Saturday, August 09, 2008

Media Day and Fall Practice

Finally, some meat to chew on as we move into the 2008 football season. With the start of fall practice, we have practice clips, player interviews, and (my favorite) Coach Weis press conferences.

Coach Weis Press Conference Notes

The first thing that jumped off the page when reading Coach Weis' press conference was this tidbit:

All three of the [running backs] that are in contention all raised their bench press 100 pounds from last year to this year.

Weis called that a "significant upgrade in strength." I call it downright astounding. If their strength gains in other areas are similarly impressive, we should see more powerful running this year. The player this is most likely to help is Armando Allen, who often appeared to lack the necessary strength to fight through arm tackles last year, costing him the opportunity to break some big runs. He's also listed as the primary kick and punt returner, where speed is paramount, but being able to shrug off arm and shoestring tackles can make a huge difference.

Another note comes off of the offensive line. I commented in an earlier post that I saw Chris Stewart, and he looks like he is in amazing shape compared to last year. In the weigh-in, Stewart actually dropped below Sam Young in total weight, at only 329 pounds. All of the linemen are over 300 pounds, and the increases in size and strength should translate into overall improved play. Size and strength won't correct missed assignments, but it should reduce the number of times that players just get beaten by their opponents, and also should provide a fraction of a second more when they do get their hands on a blitzing opponent. And if you ask a QB, fractions of a second can mean the difference between a completion and a sack.

David Bruton is still in freakishly good shape, and is adding strength despite already being in peak physical shape.

There are no injuries to speak of going into camp, which is a huge difference from last year and even earlier this spring. Only a minor hamstring pull on Will Yeatman was reported as an injury. Undoubtedly, there will be injuries as training camp progresses (there almost always are, we lost Gary Gray last year in training camp), but the lack of injuries going in means that the attrition should be much lower. Also, it means that there aren't any players (like Clausen last year) whose progress may be hindered by an injury or limited practice time. Also (no surprise) there are no academic casualties. Only Darrin Walls' absence from the team is notable as losses go.

Pat Kuntz is listed as a defensive end, not a defensive tackle, on the depth chart. At first, I was surprised, considering the lack of depth inside. But then, I thought that Laws should have been kept inside last year, which shows how much I know. Kuntz is similar to Laws as far as playing style (except that Kuntz is rabid dog crazy). This leaves Ian Williams and Paddy Mullen inside, with freshman Brandon Newman pushing into the rotation as well. They set a 600 pound standard for DT's in the squat, and even the freshman hit that mark. Weis did mention that Kuntz has position flexibility, so we may see him move around on the D-line, depending on how other players develop.

Weis exuded confidence about the all-around depth on the team, with the lone exception of the defensive line, which bodes well for the end of the season. Many recent Notre Dame teams have sputtered down the stretch, which can be partly attributed to the lack of depth at key positions, especially along the offensive line.

Weis - Aug. 9 Presser

Weis' first media session gave us the opportunity to get Weis' impressions of the players now that he's seen them on the field during practice.

He likes the talent at the running back position across the board, which is a good sign. Despite the fact that he is in great shape, all signs point to Jonas Gray sitting out this season while the three headed monster battles it out through camp and into the season. There's no sense in burning eligibility when you have that much quality depth at the position.

He also pointed out Ethan Johnson, as a player that impressed in the first practice, although he said that there are several freshman that looked good. We'll have to wait until the freshman get some reps with the first teamers to know how good they really are.

Kyle Rudolph is still growing, and has put on 40 pounds since his recruitment, and has plenty of room to grow on his frame.

Kamara needs to drop weight, but has looked good in practice despite the extra weight. Weis also singled out Kamara and Grimes as players that have shown really good hands in practice.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Things to Watch: Fall Camp Edition

With fall camp starting today, I thought I'd take a couple of minutes to outline the story lines to watch over fall camp this year. For those of you in or around the South Bend area, there is an open practice on Sunday afternoon at the stadium, and you can come and see for yourself. I'm not sure yet whether I'll be going to the open practice (sacrilege, I know), as I may instead be headed to the beach with a hot brunette.

Freshman to Watch
Fall practice is always spotlight on the freshman making their first appearance. There are a handful from this class that are worth keeping your eye on:

Michael Floyd, WR Floyd was the jewel of last year's class - the staff's top target and the most potential for an early impact. Floyd still needs to work on some fundamentals (see below), but he has the raw talent to make an immediate impact (ala Arrelious Benn for Illinois).

Dayne Crist, QB A bit of a surprise, right on the heels of Clausen's high profile commitment last year, Crist committed despite being a clear backup walking in the door. His confidence and swagger are as impressive as his size (nearly as large as TE recruit Kyle Rudolph), strength and accuracy. He will be battling Sharpley for the backup spot. Not sure if he can absorb enough of the playbook quickly enough to make an impact this year (he'll likely 'redshirt'), but his development should be watched with great anticipation.

Kyle Rudolph, TE A complete package tight end, with that rare combination of size, strength, speed and hands that make him a great blocker as well as a great receiver, Rudolph could make an impact sooner rather than later. He has some talent ahead of him on the depth chart, with Mike Ragone and the recently reinstated Will Yeatman having the advantage of experience on Rudolph. However, with so few tight ends on the roster (Mullen moved to DT, Reuland transferred), Rudolph could see early work in goalline/3 TE sets.

Brandon Newman, Sean Cwynar, and Hafis Williams With the lack of depth on the D-line, these three kids should have ample opportunity to play themselves into the rotation. Newman is the most likely to see early playing time, if he shows up to camp in shape, as he already has the size to compete. Cwynar and Williams both need 15-20 pounds of bulk to be truly competitive.

Offensive Line Development
There has been much talk in the offseason about the offensive line. Reports out of spring and summer have shown that the entire offensive line has bulked up, and I can tell you from first hand knowledge that these guys look ripped. I ran into Chris Stewart on campus a couple of weeks ago, and he looks night and day from when he came to campus - he looks like he could rip trees out of the ground.

Wide Receiver route running
We know David Grimes has excellent route running and footwork, but the rest of the receiving corps last year leaned more on their innate physical ability than the fundamentals of good route runnning. With Grimes returning to lead this group, I would look for cleaner route running, especially from the youngsters Kamara and Tate.

Defensive Line Depth
Pat Kuntz is out of his damn mind, always has been, and I expect nothing less than everything he has on every play. Ian Williams showed promise last season as a true freshman. Behind those two, there isn't much to get excited about on the D-line so far. Paddy Mullen is working into the position, and the freshmen likely need some time to work into playing shape.

Backup QB Derby
Evan Sharpley rolls into summer as the solid backup to Clausen, but he spent most of his time on baseball this spring, and may have some lingering resentment about not being given a chance to compete with Clausen this offseason. With highly touted true frosh Dayne Crist coming in, the backup battle could get ugly. Either way, I just want to see signs that there will not be a major dropoff if Clausen goes down.

Middle Linebacker
Mo Crum has locked down one of the inside linebacker spots, but the other MLB is still up in the air. Last year, it was hoped that Toryan Smith would take that spot, but now there have been rumors that we are moving Brian Smith inside, rather than leaving him outside where he had some success last year. There are a lot of players in the mix in the linebacker position, and the flexibility of the OLB/DE position complicates things even more. Hopefully, someone steps up and embraces the inside linebacker position and makes it their own.

I'm starting to feel like a broken record, but hopefully this year we can find a dependable place kicker so we don't have a repeat of last year's Navy game. (YOU KICK THE BALL TO TRY TO WIN THE GAME!!!)

There won't be much opportunity to garner much information about Haywood's playcalling or the Tenuta/Brown combo during practice, as all of the wrinkles will be kept under wraps until SDSU, if not Michigan.