust.
8. Penn State - Morelli (#57) has a big arm and now needs to show he can lead the team. Not much depth.
9. Air Force - Carney (#37) is accurate and a leader, but isn't a star as either a runner or passer.
10. UNC - Dailey (NR) lost his starting job at Nebraska and Sexton (NR) hasn't started a game yet.
11. Navy - Hampton (NR) should be another solid Navy QB, but isn't much of a threat against ND.
12. Army - Pevoto (NR) is pretty raw and there isn't any depth behind him.

Next up: Running Backs.