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Football Commentary: Let’s see the young Weis hands at work

Ken Fowler | Friday, November 3, 2006

The radio calls of “Quinn to Samardzija” will soon be a fading memory – as will “Quinn to McKnight” and “Abiamiri with the sack.”

The familiar faces and phrases of the past four years have just five games left in their Irish careers. And that means Notre Dame has something more to do in the next few games than just winning – and I’m not talking about style points.

Notre Dame has only two true opportunities to test out its young players who will have to step up next year. In the team’s final home game – this year, Nov. 18 against Army – the reserve seniors usually get their chance to play once the outcome is in hand.

A week later, the Irish face archrival USC, when the outcome will depend on the senior leadership of Brady Quinn and the offensive line.

Translation: don’t expect many young studs to see much action in either game.

That means Saturday against North Carolina and next week at Air Force will be crucial for Notre Dame to start finding some answers to the slew of questions surrounding its first-year players – questions which will surface in full next spring.

Here are a few young reserves who need to get some experience while they can before they’re thrust into the spotlight next season:

Evan Sharpley

Notre Dame’s No. 2 quarterback sat out his freshman year, so he will have up to three years of eligibility remaining after the 2006 season. As far as playing time goes, he has a decent amount. His biggest problem is that he has thrown just one pass – a seven-yard completion in the waning minutes of Notre Dame’s crushing loss to Michigan.

Even if Charlie Weis gives Demetrius Jones, Jimmy Clausen or Zach Frazer the nod as the starting signal caller next season, the Irish need at least one quarterback who has some Division I experience.

George West and

Robby Parris

With the departures of seniors Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija at the end of this season, the Irish recruiting corps will be incredibly thin in 2007.

Only one non-senior wide receiver on Notre Dame’s roster – David Grimes – has ever caught more than one pass. (He has 18.) And the only senior who has a possible fifth year of eligibility is Chase Anastasio, who has a whopping two catches for 30 yards in his career.

Aside from Grimes, freshmen George West and Robby Parris are the only definite returners who have touched the ball on offense. But West’s only attempt was a 19-yard end-around run for a touchdown, and Parris has just one catch for seven yards.

Weis must get West and Parris deeply involved in the receiving mix immediately. With a first-year quarterback in 2007, the Irish will need at least some receivers who have experience making plays and adjusting to balls in the air. If nothing else, it’s critical to play these two when Sharpley is on the field for timing purposes if Sharpley starts in 2007.

James Aldridge and

Munir Prince

Weis should experiment with freshmen running backs James Aldridge and Munir Prince in the backfield at the same time. The Irish should not – and will not – be able to keep two top-10 running back recruits off the field over the next three years. Both have lost any possibility of redshirting this year, so the best option for Weis would be to see how much of a hard time he can give defenses by using a blazing runner (Prince) and a pounding back (Aldridge) in a pro-set offense.

Prince saw a fair amount of playing time in the second quarter against Stanford, but Aldridge’s action has been limited to late-game situations in routs of Stanford and Navy. Darius Walker should stay the No. 1 back, but it’s time to give these guys a chance for the sake of the future.

John Ryan and

Morrice Richardson

Freshman defensive ends John Ryan and Morrice Richardson are the likely replacements for Irish seniors Victor Abiamiri and Chris Frome at defensive end, and both have seen some playing time this year. Ryan has played in six games, while Richardson has seen action in five.

Both need to get early-game action to face fresh offensive tackles that have an easier time stopping the pass rush than they do later in games – when Ryan and Richardson have played most.

The learning curve for these two has accelerated since Ronald Talley left the team after Notre Dame’s 31-10 win over Stanford Oct. 7. Both Ryan and Richardson have tremendous upsides, but it will take time in game situations for them to realize it.

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With all these questions for next year, Weis would be right to focus on playing the younger guys rather than keeping starters on the field for style points.

And if he lets Evan Sharpley air it out for a few possessions with Aldridge, Prince, Parris and West on the field, who’s to say the Irish won’t put up big numbers?

Just remember, it’s not running up the score if your backups pound their starters.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Ken Fowler at kfowler1@nd.edu