Monday, August 23, 2010

Five Burning Questions

We've got less than two weeks (!!!!) until kickoff, so let's examine the five biggest questions facing the Irish this season then throw on the Swami hat to find some answers. If you'd like the slideshow version of the article click here to head over to BR.

#5 - Who will emerge at the inside linebacker spot next to Manti Te'o?

If you believe Brian Smith will hold off hard-charging Steve Filer and Kerry Neal at outside linebacker it means there's only one starting spot on the linebacking unit yet to be determined. The two main suspects to play Manti Te'o's co-pilot in the middle are Anthony McDonald (Jr.) and Carlo Calabrese (So.).

McDonald is a big, agile athlete who runs like a deer, but he has a tendency to play a bit soft sometimes which leads to him getting swallowed in the scrum of the offensive line from time to time. Brian Kelly has harped on the fact that the coaches would like to see Anthony play a more physical brand of football. This raises an eyebrow. If there's one thing you don't want with a defense based on toughness—it's a middle linebacker who's hesitant to mix it up. Will he rise to the challenge and develop a presence or is he doomed to be the next Anthony Vernaglia?

Calabrese, on the other hand, is someone who likes nothing more than to lay the boom on anyone who comes in his path. Coach Kelly has been quick to praise his toughness and the aggressive nature in which Carlo attacks the line. The downside is he's not the most fluid athlete and when he's on the field it may open a gaping hole for quick tight ends to exploit. Best case scenario is that his toughness overcomes his athletic shortcomings and he's the new-age Rocky Boiman. Worst case scenario is that he's the second coming of Toryan Smith.

Smart Money Prediction

One of the keys to the season is effectively stopping the run and Calabrese has a significant edge in that department. Couple that with the fact that McDonald is hobbled in camp right now (hyper-extended knee) and Carlo emerges as the starter. That being said, there's going to be plenty of rotation between the two based on down and situation so get used to seeing both of them out there.

#4 - Will the three new starters on the offensive line be effective?

Trevor Robinson (Jr.) and Chris Stewart (Sr.) return to anchor the line's interior at the guard, but three starters from last year must be replaced. Coach Kelly has expressed a lot of excitement about the talent and depth he sees on the offensive line—which frankly has come as a pleasant surprise to most Irish fans.

The center position is a battle between Dan Wenger (Sr.), Braxston Cave (Jr.), and new candidate Chris Watt (So.). Wenger lost his starting position last season to Eric Olsen and looked completely out of sorts when he did get playing time. Cave is one of the strongest players on the team but when he did see playing time he didn't exhibit the pop you'd expect from someone with his power. Cave has spent the last five months flip-flopping with Wenger in the starting lineup, though it appears Wenger pulled slightly ahead this August. Lastly there's Chris Watt. He was a very highly-touted guard prospect that the staff thought could provide some depth at the center position and provide another option should Wenger and Cave not work out. He's still learning the intricacies of the position but once things click he could be a great one.

Matt Romine (Sr.), Zach Martin (So.), Taylor Dever (Sr.), and Andrew Nuss (Sr.) were all in the mix for the starting tackle positions entering August, but things have changed since the start of fall camp. By all accounts Martin now has a stranglehold on the left tackle position, a surprise given the fact that he's a sophomore who has never played a snap while the other three have all earned two monograms a piece. He's very athletic and mobile for a lineman, which are two good qualities to have as a spread offense tackle. On the opposite side will be either Dever or Nuss, with Dever maintaining a slight edge right now.

A lot of people worry about replacing last year's starters, but I think people are overestimating the loss of Sam Young and Paul Duncan. Both were maddeningly inconsistent and prone to terrible mental lapses at the most inopportune times. They're hardly irreplaceable. Olsen has much bigger shoes to fill but if Watt can get the hang of the center position by the end of the year the Irish could have a hard-nosed, high-potential starter there for the next three seasons.

Smart Money Prediction

The good news is Robinson and Stewart will both be All-American candidates at the end of the season while Martin will continue to blossom at left tackle. The bad news is that there will be a revolving door at center between Wenger and Cave because neither will be particularly effective and right tackle will be a bit wobbly. The line won't be dominating by any stretch, but it will be as good—and perhaps even better—than last year's outfit. That's not great but should be plenty good enough to give Dayne Crist the necessary time to spread the ball around without getting beat up.

#3 - Who will step up and provide quality depth along the defensive line?

The switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 means there are solid numbers at the defensive line position, but it remains to be seen what will translate to production. There's a lot of reason to be optimistic about the trio of starters—Ethan Johnson (Jr.), Ian Williams (Sr.), and Kapron Lewis-Moore (Jr.).

Johnson was a highly-touted recruit who is a much better fit as a 3-4 end than the 4-3 tackle he was forced to play last season. KLM is the best pass rushing defensive end Notre Dame has fielded since Victor Abiamiri graduated and should hold up better against the run now that he's packed 15 pounds of muscle for the fall. Ian Williams may not be an elite nose tackle, but he's entering his fourth year as a starter and should be a solid contributor.

The questions begin when you move to the second string. Brandon Newman (Jr.), Hafis WIlliams (Jr.), Emeka Nwankwo (Sr.), Sean Cwynar (Jr.), and Tyler Stockton (So.) will all be given ample opportunity to contribute, but there has been no evidence thus far that they're on the verge of doing so (the entire quintet has combined for three career tackles). They all have a good combination of strength and pure size, but there are plenty of questions whether they're quick enough or explosive enough to be effective on this level.

Smart Money Prediction

Tyler Stockton and Sean Cwynar step up to become the most valuable reserves. The trio of backup ends will give production similar to what Pat Kuntz contributed prior to his senior season; they'll hold their own against average opponents but don't stand much of a chance against top-level competition.

#2 - Will Harrison Smith rebound and be the anchor the secondary needs?

Harrison Smith's 2009 campaign can only be described as a complete disaster. He was a horrendous tackler, consistently blew coverages, and looked completely lost on nearly every play. It got so bad that he was eventually converted back to linebacker for the end of the season—though he would still line up at safety in certain situations.

Smith was an all-state safety in high school and showed plenty of promise early during his career in South Bend, but the flip-flops in scheme (Corwin Brown's 3-4 to Jon Tenuta's 4-3) and position (linebacker to safety and back) helped drag his confidence down to dangerous depths. As you watched him last season, you could see his head spinning during plays; he's a natural athlete that was paralyzed by confusion and indecision. Part of the blame has to fall on the previous staff for never finding him a true home, but there's no defending how many tackles he flat-out whiffed on last season.

Notre Dame has a trio of very talented corners in Darrin Walls, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton and a couple young, high-potential candidates to man the other safety position. Their production will be all for naught if Smith can't pull himself out of the funk he was in last year. Smith needs to be this squad's Kyle McCarthy—a dependable contributor who steps up and makes plays in the clutch. He's a better athlete than McCarthy with a higher ceiling, he just needs to take a giant leap forward in the consistency department.

Smith is the X-Factor of the entire defense. If he returns to form then the Irish will field a formidable secondary; if he doesn't rebound then the defense's potential will never come close to being reached.

Smart Money Prediction

Harrison Smith will be much improved from last year, but finding consistency will take time. Irish fans will have painful flashbacks early in the season when he gets burned a couple times, but from day one his tackling will be like night and day compared to last year's aberration. As the year progresses he'll grow into his leadership role and by the time the Irish head to Los Angeles to face the Trojans he should be well on his way to realizing his vast potential.

#1 - Will Dayne Crist's knee hold up and how quickly will he pick up the offense?

There's the real million dollar question for 2010. The Irish are loaded and deep at the skill positions; however, all those toys will go to waste if the quarterback can't deliver.

Enter Dayne Crist.

Crist was one of the top recruits in the country when he graduated high school. He's an impressive physical specimen at 6'4", 235lbs, equipped with a rocket arm and some sneaky fast wheels for a guy his size. When Brian Kelly took over and Jimmy Clausen opted for the NFL it meant Dayne was thrust into the starting role a year ahead of schedule. He's been forced to learn a totally new offense, new terminology, and all while recovering from a torn ACL suffered about 10 months ago.

Every report out of camp is that Crist feels great, he's running full speed, and the knee is totally healed. That's tough to buy knowing that it takes most players a year—usually two years—to bounce back to 100%. One of his biggest assets was the new dimension his running ability was going to add to the offense. That goes out the window this season because the planned runs won't be worth risking another injury. On top of the physical issues there's also the mental side of coming back from a traumatic injury. It's one thing to drop back and run around when you're wearing a red jersey that means no one can hit you; it's an entirely different story when defenders are out to kill you and falling around your surgically repaired knee.

Were Dayne 100% healthy there would be relatively steep learning curve. The fact that his mobility is limited and he'll inevitably be worried about his knee when the bullets start to fly means the hurdles he'll have to overcome will become even larger. Asking him to step in right away and pick up where Jimmy left off—as some people think he should—is unrealistic and unreasonable.

That being said, if the offensive line can keep him upright and allow him time to get comfortable in the first couple games then the Irish offense could really take off. This is one of the most talented teams Notre Dame has ever fielded in terms of skill position athletes. Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph are potential All-Americans, there are five receiving targets that will log significant minutes at 6'3" or taller, and the running back stable is stocked with speed, size, and explosiveness.

All of the aforementioned weapons will make his transition to starting quarterback easier, but it's all on Dayne's shoulders to make the leap from raw prospect to polished producer. If he can accomplish that it could translate into a very special season for Notre Dame; if he doesn't then it will be a long year.

Smart Money Prediction

Dayne Crist's has a bright future, it's just that it's going to take awhile to arrive at that bright future. Dayne is raw and inexperienced. When you pair that with the fact that he's bouncing back from a major injury it translates to a bumpy road. Expect a performance reminiscent of Brady Quinn's sophomore year: a handful of questionable decisions, some flashes of greatness, but on the whole enough evidence to lead fans to believe this team has a bright future with Dayne Crist at the helm.

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