Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Notre Dame Football Preview
Part II

Rounding out the offense...

Wide Receiver

Spotlight: Rhema McKnight

Also Returning: Chase Anastasio, Brandon Erickson, David Grimes, Nick Possley, Jeff Samardzija
Lost: Brandon Harris, Michael O'Hara, Matt Shelton, Rob Woods (graduation), DJ Hord (knee - out for season)
Gained: Darrin Bragg, Craig Cardillo (position changes), David Costanzo, Kris Patterson, Jake Richardville (walk ons?), Barry Gallup, Jr., Richard Jackson, Robby Parris, George West

Pop quiz: Who were the starting receivers for Notre Dame's opener at Pittsburgh last year? That's a bit of a trick question, as Jeff Samardzija, supposedly the #3 receiver at the time, was the lone wideout in a three tight end set. This year Samardzija is unquestionably the #1 receiver (assuming Charlie Weis' team-oriented offense even uses that terminology), but he will need help. A lazy opposing defensive coordinator may be content in simply double teaming Samardzija in key situations. If that is the case, it will be Rhema McKnight's time to shine. McKnight led the Irish in receptions in both 2003 and 2004, and he showed the ability to get open on third down. Now, if he can get first downs by catching the ball three yards short of the marker and scrambling, imagine what he can do on routes that actually take him past the first down line.
Last year, Brady Quinn had two 6'5" receivers, which allowed him to occasionally forgo precision and simply toss the ball above a defensive back. This year, Quinn will be presented with a combination of styles. In addition to the 6'5" Samardzija, the 6'2" McKnight (no shrimp in his own right) has the ability to make people miss. The #3 spot appears to be going to the speedy David Grimes, who got token playing time with the offense last year.
After Grimes comes a big question mark. The man who would be #4 receiver this year - DJ Hord - is out for the season with a knee injury. Chase Anastasio has playing time experience, but it's almost exclusively on special teams. Converted quarterback Darrin Bragg could be an interesting option. Of course, Coach Weis could also choose to plug any member of his talented quartet of freshmen receivers, much like he did with Grimes last season.
(In case you're curious, the first play against Pitt was a playaction rollout pass intended for Samardzija that turned into a seven yard scramble by Quinn. Looking back at the play, I'm wondering if Weis called that play to get Quinn started off on a confident note. The playaction and rollout are designed to give the quarterback time. Dragging a receiver in front of the quarterback is about the easiest pass to make, and the play was designed for Samardzija, who played like Quinn's favorite receiver/security blanket over the previous two seasons.)

Tight End

Spotlight: John Carlson

Courtesy AP/Paul Sakuma
Also Returning: Marcus Freeman, Mike Talerico
Lost: Anthony Fasano, Tim Grizman (graduation), Joey Hiben (left team to focus on academics at ND)
Gained: Michael Planalp (walkon?), Kevin Brooks, Konrad Reuland, Will Yeatman (freshmen)

It will be interesting to see how Charlie Weis deals with the loss of Anthony Fasano. Will we see more multi-receiver sets? Perhaps, but after McKnight and Samardzija, the receivers are less experienced that John Carlson and Marcus Freeman. With neither a receiving star, will Weis use both at the same time to spread out the defense? Or will he use a two back pro set, keeping one running back in for blitz pickup while the other goes out as a checkdown option? Knowing Coach Weis, the correct answer may just be "all of the above, and then some."
The spotlight at tight end may fall on both Carlson and Freeman this year - I just couldn't find a picture of Freeman on short notice. Carlson is said to be faster than Fasano, meaning Carlson could turn into more of a downfield threat. In the right situations, running Carlson deep leaves the short middle wide open. That leads to a wide variety of options, including short passes to a McKnight, Grimes, or Walker that would allow them to play in the open field. Freeman is said to be a great blocker. But, he had his share of catches in the Ty Willingham era, so his ability as an offensive threat should not be ignored.
After Carlson and Freeman, Notre Dame will have to rely on at least one of two talented freshmen in Konrad Reuland and Will Yeatman. There is a possibility that sophomore walkon Mike Talerico could be used for blocking if the formation deems it, but I don't see him pulling down any catches this year.

Offensive Line

Spotlight: Bob Morton

Also Returning: Paul Duncan, Ryan Harris, Brian Mattes, Dan Santucci, John Sullivan, Michael Turkovich
John Sullivan, Bob Morton, Dan Santucci, Brian Mattes
Lost: James Bent, James Bonelli, David Fitzgerald, Dan Hickey, JJ Jansen, Mark LeVoir, Scott Raridon, Dan Stevenson (graduation), Chauncey Incarnato (transfer to Indiana)
Gained: Dan Chervanik (position change), Jeff Tisak (DNP as freshman), Matt Carufel, Eric Olsen, Chris Stewart, Bartley Webb, Dan Wenger, Sam Young (freshmen)

Bob Morton may not be the type of person to carry a chip on his shoulder, but few can blame him if he does. After being a regular starter two years ago, Morton was reduced to a platoon player last year. This year he rejoins the starting lineup as right guard.
Over the last few years, I've hit on the fact that the offensive line seems to progress as a group: five guys start together as freshmen and sophomores, slowly get better as they gain experience, then graduate as a unit. Finally it seems that that trend is starting to break. Notre Dame
The Notre Dame offensive line has followed a familiar cycle over the past few years: A new line would come in, grow and gain experience, then graduate as a unit. Then, five new, inexperienced guys would have to step into the starting lineup and suffer the same growing pains before growing together into a cohesive, experienced unit. Hopefully, that trend is coming to an end. The Irish only lost two starters on the line, Dan Stevenson and Mark LeVoir, and one will be replaced by the experienced Morton. That leaves only the right tackle spot, which may go to veteran backup Brian Mattes.
But did I speak too soon? The five projected starters are all seniors and fifth years, so did my offensive line pattern just skip a year? That may be the case, but Irish fans don't seem to be too worried. Charlie Weis stocked his reserves with no less than six offensive linemen among this year's incoming freshman. Some may even see playing time this year. That, and the fact that all six come in highly praised, may help counteract the "young inexperienced" years set to come in 2007 and 2008.