Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Notre Dame Football 2007
Issue 1: Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech Rush Offense vs. ND Rush Defense

22 Tashard Choice returns as Tech's starter, after averaging 105 yards on approximately 20 carries per game in 2006. Choice also had 12 rushing TDs in 14 contests. With the departure of Reggie Ball and Calvin Johnson, Choice is arguably the centerpiece of this offense. He'll be aided by an offensive line that returns four starters. 20 Jamaal Evans and 3 Rashaun Grant return as Choice's backups, after each averaging about 3 carries per game in 2006. Fullback Mike Cox is an excellent blocker, but did not have a single carry last year.
If offensive linemen age like fine wine, Georgia Tech has a great set of blockers. The four returners are either true or redshirt seniors, and the new man is a redshirt junior. That will be an interesting challenge to Notre Dame, who will be debuting their 34 look. 98 Trevor Laws will continue to play like he always has. Some are trying to compare undersized NT Pat Kuntz to Chris Zorich, but first they should see if he can replicate Derek Landri's success from last year. 57 Dwight Stephenson and 94 Justin Brown are both hungry to prove that they deserve a starting end spot, just like 49 Toryan Smith and 52 Joe Brockington are hungry to show they deserve to start on the inside next to 40 Maurice Crum.

ND Rush Offense vs. Georgia Tech Rush Defense

To say Notre Dame has depth at running back this year is an understatement. To say they have experience, on the other hand, is another story. 26 Travis Thomas will be on offense full time once again, and begins the year as the starter. Thomas had 13 carries for 81 yards last year, including a 43 yard pickup on a fake punt. Three people are listed as Thomas' backup, 34 James Aldridge, who averaged 3.8 yards per carry last year; speedy freshman 5 Armando Allen; and the veteran 37 Junior Jabbie. Fullback Asaph Schwapp is back from an injury; he carried the ball 4 times in two games, averaging 3.8 YPC. He'll be backed up by sophomore Luke Schmidt.
Despite Georgia Tech's reputation for blitzing, offenses still averaged 104 rushing yards per game against the Jackets last year. Defensive end 42 Adamm Oliver had 11 tackles for a loss last season, and 70 stops overall.

Georgia Tech Pass Offense vs. ND Pass Defense

13 Taylor Bennett has been praised for his talent, and perhaps some of that praise has come from being directly compared to Reggie Ball. However, Bennett is a bit short on experience. Saturday will be his third career start. Bennett no longer has the benefit of Calvin Johnson, but he does have 89 James Johnson returning. James averaged 3 catches and 43 yards per game in 2006, and did have 7 total touchdown catches. Tashard Choice was the Jackets third leading receiver behind Johnson & Johnson, averaging a reception and 7 yards per game. After that, no returning player averaged more than one catch per game in 2006.
This is a matchup to watch. A veteran offensive line, but inexperienced receivers and quarterback, against a defense that hasn't been able to shut down the pass in a few years. On paper, Notre Dame's secondary looks more promising than it has in a while. Then again, the games aren't played on paper. 9 Tom Zbikowski returns for a fifth year after a disappointing 2006. He'll be joined by 27 David Bruton at safety. The starting cornerback positions were hard earned. 20 Terrail Lambert won his spot with his 2006 showing; 2 Darrin Walls won the other spot with his raw talent and showing in practice. 22 Ambrose Wooden, expected to retain his starting job from 2005 and 2006, will instead have to settle for steady work in nickel and dime packages. Up front, 90 John Ryan will be the pass rushing outside linebacker, backed up by 53 Morrice Richardson. On the other side, 54 Anthony Vernaglia won a starting OLB spot with his coverage skills.

ND Pass Offense vs. Georgia Tech Pass Defense

Who will it be? 13 Evan Sharpley has the experience. But rumors favoring 3 Demetrius Jones have popped up everywhere from NDNation to Facebook to wedding receptions. Whoever is starting will have to deal with the loss of ND's top three receivers in terms of catches. They will, however, have a big target in 89 John Carlson returning. Last year, Carlson averaged 4 catches and 58 yards per game. The receiving corps have been dubbed "The Smurfs," as most are on the short side of 6'0. Papa Smurf is 11 David Grimes, who averaged 2 catches and 28 yards per game in 2006. He did a good job as a tertiary option, but how will he fare as a secondary or primary option in this offense? Across from Grimes will be 19 George West, who last year had only one more catch (2) than carry (1). The backups are a talented but green bunch. 1 DJ Hord is trying to prove himself after losing 2006 to an injury; he reportedly hasn't dropped much of anything in practice. 82 Robby Parris had one catch last year, and he'll look to top that in the opener, given the chance.
Irish fans may may remember MLB 41 Philip Wheeler as the human torpedo who liked to lead with his helmet. But Wheeler was also Georgia Tech's sack master with 9, and 14.5 TFL overall. The Yellow jackets recorded 13 interceptions last year, and 9 of those came from players returning to the secondary in 2007, in the form of safeties 23 Djay Jones (4) and 4 Jamal Lewis (3) and corner 2 Kenny Scott (2).

Special Teams

Travis Bell is back for his third year as Tech's kicker. Bell made 12 of 18 field goals in 2006, including 10 of 12 from inside 40 yards. Notre Dame's place kicker is still to be determined, but it won't be 39 Ryan Burkhart. Burkhart failed to crack the two deep, but walk-on 35 Nate Whitaker and freshman 14 Brandon Walker
Tech also returns punter 39 Durant Brooks, who averaged 45.5 per punt in 2006, with a long of 63. That's only slightly better than 17 Geoff Price's 45.5 yards per last year. This will truly be a game of field position.
Rashaun Grant and Jamaal Evans return as Tech's kick returners, after averaging 16.2 and 22.8 yards per return, respectively, in 2006.
If and when Notre Dame receives the opening kick of 2007, a highly-touted freshman will be the first member of the blue and gold to touch the ball. Armando Allen and 23 Golden Tate are listed as Notre Dame's kick returners to start the game. If either falter, Darrin Walls and George West are waiting in the wings.
43 Tyler Evans was Tech's best punt returner in terms of yards per return last year, at 9.6. For this, Evans was rewarded primary punt return duties this year.
Tom Zbikowski is back for his third year as a punt returner. After averaging 14 yards per return in 14, Zibby had a pedestrian 9 yards per last year. He also had a 52-yard touchdown.

Look for a big game from Carlson, the O-Line, Crum, and Zbikowski.

ND 23, Georgia Tech 17: Aldrige plunges in, Grimes finds the end zone, one of the returners break one, and the placekicker makes up for a missed PAT with an easy field goal.