Saturday, August 26, 2006

Notre Dame Preseason Football Preview - Part III

Part III - Receivers and Tight Ends

For Brady to win the Heisman this year, the receivers are going to have to do their part. And they have the talent to do so. This group is deeper and more talented than last year's receiving corps, and there are a slew of younger players pushing for playing time. Oh, and we have a likely preseason All-American in Jeff Samardzija, as well as a potential All-American in Rhema McKnight.

In the immortal words of Vincent Vega, "it breaks down like this:"

Wide Receivers

Starting Z Receiver
Jeff Samardzija, Senior (2 year starter)

Career accomplishments:
2005 Consensus First-team All-American
Nation's leading returning receiver
One of three finalists for 2005 Biletnikoff Award (given to nation's best receiver)
Holds Notre Dame single-season receiving records in:
Receiving yards (1,249)
Touchdown catches (15)
2006 Heisman trophy candidate

Fun fact:
Under Coach Willingham, Samardzija did not start. His first career start came after Willingham retired, in the Insight Bowl against Oregon State (under interim coach Kent Baer).
Samardzija's career under Willingham, with Brady as QB(2 seasons): 24 rec, 327 yards, 0 TD
Samardzija's career under Weis, with Brady as QB (1 season): 77 rec, 1,249 yards, 15 TDs
What a difference a coach makes.

Starting X Receiver
Rhema McKnight, Senior (RS) (4+ year starter)

Career accomplishments:
Playing in his 5th season at Notre Dame, McKnight was granted a medical redshirt last year after suffering a season ending injury in game 2 against Michigan.
Led the team in receptions and yards in 2003 and 2004.

Fun fact:
If Willingham were coaching, you could pencil in McKnight for 600 yards and 3 TDs, which is what he did both as a freshman and as a sophomore.
However, Weis took a kid with a little over 150 yards per season and no TDs and made him an All-American. What Coach Weis could do with a talent like McKnight is mind boggling.
Fun with numbers: If you increase McKnight's average under Willingham by the same percentage of increase that occurred with Samardzija, McKnight would garner almost 2,500 yards in receiving this season. The NCAA single season record is 2,060 yards.

Preseason Prognostication
Samardzija is one of the hot receivers in the nation this preseason, garnering all kinds of hype, along with speedster Ted Ginn, Jr. at Ohio $tate, reliable Dwayne Jarrett at $outhern Cal, and super-freak Calvin Johnson at Georgia Tech.

But for all the talk that he may be the best receiver in the nation, I'm not convinced that he is the best receiver on his own team.

Samardzija's numbers may slip a little this year, as teams will be double and triple teaming him early on, to try and neutralize the passing offense that is the gasoline in Notre Dame's engine.

Which is why I won't be surprised if Jeff Samardzija is the second leading receiver in his own offense this year. Rhema McKnight was the go-to guy for Brady Quinn his first two years at Notre Dame, and before he was injured against Michigan last year, McKnight was the leading receiver.

At practice, McKnight looks like he is in the best shape he has ever been, and looks like a better athlete than Samardzija (in fact, he looks like he could be the best athlete on the field this year).

All that said, Samardzija has the best hands on the team, and will get his catches. Brady's Heisman campaign might just result in both of these receivers garnering All-American honors, as there isn't a team in the country with a corner tandem that can effectively cover this 1-2 punch.

Other Receivers
Weis says that after his third receiver there is quite a dropoff to the other receivers, but don't be surprised to see everyone on this list get some catches this year. The depth here allows Weis to throw a variety of receiver types at opposing defenses, keeping them off balance.

David Grimes, Sophomore
The third receiver in Weis' pass-happy schemes will be Grimes, who separated himself from the other backups this offseason. He is fast, and as a result will also be serving on kickoff returns for the another year. However, Coach Weis says that it is his understanding of the offense that sets him apart from his other backups. As a result, expect to see a lot of 3 WR sets this year.

Chase Anastacio, Senior
The fourth receiver, Anastacio is a speedster that has largely disappointed to this point in his career. Weis seems impressed by Anastacio this season, and perhaps his improved understanding of the offense will allow him to step it up this year. But I wouldn't hold my breath. Look for Anastacio to make a significant impact on special teams, though. He blocked three punts last year.

George West, Freshman
I understand why this guy excites Coach Weis - with the ball in his hands, he is elusive and a home run threat every time. But, his hands are suspect, and he drops a lot of balls. He will be the 5th receiver in 5-wide sets, but his biggest contribution to the team this year will be on kickoff returns. He gives a legitimate threat in the return game, and I expect him to break several big returns and a couple of TDs this year.

Richard Jackson, Freshman
This kid has a lot of god-given talent, and is my favorite to be the #1 receiver next year. However, he is struggling with picking up the offense this year, and his development into an elite receiver (which he has the potential to be) will depend on his intellectual development. He already has the physical tools.

Barry Gallup, Jr., Freshman
Good all-around receiver, with good speed and very good hands - a complete package. Not a gamebreaker like Samardzija, but will be a dependable receiver if he sees the field. Like Jackson, he seems to be struggling with the complexities of the offense.

Darrin Bragg, Junior
A great athlete that moved from QB to WR last year, Bragg still has a lot of potential. If he can develop his route running skills, he could have a very big impact next year.

Robby Parris, Freshman
Unlike fellow freshman Gallup, Parris can be a gamebreaker, but needs to develop some more consistency to break into some playing time.

D.J. Hord, Sophomore - a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered during weight training in the offseason has ended the season for Hord. Hord was the best contender to push Grimes for the third receiver this year. Next year, Hord will be in the competition for the #1 receiver slot.

Tight Ends

Coach Weis likes both of these tight ends, and although Carlson is listed ahead of Freeman on the depth chart, both will get a bunch of reps, and Weis will use a lot of two tight end sets to beat up on smaller defenses. Therefore, I'm listing them both as starters. There is a significant dropoff to the true freshman, who still need to develop physically and mentally to push for playing time. However, our depth at tight end moving into the future will be superb. In Coach Weis' first two full recruiting seasons, he has recruited the top tight end in the country to Notre Dame (Mike Ragone 2007, Konrad Reuland 2006). Although Willingham lost super-stud TE Greg Olsen to Miami after comitting to ND, with Fasano drafted to the Cowboys in this year's draft, and two quality tight ends starting this year, Notre Dame will be the new Tight End U by the turn of the decade.


John Carlson, Senior
Good athlete (also a basketball player), and a very good pass catcher. Blocks hard, but isn't as physical of a blocker as Freeman. His athleticism and better speed probably got him the nod ahead of Freeman.

Marcus Freeman, Senior (RS)
Experienced and dependable, a great blocker and good receiver. Great understanding of the offense, and can physically impose himself on linebackers.


Konrad Reuland
#1 tight end recruit last year, this kid will be a stud once he develops.

Will Yeatman
Yeatman might have something to say about 2006 #1 tight end recruit Reuland and 2007 #1 tight end recruit Ragone taking over the tight end position; a two-sport athlete (also a high caliber lacrosse player), Yeatman has the athleticism to be an Antonio Gates-esque tight end.

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