Chris Khorey | Friday, August 24, 2007
“Tradition never graduates.”That’s the mantra for Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis this season, after his team lost 12 starters from last year’s 10-3 squad.Gone are quarterback Brady Quinn, holder of more than 30 school records, running back Darius Walker, who ran for over 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons, and the two most prolific receivers in Notre Dame history statistically – Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight – as well as three lineman on each side of the ball, two defensive backs and the placekicker.But for Weis, who refuses to say the word “rebuilding,” the 2007 team will be expected to perform at least as well as the previous one.”May God strike me dead if I use that word. I’ll never use that word. You use it, I’m not using it,” Weis said when his team arrived for fall camp Aug. 6. “You know, I have nine fifth-year seniors that came back for another year. Don’t you think I owe it to them to try to win this year? I think I have an ethical responsibility to all those nine guys that came back. They all graduated; it isn’t like they’re coming back to graduate. They all graduated. They all came back to win this year. I owe it to those nine guys to try to win now.”
Offensive positions up for grabsWith so many starters departing, nearly every position on the field is open for competition.The most important starting race is at quarterback, where Quinn’s departure leaves the Irish with three quarterbacks who have thrown a combined total of two collegiate passes.Junior Evan Sharpley is the veteran of the group, having thrown both of those passes and having been Quinn’s backup in 2006. Sophomore Demetrius Jones, the most versatile of the three, brings on added dimension with his speed. He had a 31-yard run in the spring game and threw the contest’s only touchdown pass, but he also threw an interception.Freshman Jimmy Clausen, who enrolled in January and was the No. 1 high school quarterback in the nation, throws the best out of the three but had a procedure on his elbow over the summer. Still, Weis said he would be ready to start the opener against Georgia Tech on Sept. 1 if he earned the job.”The best thing about the competition is that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses,” Jones said. “The head coach’s job is do decide whose strengths we can best take advantage of.”To catch passes from the three signal callers, the Irish have a mix and experience and inexperience.The good news for Notre Dame is that fifth-year senior tight end John Carlson is back after catching 47 passes for 634 yards and four touchdowns in 2006 despite missing two games with an injury. Junior wide receiver David Grimes also returns after catching 26 passes for 336 yards and 2 touchdowns as Notre Dame’s third wide out last year.But after those two, the returning players have just three catches for 21 yards between them. A host of wide receivers, including junior D. J. Hord, sophomores George West, Richard Jackson, Robby Parris and Barry Gallup, and freshmen Golden Tate and Duval Kamara, are all looking to get on the field this season. Weis has said West has the edge as the No. 2 receiver, but only by a small margin.At running back, five players are competing for playing time.Fifth-year senior Travis Thomas, who spent his first three years as a running back and was a starting linebacker last season, probably will start against Georgia Tech. He had 13 rushes for 78 yards and two touchdowns in limited offensive attempts last season. In 2005, backing up Walker, he ran 63 times for 248 yards and five touchdowns.The only other back with experience is sophomore James Aldridge, who rushed for 142 yards on 37 carries as a reserve last season. Senior Junior Jabbie, a converted defensive back, rushed for 87 yards on 13 carries in the spring game and earned offensive MVP honors.Freshman Robert Hughes is a bruising back, and his classmate Armando Allen might be the fastest of the five.Although he is the presumptive starter, Thomas said he expects plenty of carries for the younger backs.”It could be a rotation,” he said. “I don’t really know how it’s going to work out.”Junior Asaph Schwapp is back at fullback after missing the last nine games of 2006 with an injury. At 261 pounds, he is a physical force as a lead blocker, but he has only averaged 2.5 yards per carry thus far in his career.The offensive line will be anchored by two returning starters – fifth-year senior John Sullivan at center and sophomore Sam Young at right tackle. Junior Paul Duncan appears to have locked down the left tackle position, but both guard spots are more uncertain, with junior Mike Turkovich and sophomores Dan Wenger, Eric Olsen and Matt Carufel competing for starting positions.
Defense sees a complete overhaulAfter allowing 24.1 points per game over the last two seasons under coordinators Rick Minter, Notre Dame’s defensive corps will turn to former New York Jets assistant Corwin Brown to try to shed its sieve-like reputation.Brown, who was the defensive backs coach for the Jets for three seasons and before that was an assistant at Virginia under head coach Al Groh, brings something close to what is known as a “3-4″ defense. The formation, which features three down linemen and four linebackers, is rare in college football and is designed to create maximum confusion with blitzers from all angles. Brown will direct a 3-4 personnel package, where the defense can alternate the amount of linemen from three to four – or even other amounts – with the same players on the field.But the Irish defensive line has just one player with significant experience.Fifth-year senior Trevor Laws, the only returning starter on the line, will be the anchor of the group, moving from defensive tackle, where he made 62 tackles last year, to defensive end in the 3-4 scheme.At the other end spot, fifth-year senior Dwight Stephenson and senior Justin Brown are competing to start. While the two combine for just 19 career tackles, Weis said, coaches are impressed with Brown’s tenacity and work ethic.”He’s probably the most pleasant surprise on the entire team,” Weis said of the senior. “His motor has really impressed me most. It’s very encouraging. He’s been a pain in the butt to block.”At nose guard, a key position in the 3-4, Irish coaches appear to have settled on junior Pat Kuntz as the starter. Kuntz is known for his hard work on the field but is undersized at 285 pounds. Freshman Ian Williams, listed at 300 pounds, may also see playing time.Senior Maurice Crum returns at inside linebacker after leading the team with 100 tackles in 2006 as an undersized middle linebacker. Crum has added 15 pounds since last fall and will fit in better as one of two inside linebackers in Brown’s defensive scheme. Next to him in the middle will be a rotation of fifth-year senior Joe Brockington, who started at the tail end of 2006, and sophomore Toryan Smith, who was highly regarded out of high school and made nine tackles in mop-up duty.In Brown’s scheme, the outside linebacker position will be different from that of years past. Under Minter, outside linebackers were smaller and relied on more in pass coverage. In the 3-4, outside linebackers play close to the line of scrimmage and need to be bigger and more physical.With that in mind, Irish coaches converted former defensive end sophomore John Ryan to outside linebacker, and the sophomore is expected to hold down one starting spot.On the other side, fifth-year senior Anthony Vernaglia and junior Scott Smith are competing for playing time. Vernaglia began last season as a starter, but was supplanted by Brockington midway through the year.The secondary is Notre Dame’s most experienced position, with senior Terrail Lambert and fifth-year senior Tom Zbikowski back at cornerback and strong safety, respectively. Junior David Bruton is expected to start in the other safety spot. Bruton was a special teams standout for the Irish last year and returned an interception for a touchdown in the spring game.Cornerback Ambrose Wooden, who has been a starter for much of the last two years, also returns.
A three-way kicking contestWhile fifth-year senior punter Geoff Price returns after averaging 45.4 yards per kick last season, Notre Dame’s starting place-kicker job is still up for grabs after the graduation of Carl Gioia.Sophomores Ryan Burkhart and Nate Whitaker and freshman Brandon Walker may all see the field this year. Weis has said that one might win the kickoff job while another handles extra points and field goals
An early season gauntletThe Irish open the season with eight tough games, including road trips to No. 5 Michigan, No. 14 UCLA and No. 17 Penn State. They also welcome No. 1 USC to Notre Dame Stadium in October.After the contest with the Trojans, the schedule gets easier, with service academies Navy and Air Force along with Duke and Stanford, two teams that went a combined 1-23 last season.Weis said with Notre Dame’s inexperience, he will be prepared to change game plans on the fly if a game isn’t going well.”This year’s going to be different than the first two years,” he said. “You have to be ready to adjust because the last thing you want to do as a coach is go in with one thing in mind and have that not work.”But Weis said he still expects plenty of victories this year.”I’m very confident in the team,” he said.