Thursday, March 27, 2008

Spring Practice: First Report

While many of you, my loyal readers, have watched the too-brief spring praactice video on, here's what little I could garner from my first taste of Notre Dame football in far too long:

David Bruton is an All-American. I know, it's a bit premature to say such things after watching a couple of agility drills on a grainy practice video. But between the coaches talking about him, what I saw from him last season, the reports on his offseason conditioning, and my own two eyes, there is much to get excited about. Remember, even a 3-9 season produced the man-beast that is Trevor Laws. All signs point to Bruton having the biggest breakout season next year. His fluidity and speed in the agility drills was impressive.

Darrin Walls is fast. Okay, so we already knew that, but it's another thing entirely to see him smoking the other talented and speedy players in the defensive secondary drills. Gary Gray looks to be a close second in terms of pure speed. Both were also very fluid in their footwork.

James Aldridge looks like the James Aldridge we all expected him to be. He is ripped, and actually looks to have picked up some speed in the offseason. On the drills, he looked to have similar acceleration (not speed - acceleration...) as Armando Allen.

Jimmy Clausen is starting to look like a QB. Last year, Clausen had great mechanics, but always looked like the scrawny kid trying to play with his big brothers on the field. Now, he looks to be stronger and (hopefully) more durable.

All of the linemen have bulked up. Last year, when I watched the O-line practices, Sam Young and Chris Stewart stood out like sore thumbs because of their sheer size. I had to look at numbers to place everyone on the line in this video. And that's impressive for the other guys on the line, considering that Sam put on nearly 40 pounds.
Consider these differences in weights since last year's Blue-Gold game:

Name2007 Blue Gold Weight2008 Pre-Spring WeightGain
Dan Wenger282 lbs.300 lbs.+ 18 lbs.
Thoma Bemenderfer285 lbs.300 lbs.+ 15 lbs.
Paul Duncan291 lbs.308 lbs.+ 17 lbs.
Sam Young315 lbs.330 lbs.+ 15 lbs.

Only Eric Olsen and Mike Turkovich had minimal weight gains (3 and 2 pounds, respectively).

The wide receivers have good hands. That's about all I could get from the drill they were running in the video. Hopefully there is something more substantial to look at in the future.

That's all for Practice 1.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Looking ahead to Spring Practice

I still have a feew movies to watch to judge the baseball films, but I'm working on it.

I've read some reports over the past week that Jimmy Clausen has gained 17 pounds since last season, and that Sam Young has put on over 30 pounds of muscle. If true, these increases in strength should provide some hope for improvement on offense, assuming some other members of the team have had similar gains.

Actually, looking forward to this year I have a lot of optimism that I didn't think I'd have, considering the continued youth of the team. However, I've said time and time and time again that junior year is usually the breakout year for player development. And when I look at the list of rising juniors, I'm very encouraged.

James Aldridge was a 5-star running back when he was signed, but was hobbled by an injury and never seemed to perform up to his potential in the first two years. However, a healthy offseason of conditioning and another year in the system makes me think that, despite the promise of Allen and Hughes, that Aldridge is the man to watch in the Notre Dame backfield this year.

Richard Jackson was a 4-star receiver that looks and runs so much like a prototypical receiver at 6'2". But, Jackson never seemed to make a big impact in his first two years, and most people have all but forgotten about him. He is another player to watch closely this spring for signs of a breakout year. I've loved everything I've seen from him physically in practice, but he never seemed to get the mental aspect of route running. Watch this guy VERY closely...

Robby Parris and George West have a lot of potential, and have actually demonstrated some ability to back it up on the field. If this group makes the leap that so many juniors do in route running and awareness, this could be a very dangerous and scary deep position for the Irish this year - the competition should be fierce up and down the receiving corps.

Toryan Smith is an inside linebacker that has been riding the bench for much of his career, despite having the prototypical skills for a dominant inside linebacker. It seems like the Irish always have a linebacker waiting in the wings for their turn to shine, and Smith seems poised to be that player. Brockington has shown consistency, but none of that breakout potential.

Sam Young is a 5-star prospect preparing to enter his third year as a starter, and will likely be the rock that this new line will be built upon. Of all of the rising juniors, this is the one I'm most excited about. Offensive line, as I've said before, relies more than any other position on physical development. His added 30 pounds have filled out his frame to go with his natural ability, and he can finally be the road grader we need to anchor this line.

Dan Wenger is poised to take over for departing fifth year senior John Sullivan - a sure sign that the development cycle for linemen is starting to come together. Weis raved about his effort and motor all last year, when he was cross training at guard and center. With him likely moving into the spot as the #1 center, he should be able to focus all of that drive on being a rock on the line.

Eric Olsen, Matt Carufel, and Chris Stewart may not have the standout potential of Wenger and Young, but they are all entering their junior years, giving us a solid front line of junior linemen that may be able to gel this year - with a couple of seniors ahead of them, we can finally put together an entire offensive line of upperclassmen, without being forced to dip into the young'uns.

Ryan Burkhart has been horribly inconsistent in his career. Although kickers don't need the physical development that other positions need to be successful, their mental development, discipline and maturity are required for success. Remember our last good kicker, D.J. Fitzpatrick? He had ONE punt in his career before his junior year. Nick Setta broke out as a junior, despite getting the nod as a sophomore. Only Hentrich was outstanding as an underclassman. I'm really hoping I'm right on this one...

Luke Schmidt might be able to push the strong yet thus far ineffective Schwapp, creating some competition that could give us a reliable short down and distance, goal line threat.

Paddy Mullen and Kallen Wade are the biggest keys to our success this year. Our lack of depth on the defensive line has been well documented, and if these two can step up their game to the next level, we could get some much needed insurance if one of our top linemen go down. With the timing of their development, I wouldn't be surprised either or both to perhaps even push Hand and Williams for a starting position. (Nobody's going to displace that crazy son of a bitch Kuntz)

This year's juniors are Weis' first full class, and they were the kids that, at the time, had us all believing that we had found our savior in Coach Weis, and that he would lead us to the promised land. They were our first top 10 class in a long, long time - finishing four spots ahead in Rivals rankings than the 2003 class featuring the following record setters, professional athletes and overall standouts: Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, Vic Abiamiri, John Carlson, Ryan Harris, Trevor Laws, John Sullivan, Tommy Zbikowski, and Chinedum Ndukwe.

That 2003 class gave us the boost we needed to right the ship and stop the bleeding in Weis' first year - their junior year.

Consider where those future stars were going into that season:
Brady Quinn: Two year starter that had done well, but hadn't done anything to be remembered for.
Jeff Samardzija: Hadn't started a game until the Oregon State bowl loss, with only a handful of catches in his career.
Vic Abiamiri: Had a disappointing sophomore year after exploding onto the scene as a freshman, logging only 15 total tackles.
John Carlson: Six catches for 31 yards as a sophomore, seeing only spot time to relieve Fasano.
Ryan Harris: Okay, so Harris was a freak of nature, and was already dominant going into his junior year, his third year starting.
Trevor Laws: 17 total tackles, 2 for loss - never started a game.
John Sullivan: Had his first year as a starter his sophomore year, but really broke out his junior year.
Tommy Zbikowski: Started his sophomore year as a strong safety. Hadn't yet returned a punt...
Chinedum Ndukwe: Had just moved from receiver to safety, and only played on special teams.

With a couple of exceptions, these NFL-caliber athletes broke out in their junior year, paving the way for Notre Dame's improbable run to the Fiesta Bowl in Weis' first year.

Sure, there are plenty of question marks going into the season - but the more I look at the player development required to create a championship caliber team, the more I think that this is the year we turn the corner.