Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Reboot | by Pat

123 days. That's how long it has been since the last Notre Dame football practice. Today marks the end of our journey through the off-season wilderness and a welcome first step to putting the putrid 2007 season behind us all.

The problem is, the stain of a 3-9 season isn't going to go away overnight. It's going to take plenty of elbow grease and some serious scrubbing. With that in mind, it's going to be tough to get too excited over the various practice reports I know are going to come our way starting today. Don't get me wrong, it's still going to be a fun spring. There are plenty of talented young players and enough open starting spots for some interesting spring position battles. It's just that after a season like the one we just experienced, it's going to be natural to assume that not all is as good as it appears. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, right?

So where does that leave us? Personally, I'm just going to try to sit back and enjoy the fact there is finally some ND football to talk about. It's fun to be just a fan and not get too consumed by either thoughts of worst case scenarios or rationalizations why things are looking up. Sure, I'll probably get swept up at times by sunny practice reports as I'm a hopeless optimist, but I'll try to keep that grain of salt handy.

Now, speaking of talking ND football, let's partake in a little bit of BGS tradition and take a look at five major questions heading into spring ball. What's your take?

1. It all starts up front, right? What about that offensive line?

If the team is going to make a drastic improvement next season, then the offensive line is going to have to lead the way. For that reason, the OL is going to be a whole lot of attention and scrutiny this spring. Four of the five starters are back, but the situation along the line is anything but solid. The line played poorly enough last year that no one's job should be safe. The good news is that ND finally has enough depth along the line to generate legitimate competition for some of the five starting jobs.

Sam Young is still a shoo-in to start along the line somewhere, but it remains to be seen if he'll stick at left tackle or go back to right tackle. The only other sure bet to start is Dan Wenger at center. Returning starters Mike Turkovich, Paul Duncan, and Eric Olsen have a big leg up on the backups thanks to their game experience, but players like Matt Romine, Chris Stewart, Taylor Dever, and even early enrollee Trevor Robinson should push for playing time.

I would expect the returning starters will get first crack at running with the ones this spring, but we should see a fair amount of mixing and matching. Will it be enough to erase last year's sad performance? We won't know that until the fall. This spring though will set the tone and hopefully we'll see signs here and there that this particular unit is shaping up into something dependable.

2. How about our suddenly thin and inexperienced defensive line?

No position has as many questions marks and as shallow a depth as defensive line. In addition to losing star Trevor Laws and Dwight Stephenson, Jr. to graduation, starting nose tackle Pat Kuntz is not enrolled in the University this spring and backup lineman Derrell Hand's football career is over due to injury. That leaves six scholarship defensive linemen for the spring. So who's left? Freshman Ian Williams did an admirable job filling in for Kuntz over the final two games of the season and should only improve as the starting nose tackle. 5th year Justin Brown will likely replace Stephenson at one defensive end spot as they more or less split time there last year.

That leaves one open DE spot and the names contending to start there aren't ones familiar to the casual ND fan. Paddy Mullen, Kallen Wade, Emeka Nwankwo, and Sean Cwynar have a combined 10 minutes of collegiate playing time. Who will rise to the top is anyone's guess. Emeka Nwankwo has been mentioned as a player who was impressive at times while playing on the scout team last fall, but it's a big step up from scout team to starting lineup. Mullen and Wade have been in the program the longest making them the veteran choices. Cwynar has just shown up on campus as an early enrollee so it might be tough for him to beat out the trio of older players. In all likelihood Pat Kuntz will take over the starting DE spot should he return to campus in the fall. But in the interim someone has to start during practice and the field is wide open.

3. Is there any hope in sight for our special teams?

As far as I can tell, there are two sure things about special teams this fall. Eric Maust will be the starting punter and David Bruton and Mike Anello will be the gunners when Maust punts. Other than that, the poor results from last year should result in plenty of open auditions and player competition. The big job to be won is kicker. Freshman Brandon Walker took over the job last year, but will need to straighten out his kicks if he wants to keep the job. He has the leg for it -- he made a 48 yarder against UCLA last year -- but needs to improve his accuracy in a hurry -- he missed his 7 other attempts from 30+ yards. Ryan Burkhart and Nate Whitaker will challenge Walker, but, like Walker, both need to improve their accuracy and consistency if they want to make a serious run at the starting job.

Speaking of kicking, it would be ideal if one of the three kickers could start to get kickoffs even close to being a touchback this spring. Last year ND failed to register a single touchback on kickoffs. Granted the anemic offense meant fewer kickoff chances than normal, but the Irish were still one of a small handful of teams that couldn't put a single kickoff into the endzone.

Another big special teams question mark is which player will replace long time punt returner Tom Zbikowski. George West returned a few in 2006 so he might get another look. Other than him, it could be anyone with some likely candidates being younger players like Darrin Walls, Barry Gallup, or Golden Tate.

Take also likely will get another shot at running back kicks along with classmate Armando Allen, but neither had much of an impact last year. Of course, issues with blocking had plenty to do with that. With plenty of young and fast players, there at least should be a decent pool of blocking candidates from which to pick.

Last but not least, someone will need to replace long snapper J.J. Jansen. It's not a glamorous job or even a position battle that will warrant much media coverage...until snaps start flying over Maust's head.

4. How will the coaching shuffle play out?

Despite only officially changing one assistant coach, there actually has been a fair amount of re-shuffling among the coaching staff since we last saw the Fighting Irish take the field. How will that work this spring? Charlie Weis has sworn he will be more of a head coach this year than offensive coordinator. With no four-way QB race this spring, he shouldn't be too tempted to spend his time focusing on one small part of the team. Coach Haywood on the other hand will have a busy spring not only getting the running back corp ready to go but also working on his new role as primary offensive play caller. The linebackers and defensive backs will have to adjust to new coaches as Coach Tenuta takes over the 'backers while Corwin Brown fills in for the recently retired Bill Lewis as coach of the secondary. Coach Polian has dropped the inside linebacker coaching title and now will focus on special teams 100% of the time, along with his "assistant" Coach Weis. Finally, Coach Powlus will likely take a more pronounced role in the development of the Irish quarterbacks.

The changes aren't major ones for the staff and likely shouldn't be too much of a big deal, but it is still a noticeable change and everyone will have to adjust quickly to their new roles, especially Coach Weis.

5. Who will have a breakout spring?

The perennial question that our inner optimist loves to ponder. More than any type of serious projection, this is just a fun question where we all get to throw out names of players we hope make that leap from backup to starter or starter to star.

The team is full of young, talented players so the list this year is full of possibilities. It could be one of the few freshmen who didn't play last year but have plenty of buzz like cornerback Gary Gray. Or maybe one of their classmates who have already started to make a name for themselves like receiver Duval Kamara, running back Robert Hughes, or linebacker Brian Smith. What about older players like Toryan Smith and Scott Smith who will be battling it out for a recently vacated starting inside linebacker spot or those darkhorse candidates like fullback/tight end? Luke Schmidt, linebacker Steve Quinn, or wide receiver Richard Jackson? How about one of the five players -- Harrison Smith, Ray Herring, Sergio Brown, Jashaad Gaines, Kyle McCarthy -- contending to take over Zibby's strong safety spot? And what about that Jimmy Clausen guy?

We wouldn't really know who the next Irish star is going to be until they finally get out there and play. Luckily for us, that day is today.