by John Vannie
The first half of the season is history and it’s time for performance evaluations.
Quarterback – B
Brady Quinn has performed admirably despite a few uncharacteristically horrific moments. Many folks jumped off his Heisman bandwagon when he misfired a few times against Georgia Tech, turned the ball over to Michigan and threw an INT/ touchdown to Michigan State before turning things around in that game. Still, Quinn has hit on 63% of his passes and has 16 touchdowns against four interceptions against some very good teams. The bottom line for this season for him and the entire team will come down to the showdown at USC, whom Quinn has never beaten.
Running Back – B+
Darius Walker has done a terrific job of catching the ball out of the backfield, and recently has put up some impressive rushing numbers as Notre Dame moves into the weaker portion of its schedule. Walker is also called upon to block blitzing linebackers, which he does at a high rate of success despite his diminutive frame. The team needs to develop a change of pace back with more speed to complement Walker and absorb a share of the punishment. It finally appears that Coach Charlie Weis is taking the wraps off Munir Prince and James Aldridge.
Wide Receivers – B
Opponents focused coverage schemes on Jeff Samardzija during the first few games, and Rhema McKnight had a number of passes thrown his way. He has 37 receptions and seven touchdowns, although he is guilty of a few inexplicable drops. The distribution has evened out lately, and Samardzija now has 34 catches and five scores. The biggest disappointment has been the lack of production from the third receiver slot, where David Grimes has five receptions and two others have one each. Walker in essence has become the third receiver, but the Irish are not getting the ball down the field as frequently as they did last season. Passing yards are down to 273 per game from last year’s 330.
Tight Ends – A-
John Carlson has emerged as a legitimate down the field threat with good hands and above-average speed. He does not block as well as Anthony Fasano, but he is a different player. Marcus Freeman is a decent blocker and has caught the few balls that have been thrown his way. Konrad Reuland and Will Yeatman are freshmen who are getting their feet wet in limited situational action.
Offensive Line – D+
This veteran group has recently begun to play better, but the Irish were outplayed by the front seven of Georgia Tech and Michigan. Despite the lopsided win over Penn State, the line barely held its own against the Lion’s defensive tackles. Purdue’s Anthony Spencer also had a career afternoon against Ryan Harris and Sam Young. The 3.3 yards per rush and 107 yards per game are telling statistics. It says that Notre Dame was not executing many second level blocks, at least until the Stanford game where they rushed at a five yard per carry clip. As for pass protection, Quinn has already been sacked 15 times and absorbed countless other hits. The Irish allowed 21 sacks during the entire 2005 season.
Defensive Line – C-
Victor Abiamiri is clearly Notre Dame’s best lineman, as evidenced by the fact that he is double-teamed on nearly every passing down. This should open up rush lanes for his mates, but the Irish have failed to generate consistent pressure on opponents and the weak side defensive end spot (WDE) has zero sacks to date. Opponents have also rushed for higher per carry and per game averages this season as compared to 2005. The loss of Ronald Talley at WDE does not help a unit whose main problem is lack of depth. Wear and tear on tackles Derek Landri and Trevor Laws is a major concern going forward.
Linebackers – C
The Maurice Crum experiment in the middle has produced mixed results. Crum has played well overall and leads the team in tackles, but his lack of ideal size sometimes proves costly against the run. The Irish have no answer for a back such as Michigan State’s Jehuu Caulcrick, who was stopped only by the ineptitude of his head coach. Travis Thomas has been a pleasant surprise at the weak side spot, although his mysterious chest injury is somewhat disconcerting. On the strong side, Mitchell Thomas has only nine tackles and seems lost more often than not. Backups Joe Brockington and Anthony Vernaglia have gotten themselves into the mix of late, but there is insufficient data to form any definitive conclusions.
Cornerback – B-
Injuries have forced players such as Terrail Lambert and Darrin Walls to take on larger roles, and both have shown game to game improvement. Lambert was burned badly by Michigan’s Mario Manningham, but that has proven to be no fluke as Manningham has emerged as one of the nation’s best. To his credit, Lambert bounced back with an outstanding performance against Michigan State and is becoming a solid player. Mike Richardson has quietly been the team’s best cover man, while Ambrose Wooden has missed significant time due to injury. Notre Dame should be improved when Coach Bill Lewis can put Richardson and Wooden at corner with Lambert at nickel back. This trio can cover reasonably well but will continue to be hampered by an unproductive pass rush.
Safety – B
Tom Zbikowski was having a pretty good year before his injury against Purdue, and Ray Herring did a commendable job as his replacement. Chinedum Ndukwe has shed pounds and is indeed faster. He is tied with Crum for the team lead in tackles, but still has a disturbing tendency to bite on the play action fake. Overall, the Irish are still giving up big plays in the passing game, and the improvement from 2005 has not been dramatic.
Punting – A
Geoff Price, with his 46.6 yard average, has become a weapon for Notre Dame. Most fans would have been happy if he were merely adequate. Instead of questioning the wisdom of giving him a scholarship in the first place, Notre Dame can only hope that he decides to return again next year.
Kicking – C
Carl Gioia has been respectable after a shaky start, but most fans will be tempted to cover their eyes if he lines up for a kick with the USC game on the line. Bobby Renkes and Ryan Burkhart have improved productivity on kickoffs.
Return Teams – C
This has been an area where results have not met expectations. Zbikowski provided numerous thrills last season with spectacular returns, but he has fumbled and stumbled this season. Various kickoff return men have shown flashes of brilliance and maddening inconsistency.
Cover Teams – B+
Opponents have returned punts for nearly ten yards per attempt, but this is probably a function of Price’s booming efforts. Kickoff coverage is exemplary at 17 yards per attempt.
Coaching – B-
Despite the shaky opener and the Michigan meltdown, Weis earns the benefit of the doubt for his ability to rally the troops from the brink of disaster in East Lansing. The Irish are still on track to make a BCS appearance, although any hopes of a berth in the title game have been reduced to wishful thinking due to the margin of defeat in a critical home game.
The jury is still out regarding many staff members. For example:
– John Latina’s offensive line has been disappointing, although Latina got Sam Young ready to play and a few freshmen have shown improvement.
– Rob Ianello has been unable to coax any production from anyone other than McKnight and Samardzija.
– Jappy Oliver has not figured out how to generate a pass rush and has not developed depth or a substitution pattern to relieve the pressure on his starters.
– Rick Minter got Travis Thomas ready to play, but
the bad news is that a number of linebackers that have been in the system for two years are not close to making meaningful contributions. Minter’s defense held up well against Georgia Tech, although injuries and capable opponents have subsequently combined to make it look very ordinary. That’s no surprise since there is little help for Abiamiri to chase the quarterback, no physical force at linebacker and no real ball hawk in the secondary. Despite these shortcomings, Minter will continue to be the target of Irish fans and the grumbling will reach critical mass if his troops are dissected in Los Angeles.
Despite the obvious problems, the overriding fact is that the team is 5-1 against a quality schedule.
John’s Top 15
1. Ohio State
4. West Virginia
6. Notre Dame
12. Georgia Tech
John’s Bottom Ten
1. Miami (Fla.)
4. San Diego State
6. Anyone from the MAC
8. North Carolina
9. Michigan State
Dishonorable mention: Every offense in the SEC