Saturday, March 24, 2007

Spring Positional Battles: The First Casualties

In only his second practice at Notre Dame, highly touted freshman cornerback Gary Gray broke his right arm, and will be held out of the remainder of spring practice while he heals.

In related news, Munir Prince has been moved out of the logjam at running back (where I predicted he would languish) and into the mix at corner. I like this move for a couple of reasons. First, we need all the speed we can get in the secondary, and this adds depth to the corners, where we needed it. (the safeties have depth, corners not as much) More importantly, however, as a converted running back, he has developed some toughness that many corners lack.

Many corners use only their speed to defend against the pass, but a truly elite corner can not only hang with the receiver, but then bring the wood when he does catch the ball. Having played at a position where you get hit on every down for a year, Prince should add a level of physicality to the corners that will help bring Coach Weis' NASTY into the mix.

The Gary Gray injury is unfortunate, as he has a lot of potential. However, of all of the possible injury situations this team could have been facing, this is one of the less painful losses. First, it's only a broken arm, and will heal completely in 4-6 weeks, allowing Gray to suit up and be 100% for summer ball. Second, as a freshman corner, it might help his learning curve to watch and listen during spring practice. He'll still be ahead of the curve mentally going into summer practice when the other freshmen come in. Like all injuries, it does have some serious drawbacks as well. He won't be able to participate in the lifting sessions fully, and if there is one thing Gray needs, it is some muscle to go with all that speed. Also, corners (followed closely by O-line and safeties) need to have great footwork. Now, he will not be participating in footwork drills.

These changes to the cornerback position will not have a significant impact on the starters, though. I had been predicting that Gary Gray might be redshirted, and now that seems more likely than ever. Prince will probably challenge McNeil for the dime back slot, especially considering that he would be an asset against mobile QBs when the offense spreads the field.

I'll try to keep on top of all the news and rumors coming out of spring practice. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Spring Positional Battles - Defensive Skill Positions

The Irish secondary has been much-maligned the last few years, a well deserved criticism in light of the pass-heavy obliterations in big games the Irish have suffered over the last five years. Florida State 2003. Purdue 2004. Pittsburgh 2004. Michigan State 2005. Ohio State 2006. Michigan 2006. LSU 2007. USC every year.

That litany of big losses stings for any Irish fan like myself. And they all have one thing in common - a porous pass defense. The promise of improvement under Rick Minter never materialized, and now the Irish are looking to a bright, young, energetic leader to lead this talented group of players and mould them into a stingy secondary.

I like the potential for this group. While many of the pundits have attacked ND's "team speed," recruiting has already adressed this need in the secondary. Which is why Minter's ouster became necessary - I watched our players chase down receivers from behind far too many times to believe that we weren't fast enough. We were simply out of position.

I also like the combination of youth and experience here. Tommy Z will be back for his 5th year, and his experience and attitude should permeate this unit - straight nasty. He has some experience behind him, and a slew of young talent to mentor. If Corwin Brown is as good a teacher as they say he is, I honestly believe that pass defense will become one of our strengths this year.

Last year's starters: Ambrose Wooden, Mike Richardson
Richardson and Wooden were both very good corners last year, but they were often left alone on an island. Richardson is gone to graduation, but Wooden's experience (he's entering his fifth year) will be back to anchor this unit.
The question for me on Spring and Summer is whether Wooden can hang with the young speedy talent on the team that is pushing for playing time. He was a four-star recruit coming in, but the recruiting services couldn't agree on whether he was a corner or safety.
Terrail Lambert Senior
Rivals - 4 star, Scout - 4 star
Part of the mysterious vanishing class of 2008, Lambert came in almost as highly touted as Wooden, listed as the 8th best corner on Scout. But he was listed as a safety on Rivals. Which meant we still didn't have a true corner. He has developed nicely, though, and last year showed a knack for finding the ball as our nickel back and #1 backup. He should start opposite Wooden, pending development by the youngsters below him.
Darrin Walls Sophomore
Rivals - 4 star, Scout - 4 star
The first true corner recruited by Notre Dame in recent memory, Walls was one of the best pure speed corners in the country coming in - ranked the third best corner by Rivals, and 7th best by Scout. He runs a 4.4 forty, and has all of the physical tools needed by a shutdown corner. He showed flashes of brillance in coverage this year, but also as a true freshman blew several coverages, sometimes leading to scores. If he continues to develop, and picks up this new system, he is my favorite to supplant on of the starters. More likely, though, he'll move into the nickel back slot, playing the same role that Lambert did last year.
Raeshon McNeil Sophomore
Rivals - 4 star, Scout - 4 star
Raeshon came in with Darrin Walls, and was almost as highly touted - he ranked 7th on Rivals and 9th on Scout among cornerbacks. He is similar in many ways to Darrin Walls - they are both 6' even, around 175 lbs. coming in. During summer practice last year, he appeared to be more physical in his coverage, whereas Darrin Walls relied more on speed and position. McNeil is only half a step behind Walls on the depth chart right now, and it's too early to call this one. I expect that McNeil will fill in at Walls' position last year - dime back and spot duty in coverage.
Gary Gray Freshman
Rivals - 4 star, Scout - 4 star
Basically a Walls/McNeil clone (although a little smaller...), Gray's commitment showed that Coach Weis is serious about recruiting cornerback talent, and that last year's duo was no fluke. He'll probably redshirt this season, considering the amount of depth we have right now. If you had told me three years ago that we'd be redshirting a top 10 cornerback recruit, I would never have believed it. This kid will be a great shutdown corner for us in a couple of years, but there's no rush to bring him in right away, unless he shows something in Spring Ball. Or unless we install a quarter defense.
Depth: Leo Ferrine, Senior; Ray Herring, Junior; Kyle McCarthy, Junior
My Prediction:
Wooden and Lambert hold down the starting positions, but are pushed by Walls and McNeil. I wouldn't be surprised for one or both of them to get passed on the depth chart, but I don't think Coach Weis will want to shatter the confidence of any of these kids. There is a nice, comfortable pecking order, and this year sets up nicely for the long-term development of the cornerback crew - recruit one or two great corners every year, and have them move up through the progression - dime back, nickel back, starting corner, shutdown corner. Shuffle as needed.

Last year's starters: Tom Zbikowski, Chinedum Ndukwe
Tom Zbikowski (Zibby) is a returning two-time All-American selection. So I don't want to hear the "Hold Me I'm Irish" crowd moan about his breakdowns in pass coverage or the naysayers that say he has "deceptive" speed.
This kid is a beast. He WILL be a consensus All-American this year (barring injury) and probably the winner of the Chuck Bednarik and Bronco Nagurski awards. His punt return and interception return skills will be on display, giving him an outside shot at a Heisman (see: Charles Woodson).
I'm sure many of you are scoffing and telling me I'm crazy (which you should totally post in the comments - I don't get nearly enough comments...), but I think this kid is the best college safety in recent memory.
I'm not saying that he is going to be the best pro prospect at the safety position (although he will go in the first round and be a consistent starter) - but he is one of the best players to do what he does in a long, long time.
His attitude and toughness is infused into his style of play, and he loves to hit people. He'll bring that attitude to practice everyday, and will be the anchor of Brown's aggressive defense - the kind of tool that Corwin can wield to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
Harrison Smith Freshman
Rivals - 4 star, Scout - 4 star
Sergio Brown Sophomore
Rivals - 3 star, Scout - 4 star
Leonard Gordon Sophomore
Rivals - 3 star, Scout - 4 star
Jashaad Gaines Sophomore
Rivals - 3 star, Scout - 3 star
David Bruton Junior
Rivals - 3 star, Scout - 3 star
Ray Herring Junior
Rivals - 3 star, Scout - 3 star
Kyle McCarthy Junior
Rivals - 3 star, Scout - 2 star
I grouped these kids together for two reasons. First, it shows that we are sick deep in the defensive secondary. Second, it shows how the talent level at Notre Dame is steadily increasing. With each successive class, the highly touted recruits take notice of Notre Dame more and more. Recruiting is a long-term process where each class builds upon the one before it, and recruits want to go where they can play and win. Thus, a school full of three star recruits is attractive to 3/4 stars, which makes the school more attractive to 4 stars, and on up. I fully expect to land the top overall corner/safety in the next two years, as the momentum in recruiting builds.
As far as who will start opposite Tommy Z, though, there is an interesting conundrum. Harrison Smith is the highest rated safety we've landed since Tommy Z, and could push for playing time right away, but lacks experience. As a matter of fact, as you move up in experience, you move down in talent. So this coaching staff has to choose between an experienced but not as athletic player (Bruton, Herring) or a young athlete without experience (Smith, Brown, Gordon). With the experience at corner and at the strong safety, my money is on the athletes - I like Smith and Brown to duke it out for the starting spot. However, for safeties physical tools aren't as important as work ethic and lack of a self-preservation instinct. (whereas corners require more athleticism over experience) So, this position is hard to predict.
Not wanting to be accused of being too wishy-washy I pick: Sergio Brown

My Prediction:
With a two-time All-American returning, I think that now is the time to get some playing time for a young safety to learn from Zibby's experience. Harrison Smith is highly touted and athletic, but starting may be too much to ask from a true freshman. I think Sergio Brown and Leonard Gordon will be the favorites to start the beginning of the season. However, I expect that under Corwin Brown's attacking scheme, we'll substitute freely to keep our guys fresh throughout the game. Much like the quarterback position, if one of the 3-star junior safeties starts, it doesn't bode well for our season (barring some ridiculous improvement during practice).

What I really like about our defensive secondary positions is the fact that I don't have space to talk up all of the depth we have on this team. Not long ago, guys like Leo Ferrine would be our hope for the future, but now they are duking it out for PT on special teams and the scout team - or changing positions. Any one of these depth guys, however, could play themselves into the mix above. Much of our depth is three star talent, and therefore capable of developing into starter material. What this means for the team is that injuries will hurt, but the dropoff will not be significant. In fact, if in a worst case scenario we lost our four top starters, we'd be as talented as our starters were just two years ago. That's what I call progress.