Monday, March 30, 2009

Flying Irish | by J-DUB

(Tonight we're very pleased to have John Walters joining us as a guest blogger on BGS. "J-Dub", as you probably know, is a veteran sportswriter -- and Notre Dame grad -- who has written extensively for NBC Sports, Sports Illustrated, and other publications. I asked John if there was anything else bio-wise I should mention in my introduction, and he told me that he was also voted "3rd most affable" in his high school class, but that these days he is no longer nearly as affable. John's going to poke his head in here at BGS from time to time, so stay tuned. Please give him a hearty welcome. Take it away, John...)

When the New York Yankees won their first World Series under Joe Torre in 1996, the lede to the Sports Illustrated piece on their triumph began, "Destiny ends in 'NY'."

Twelve years later, after Southern California routed Notre Dame in the Los Angeles Coliseum, 38-3 (the nadir: Trojan fans give the Irish a standing ovation after ND records its initial first down on the final play of the 3rd quarter), you could have written, "Moribund ends in 'ND'."

Granted, the Trojans boasted a once-in-a-generation defense (possibly six future NFL first-rounders), but Notre Dame was held below 100 yards in total offense. Head coach Charlie Weis' future in South Bend seemed at best a coin flip. And the Irish had just ended the season having lost five of their last seven, the lone wins coming against winless Washington and a Navy squad who came within one play of redefining ignominy in South Bend.

But you know all that.

What happened next, however, provides a blueprint for how the Irish offense should operate in 2009. Notre Dame ventured to the sublime sands of Honolulu and pummeled Hawaii, 49-21. In doing so, they rediscovered who they are under Weis.

The Irish put up their greatest point total (49), greatest yardage total (478) and greatest passing offense total (413 yards) since Brady Quinn (heretofore BQQB) was directing the offense. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen stepped up to a new plateau completing nearly 88% of his passes (22 of 26) and throwing five touchdowns and no interceptions. Even more promising for the Irish, seven different receivers caught two or more passes. Not since Chuck Noland (i.e., Tom Hanks) met Wilson has a mainlander had such a ball, with a ball, on a tropical island while in the process discovering his true self.

Notre Dame, under Charlie Weis, is a passing offense. And it should be. While Weis has paid lip service to having a balanced attack more times than, well, certainly more times than Asaph Schwaap ever carried the ball, the Irish would be better served if the pendulum swung even further in the direction of the passing game. Here are just a few reasons why:

1) You put your best weapons on the field, and the Irish have never had such an arsenal. Barring injury, the current corps of receivers at Notre Dame will be remembered as, without question, the most prolific group in school history. Last season Michael Floyd caught 48 passes -- despite missing three games due to injury -- beating the school record for freshmen by 50%. And the player whose record he topped, Duval Kamara (32 in '07) is only beginning his junior season this year. Tight end Kyle Rudolph caught 29 passes, which must be a record for a frosh tight end in South Bend since when does a freshman ever start at that position for the Irish?

Floyd, Kamara, Rudolph. All set freshman receiving records, none has yet to play as an upperclassmen and yet...and yet, none of the three are the team's top returning receiver. That would be Golden Tate, who caught 58 passes a year ago. Tate, besides being the team's deep threat, has the most magical hands since Derrick Mayes.

Jeff Samardzija, Notre Dame's all-time receptions leader (both career, 179, and single-season, 78) caught 24 passes his first two seasons in South Bend. Twenty-four, in two years. Floyd, Kamara and Rudolph all caught more passes as freshmen. And Tate, after two seasons, has 64 catches.

And I haven't even mentioned Armando Allen yet. The spry tailback caught 24 passes in his freshman year and has 74 catches in two seasons. In terms of career numbers, Allen is the Irish's top returning receiver.

2) Do the math. You need five offensive lineman. You need one passer. That leaves five other positions on the field. Who is going to help the Irish score points and move chains better than the five players--Floyd, Kamara, Rudolph, Tate and Allen--just mentioned? Steve Paskorz? If you were an opposing defensive coordinator, wouldn't you rather see anyone other than Tate or Allen with the ball in their hands coming out of the backfield?

3) Have you seen the opposition? Students of recent Irish gridiron history know just how seamlessly an offense transitions with a first-year starter at quarterback. Five of the first seven opponents on Notre Dame's 2009 itinerary -- Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, USC and Boston College -- are essentially breaking in new starters under center.

Nevada, the home- and season-opener on Sept. 6, has an excellent and unorthodox offensive attack, but you'd have to believe that after last September's near-debacle versus San Diego State that the Irish will not come out flat (also, there's the burning desire to rinse the aftertaste from the last two games played at Notre Dame Stadium, come-from-ahead losses to Pitt and Syracuse). The other foe of the first seven with a returning starter is U-Dub and future first-rounder Jake Locker.

Anyway, what better defense to throw at such callow offensive attacks than an offense that races out to a 21-0 first-half lead? The 2009 Irish offense could, and should, resemble that of the 2005 group. And if that happens, the Irish defense can play from the vantage of a double-digit lead in the first half, which may compel opposing offenses to throw more than they might want to, which leads me point No. 4...

4) The Irish secondary. Clearly, for the second year in a row, the secondary will be the most formidable unit of the Irish defense. In cornerbacks Darrin Walls, Robert Blanton and Raeshon McNeil the Irish are stacked. Strong safety Kyle McCarthy led the Irish in tackles with 110 (and was the defense's most pleasant surprise) while Harrison Smith moves to his natural position of free safety. Smith, by the way, is the defense's leading returner in tackles (57) after McCarthy. The highly crankable Sergio Brown will play plenty at safety or nickel, as well, and demonstrated a knack for being a playmaker in '08.

Notre Dame's secondary is its primary defensive weapon. Putting opponents into passing mode plays right into what the Irish should want to do (ask Javon Ringer and LeSean McCoy).

5) How'd that short-yardage rush work, anyway? How many times do we need to see the Irish fail on a must-have short-yardage rush to know that they just don't roll that way? Travis Thomas on the final play against Navy in '07? The Irish had 2nd-and-goal at the 3 in the first overtime versus Pitt last October and lost a yard on a rush--on what seemed to be the exact same play, in nearly the exact same spot--by Armando Allen.

Asaph Schwapp, the primary fullback the past three years, was an incredibly hard-working and selfless fullback (the latter is by definition a job requirement at the position in the Weis era). In his final three seasons Schwapp had 17 carries for 31 yards.

There'll never be another Asaph Schwapp at Notre Dame. I mean, it's quite an original name. There may never be another Asaph Schwapp anywhere. But if the Irish find themselves facing 4th-and-inches in '09, I'd rather them line up five-wide and see what a little game of pitch-and-catch will yield.

You can knock Charlie Weis for a lot of things the past couple of years, but give him these few things: the man accepts the blame; when it comes to physical pain, he's no whiner; and he understands the passing game.

Three of the top four passing seasons in Irish history have taken place during the four years Weis has been at the helm in South Bend (2005, 330.3 ypg; 2006, 264.08 ypg, 2008, 245.4 ypg). The one non-Weis season of the top four was 1970, when Joe Theismann and Tom Gatewood led the Irish to a 252.7 yards per game average, the pre-Weis gold standard at the Golden Dome.

The one year that the Irish were subpar in the passing game was, of course, '07, when Weis was breaking eight to nine new starters on offense. We can grant him amnesty on that season, no?

Check out these numbers for the Irish's top three receivers, by season:
  • 2005: Samardzija, Maurice Stovall and Anthony Fasano all have at least 47 receptions and as a trio total 193. The Irish finish "9-3 is not good enough".
  • 2006: Samardzija, Rhema McKnight and Darius Walker all have at least 56 receptions and total 201 catches among the three. The Irish finish 10-3.
  • 2008: Though the Irish stumble to a 7-6 mark, Golden Tate, Armando Allen and Michael Floyd all catch at least 48 passes and total 156 passes. The difference between '08 and the '05 and '06 seasons. The players mentioned in '05 and '06 were all upperclassmen catching passes thrown by an upperclassman QB throwing behind an experienced line. Tate, Allen and Floyd were all underclassmen catching passes thrown by an underclassman QB playing behind an inexperienced line.
My point? I will be surprised if the 2009 Irish are do not go down as the most prolific passing team in school history...until 2010.

What about Robert Hughes and James Aldridge and Jonas Gray (a.k.a., "the Jonas brother")? Surely, you cannot win without a solid rushing attack, right? After all, in all six of Notre Dame's losses last season the Irish failed to top 90 yards rushing (they gained 115 in the 4 OT loss to Pitt, but 25 after regulation). On the other hand ("On the other hand, you have different fingers..."), the Irish had only 65 yards rushing in the offensive explosion versus Hawaii.

There may be a cosmetic value to seeing a balanced offense, in terms of rushing and passing yards, on the stat sheet. However, if you think of the signature runs of the Weis era, those big gainers by Darius Walker or Armando Allen or Golden Tate, most have come on either swing passes or end-arounds. In fact, I'm happy to be corrected, but I believe the longest rush from scrimmage during the Weis era was undertaken by none other than BQQB (60 yards versus USC in '06).

Meanwhile, the Irish averaged 34.6 pass attempts per game in '05, 35.9 attempts in '06 and 33.8 attempts last season. Wouldn't you like to see what they might be able to accomplish averaging closer to 40 attempts per game in '09? And if that means bringing in Dayne Crist for a series or two each game, why not?

Two final thoughts:

• Not yet mentioned, though they should be: Robby Parris, Deion Walker and John Goodman are all talented. Laugh at me if you want, but with his size (6-4, 210) and hands I won't be surprised if Parris makes an NFL roster in 2010. Walker has size (6-2) and speed. And in the 20 minutes the media is afforded to watch the beginning of practice, I've always been impressed with the flat-out effort Goodman (who is 6-3) gives in every drill.

What I'd love to see in '09 is this trio working extensively with Dayne Crist (do you really believe for a moment that a healthy Clausen won't be starting against the Wolfpack?). And I'd love to see Weis bring them in as a unit for a series or two in each game. Although, Parris particularly belongs in the rotation every bit as much as Kamara (and, yes, I've neglected to mention George West, but he is at best the fifth-best wideout on this unit).

• If you look at the postseason awards the past two years you'll notice that no Notre Dame player has even been named as an honorable mention All-American. That drought ends in 2009. And if you had to pick a player who ends it, the nod here is that it will either be Clausen or someone on the receiving end of his throws.

And, finally, the SI writer who penned "Destiny ends in 'NY''"? That was Tom Verducci, whose older brother Frank is Notre Dame's new O-line coach.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tough Ending, Great Season | by Kevin

Tournaments are exhilirating for winners and neutral observers, but miserable for the favorites who get caught on a bad night. Only once since 1979 have all four #1 seeds played in the men's basketball Final Four. As teams like Arizona in 1993 and Syracuse (hee) in 1991 can attest, one off night can bring a fine season to a screeching halt.

So it was for the ND hockey team last night in Grand Rapids. Bemidji State, a small school in northern Minnesota, stormed out of the gate to an early lead they never relinquished, and beat the Irish 5-1. That's it: season over, championship dream dashed. But let's not overstate what happened -- last night's game may have ended the Irish icers' season, but it did not erase the team's accomplishments.

Playing on a rink barely fit for a club hockey team, dressing in the same locker room that ND freshman P.E. students use, the team held the nation's #1 ranking for seven weeks this season. They entered the post-season tournament a #1 seed in their home region, the #2 overall team in the country. They won the school's second CCHA regular season title and second conference tournament title. Their final record was 31-6-3. In short, Jeff Jackson and his players had an outstanding season.

Congratulations to the Notre Dame hockey team. Roster and bios can be found at this link.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Spring Cleaning | by Pat

Time to throw open the windows and get out the cleaning supplies...

As ND gets into the heart of spring ball and most of the other opponents are busy working as well, we're going to resurrect the BGS Newswire to capture all the ND and ND-related stories floating around out there. The goal will be to offer up 3-5 new stories a day during the work week. Update your favorite RSS Reader accordingly or just check the links on the right sidebar.

And while we're shuffling around the right sidebar, we did some long overdue spring cleaning on the various media and blog links. The eagle-eyed will notice a new section called "Twitter". No, Charlie isn't joining the growing number of coaches using Twitter as a recruiting tool. (don't hold your breath) But you will notice a link for the South Bend Tribune's ND beat writer Eric Hansen. It seems Hansen and the SBT have bypassed the trend of beat writer blog and are going straight to the latest and greatest social networking trend (and the one that doesn't have any added infrastructure costs, natch) Hansen already tweeted that he will be live-twittering tomorrow's open football practice. It will be interesting to see how it goes.

Finally, don't think you are getting out of spring cleaning. We're calling on all readers to help update the BGS Video Vault with all the various ND clips floating around youtube, google video, and the like. Let's be comprehensive here and grab the new, the old, the odd, the hulu, and anything else you can find.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Those Who Stay Will Be... Lonely | by Kevin

Continuing my ridiculously early spin through the '09 schedule, let's take a quick look at our second opponent this Fall, Michigan.

Rich Rodriguez's spread option is not exactly the unknown quantity the Nevada Pistol is; using the tried-and-true Carroll/Weineke Google Method For Proving a Statement, I found 69,600 hits for "spread option." That means you already know most everything about Michigan's offense, and I won't insult your intelligence with a detailed schematic overview. Here's the Cliff's Notes version: Michigan's spread ideally employs a mobile, quick-thinking quarterback capable of making pre- and immediately post-snap reads; one elusive and/or fast runner (formerly known as the McGuffieback); one bigger back; receivers who can either block or make plays in space; and quick, athletic linemen capable of covering the wider splits and getting up and across the field. Most coaches who use this scheme also prefer players who don't all leave for other programs.

As the offense continues to mature, Michigan will also need a much more stout defense than it fielded last year. Rodriguez may have taken a step in the right direction by hiring former Syracuse coach (and former University of Texas, Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, and New York Jets defensive coordinator) Greg Robinson. Some guys are head coach material, and some guys are coordinator material. That Robinson wasn't the former certainly doesn't mean he's not the latter, and he has two Super Bowl rings that suggest he's an excellent coordinator (something about this paragraph sounds familiar...). He'll need to be: the Michigan defense was sieve in many games last year. Michigan gave up 45 points to Illinois, 46 to Penn State, 48 to Purdue, and 35 in South Bend. As the last example suggests, these performances cannot be fully attributed to the defense -- turnovers, bad field position, and time of possession disadvantages did Michigan's D no favors. Further, as commenter bgr pointed out, against ND, the defense wasn't even on the field for one of the touchdowns (Brian Smith's grab and dash). But they still gave up over 365 yards per game, including a very un-Michigan 230 pass yards per contest.

Like ND and most other college football fans, Michigan fans plant the seeds of hope in the spring. This season, I don't think their harvest will match ours.

Quarterback. Two, maybe three options: walk-on, freshman, freshman. Walk-on Nick Sheridan played some last year and wasn't very effective. He does not possess the mobility that has fueled successful past Rodriguez offenses. Pat White could work his way through Nate Newton's truck and still spot Nick ten yards in a 40-yard dash. Early enrollee Tate Forcier seems to be the fan favorite, the still-at-Michigan version of Ryan Mallett or Sam McGuffie. He had an outstanding high school career, but he is not as muscular as most college football (or softball) players. Late commit Denard Robinson is the third guy in the competition, but he won't begin practicing with the team until the fall.

Running back. McGuffie flipped over a guy on his way out of Michigan, but he didn't leave an empty backfield. Brandon Minor (533 yards, 11 total touchdowns) returns, and he'll share time with dangerous sophomore Michael Shaw (over five yards per carry in limited action).

Wide Receiver. The loss of Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington took its toll on the Michigan offense last year, but it did allow other receivers to gain playing experience. Slot receiver Martavious Odoms looked good at times, as did returning senior Greg Matthews. Junior Hemingway, Darryl Stonum and Toney Clemons also return. Redshirt freshman Terrance Robinson and highly recruited newcomers Ja'Ron Stokes, Jeremy Gallon, and Cameron Gordon round out the field.

Tight End. I don't know anything about their Tight Ends. Carson Butler was the starter last year, and he had 17 yards receiving. Kevin Koger should step in as Butler's replacement.

Offensive Line. In a story familiar to ND fans, Michigan's offensive line was a huge problem in 2008. They struggled to man a system they did not necessarily fit, and it showed. Another year of conditioning and familiarity should help. Then again, sometimes an old dog does learn new tricks, and sometimes you realize the dog is blind and it'll need to be put down before it stumbles into a coffee table, knocks over some red pop, and ruins the carpet.

Defensive Line. I really like the job Rodriguez has done so far with recruiting wide receivers and defensive linemen. Mike Martin was the subject of a late ND pursuit in 2008, but he stuck with the Wolverines and contributed right away. He's a former state champion wrestler, and it shows -- he uses his hands effectively, does a nice job keeping his legs under him (after all, that's where they belong), and he should be a very good player for years to come. Will Campbell, a five-star recruit from Detroit, jumped on board in the 2009 class. Will and Mike join Brandon Graham, Ryan Van Bergen, Steve Watson, Renaldo Sagesse, and others on a Terrance Taylor-less, but still good, defensive front.

Linebackers. Grand Rapids Catholic Central product Obi Ezeh (98 tackles) and non-Grand Rapids native Jonas Mouton anchor the middle three. Both are solid players who developed pretty nicely during 2008. Reports out of Michigan's spring practice indicate Brandin Hawthorne may move from safety over to a linebacker spot.

Defensive Backs. Michigan has a well-earned reputation as a cornerback factory, but this year's defensive backfield will be pretty young. Morgan Trent and Brandon Harrison are gone. Diminutive corner Boubacar Cissoko returns for his sophomore year, and he'll be joined by Donovan Warren, Troy Woolfolk, and maybe a newcomer or two. Stevie Brown will be back in some capacity -- hopefully one similar to that he held last season -- along with sophomore Michael Williams. The Wolverines may also turn to freshman help again, greeting highly touted safeties Justin Turner, Vladimir Emilien (not Russian) and Mike Jones.

I do not count myself among those who feel Rodriguez is doomed to failure at Michigan just because of a bad season. After all, ND was 3-9 two seasons ago, and I expect the Irish to be pretty good this year.

Rodriguez needed to do several things following his arrival: recruit a spread-friendly QB or two (check), lure some speed and quickness at WR and RB (some disappointments at RB, but strong at WR), revamp the offensive line (takes time), and maintain Michigan's typically tough defensive front and secondary. I think he might be on his way. Even so, they still have a few miles of rope yet to hold, and Notre Dame should prevail in the 2009 matchup.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Spring Sitdown | by Jay

Charlie sat down with George Smith on ESPN for a pretty wide-ranging interview. Check it out.

[EDIT: Well, the video's down now. We'll see if we can find another source.]

And Eric Hansen at the SBT has an article that works as a good companion piece to the above interview.

Still, Weis’ bottom line of 29-21 suggests he has shown more resilience than production in four seasons, and the hiccup last December in athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s initial and now-continuing support is a clear sign that Weis has something to prove in the fall of 2009 if the record didn’t already hit him over the head with the notion...
The whole thing is worth a read.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sprung | by Jay

Let's serve it up.

• has Charlie's springtime presser up and running. Check out the video here (there's a podcast of the event available as well.)

• Transcript of his presser is here.

• A cavalcade of media notes:
Fort Wayne J-G: Returning to learn, Weis will be on sideline, 3/20 practice observations, Depth chart in full, Weis' four objectives
Spring practice, Depth chart: offense, Hope springs eternal
Weis will be on sidelines, Keeping feet on the ground
Chicago Trib:
Weis going back to field, Spring practice updates
Elkhart Truth:
Busy spring underway, Friday's 20 minutes
Time for players to step up
Practice Report
• Spring depth chart (with the fifth-year guys included). Parentheses indicated "limited" participation in some form or another (mainly injury-medical, or in Golden Tate's case, baseball).
X: Kamara, Walker, (Tate), (West)
LT: Duncan, Romine
LG: Olsen, Nuss, *Hernandez
C: Wenger, Cave
RG: Stewart, Golic, (Robinson)
RT: Young, Clelland, (Dever)
TE: Rudolph, Ragone, Fauria
Z: Floyd, Parris, Goodman, (Gallup)
QB: Clausen, Crist, Montana
FB: Paskorz, *Burger, *Narvaez
HB: Allen, Hughes or Aldridge, Gray

PK: Walker, Burkhart
P: Maust, Burkhart
HLD: Maust, Goodman

DE: Lewis-Moore, Richardson, (Wade)
DT: Johnson, H. Williams, (Cwynar)
NT: I. Williams, Newman, Stockton
DE: Ryan, Nwankwo, (Neal)
SAM: Motta, S. Smith, (Fleming)
MIKE: B. Smith, T. Smith
WILL: Filer, Posluszny, (McDonald)
CB: Blanton, Walls, (Banks)
FS: H. Smith, D. McCarthy, Gordon
SS: K. McCarthy, Brown
CB: McNeil, Slaughter

PR: Allen, Floyd, (Tate)
KR: Allen, Aldridge, Hughes, Walls, (Tate)
KO: Burkhart, Walker

Some quick thoughts on the depth chart, care of Pat:
  • Golic is already listed at RG instead of C.
  • Bobby Burger at FB. He's a transfer from Dayton where he played defensive end. He's already the biggest FB on the roster at 6'3" 242. His dad played for ND back in the day. Maybe he will actually see some time.
  • Lane Clelland is now listed as a RT. There's not much depth at LT.
  • KLM already listed over Mo Richardson at DE. That didn't take long.
  • Anthony McDonald is listed as a WILL linebacker when it really seemed like he was a future MLB in the making. Hopefully he's not one of those guys who battles injuries his entire career.
  • Sergio Brown is listed as the backup SS behind McCarthy rather than backup FS behind Harrison Smith.
  • For now, Darrin Walls is listed behind Blanton. I'm really interested to see which two of the Walls/Blanton/McNeil trio wind up starting. What a nice problem to have.
  • Finally, from Charlie's big and celebrated first real recruiting class, only 4 or 5 of them will likely be starters as seniors. The sophomore class could have 5 or 6.
(More to come, including some interesting developments from Charlie's presser and the two-part interview he gave to Tim Prister over on Irish Illustrated...)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Fave Five | by Pat

It's springtime. Football, like life itself, is born anew. Five questions to ponder as we kick off camp, which starts today.

1. Who will rush the passer? I know it's a hot topic, but let's just bypass the 3-4 versus 4-3 terminology confusion; instead, let's talk about the players themselves, and how the coaching staff will mix them and match them to generate a consistent pass rush (while still being stout against the run). The candidates to fill up the depth chart along the interior of the line and at middle linebacker are fairly set, but that's not the case along the edges.

Kerry Neal and Darius Fleming are rumored to be slowed by off-season surgeries, so they might be limited this spring. If that is indeed the case, who's going to take their places? How about Kapron Lewis-Moore, this year's off-season fan favorite? Can he really come in and lock down a defensive end position as many are hoping? Mo Richardson, who saw spot duty at defensive end last season, is now a veteran; but rather than compete against KLM, might he be moved over to the other side of the line? It's very likely that Ethan Johnson will be starting on the defensive front. But where? Will he be an oversized end, or a slightly undersized tackle? And Kallen Wade is down to now or never if he's going to be anything more than a career bench player.

Things get even more interesting at linebacker. With Brian Smith likely set to patrol the middle and Harrison Smith transitioning to safety, ND will need to find a new pair of outside linebackers. Darius Fleming has been mentioned as the replacement for Smith at the strongside 'backer spot. The depth behind him, as it currently stands, is undefined. Fifth-year Scott Smith and early enrollee Zeke Motta are really the only two penciled in at the strongside right now, although the coaching staff will obviously try out other players. It's a bit crazy to think that Zeke will be in the running for the first team right off the bat, but it's certainly a possibility.

At the other LB spot, Steven Filer has a fantastic opportunity to grab a starting job and make it his own for the next few years. David Posluszny had an entire fall and winter to add some bulk and will probably be considered here too. When you look at all the players involved, the outside linebacker spot is laden with promise, but also features a whole lot of youth and inexperience. Filer, Posluszny, and Motta are all freshman and while Scott Smith is a senior, he hasn't played all that much in his career. Is it possible that if none of them truly nail down the starting position that Harrison Smith would shuttle between safety and linebacker for the next few weeks, like he did last year? Hopefully for the sake of ND's defense, it won't come to that.

2. Who's the new left tackle? It's not spring practice if there isn't a question about the offensive line. For this year, someone will need to take over for Mike Turkovich, and hopefully prove a reliable pass blocker for Clausen's blind side. Paul Duncan was the starter at left tackle for most of 2007 and was fighting for the job in 2008 before being sidelined with an injury. He certainly has the experience, and is probably in the driver's seat for the starting job right now. Looking back at when I went through the 2007 sacks, Duncan's problems seemed to be more related to strength and technique than athleticism. If he's back, healthy and stronger, and knows what he's doing, he just may be a quality successor to Turk.

The two players most likely to push Duncan for the starting slot are Matt Romine and possibly Trevor Robinson. Romine was the backup last season and has the highly regarded recruit label upping the expectations. Injuries have slowed him down the past two years so hopefully he can at the very least make it through the spring healthy. Robinson seems to me on the path of being an All-American caliber guard, but if the idea is to get the best five offensive linemen on the field, I can comprehend why rumors of him moving to tackle are floating around.

Lane Clelland and Taylor Dever are further options, but for now it's probable that Clelland will spend at least another year apprenticing, while Dever would contine his role as Sam Young's heir apparent at right tackle.

3. Will the tight end-friendly offense finally have the tight ends it needs? This might seem a bit of an unanticipated question. After all, Kyle Rudolph shone in his first year at tight end, and has a world of potential ahead of him. But Weis's offense has always been very dependent on tight ends, and ND really needs a second (and third while we're at it) to allow the offense to flourish. With the recent losses of Will Yeatman to Maryland and Luke Schmidt to injury, the depth chart isn't quite what we had hoped it would be heading into 2009.

The good news is that Mike Ragone will be back from his knee injury; the question is, has he fully recovered? If he can regain the speed he had in high school, then ND's offense could really be impressive in 2009. A stronger and more confident Rudolph combined with Ragone's aggressive play would also do wonders for ND's run and pass blocking. If Ragone needs some time to shake off the rust, eyes will turn to the only other scholarship tight end on the spring roster, Joseph Fauria. Fauria has the height for sure at 6'7" to be a tremendous passing target. But he was still skinny as a frosh last season and in need of a solid off-season in the weight room. If Fauria shows up this spring looking a whole lot bigger than last Fall, and Ragone is running from drill to drill without a big, bulky knee brace, we'll be sitting pretty. If not, we might be looking at a repeat of 2008, with a continuing lack of diversity on offense.

4. How about a free safety? The 2009 secondary has the chance to be one of the most athletic and deep in recent memory. Raeshon McNeil, Robert Blanton and the returning Darrin Walls give ND a trio of dependable corners. Gary Gray isn't enrolled this semester which will give Jamoris Slaughter a great opportunity to work himself into the playing rotation. Kyle McCarthy should hopefully build of a very efficient 2008. The only real question mark: who will fill David Bruton's extremely large shoes?

Harrison Smith is the favorite out of the gate, but with a very solid showing at the nickel through most of last year, Sergio Brown should make it interesting. Neither played more than a handful of downs last season at free safety so both will have to adjust to the new role and its responsibilities. The good news is that both guys are extremely athletic and would be able to do a solid job. It's a nice problem to have. The Irish are finally getting to the point where an open starting spot means a legitimate competition between qualified players, instead of someone backing into the job because there's no one else available.

5. Who will be that "breakout player?" And now for everyone's favorite springtime guessing game: who will "surprise?" This question always induces a "shiny new toy" syndrome among fans, a fascination that tends to overlook the quality veteran backups on the roster in favor of newly-minted recruits. And yet, it's also the time of the year for the younger players to take their best shot at moving up the depth chart. Let's not forget that just last year, both the offensive and defensive MVPs from the Blue-Gold game were still freshmen.

Kapron Lewis-Moore is the one many fans hope can follow the Harrison Smith development model and go from pine-riding freshman to springtime star. Among his classmates, maybe Jonas Gray and Jamoris Slaughter will make the running back and cornerback rotations that much deeper. And has a winter under Coach Mendoza benefitted defensive linemen Brandon Newman and Hafis Williams?

Of course, it's not all about the new guys. Will Duval Kamara emerge in the second half of his college career as a reliable receiving threat on par with Michael Floyd and Golden Tate, both of whom have eclipsed him? Can Scott Smith have a late-breaking, Corey Mays-like fifth year at linebacker? Will Paul Duncan make those left tackle worries fade away?

Oh, and what about that Dayne Crist guy? Clausen's got a solid grip on the staring job, but I know I wouldn't mind if Crist at least pushed him a bit and made things interesting.

And one bonus. How about that "new" coaching staff? This spring is going to be important not just to the players -- it's also going to be critical for the new assistant coaches: Tony Alford, Frank Verducci, and Randy Hart. They'll use the spring to get acclimated to their fellow staffers, familiarize themselves with the players, and settle in to their new digs. For us fans, taking stock of the new coaches from video snippets and interviews is a patchy process, but we can probably glean a few things: what kind of coaching style do these guys exhibit? Will they introduce any new drills to the practice regimen? And what kind of creative language are they fond of using? It should be fun to watch the reportedly hard-to-please Coach Hart barking orders to the defensive line, watch Alford drilling his ball carriers, and see what Verducci has in store to revitalize the offensive line.

Rogers Hornsby once said, "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." It's the same for us, only for football. Welcome to spring!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Heisler: Call Off the Hurricane Watch? | by Kevin

In today's South Bend Tribune (scroll down to the second story in the link), Senior Associate AD John Heisler -- who held primary scheduling responsibilities under Kevin White and retained that role under Jack Swarbrick -- seemed to put to bed the idea that a future matchup with Miami (or Alabama, or Georgia, or other "heavyweight") might be in the cards for Notre Dame. While I'll leave to speculation the extent to which the portions not in quotes are Eric Hansen's independent conclusions, as opposed to the product of his discussion with Heisler, the article does draw a bleak picture of the prospect of a Canes-Irish renewal:

A recent Miami Herald story quoting Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick as "very interested" in awakening the dormant football rivalry with Miami has gained a little more momentum than reality might allow.

The Irish do have holes in their upcoming schedules, but all of them involve teams that would either be willing to play in South Bend with no return game or at an off-site game in which Notre Dame controls the TV rights and gate receipts.

Home-and-home series could only be created by bumping a current partner from an existing contract.

"I'd have to say that some of it is Jack, in his first year, kind of taking stock of where we are and where we're headed relative to scheduling," said ND senior associated athletic director John Heisler, who deals with scheduling on a day-to-day basis. "He's looking at what sort of commitments we have in contract form and at the more informal conversations we've had and then just trying to figure out just what roads we're going to try to head down.

"I think all that is a little bit of a work-in-progress still. In fact, it's a lot of work in progress."

Could the Miami-ND series happen? Yes, but other than an off-site game it could not without either restructuring existing contracts with long-time partners, departing from the 7-4-1 scheduling philosophy (seven home games, four road games, one off-site game) or both. The flexibility simply doesn't exist.

As for Swarbrick, he is smart enough not to be quoted as saying Notre Dame would be "very uninterested" in a series with anyone.
The article states that a schedule featuring Miami would require "restructuring existing contracts with long-time partners, departing from the 7-4-1 scheduling philosophy (seven home games, four road games, one off-site game) or both." As such, "[t]he flexibility simply doesn't exist."

First things first: the inconsistency between Swarbrick's and Heisler's messages is a bit disconcerting. Have the two discussed their respective views on scheduling -- generally or regarding this potential series?

Second, the article assumes the existence of "contracts with long-time partners." Which contracts, and with which teams? We keep pretty good track of scheduling announcements here on BGS, and we've never seen anything public about contracts with Purdue, Michigan State or Stanford. Are these signed deals, or just longstanding agreements? Absent signed deals, ND is pretty wide-open. ND remains rightly beholden by tradition to play USC and Navy every year. But the remaining ten games -- including those usually played against Purdue, Michigan State, and Stanford -- are probably open to discussion. Flexibility has already been demonstrated with the longstanding Purdue and Michigan State series: two years ago, it was announced that we would be taking a hiatus from PU and MSU at some point in the future to accomodate other teams.

Yet even assuming these contracts exist and they mean ND has no open schedule slots for the foreseeable future, as a practical matter they represent little more than a starting point in a new set of negotiations. No one can be ordered to comply with a contract for specific performance (you can be forced to pay money, but you can't be forced to work, perform, or play a football game -- the courts don't want to get into the involuntary servitude business). That means, even in the worst-case scenario that ND is sued and loses, the most they would have to do is cut a check. Of course, one would hope that ND, with an impressive new General Counsel and a successful attorney running the athletic department, would not find itself in such a position in the first place.

Finally, ND might not be completely booked even if it were locked into and keeps certain long-term deals. As ShermanOaksND pointed out on NDNation, ND may still have an open spot or more beginning in 2014.

I'm interested to hear your thoughts about this un-development. What can be done to provide for more interesting and challenging future schedules? Should anything be done at all?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hurricane Watch | by Jay

We might have a storm front breaking on future Notre Dame schedules. Yesterday Jack Swarbrick confirmed to the Miami Herald that he and Miami AD Kirby Hocutt are talking about a potential 3-game series between the two old rivals.

After a nearly two-decade break, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the Fighting Irish is ''very interested'' in playing Miami again in football, and the interest is mutual.

UM's Kirby Hocutt initiated talks with Swarbrick, who became Notre Dame's athletic director in July. No dates are set, but talks will resume in April, Swarbrick said by phone Monday.

NBC's Notre Dame contract includes seven Irish home games and one prime-time neutral site game annually through 2015. ''You could do that,'' Swarbrick said of the neutral site game, "plus do one home and home.''

UM and Notre Dame played annually (1971-1985 and 1987-1990) before the Irish discontinued the series. A Notre Dame student printed ''Catholics vs. Convicts'' T-shirts before the epic 1988 game in South Bend, Ind., which Notre Dame won 31-30. UM won five of the past seven meetings and hostilities rose during and after Miami's 58-7 win in 1985, when the Canes were accused of running up the score.

Playing Miami is appealing, Swarbrick said, because "they are two great academic institutions. We're eager to play schools that share our values. There's a lot of great history around the games."
I like this deal for a number of reasons, but mostly because it blows up the scheduling paradigm that Kevin White was trying to implement. Adding a big-name team like Miami in a home-and-home arrangement is exactly the kind of scheduling change that we needed to shake up the listless slate foisted upon us by our erstwhile athletic director. As we noted back then, White actually refused such a deal with Miami back in 2006, so adding them now would signal a sea change from the "no more heavyweights" mandate and balance the schedule with another serious A-lister. (The third game, a neutral site matchup, is just the icing on the cake.)

There might be some reticence among some Irish fans to revive this series based on what happened in 1989. Everybody who went to the '89 game at the Orange Bowl (including friends and relatives of mine) came back with horror stories about shabby (and sometimes dangerous) treatment from the hometown crowd. I know Irish Alzheimers can be hard to shake, but think about this: we've played Miami 23 times, which makes them one of our most common "non-regular" opponents over the years. There's some history there with the 'Canes, and it goes beyond '89. (For instance, here's another little game againt the Hurricanes that you might recall.) In any case, twenty-plus years is a long time, and since then, Miami has moved from the "charming" environs of the Orange Bowl and decamped to Dolphin (née Joe Robbie) Stadium. Believe me, it's an upgrade.

Ideally, we could set this up as a home date at ND in October, and a late November away game (alternating with Southern Cal). Unlike with other conferences, there is plenty of precedent in the ACC for scheduling out-of-conference games late in the season: Georgia Tech traditionally plays Georgia in the last game of the season, Clemson plays South Carolina, Wake Forest played Vanderbilt last year, FSU plays Florida, and so on. Miami is actually playing a non-conference game against USF this year on November 29th, the Saturday after Thanksgiving; the Hurricanes would make a perfect replacement for Stanford as a late-season marquee opponent that we've been lacking in the years we don't travel to Los Angeles.

The article mentioned the NBC contract running through 2015; could this series be scheduled within that time frame? Perusing the various future schedule sites (as well as the leaked scheduling memo from last year, which now, of course, must be taken with a huge grain of salt), it looks like there's definitely room to squeeze them in. Let's git 'er done, Jack.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Security and Hospitality Changes Coming to ND? | by Kevin

Notre Dame's newly formed "Committee on Campus Safety, Security and Hospitality" today submitted a 12-page report regarding the state of, well, safety, security, and hospitality (or the lack thereof) at Notre Dame. As catalogued on both ND Nation and The Real Notre Dame, tension between football fans on one side, and the University and police one the other side, came to a head during the 2008 season. At the same time, the Indiana Excise Police stormed an off-campus house as if someone had poked a hole in their litre of cola.

The report itself was not made public, and it may never be. However, Father Jenkins pledged "a public response prepared by the middle of April." The University press release explained Fr. Jenkins would "take the recommendations under advisement and, in consultation with other University leaders, determine which initiatives should be accepted, and whether those that are accepted can be implemented immediately or should be phased in over time."

“The University is appreciative of the time and effort the members of this committee have put into their work,” Father Jenkins said. “They are all incredibly busy and talented people, and we are fortunate to be the beneficiaries of their expertise and advice."

As with all other matters Notre Dame and 2009, I'll hope for the best.

Happy St. Pat's | by Jay

Bring back the Shamrock!

Background lore, care of The Helmet Hut...

The well known golden helmets of Notre Dame, newly painted before each game with paint that reportedly contains flecks of real gold, has been a symbol of football excellence since the days of Knute Rockne. These were changed in 1959 with the addition of a green shamrock decal on each side of the gleaming gold shell...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Where Scoring Drives Go to Die | by Michael

The Dead Zone. A terrific film adaptation of a Stephen King novel. Also, a descriptive twist on one of the few statistics for the Irish offense that didn't improve from 2007: red zone efficiency.
Red Zone Stats
2005 2006 2007 2008
RZ trips 55 49 34 42*
RZ scores 45 44 25 31
RZ points 285 277 155 184
pts per RZ trip 5.2 5.7 4.6 4.4
TD% 84% 84% 59% 55%
* Didn't include last drives against Stanford and San Diego State. ND was in the red zone, but they were trying to run out the clock by picking up a first down. No attempt was being made to score.

As the table above illustrates, when the Irish entered the red zone last year, the chance of scoring a touchdown was only slightly better than a coin flip, a drastic decline from the 84% peak established in 2005 and repeated the following year. Although Brandon Walker's early season field goal inaccuracy squandered numerous opportunities to put points on the board, the larger concern was the Irish's inability to just score touchdowns. After the halfway mark of the season, the Irish had kicked 8 field goals and scored just 7 touchdowns from the red zone (season totals here). So what happened?

One obvious answer is turnovers: the Irish fumbled the ball four times inside the 20 last year (twice inside the 10 after long drives), and were intercepted twice. But even when holding onto the ball, the red zone offense sputtered.

The stats are quite miserable: heading into the bowl game versus Hawaii, Notre Dame's anemic running game was actually more productive (3.3 yards per play) than its passing game (3.1 ypp) in the red zone. Talk about inept. (In their 49-21 thrashing of the Warriors, the Irish ran five times in the red zone for -10 yards and completed three passes for 50 yards. As a result, the passing game finally leapfrogged the running game's season-long production.)

Equally surprising is that the 2008 ground game differed very little from that in 2005 and 2006 when looking at the overall season statistics, this despite the fact that those offenses scored RZ touchdowns at a gaudy 84% rate. In 2005, Darius Walker led the Irish ground game to the tune of 3.3 yards per carry in the red zone, and in 2006, that number remained steady at 3.4 yards per carry.

While there is no question that the running game requires attention from the staff (and we'll be giving it the attention it deserves in the very near future), the larger red zone problem last year was actually in the passing game.

Outside the red zone, Clausen's statistics were impressive. He completed 63% of his passes and averaged 7.6 yards per attempt. He did throw 15 interceptions, but there should be an asterisk: seven of those came between the opponent's 37-yard line and the red zone, which suggest some of the same issues he faced when he was inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

Inside the red zone, Clausen performed poorly. He completed just 45% of his passes (25 of 55) for a meager 4.1 yards per attempt. He was also sacked once (for -17 yards) and scrambled twice (for 11 yards). Play action passing was similarly disappointing. Clausen's two for two performance and 32 yards against Hawaii matched his season total for play action completions and exceeded his passing yardage (23). In fact, during the regular season, he only completed 22% of red zone play action passing attempts. Rock bottom came against Syracuse and Pitt, where Clausen completed just four of 16 passes (25%) for 32 yards.

You might not be surprised to learn that Brady Quinn's numbers were much more impressive. In 2005, in the red zone Quinn completed 62% of his 53 passes for 291 yards (5.5 ypa). In the sack/scramble category, Quinn ended up with 10 yards in six situations. He also completed half of his 22 play action passes for 107 yards.

Quinn's numbers dipped in 2006, even though the offense continued to score touchdowns in the red zone at the same 84% clip. He completed 57% of his 60 passes for 269 yards (4.5 ypa). He also scrambled or was sacked ten times for 24 yards. His play action completion rate failed to reach 50% (8 of 18), and only 38 yards were gained through the air. It's worth noting that his stats against defensive juggernauts USC and LSU (without a healthy John Carlson at tight end) really brought his averages down.

So what's happening with Clausen? And what can be expected heading forward? A couple of answers:

• On his March 11th Power Hour, Mike Frank reported that Clausen played hurt down the stretch. Without knowing the details of an injury, especially when it occurred, it's hard to draw conclusions-- but Clausen's red zone performance seems to support the idea that he played hurt down the stretch but was healthier for the bowl game.

• A major factor likely played into Clausen's, and the team's, subpar performance in the red zone: the Irish offense lacked quite a bit of diversity after the losses of tight ends Mike Ragone, Will Yeatman, and Luke Schmidt. Nowhere was this felt more than the red zone.
Red Zone Packages
(WR / TE / RB / FB)
2005 2006
Goal Line (0/3/1/1) 9.0% 0.8%
New York (1/3/1/0) 19.3% 8.4%
Two Tites (1/2/1/1) 18.6% 16.8%
Detroit (2/2/1/0) 13.8% 16.0%
Regular (2/1/1/1) 13.8% 12.2%
Half (3/1/1/0) 22.1% 38.2%
Jax (4/1/0/0) 3.4% 0.8%
Denver (3/2/0/0) - 0.8%
3 Wides (3/0/1/1) - 0.8%
4 Wides (4/0/1/0) - 1.5%
5 Wides (5/0/0/0) - 1.5%
Out People (2/1/2/0) - 2.3%
Not only was the 3-WR set Half used overwhelmingly in 2008 than in previous years, but the Irish also used fewer 1-WR packages in 2008 than in the previous seasons. For example, consider Two Tites. This set was used quite a bit when the Irish were in the red zone in '05 and '06, but it showed up exactly zero times last season. Likewise, the TE-friendly New York has been used less and less as tight ends have become scarcer on the roster. Overall, a 1-WR package was used 38% in 2005, 25% in 2006, and only 5% in 2008. What's more, that 5% all came against San Diego State.

What's the upshot of this? A team that uses packages with fewer WRs is forcing the defense to respect the run more; with the defense crowded closer to the line of scrimmage, there is more space for athletic tight ends to beat a linebacker or safety in a pattern, especially if an offense can force an opponent into subbing run defense personnel into the game. Likewise, the run threat becomes more credible, and thus the play action pass to the lone WR is easier to make when the safety jumps into the box. Linked is an example from the 2005 Pitt game where the Irish line up in Two Tites, run play action, and send five receivers out -- it's this kind of design and play calling that the offense has been lacking recently.

On the other hand, when an offense is WR-heavy in the red zone, the defense can use the sidelines and the back boundary of the end zone as "extra defenders." There is less room to operate, which is why an offense even as dynamic as Texas Tech's was only able to score TD's 71% of the time (against D1 opponents) in 2008-- which is still 13% worse than how Weis's offenses operated in 2005 and 2006.

The charts below are another way to look at this data. The darker shades of blue correspond to more run-heavy packages (more TEs, fewer WRs) whereas the lighter shades of blue are for pass-heavy packages with multiple WRs.

Red Zone Package Distribution

It's quite obvious that the shades of blue have become lighter since 2005, and at the same time, several of the pieces have begun to dominate the pie. While some may believe this is by design, specifically that Weis prefers a pass-heavy offense, it truly seems more tied into team personnel, and who's available to play. In 2006, Weis lost Carlson and Schwapp, and the offense necessarily became more WR-heavy. The same adjustment occurred in 2008 after injuries and suspensions decimated the tight end position.

As a result, two key positions to keep an eye on during spring football are fullback and tight end. Who will replace Schwapp? How will the offense change? Will Ragone be at full speed? Can Kyle Rudolph and Joe Fauria continue to develop?

Meanwhile, Clausen enters his third year at the helm of the offense. Quinn's third year as a starter transformed him as a college superstar. At the very least, this off-season should help polish some of Clausen's game, and then next fall the comparisons to Quinn can rightfully begin. If the Irish can keep their young, athletic tight ends healthy, a more diversified offense in 2009 should be able to achieve a higher red zone efficiency.

And a rebuilt ground game wouldn't hurt either.

Friday, March 13, 2009

SI's Spring Ball Preview | by Jay

Just a quick heads-up: Jeff's post on Sagarin versus Rivals below was the lead-in to Andy Staples' Notre Dame spring preview over on Very nice, and thanks to Andy for the link.

At one point, Staples says this:

This is a popular topic among Domers. Weis is either an excellent recruiter who has done a poor job developing his players, or a decent coach with below-average talent evaluation skills whose recruiting classes are chronically overrated by the Recruiting Industrial Complex.
I don't know if I would limit the universe of opinion to only those two viewpoints, however. As Jeff pointed out, although ND has under-performed its talent rating, that talent is still among the youngest in football. I think this supplies a third viewpoint to muddle Staples' dichotomy: I think it's valid to believe that Weis is a good recruiter, but that his players are young and still developing (and thus his reputation as a developer of talent is still an open question.)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Hot as a Pistol | by Kevin

Before we know it, spring practice will be over, beginning the Long Summer's Wait. Although now is too early to predict the Irish starting twenty-two, let alone guess the depth charts of every opponent, it's never too early to do a little advance scouting. There's no time like the present to meet our first opponent in 2009, the University of Nevada-Reno, and their innovative "Pistol" Offense.

Nevada is the classic no-upside opponent: good team, little cachet. They're an offense-driven squad (though their run defense has become more stout, they did yield 34 points a game to Division IA opponents last year). Nevada's 508 yards of offense and 37.6 points per game ranked 5th and 12th in the nation, respectively. Nevada moves the ball well both on land (277 yards rushing per game) and through the air (230 yards passing per game). How do they do it?

Pistol Overview. Head coach Chris Ault developed the Pistol offense in 2004 as a way to keep up with the high-octane output of Nevada's pass-heavy WAC peers, while retaining the balance of an effective running game. In the base Pistol, the quarterback lines up in the shotgun, with -- this is the wrinkle -- the tailback directly behind him.

A typical shotgun formation looks like this.On the other hand, here's the basic Pistol alignment.

Note the quarterback still in shotgun, but with the running back behind him.

The shotgun formation always improves the quarterback's ability to see and read the defense, and shotgun formations with a halfback allow for quick handoffs and play fakes. The Pistol setup adds one more offensive advantage: the quarterback obscures the view of the running back. Defenses look to the interior linemen and running back to figure out what's going on and how to attack, so the single-file Pistol formation can disorienting to linebackers and the rest of the defense.

Here's a glimpse of the Pistol in one of its most prolific outings: a 69-67 loss to Boise State in 2007.

Other teams have used the Pistol formation for selected plays; Florida used it in short yardage against Alabama in the 2008 SEC championship game. But no team in football uses it as heavily as Nevada.

How does it work? Most Nevada plays start the same way: the quarterback (third-year starter Colin Kaepernick) takes the snap, does a half-pivot, and either: a) hands off to the halfback; b) fakes the handoff (either a full sell, or just a quick pivot) and runs; or c) fakes the handoff and passes. Like the spread option, the guessing game can cause havoc with defensive timing.

Nevada's run-game bread and butter are zone runs, primarily an inside zone "slice" play and the outside zone, or stretch. They run the stretch to both the weak and strong sides, and typically run the slice -- aided by the strongside receiver, who "slices" in behind the weakside guard and tackle to pick up a linebacker or safety. Both are designed to play to the strengths (and/or minimize the weaknesses) of smaller, quicker offensive linemen, although Nevada's line is not tiny: their guards and tackles are lighter than ND's, but not significantly so.

They run well: Vai Taua, who will return this fall, had 236 carries (17th in the country). His 1,521 yards (at a startling 6.4 yards per carry) made him the nation's 8th leading rusher. He added 15 touchdowns on the ground, which were good for 17th in the country -- and second on his own team. Kaepernick had 17 touchdowns of his own, and 1,130 yards on the ground (add quarterback draws and dives to that bread-and-butter lineup). Pending an appeal to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility, Luke Lippincott may provide a potent additional weapon; Lippincott was the WAC rushing leader in 2007.

Though the inside zone and QB keepers may call to mind the Florida and other spread option attacks, Nevada's passing game is a bit more vertical. Those pass plays generally spring from play-action fakes off the slice and stretch. Kaepernick attempted 383 passes in 2008, 33rd most in the country, for 2849 yards in the air. His meager 54.3% pass completion rate rendered the passing attack less efficient than the Wolfpack ground game, though Kaepernick still averaged a respectable 7.44 yards per attempt.

To get a feel for the Pistol in action, American Football Monthly (an indispensable resource for articles like this) examined in detail a favorite Nevada pass play, the Zone Pass Boot. The Zone Pass Boot starts as a run fake -- the line sets up to block as they would the slice, and the strong side receiver (the receiver on the right side above, but left side in the diagram below), slices across the formation to block between the weak side guard and tackle. All of this tracks what would happen on the inside zone. But in the Zone Pass Boot, the quarterback rolls into naked bootleg (without a lead blocker) to the strong side, carries that out a step or two, and find either his slot receiver or wideout. As the following diagrams show, the slot receiver might draw a mismatched linebacker and cut out, or he might run a wheel route, turning upfield, while the wideout runs a curl:

Nothing about these routes is particularly groundbreaking. The existence of a true vertical passing game, however, may give defenses pause in taking a send-the-house approach to stopping the Nevada run attack.

The Nevada playbook obviously goes deeper than three or four plays. Thanks to Michael, this link gives a fuller picture of the various Pistol options, which also include counters, tosses, and a few spread-type pass plays, including the Belly Pass (slide 10), and a shuffle pass Nevada may turn to if ND sends the house a few too many times.

If Nevada can have any success in their vertical passing game -- shown in both the plays above, as well as slides 11 and 12 from the linked playbook -- they (like most teams with a deep threat and a good run game) can become very tough to stop. Their counter trap and already confusing sight lines, along with their willingness to run the play-action for deep strikes, may keep a defense on its heels and further help the line get into a rhythm on the staple run plays.

Defending the Pistol. I offer no purported solutions to defending the Pistol. Nevada scored 38 points a game last year against Division I opposition. Boise State coach Chris Petersen, who coached 13-win and 12-win teams the last two years, offered no strategy to defend the pistol, and said only, "we're going to have to score some points on offense." But I do have a few on-paper ideas. Four teams -- Nebraska during the 2007 season, New Mexico in the 2007 New Mexico Bowl (at the end of the 2007 season), and Texas Tech and Missouri in 2008 -- have limited Nevada's scoring output. These games might provide some hints on how to stop Nevada's offense (one way: abuse their defense and demoralize the rest of the team) .

New Mexico, which shut out Nevada, had the advantage of playing Nevada in miserable weather (near-freezing temperatures and rain), and at the end of Kaepernick's first year at quarterback. New Mexico limited him to 13 of 31 passing, and only 40 yards rushing. The nice thing about playing a dual-threat quarterback? Take him off his game, and you avoid two threats instead of one. (Some video of the New Mexico game here.)

Nebraska may have had a similar plan, but the Husker offense carried the day, proving that an unstoppable run offense can be a defense's best friend. Nebraska ran for 413 yards and gained a total of 625 yards in a 52-10 rout, and held the ball for an amazing 40:13. Though it didn't likely matter, Kaepernick sat out the game with an injury.

Missouri did not dominate the time-of-possession battle, but they did make life miserable for the Nevada offense by scoring constantly and forcing Kaepernick into an air war. Missouri won 69-17, with 652 total yards and touchdowns or field goals in each of its first ten possessions. Texas Tech won 35-19. Both the Tech and Missouri games revealed a potential Wolfpack soft spot: the red zone. Nevada had 362 total yards, and only one turnover against Missouri, but still only found the end zone twice. Against Tech, they put up 488 yards, but again only scored twice.

Other than bad weather and a never-ending string of touchdowns -- neither of which ND can necessarily count on in early September -- a few additional half-baked thoughts on slowing down the Pistol:

1. Tricky formation or not, the defensive line's job is pretty much the same. Control scrimmage, win game. Further, if Notre Dame continues to show the five-man under front they often used last season, with a fifth defender "under"balanced on the weak side of the line, that end should have a pretty good view of Taua before the snap. That the remaining two middle linebackers are a half-step off at the snap may not matter if the line holds its ground and/or gets into the backfield.

2. ND should benefit from roster attrition. Nevada has lost two of its top receiving threats. Marko Mitchell (61 receptions, 1,141 yards) and Mike McCoy (54 receptions, 620 yards), have graduated. Chris Wellington returns from his 42 reception, 632 yard campaign. Nevada will need to rely on an as-yet undetermined mix of Malcolm Shepherd, Brandon Wimberly (both red-shirted last year), JUCO transfer Maurice Patterson, and newcomer L.J. Washington, as well as returning tight end Virgil Green. The less effective the passing game is, the more ND can focus on containing Kaepernick, Taua, and the rest of the running game.

3. Relative to run plays out of the I, and even compared to shotgun formations in which the halfback starts next to the quarterback, Pistol plays appear to take a little longer to develop. The halfback begins the play seven yards behind the line, and if the quarterback must pivot and hand the ball off, that should take longer to get to and beyond scrimmage. Furthermore, if Kaepernick is still the 54% passer he was last year, and/or his new receivers aren't yet ready to go -- and with Tenuta calling the shots -- we might as well send something like this.

Thanks for indulging a little early-season scouting. If you have any suggestions on other opponent schemes we should explore, shout 'em out.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Randy the Ram | by Jay this week, new defensive line coach Randy Hart was formally introduced at Notre Dame. The longtime Washington assistant seems lively and spry, and should bring a lot of energy to the defense this year. Quoth Hart:

“It’s not complicated. It’s not a complicated game. Defensive football is: strike, disengage, pursue and tackle, no matter if you play a 3-4, a 4-3, whatever defense you’re playing. If your guys will strike a blow, get off the block, pursue the football and tackle, you’re going to win. So, let’s not make it complicated.”

“Obviously, the name of the game is to win,” he said. “So we want to sharpen our swords silently, do as good as we can at getting the guys to get to our way of thinking, effort, intensity, attack, getting ourselves up the field, getting after some people, I hope.”
Here's a little bit of video from the presser, where you can get a good sense of the 60-year-old's vigor and enthusiasm. I especially enjoy his warlike metaphors: sharpen our swords, strike a blow. (I'm picturing Ethan Johnson with a katana).

As noted in his bio, Hart was an assistant at Washington for 20+ years, serving through several coaching changes along the way. He found himself on the job market for the first time in a long time when new Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian decided not to retain Hart. The Husky faithful are sad to see him go. In an article on, longtime friend Dick Baird lamented Hart's departure:
He knows how difficult these last five years have been because he has endured it first-hand. He accepted the responsibility and was held accountable. Like I said before, he is a warrior: He is a tough guy who taught discipline, perseverance, and commitment to team. He is one of the all-time great Husky coaches and still has a number of years left in his tank.

Someone will pick him up and their team will instantly become tougher.

Like most of you, I am thrilled and excited with the future of Husky Football under Steve Sarkisian, but at the same time it just won’t be the same without “Mr. Fair, Firm and Friendly”. Washington will rise again, and that young front will lead the way for the Husky defense. Randy Hart won’t be there, but his legacy lives on in those players. He is an institution and one of the foundations of Husky toughness.

He leaves a big hole to fill.
Charlie hired Hart only after offering the job to two other coaches first: 36-year-old Luke Fickell, who decided to stay put at Ohio State as co-defensive coordinator; and Charlie's old friend Romeo Crennel, fired from the Cleveland Browns, and whose recovery from hip-replacement surgery put a damper on jumping into another job so soon. (There's also the rumor that the Kansas City Chiefs want Crennel as their defensive coordinator, so perhaps he's holding out for something a little better than a positional). Ex-Michigan line coach Steve Stripling was also interviewed by Charlie, but was not offered the job.

It's interesting that in filling this spot, Charlie first went after the young up-and-comer in Fickell, but finally settled on two elder statesmen in Crennel and Hart. What changed the calculus? Bryant Young, apparently.
COACH WEIS: But ultimately my game plan of hire changed when [Young] came in as a GA, because it changed from hiring a guy that will be here forever to hiring a guy that you can bring in here that is an experienced guy, that you can groom him to potentially being our defensive line coach.
So Hart would be the mentor, while Young gains experience as the heir apparent. It's an interesting, and potentially appealing, setup.

One other thing might make Hart a good fit for this staff: Hart is well-schooled in an aggressive, blitzing defense. At Washington, Hart was the protege of another longtime Husky coach, Jim Lambright, who was the defensive mastermind under the legendary Don James. Hart was Lambright's line coach and, for a few years, his defensive coordinator when Lambright was promoted to head coach. Lambright built a blitz-heavy Husky attack that cut a swath through the Pac 10 in the late 80s and 90s, and Hart was his righthand man.

I was combing through the archives of the Seattle Times looking for tidbits on Hart (and there are a lot of such tidbits over the last 20 years), and I found quite a few descriptions of Lambright's and Hart's defenses that really rang a bell. Any of this sound familiar?

"...[Lambright's] pressure scheme was intended to stop strong-arm quarterbacks who ruled the Pac-10 at the time, and Washington has been successful with it ever since."

"...Once you make a team one-dimensional, you make your job a lot easier," defensive coordinator Randy Hart said.

"...It's designed to stop the run with an excess of defenders and confuse the quarterback with multiple blitzes and shifts at the line."

...The Husky defense will give up a few yards passing. But it never gives up trying. It attacks, strong-safety blitz, free-safety blitz, both linebackers coming, both dropping back, the rush from the outside, you just never know. "We know what's coming and they don't," Smith said. "It's a lot of fun."

"...Its purpose is to control the line of scrimmage," said Washington defensive coordinator Randy Hart, who runs the high-risk, big-reward defense created by Coach Jim Lambright eight years ago. "We want to make plays in the backfield. We want to be proactive and make the offense react to what we're doing, to put the pressure on them."

If you immediately thought of Jon Tenuta, you're not alone.

One final note on the departure of Jappy Oliver. The occasion of Oliver's firing (let's call it what it is, and not "left to pursue other opportunities") made me go back and look at what we wrote on BGS about his hiring, way back in January of 2005. At the time, we were sanguine about the new staff overall, but we had a rather thin take on Oliver: he had tagged along with Rick Minter, had been a DL coach at Air Force and Vanderbilt for a number of years...and that's about all we knew.

I think it's fair to say that his tenure at Notre Dame was a mixed bag. He certainly had a reputation as a lackadaisical recruiter, which was probably the main reason he was let go. But if you look at the performance of his players, I don't think there was a lot to complain about. I'm far from an expert in assessing proper defensive line technique, but guys like Abiamiri, Landri, Laws, Frome, Brown, and Kuntz seemed to max out their potential under Oliver. This is not to say they formed superior defensive lines -- they didn't -- but criticism of Oliver on grounds of lack of production always seemed misguided to me. His players became all they could be, didn't they? For any position coach, I think that's all you can ask.

Whoosh | by Pat

The annual NFL Combine, professional football's version of the SAT, took place in Indy recently and ND's only invited player, David Bruton did quite well for himself. Just take a look at the table and notice that Bruton was near the top of just about every category for safeties.

Player 40 Yard
3 Cone
60 Yard
David Bruton


More than just among fellow safeties, Bruton's numbers were top notch when compared to all the results from the 300+ participants. Only three players at the entire combine had a higher vertical leap. Only one player had a better 3 cone drill time or better 60 yard shuttle. Basically, Bruton was one of the fastest and quickest players at the Combine. He also did all this while checking in at 6'2" 219 pounds, heavier than he ever was at ND. But we all knew Bruton was a very fast guy....or at least I thought we all did.
Notre Dame S David Bruton. He was easily the best testing safety with a 10.96 60-yard shuttle and an 11-foot broad jump (both tops at his position), a 41.5-inch vertical jump and a 6.60 three-cone drill (both of which tied for best among safeties) and a 4.46 40-yard dash. No one expected that from Bruton.
--Chicago Tribune

The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Bruton caught NFL scouts off guard when he scorched the track, running a 4.46 in the 40-yard dash. He posted the second fastest 40-time in his class.
-- Dayton Daily News
It certainly caught me off guard that Bruton's home town paper and the major city paper that covered his college career seemed surprised that ND's star special teams gunner was fast. After all, that was the book on Bruton from the start. Tremendous athlete, raw football player. Heck, Charlie was singing praise about Bruton's "measurables" at the start of last year's spring practice.
David Bruton, for example, we just finished testing as we finished the off season program and his measurables are off the chart. I mean, his weight is a pound or two different, maybe a pound or two lighter but his body fat is like three and a half and he's vertical jumping 41 and a half. He's in phenomenal shape.
Despite the apparent surprise in some corners, the net result is the same. Bruton definitely made himself some money with his combine showing. The Dallas Star listed him as the #1 player on the rise as a result of the combine. He also impressed off the field too.
According to one AFC North scout, Bruton not only helped himself during drills, but in the interview process as well. He called the player highly intelligent, well-spoken and a student of the game. Bruton is due to graduate from Notre Dame in May with a degree in political science and sociology.

The scout added that the safety increased his draft status and is projected as a mid-to-late third round selection.

Third or fourth round seems to be the consensus now, but it's also possible that he might slip as the impact of the Combine numbers wear off. After all, each year there are players who shine in the combine and it doesn't translate to the field. What will help Bruton's case is that he will be an instant boon to a team's special teams and he proved that on the field at ND and not just because of his times at the Combine.

Finally, the NFL Network did a nice profile piece of Bruton and his main source of motiviation going forward into the professional ranks. Next up will be ND's Pro Day on March 19th. Given his strong combine performance, Bruton will likely stick to the positional drills while his fellow draft hopefuls run the full gauntlet of tests for the NFL scouts and coaches.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

And in this Corner, Rivals versus Sagarin | by Jeff

With recruiting at the forefront of college football headlines in recent weeks, I am reminded of a lingering question that I've never been able to answer: "How much difference does talent really make?" Many a struggling coach have taken cover behind the cloak of "deficient talent", and sometimes you'll hear an excuse offered such as, "just wait until [said coach] gets his own players in there." But each year we see a host of less-star-studded teams winning plenty of games, while some more glittery squads under-perform. So, how much difference does "talent" really make?

If your answer to this question (like the answer to life, the universe, and everything) is 42, you wouldn't be far off. Talent makes a +43 (percent) difference, as we'll see below.

Now, before we go any further, I'd like to throw in a couple of hundred caveats. This is not a precise analysis, nor is the data particularly solid (you can read more under Methodology below). But this was an interesting exercise that might, over time, prove to shine some light onto the value of talent, and the ability (or inability) of coaches to maximize its potential. Or, it might just be meaningless drivel that makes for fun posting on a blog. In any case, here goes nothing.

Data Mining. I used two sets of data for this analysis: Jeff Sagarin's Predictor Ratings to judge a team's performance (which seemed a more objective choice than any of the human polls) and the Rivals recruiting score to peg a team's talent rating.

Rivals has data on their web site going back to 2002, which means that we can look at teams' performance over the 2006-2008 time frame (teams in '06 had 5th years that were recruited in '02, seniors that were recruited in '03, juniors in '04, etc.). Rivals assigns a value to each class, which I loaded into a spreadsheet. Then I regressed it against Sagarin's rating for each team. Nothing too crazy there.

The Results. So let's look at what this means. Regression provides output which can easily be used for prediction, and the results fall exactly in line with what I'd expect. In general, the overall data does seem to have some predictive value and a relatively meaningful trend line can be drawn linking the two sets of data.

And here's a table listing the teams in order of performance.

The following teams were the Top 5 over-performing teams of 2006-08. These teams achieved a higher Sagarin rating than their talent would predict by the widest margin.

Top 5: Overachievers 2006-2008
Rank Team Performance relative
to Talent
1 Boise State +29%
2 BYU +26%
3 TCU +26%
4 Utah +22%
5 West Virginia +20%

No surprises here, this is essentially a list of the "BCS Busters" from the WAC and MWC over the past few years. Also at the top of the list were other teams that have come on strong from out of the blue over the past few seasons: Wake Forest, Rutgers, South Florida, Missouri, and Texas Tech were all in the Top 15. As we would also expect, no powerhouse programs made the top quartile of teams. Having class after class of highly rated recruits makes it difficult to over-achieve. Among the traditionally strong teams, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Florida led the pack, ranked 34th to 37th overall (with Ball State sandwiched in the middle). These teams all overachieved by 5 to 6%, which is probably an admirable feat given the level of talent at those schools to begin with. Other notable powerhouse programs were Texas (ranked 44th, +2%), Southern Cal (47th, +2%), and LSU (52nd, 0%).

Of course, every list that has a top also has a bottom, which is not good news for ND fans. The bottom five (Eastern Michigan, Tulane, Utah State, Idaho, and North Texas) were all from weaker conferences, which I suspect is the result of a floor in the recruiting rankings, sort of like getting points for signing your name on the SATs (Methodology (1), below, has more on this). The bottom five are all teams that struggle in recruiting, so the points they got for "signing their name" are actually probably inflated, making their recruiting classes rate better than they should and thus giving the appearance on under-performing.

Most teams from BCS conferences do not end up at the bottom of the recruiting rankings, but when filtering for only BCS schools, we finally see the Irish.

Under-performing BCS teams, 2006-2008
Performance relative
to Talent
84 Tennessee -7%
85 Washington -7%
86 Iowa State -7%
87 North Carolina -7%
91 Michigan -9%
92 Texas A&M -9%
96 Syracuse -10%
97 Florida State -11%
101 Notre Dame -12%
107 Miami Florida -15%

Among major schools, only Miami underperformed its talent level by a bigger margin than the Irish. And the other schools on the list are not the company you want to keep: teams like Syracuse and Tennessee that have recently fired coaches for under performing, Florida State, where Bowden is biding his time while the program spirals down, and Washington -- well, no comment.

In fairness to the Irish, they have the heaviest underclassmen weighting on their talent of all of those teams. Furthermore, the data seems to over-weight underclassmen, so perhaps the news is not as bleak as it seems. Next season, we replace a 5th year class with 820 points with an incoming freshman class assigned 1564 points, so at least the trend is moving up.

Rivals Points Assigned by Recruiting Class, bottom BCS teams
School 5th Years Seniors Juniors Sophs Frosh Pct Underclassmen
Tennessee 1748 2403 1245 2726 1027 41%
Washington 1011 216 891 982 1255 51%
Iowa State 626 277 285 343 281 34%
North Carolina 749 594 1148 1510 1120 51%
Michigan 2116 1995 1974 1750 2220 39%
Texas A&M 1501 1839 1165 795 1482 34%
Syracuse 361 290 451 679 621 54%
Florida State 2377 2582 2703 1394 2251 32%
Notre Dame 820 661 2189 1932 2744 56%
Miami-Florida 2329 1976 1785 1452 2467 39%

But the news isn't all bad for the Irish. Using the talent data to predict a Sagarin top 25 for next season puts the Irish in line for a very solid season, albeit not quite yet in the top 10.

Predicted 2009 Sagarin Ratings based on Talent Scores
Rank Team 2009 Sagarin
1 Southern Cal 93.3
2 Florida 91.4
3 Alabama 90.6
4 LSU 90.1
5 Texas 88.5
6 Florida State 88.2
7 Ohio State 88.1
8 Georgia 87.8
9 Oklahoma 87.4
10 Michigan 87.0
11 Miami-Florida 86.1
12 Notre Dame 85.4
13 Tennessee 83.8
Rank Team 2009 Sagarin
14 Auburn 82.7
15 South Carolina 82.7
16 Clemson 81.2
17 UCLA 80.5
18 Nebraska 80.1
19 North Carolina 79.5
20 Mississippi 78.5
21 Texas A&M 78.4
22 Virginia Tech 78.4
23 Arkansas 77.7
24 California 77.6
25 Penn State 77.5

The 2009 Irish will finally have talent in the Senior class on par with its Freshman; now it is up to the coaches and players to pull that talent up a notch and over-perform. If ND over-performs at the level of Ohio State, Oklahoma, or Florida, they could achieve a 90.6 Sagarin rating, good for fourth in the country. But if ND under-performs in 2009 by its average over the last 3 years, we could be looking at a Sagarin 75 and a 32nd nationwide ranking.

Fools Gold or Nuggets?
A couple of other interesting things popped out from this analysis.

First of all, the number of five-star players recruited had no value whatsoever in predicting the strength of a team (if anything, it was slightly negative). What did show some correlation (a 43% R-squared), was the value that Rivals assigned to the total class.

Secondly (and oddly enough) the younger classes seemed to weigh heavier as a predictor of a team's success than the older ones (see Methodology for why I think this might be the case). The mix between classes was as follows:

Predictive Impact by Class

I'm certainly not surprised that the 5th year class shows a lower predictive value; there aren't necessarily a lot of players there, as most of the talented players forgo their final year of eligibility to pursue an NFL career. But the high number for freshman and sophomores did surprise and concern me. I would expect the Senior and Junior talent to contribute most to a team's performance rating, but it doesn't show up in the data. This could be a chicken-egg situation, as past performance may have led to both current performance and the ability to attract highly rated recruits (see Methodology (2)), meaning the causality is reversed: freshman come to the program because it is going to be good, rather than making significant contributions to the teams success. It could also be an oddity of the relatively limited time frame involved (2006-2008).

Methodology Notes. Let me admit outright that this analysis is fraught with potential potholes. Well, maybe it's not that bad, but it's not anything I'd want to stake the mortgage on, even these days. I did do a couple of things to make the data more accurate. I threw out Western Kentucky and the two Florida Airports (Florida International and Florida Atlantic). All three schools have only been in 1-A (I still can't say "the Bowl Subdivision") for only a couple of years and therefore I didn't have a complete data set for them. I also removed the three service academies, since I believe their recruiting process is significantly different than the rest of college football (if someone out there knows otherwise, please let me know).

But even with my attempts to clean up the data, it is still very squirrely. While Rivals does an excellent job of ranking recruits and recruiting classes, assigning a quantifiable number to them has to be a somewhat arbitrary process. Claiming one class is 10% better or worse than another is probably not the way they intended people to use their numbers, but it is the best I have available to me. I feel much more confident in Sagarin's computers, since the inputs are all hard facts (scores), but even those rankings only predict the right outcome about 70% or the time or so. And, many people may argue with some of the results, such as West Virginia's #1 ranking in 2007, for example.

Also note that this analysis doesn't take into account injuries, transfers, early NFL entries, or how many 5th years actually stick around. Nor is there any differentiation between positions, and I suspect that an otherwise average team with a standout QB is much better than one with a stellar DB. Additionally, depth at a position is not factored in the data, but I suspect there is still value in this. A team with four highly rated QBs will be better than a team with only one, but probably not to the degree that the numbers would indicate. If anyone has the time to pull all of this data together, I'd be glad to help with the analysis. We should be done by 2012 at the latest.

(1) Concerning the graph and the most under-performing schools, my suspicion is that Rivals focuses much more on the high profile players and as a result, the ratings are much more meaningful at the top end of the spectrum than the bottom. Recruits that end up at smaller programs show less differentiation in their numbers, and as a result, the lowest number that Rivals will assign any given recruiting class is around 60. That is why the scatterplot is skewed with a horizontal cluster around 65 and why the most under-performing programs were all programs that traditionally struggle with recruiting. It is no surprise that all of the bottom five programs had 2-4 of their recruiting classes receive "baseline" ratings. I suspect if there were more differentiation among the lower-starred recruits, we'd see better correlation in the data and a steeper line.

(2) The fact that the data seems to put more weight on the underclassmen may be a chicken-egg situation. In looking at the data, an excellent predictor of a team's performance in any given season is their performance last season. I suspect that this weighting towards underclassmen is to some degree validating the statement that "strong teams tend to remain strong teams, and that attracts high-profile athletes." So, instead of a highly-rated freshman class having significant impact on a team's performance, it is more likely that last year's strong performance led to this seasons' top recruiting class as well as contributing to this season's strong performance on the field.