Thursday, February 22, 2007

Spring Positional Battles - Offensive Skill Positions

Now that all of the hubbub and broohaha of the 2007 recruiting season is behind us, it is time to change gears and charge full speed ahead into Spring ball. There are numerous battles that will be fought throughout the spring, and I wouldn't be surprised to see several battles wage well into the summer, and possibly even into the season.

Here are the positional battles going on this spring, starting with the offensive skill positions.

Last year's starter: Brady Quinn
The void left by Brady Quinn is as big a hole as has ever been left by a Notre Dame quarterback; his shadow loms as large as the Heisman and Championship winning quarterbacks such as Hornung amd Montana. To fill this void, we have as little experience as I can ever recall waiting in the wings.
Evan Sharpley Junior
Rivals - 3 star, Scout - 4 star
Sharpley served as the backup to Quinn this year, and s the only returning player with a pass in an actual game (he's actually thrown two). He was a decent recruit coming out of high school, but he doesn't have the arm of Frazer, the feet of Jones, or the delivery of Clausen. But, he is an accurate short-to-medium passer, he has the most experience in the system, and is the safest guy to hand the ball to gong into the spring. If he gets the starting nod, it will be an upset, as all three guys pushing from behind have better physical talents.
Zach Frazer Sophomore
Rivals - 4 star, Scout - 4 star
Zach is a traditional drop-back style of quarterback, without great mobility but a cannon of an arm. In Spring Ball last year, Frazer wasn't afraid to use his cannon and chuck the balll all over the field. He needs some work on his accuracy down the field, but he has confidence, poise and vision. His biggest downside, mobility, could cost him the job this year, as a re-tooled offensive line might not let the QB sit back and pick the defense apart. He also doesn't have the quickest release, which is a problem.
Demetrius Jones Sophomore
Rivals - 4 star, Scout - 4 star
DJ has the most upside of any of the quarterbacks vying for the position. Everyone has heard about his mobility, and Coach Weis has never had the chance to build an offense around a QB with some wheels. Demetrius Jones has excellent touch on his short passes, and con drill it in when needed. However, the biggest knock on him from what I've seen is a lack of confidence in his arm. During the days that I watched spring practice last year, I never saw him throw the ball downfield more than 10-15 yards. His mobility is the best fit behind the young O-line we have coming back, and between the three mentioned thus far, would be my pick for the starter this year. But these aren't the only three...
Jimmy Clausen Freshman
Rivals - 5 star #1 overall recruit, Scout - 5 star #4 overall recruit
Anyone that hasn't heard of Jimmy Clausen has made a concerted effort to block out anything to do with football recruiting. Clausen is the LeBron James of football, the best quarterback prospect since John Elway. He is the second coming of Joe Montana, and many have already christened him the opening day starter.
However, I'm not ready to place this program in his young hands just yet. I would be willing to wager any amount of money that he will be the starter next year, in 2008. His delivery and mechanics are pristine, by a huge margin the cleanest most consistent mechanics I have ever seen in a high school QB. He has the size, and the arm, to be a great quarterback. What he doesn't have: time and experience in the system.
We all watched Brady Quinn grow up seemingly overnight uder Weis' tutelage in his first year, and if Coach Weis can do the same with Clausen, he will be the starter. He is like a synthetic oil compared to the crude oil of the other prospects.
There are two other things to watch in spring ball. Clausen has bone spurs in his throwing elbow, and that could nag during spring practice. Also, Clausen's mobility could hamstring him in the same way that Frazer's does.
My Prediction:
Best case scenario: Demetrius Jones has the nod coming out of Spring, with Clausen running a close second.
Worst case scenario: None of the younger QBs step up, and Evan Sharpley is the #1 guy. If this happens, I'd toss out any shot at a BCS game this next season.

Running Back
Last year's starter: Darius Walker
Darius leaving for the NFL was a surprise for everyone, including Coach Weis. Darius was the first player under Weis to make this decision without discussing it with him first. Walker was a versatile back who was in many ways better as a receiver coming out of the backfield than as a pure running back. To replace him, we have the most raw talent that we've had since we almost won the 1993 Championship.
Travis Thomas Senior
Rivals - 3 star, Scout - 4 star
Thomas started as linebacker last year, but also played quite a bit at running back. He is a stellar athlete, and depending upon the battle at linebacker, could be in the mix at both positions. If he gets moved full time back to running back, there is no guarantee he would start, but he does have the most experience (by far) of any returning back.
James Aldridge Sophomore
Rivals - 5 star, Scout - 5 star
Aldridge was recovering from a knee injury going into last season, and his lack of major production as a result has downgraded him in many people's eyes. With a full, healthy (knock on wood) offseason, Aldridge is the best combination of athleticism and experience in this group, with a full year in the system. He isn't the fastest guy, but he is a powerful, bruising back with great lateral moves. Physically, he looks a lot like superstar running back Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma.
Munir Prince Sophomore
Rivals - 3 star, Scout - 3 star
Prince impressed Weis with his speed in spring and summer practice last year, and as a result got a handful of carries and special teams opportunities last year. However, his impressive speed never materialized into on-the-field explosiveness. He will have a shot at the job, but probably doesn't have the combination of talents to become a starter.
Robert Hughes Freshman
Rivals - 4 star, Scout - 4 star
Another big bruiser from the blue-collar neighborhoods of Chicago, Robert Hughes is very similar to James Aldridge, if not as highly rated coming out of high school. I'd be willing to wager that he is the toughest of the lot here, and could have a huge impact this year as a short yardage tailback, if not as the starter.
Armando Allen Freshman
Rivals - 4 star, Scout - 4 star
This guy has got me excited. He has Reggie Bush size and speed, something that the Irish have never had at running back. Faster than Prince, Allen also has great balance. If there is anything he needs to work on, it is probably vision. However, his talent is unlike anything seen in a long while, and I would characterize him as the X factor in this battle.
My prediction:
I have to give the nod here to James Aldridge. Thomas' experience is still needed at the linebacking corps, and Prince will probably have to be a special teams standout to develop that toughness before getting another shot at the running back starting position (ala Travis Thomas). Hughes and Allen will not be benched, though. Hughes will probably be the short-distance back. Allen will probably be used as a utility player, much like Bush was used by USC. I would love to see Coach Weis put in some pro-style 2 back sets with Aldridge and Allen, which can really give defenses fits.

Last Year's Starters: Ashley McConnell and Asaph Schwapp
Really, this isn't much of a battle this offseason - McConnell, who filled in admirably for Asaph after his injury, has graduated, and this is Schwapp's position to lose.
Luke Schmidt Sophomore
Recruited as a general running back, Schmidt is too big and slow to challenge effectively for a tailback position. However, he is big enough to get into the mix at fullback. I expect him to back up Schwapp going forward.
Robert Hughes Freshman
I listed him as a challenger at tailback above, but I could see Hughes growing into a Bettis-esque fullback/tailback hybrid.

Wide Receiver
Last Year's Starters: Jeff Samardzija, Rhema McKnight, and David Grimes
Jeff is now playing professional baseball, and Rhema is preparing for the NFL combine, leaving only David Grimes as a returning starter at receiver. There aren't many people that believe that Grimes could lose his starting position, and Weis' comments going into last season place Grimes (3 star recruit) head and shoulders above everyone else except...
D.J. Hord 3rd year Sophomore (Medical Redshirt)
Rivals - 4 stars Scout - 4 stars
Many people have forgotten that D.J. Hord and David Grimes were 3 and 3a in the receiver lineup before D.J. injured his achilles. If he is back and 100% going into this year, expect D.J. to grab a secure hold of the 2nd (or even 1st) receiver spot. He was a more sought-after recruit than Grimes was.
Chase Anastacio 5th year Senior
Rivals - 3 star, Scout - 3 star
Back for a 5th year, the speedy wideout has never turned track speed into success as a receiver or returner. This is his last chance to step up and develop as a threat. If he can make some strides, he may get a chance. However, I expect him to serve mostly as a speedster on the scout team.
Richard Jackson Sophomore
Rivals - 4 star, Scout - 3 star
In the fickle world of recruiting, Jackson has been shuffled into the dustbin by many people who are excited about the young freshmen coming in and the playing time that West got. However, Jackson was the best receiver in his class, and my observations of him in practice show that he has great speed and size. He needs some work on route running and adjusting to the ball, but he is coachable, and may surprise a lot of people this spring.
George West Sophomore
Rivals - 3 star, Scout - 3 star
West got some playing time last year, and even scored a touchdown in a game last year. As a result, he is penciled in by many as the third receiver in the lineup this year. He has great moves, and I'm hoping he develops more as a return specialist. His hands are a little suspect, and he doesn't have great speed.
Robby Parris Sophomore and Barry Gallup Sophomore
Rivals - 3 star, Scout - 3 star
I grouped these two together because I feel like they are both heavy underdogs in this race. They don't have the physical tools of the guys ahead of or behind them, and unless they have really worked their asses off in the offseason, I don't see either one breaking into the starting rotation. That said, many teams would trade their starters for these two guys who will likely be on our scout team. We are scary deep at receiver.
Duval Kamara Freshman
Rivals - 4 star, Scout - 4 star
The best talent we've recruited at receiver since D.J. Hord, he could get into the playing rotation right away. However, I expect it to take some time for him to learn the playbook and get playing time. He isn't one of those freakish 5-star all-everything recruits that you have to start from day one. But he will be our #1 guy before he leaves the university, and will climb the all-time receiving charts in this offense. It just may take some time to get there.
Golden Tate Freshman
Rivals - 4 star (athlete), Scout - 4 star
This kid is a freakishly good athlete, and I wasn't sure where to put him. He could push for playing time as running back, receiver, safety, cornerback, linebacker and even punter. I have no idea how Coach Weis is going to use him, but he will get playing time THIS YEAR. Somewhere. (everywhere?)
My prediction:
West gets relegated to special teams duty, as Richard Jackson passes him into that third spot behind Hord and Grimes. Also, I think Hord passes Grimes on the depth chart. In a 5-wide set, I'd expect to see Grimes, Hord, Jackson, Anastacio (for the deep threat) and West. Kamara and Tate will also see some spot action.

Tight End
Lasy Year's Starter: John Carlson
As the only offensive All-American returning, this is by far the most solid position going into spring. It is also (in my opinion) the deepest tight end group in terms of talent in the history of football. We have John Carlson, a returning All-American, followed by two straight #1 tight end prospects, in addition to depth that would start at most Big Ten universities. What we've done in tight end recruiting is borderline unfair to everyone else.
Konrad Reuland Sophomore
Rivals - 5 star, Scout - 4 star
Will Yeatman Sophomore
Rivals - 3 star, Scout - 3 star
Mike Ragone Freshman
Rivals - 4 star, Scout - 4 star

Next up: The Defensive Backfield

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

And we're off...

On the heels of the close of last year's recruiting season, the new recruiting season is off to a strong start.

Mike Golic, Jr., son of former Notre Dame football player Mike Golic (and nephew of former players Greg and Bob Golic), is unsurprisingly the first to commit to the Irish. In fact, if the latest in the long line of Golics had considered anywhere else, I would have been surprised.

Golic Jr., listed at 6'4" 260 lbs., is slated right now as an offensive lineman. With his family history, however, I wouldn't be surprised to see him move to the other side of the ball and follow in the footsteps of the rest of his family. His father, one half of the ESPN radio and ESPN2 morning show Mike and Mike in the Morning (my personal favorite morning show when I get up that early), said that his son plays with a defensive mentality and a bit of a mean streak - much like his father and uncles before him.

Coach Weis and staff seem to be getting better and better at locking down the players that Notre Dame should get. I also believe that, while Golic Jr. was clearly the caliber of player Notre Dame looks for, Weis would have offered him regardless. He understands how much history and tradition means to this team, and the addition of another Golic keeps the tradition alive.

Golic has another son, Jake, who will be coming out next year. I expect that he will be offered and will likely be Irish as well.

Coming soon: Spring positional battles