Monday, July 30, 2007

2007 Opponent Position Preview: Quarterback | by Pat

As Jay mentioned in the previous post, the season is nearly upon us. In fact, practice starts in exactly one week. That means it's time to put aside the off-season topics and start to focus on the season at hand. First up, the 2007 edition of the BGS Opponent Position Previews, starting with the quarterbacks.

The breakdown is pretty self-explanatory, but I'll note that the number on parenthesis after some of the players' names is their position ranking according to pre-season magazine guru Phil Steele. And as always, if you notice a mistake or have additional info, please chime in in the comment section.

GEORGIA TECH - Taylor Bennett. 2006 stats: 35-58, 523 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs. Junior. New Starter.

Taylor Bennett is a new starter, but also technically a returning one as he started in the 2007 Gator Bowl in place of the academically ineligible Reggie Ball. That 328 yard, 3-TD performance and a solid showing during post-Calvin Johnson spring practice sessions have raised expectations for Bennett as he assumes the full-time starter role. He appears to have the making of a very solid college quarterback in time, but the game against the Irish will be his first true road game and there are bound to be a few hiccups. While not a scrambler like Reggie Ball, Bennett certainly is mobile enough to move around in the pocket or even outside of it if the protection breaks down. Unlike Ball though, he's more likely to reset his feet and fire a pass downfield than keep running. It's also of note that he is left handed, which may or may not impact the lineup of Georgia Tech's veteran OL. Depth. Jonathan Garner left for Marshall during spring practice and presumed backup Steven Threet transfered to Michigan after spring practice so now Coach Gailey will likely turn to Auburn transfer Calvin Booker. Redshirt junior Kyle Manley, redshirt freshman Bryon Ingram, and incoming freshman Josh Neesbit round out the deep, but completely inexperienced depth chart. Manley is the only one of the four to attempt a pass -- he's 2 for 2 lifetime -- in college.

PENN STATE - Anthony Morelli. (#14) 2006 stats: 208-386, 2424 yards, 11 TDs, 8 INTs. Senior. Returning Starter.

In his first full year as a starter in 2006, Morelli did about as expected. He made some terrific plays and some bone-headed ones. At times he still relies a bit too much on his excellent arm strength to squeeze passes into tight coverage, so it will be interesting to see if the now experienced Morelli does a better job picking and choosing his spots. His TD/INT ratio at 11/8 was extremely pedestrian and was an even worse 3/5 against bowl eligible teams. Yet, he had a solid showing against Tennessee in the Outback Bowl and could use that as a springboard to a very successful senior season. The likely outcome is that he will put up improved numbers from last year and cut down on the stupid mistakes will still making just enough of them to keep opposing teams in the game. Depth. Daryll Clark provides the mobility that Morelli lacks, scoring three rushing touchdowns last year in a backup role. A former highly touted recruit, redshirt freshman Pat Devlin will battle Clark for the backup role.

MICHIGAN - Chad Henne. (#5) 2006 stats: 203-328, 2508 yards, 22 TDs, 8 INTs. Senior. Returning Starter.

By now the book on Chad Henne is fairly complete. A rare four year starter, Henne is one of the most experienced and talented QBs in the country. He will still make the occasional mistake misreading the defense and will throw a pass or two into the arms of an oncoming defensive lineman, but he makes up for those missteps with an excellent play-action fake and a strong, accurate arm. His stats have been largely consistent over the past three years, but with a revamped defense in 2007, he might be called upon a bit more to keep the Wolverines in front on the scoreboard. Unfortunately for Irish fans, the odds are good that he'll be up to the task. Depth. Uber-recruit Ryan Mallett enrolled early in the spring and has the backup job largely to himself after previous backup Jason Forcier transferred to Stanford. Redshirt freshman David Cone will provide some competition for the job, but Mallett is Henne's heir apparent and should see time this season in order to prepare him for 2008.

MICHIGAN STATE - Brian Hoyer. 2006 stats: 82-144, 4 TDs, 3 INTs. RS Junior. New Starter.

Finally getting a chance to step out from under Drew Stanton's shadow, Brian Hoyer will bring a more traditional style of quarterbacking to the Spartans. He lacks the scrambling ability of Stanton and will attempt to do all of his damage from the pocket. An incredible 111 of his 144 2006 pass attempts came in the final two games when Stanton was out with an injury so throwing the ball a lot clearly isn't a problem for him. He spent the off-season working with his new receivers and taking in 6,000 calories a day in order to bulk up his 6'2" 210 pound frame for the rigors of a starting job. He is an accurate passer and while not the dynamic player Stanton was, he can be an effective QB for the Spartans. Depth. It's pretty thin behind Hoyer as the backup is redshirt freshman Conor Dixon and behind him is a walk-on in Clay Charles and two incoming freshman in Nick Foles and Kirk Cousins.

PURDUE - Curtis Painter. (#13) 2006 stats: 315-530, 3985 yards, 22 TDs, 19 INTs. RS Junior. Returning Starter.

Entering his third year as a starter, Curtis Painter will likely put up incredible yardage totals once again. What remains to be seen is if he can work on improving a 22/19 TD/INT ratio that is perilously close to 50%. Even worse, his TD/INT ratio at home, where he will face the Irish this season, was 9/12. He did improve his yards per pass attempt numbers nearly two whole yards from 2005 to 2006, but if he's still ending drives in turnovers, that stat loses some importance. One area where Painter does pose a threat is on the ground where his mobility led to six rushing touchdowns last year. Still, his primary role on the team is as a passer, not dual-threat, and how he is able to cut down on his mistakes will make the difference between an all-conference type season and a merely average one featuring plenty of yards and interceptions alike. Depth: Joey Ellliot returns as Painter's backup, but has little experience save a few pass attempts in garbage time. He lacks Painter's mobility, but is a solid passer if called upon.

UCLA - Ben Olsen. (#24) 2006 stats: 79-124, 822 yards, 5 TDs, 5 INTs. Junior. Returning Starter.

Ben Olsen, the former #1 high school QB recruit, is back in the starting role for the Bruins after an injury-shortened 2006 season. The big and tall lefty got off to a hot start last year by throwing 5 touchdowns and 1 interception with a blistering 73% completion rate. But over the next two games he threw 0 TDs and 4 picks and only completed 56% of his passes. Then he went down with an injury early in the next game and didn't play the rest of the year, including the ND game. After a strong spring he regained the starting spot, but it will be interesting to see if he develops more consistency or has more hot and cold streaks in 2007. Depth. Backup Pat Cowan was Starter Pat Cowan when ND faced UCLA last and he almost pulled out the upset. A faster, more mobile QB than Olsen, Cowan struggled a bit with passing efficiency (82nd in the country), but was more than an adequate backup. Now with half a season as starter under his belt, Cowan gives the Bruins excellent QB depth.

BOSTON COLLEGE - Matt Ryan. (#8) 2006 stats: 263-462, 2942 yards, 15 TDs, 10 INTs. RS Senior. Returning Starter.

Tall at 6'5" and quick enough to move around in the pocket, Matt Ryan is an extremely dangerous passer who will be one of the best quarterbacks in the nation next year. His 2006 numbers aren't stunning, but some of that can be attributed to the BC offense as a whole. What isn't in question is his toughness; he played the final seven games with a broken foot after playing the first few games with a high ankle sprain. If given enough time to pass, he will be a very tough foe for the Irish as he is excellent as making solid choices and doesn't try to force what isn't available. Depth. Chris Crane is a big 6'4" 234 pound backup who has seen occasional garbage time play. After a solid spring, Crane might see the occasional series since he is the next in line to start for BC with Ryan graduating after this season.

USC - John David Booty. (#2) 2006 stats: 269-436, 3347 yards, 29 TDs, 9 INTs. RS Senior. Returning Starter.

John David Booty needs little introduction as the latest Trojan QB is the Heisman favorite heading into the 2007 season. However, as Irish fans surely know now, being a pre-season Heisman favorite is far from being a lock. Booty is undeniably a very good quarterback, but is not the best QB in the country nor on the ND schedule (I'd say Ryan, although Henne is close). USC is experimenting with the shotgun formation as Booty had a number of passes batted down last year with the most notable being the 3rd and 4 pass that sealed the win for UCLA. It's hard to definitively say that the batted passes are indicative of a slow release or telegraphing his passes, but it is something he will need to work on. Of course, these are minor flaws in an otherwise talented QB that has the arm strength to launch accurate deep balls, the touch to hit close targets in stride, and now the familiarity of leading the SC offense as a returning starter. Depth. Backing up former #1 QB recruit Booty is #1 recruit Mark Sanchez (#29), who is still waiting patiently for his chance to start for the Trojans. Tall and athletic, Sanchez is a starter in waiting who only lacks experience. If Booty goes down, Sanchez will be a more than capable starter. Former walk-on senior Michael McDonald, QB-turned safety-turned QB Garrett Green, and incoming freshman Aaron Corp will round out the deep and talented depth chart. Mitch Mustain has made headlines by transferring from Arkansas, but he isn't going to be eligible to play this season.

NAVY - Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada. 2006 stats: 23-48, 384 yards, 5 TDs. 1 INT. Junior. Returning Starter.

It's no secret that Navy QBs under Paul Johnson are run first, pass second players and Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada certainly fits that stereotype. An extremely quick and athletic player, Kaheaku-Enhada is still a raw and developing QB when it comes to the passing game. His limited passing numbers do hint that he will continue to be an efficient passer when he does drop back to pass though. He is a talented runner, although his 3.8 yards per carry last year wasn't exactly impressive. (Take away the sack totals and that per carry average likely would peak above 4 yards). His other running stats -- 131 carries, 507 yards, 10 TDs -- should go up as he returns with more experience and confidence. Depth: Jarod Bryant had a strong spring and earned praise from Coach Johnson as possibly Navy's best passer and runner. He's not expected to beat out Kaheaku-Enhada for the starting job during the season, but he likely will be worked into the offense somehow during the season. One of the few Navy players recruited by big name schools (he turned down an Auburn offer to play DB) Bryant is an excellent athlete. Troy Gloss is another backup candidate how has shifted between QB and WR during his time at the Naval Academy.

AIR FORCE - Shaun Carney. (#58) 2006 stats: 82-137, 1192 yards, 12 TDs, 3 INTs. Senior. Returning Starter.

Even though he was run first last season, Shaun Carney still completed an impressive 60% of his passes and had a stellar 12/3 TD/INT ratio. And now that the Falcons plan to move to more of a traditional offense, Carney's throwing abilities will be highlighted on a more regular basis. He might find it difficult initially as defenses no longer treat the pass as a type of trick play, but with his experience -- like Chad Henne he's a true four year starter -- he will adapt. And when Air Force does decide to run, Carney is a dangerous athlete who picked up 618 yards and 8 touchdowns last year on 188 carries. Like Kaheaku-Enhada, those average yards per rush numbers like would rise if sack totals weren't included. Depth. Three year backup Jim Ollis was moved to running back in the spring, meaning inexperienced sophomore Eric Herbert is the next in line behind Carney.

DUKE - Thaddeus Lewis. 2006 stats: 180-340, 2134 yards, 11 TDs, 16 INTs. Sophomore. Returning Starter.

Thaddeus Lewis is the only quarterback on this list who has yet to suit up against the Irish. Tossed unexpectedly into the starting lineup last year one game into his freshman year, Lewis had a rough rookie season, but did show signs that he would improve. His TD/INT ratio stayed in the negative, but by the end of the year he was finally throwing more touchdowns than interceptions. He should show continued improvement and will likely be noticeably better by the time the Irish play him in November. Still, he likely won't be near the level of many of the other quarterbacks on the Irish schedule. Depth. Zach Asack was Duke's starter for some of the 2005 season, but was suspended from the program in 2006. Now back, he will provide an experienced backup to Lewis and give Duke two promising, if somewhat raw, quarterbacks.

STANFORD - T.C. Ostrander. (#61) 2006 stats: 72-158, 918 yards, 3 TDs, 5 INTs. RS Senior. New Starter.

Technically, T.C. Ostrander is a returning starter as he was the starting QB for the Cardinal the final five games of 2006. However, it was injury to true starter Trent Edwards that put him in that position. Still, it did afford Ostrander the opportunity to pick up valuable experience that should help him in 2007. He'll need it because his completion percentage was an abysmal 46% last year. Some of that is the fault of the leaky Stanford OL, but Ostrander will need to improve on his accuracy and decision making if he wants to make a significant improvement this season. Depth. Redshirt freshman Alex Loukas had a strong spring and while the mobile backup might not be ready for prime time just yet, he could develop into a solid QB in time. Tavita Pritchard rose to the level of backup last year and even attempted a single pass, but appears to be relegated to third team status with the spring play of Loukas.

2007 Opponent Quarterback Analysis and Ranking

Scan quickly through the list of names and you'll notice a common theme: "Returning Starter". This is a very veteran position group that will put plenty of pressure on the Irish secondary in 2007. Even the players labeled as new starters have all started at least two games in their career. No quarterback will make his first start in 2007. And on top of just experience, there is plenty of talent. Chad Henne, John David Booty, and Matt Ryan are all projected 1st round draft picks in the 2008 NFL Draft. Anthony Morelli, Ben Olsen, and Curtis Painter aren't exactly chopped liver either. The supposed upside of the 3-4 defense is that is helps to disguise which defensive player will be the pass rush. This potential for confusion will certainly help out the Irish early in the season when there is little scouting film on the new ND defense. However, the experience levels of the opposing quarterbacks will help to negate some of the advantage.

One bright spot is the relative disappearance of the dreaded "mobile quarterback" that has given the Irish defense so much trouble in recent years. If you look back at the names of quarterbacks who have passed for more than 300 yards against ND in a game in the past two years, you'll notice a lot more so-called "dual threat" QBs (Drew Stanton, Isiah Stanbeck, Curtis Painter, Brandon Kirsch, John Beck, Troy Smith, JaMarcus Russell) than pocket QB (Chad Henne, Matt Leinart, Trent Edwards).

Sure, Navy will still run the option and Air Force's Shaun Carney can tuck and run with the best of them, but for the non-Academy teams, "drop back passer" is the name of the game. Curtis Painter is really the only one of the bunch with any impressive rushing numbers and those are more a function of Purdue's offense than Painter's skill at running. For the most part in 2007, the Irish defense will be able to get after the quarterback without fear of a broken play 50 yard TD run. At least let's hope so.

Now then, on to the fun part of these previews, the rankings. As in past years, I'm only looking at talent and experience levels of the starter and overall team depth at the position, not to mention when they play the Irish. A new starter who doesn't face ND until late in the season has the advantage over one who faces the Irish early on. Also, while the competency of the head coach and what kind of offense he runs plays a huge part in how each QB will ultimately do, I'm ranking the players here, not the system.

1. USC - Surprise, USC at the top. Booty is very good and Sanchez is a top notch backup.
2. Michigan - Henne will be one of the best the Irish face. Mallett is talented, but inexperienced for now.
3. Boston College - Matt Ryan might just be one of the best QBs in the country. Thin behind him though.
4. UCLA - Having both Olsen and Cowan give them two solid options at QB.
5. Penn State - Was the Outback Bowl a sign of the new, improved Morelli? Clark is a decent backup.
6. Purdue - Painter will get loads of yards, but needs to cut down on those INTs. Backup is inexperienced.
7. Stanford - Ostrander could be very good, but that completion % needs to come up.
8. Air Force - It will be interesting to watch Carney play in a more balanced offense.
9. Navy - Kahaeku-Enhada will need to develop into a better passer to be truly dangerous.
10. Georgia Tech - Two strong showings so far...against a suspect WVU defense and Tech's 2nd string.
11. Duke - Two promising young players with starting experience give Duke a slight edge over MSU
12. Michigan State - Hoyer will be a pretty good QB in time, but for now inexperience and lack of depth keeps MSU here.