Notre Dame Looking for Answers in 2nd Half of ’06 Season

Notre Dame, Ind ( – Tomorrow afternoon the Irish will kickoff the second half of their 2006 season – a season with some high expectations that has raised a lot of questions about this year’s squad.  Notre Dame begins looking for those answers tomorrow when UCLA comes to town.

Can the Irish run the ball when they have to?
Notre Dame ran the ball for 342 yards in it’s last two games, but are still averaging just 106.8 yards a game on the season and gained a paltry 51 yards combined against Michigan and Michigan State.  Furthermore, other than a 43 yard fake punt against Penn State, the Irish have had just one run all season over 30 yards.

Darius Walker isn’t exactly a home run threat kind of running back, but early on this season he wasn’t even the solid and steady runner he was the past two seasons.  The problems with the Notre Dame ground game have been well documented and the fault does just lie on Walker or the offensive or the play calling.

The question here is – have the Irish solved their running game problems or is the recent success a product of playing against a couple of weak run defenses?  Right now, I think the answer is probably the later, but Charlie Weis’s commitment to the run in the last two games should have the Irish in right direction in fixing its grounded running game.  With the emergence of freshmen Munir Prince and James Aldridge, Notre Dame should be able to throw more looks at opposing defenses which should give the running game a boost.

Does Notre Dame have a legit deep threat this year?
Last year Maurice Stovall was able to get down field and use his height to catch some jump balls which open up thing underneath for Jeff Samardzija.  As a result, Samardzija got the ball in the open field more often last year when he averaged 5.3 more yards a catch than he is this season.  Samardzija’s receptions total (34) are close to where they were last year, but his yards and receptions are way down.

Last year Samardzija averaged 16.2 yards a catch, but so far this season he is averaging just 10.9 and is not getting yards after the catch.   This year we’ve seen Samardzija catch the ball standing still much more frequently than we did a year ago.

The Notre Dame offense was hitting on a lot more big pass plays a year ago, and until this year’s unit gets the ball downfield more it will be subject to heavy doses of blitzing.  Notre Dame hasn’t really made teams pay for blitzing with big pass plays as they did a year ago.

Can one of the freshmen or David Grimes develop as a downfield threat for this offense?  Both Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija are better in the short passing game where they can use their quickness and strength to make big plays.

Can the linebackers step up
Notre Dame’s linebackers have been a liability so far this year which has forced the Irish into a lot of nickel situations.  Travis Thomas has shown some promise this year, but his lack of size has caused him to get eaten up on blocks in the running game this year.  Fellow first time starter Mitchell Thomas has just 9 tackles all season.  Anthony Vernaglia who battled Thomas in training camp for the starting position looked pretty good at times against Stanford, but neither has shown much at the strong side linebacker position.

In the middle, Maurice Crum has done a pretty good job despite being undersized for the position.  Thomas is still learning on the job so there is reason to hope he will continue to improve over the season, but at the strong side position there are still plenty of questions.

Can Thomas or Vernaglia emerge as a viable option down the stretch?  Can freshman Toryan Smith, whose seen some time in goal line situations, step in at middle linebacker and let Crum move over to the strong side?

Will a 3rd Wide Receiver Emerge?
So far there has been very little production from Notre Dame wide receivers whose last names aren’t McKnight or Samardzija.  David Grimes is the unquestioned third receiver in this offense, but he has caught just five passes for 55 yards in 2006.  Chase Anastacio has one catch for 15 yards and freshman Robby Parris has one reception for seven yards.  All that adds up to grand total of seven catches 87 yards outside of Notre Dame’s two starting receivers.

Part of the reason Samardzija’s average yards per catch are down is because Notre Dame has not been able to spread the field out much.  When the Irish have gone into five wide receiver sets this year, John Carlson has been used as a receiver and sometimes even Darius Walker lines up as a receiver as well.  Sorry folks, but that is not really an effective five receiver set.

Whether or not some of the younger receivers can start to step up could go a long way in deciding whether or not this offense goes from very good to truly explosive this year.  We have yet to see a really explosive Notre Dame offense yet this year.

Can Brady Quinn still win the Heisman?
Yes…but, Troy Smith and Ohio State will have to lose a game for Quinn to really have a good chance.  If Troy Smith and the Buckeyes run the table and are undefeated at season’s end I just don’t see a way he loses the Heisman.  Quinn might have more impressive stats come December but as long as Smith’s team has a 0 in the loss column, he has a lock down on the Heisman.

Can the Irish generate a pass rush?
Notre Dame has 13 sacks in 6 games, but those numbers are inflated by what I like to call the “Stanford Effect.”  Over the past two seasons Notre Dame has sacked opposing quarterbacks 44 times over an 18 game stretch.  Twelve of those sacks have come against quarterbacks wearing Stanford jerseys.  This season, five of the 13 sacks came against Stanford meaning the Irish managed just eight sacks in the other five games.  The lack of a pass rush was most noticeable against Purdue when the Boilermakers put the ball in the air 46 times with the Irish registering 0 sacks.

Notre Dame has some talented defensive linemen in Victor Abiamiri, Trevor Laws, and Derek Landri, but the front four for the Irish simply have not gotten pressure on opposing quarterbacks without blitzing.  Making matters worse is the fact that when the Irish do blitz, they may get pressure on the quarterback, but they just don’t get there in time.

Freshman defensive end Morrice Richardson has shown some great speed coming off the edge and with the departure of Ronald Talley, he will see more time, but how much can be expected from the true freshman.  Richardson has a very bright future ahead of him, but right now he is completely reliant on his speed and doesn’t have the strength to mix it up with a lot of tackles at this point.

For the Irish to seriously challenge for the national championship and have a chance to beat the Southern Cal on Thanksgiving weekend, they will have to find a way to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks over the next five games.

Will the Irish make some big plays in the return game?
Tommy Zbikowski returned two punts for touchdowns last year, but has been bottled up most of this year.  He had a touchdown return called back against Michigan State, but hasn’t been close to breaking one outside of that return.

In the kick return game, George West and David Grimes have each had some nice returns, but since the Georgia Tech game, neither has really been on the verge of breaking one.  Cornerback Darrin Walls has looked good in Grimes absence and looks like he has some real potential as a returner.

I would still love to see freshman Munir Prince get a crack as a kick returner.  Weis has sung Prince’s praises for his speed and with his cutting ability he could be an exciting kick returner, but with the lack of depth at running back this season, I think Weis has been leery of putting him back there.

Special teams returns can really turn the tide of a game – just ask Denny Green – and so far this season the Irish have come up short in this department.  It’s been almost four years since the last time Notre Dame returned a kickoff for a touchdown (November 9, 2002) when Vontez Duff took one to the house from 92 yards out against Navy in Baltimore.

Can this offensive line dominate?
There was a lot of hope about the offensive line this year since it basically returned four starters.  So far, however, the line has been a bit of a disappointment.  Brady Quinn has been sacked 15 times and the Irish running game woes have already been discussed.  The veteran offensive line has also committed and uncharacteristically high number of penalties this season as well.

So what happened to this offensive line?  Did the loss of Dan Stevenson and Mark LeVoir hurt more than people thought?

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