One of the many things missing on the field last year for Notre Dame was the absence of playmakers on both sides of the ball. The Irish were lacking the kind off players who can take over a game with their big play ability, but with the number of underclassmen who saw extensive action it’s very possible that those playmakers that the Irish were lacking a year ago could being waiting in the wings on the Irish roster this year.
Last season Notre Dame had neither a big play receiver or a big play running back. Although behind last year’s offensive line would anyone have noticed such a player even if one existed for the Irish? Still, it was clear that outside of the Purdue game when Golden Tate put on an offense show in the second half, the Irish didn’t have the type of game changing, big play offensive players in place last year. Along with Tate a few players showed flashes of such ability, but none show any consistency in producing big plays enough to be truly be considered a “playmaker”.
The same could be said on the defensive side of the ball where the side of the ball. Outside of Trevor Laws putting on a tackling clinic, Notre Dame lacked a speed pass rusher, a game changing linebacker, or a big play defensive back capable of changing the complexion of a game at a moment’s notice. Sophomore Brian Smith showed flashes as a true frosh playing outside linebacker, senior David Bruton looked as though he was on the cusp of becoming a dominant safety, but outside of Laws, there wasn’t anyone on the defensive side of the ball that was keeping offensive coordinators up at night.
The good news for Notre Dame in this department is that the Irish roster is full of plenty of candidates capable of filling the playmaker void the Irish experienced last year. The recruiting success that Charlie Weis has experienced since arriving in South Bend combined with the number of underclassmen who saw extensive action last year due to Notre Dame’s lack of depth has given the Irish plenty of those candidates to look at.
On the offense the Irish have a group of running backs all capable of becoming big time playmakers on the college level. The most obvious big play threat in the group would be sophomore Armando Allen. Allen has the best speed amongst the Irish backs and with a year in the weight room building up the strength in his legs he could be ready to become the big play running back many believed he was destined to become coming out of high school.
Allen’s skills in the passing game only add to his playmaking ability. Many have wondered what Allen could do if he got the ball in space with room to work, but last year he didn’t get too many of those opportunities as the Irish offense struggled to execute the screen plays that were a staple of the Notre Dame under offense since Weis’s arrival.
While Robert Hughes may not have Allen’s gamebreaking speed, he has excellent footwork and can move around in traffic extremely well for a big back. Hughes had the longest runs of the season for Notre Dame last year despite having the least straight line speed among the Irish backs because of his ability to run through traffic and not go down on first contact. For a big back, Hughes too can be a weapon in the passing game and has been praised by Weis multiple times in the past for having the best hands out of all the Notre Dame running backs.
At wide receiver the Irish also have plenty of potential “playmakers” ready to make their mark. Sophomores Duval Kamara and Golden Tate both posses big play ability, albeit in completely different ways. Tate is the speed wide receiver Notre Dame has been lacking since Matt Shelton was the only downfield threat for the Irish and torched opposing defenses in 2004. Tate flashed that ability in the Purdue game to the tune of 3 catches for 104 yards, but was a non-factor for the better part of last season.
Weis has been talking up Tate so far in camp, and if what Weis says holds true, there is a very good chance the Notre Dame offense can have a legit, big play, speed wide receiver ready to emerge. Even if Tate isn’t a completely polished receiver this fall, all he needs to do is improve enough to give this offense a big play threat. Providing just that threat could be enough for Tate to make a big impact on the 2008 offense.
Duval Kamara on the other hand is not going to get behind a lot of defenses by running past them as Tate can, but with his size he has the ability to become a big play receiver if he learns to use his size to his advantage much the way Maurice Stovall did in 2005.
Stovall showed flashes of big play ability throughout his career, but didn’t become a consistent threat until he learned how to use his size to his advantage in shielding away defenders and fighting for the ball. Now, it took Stovall three full seasons to learn how to do this, can Kamara accomplish the same feat in just one? That remains to be seen, but considering all of the playing time he saw last year he should at least have a fighting chance to make serious progress in that department.
Another name to watch for is freshman wide receiver Michael Floyd. Unless you haven’t been following along with training camp at all this year, you have undoubtedly heard what Charlie Weis, Jimmy Clausen, and some of the other Irish wide receivers have had to say about Floyd’s skills. It isn’t often that a freshman receiver can step on the field and become a playmaker from day one, but all one needs to do is look at Arrelious Benn at Illinois a year ago to see that it is possible.
Unfortunately Notre Dame lost one of its potential big play threats at the end of last week when it was announced that Mike Ragone was lost for the year with a partial tear of his ACL. When healthy, Ragone possesses the ability to stretch a defense with his speed from the tight end position. Likely replacement Will Yeatman is an excellent blocker and sound receiver, but just doesn’t possess that same kind of big play potential.
On the defensive side of the ball the Irish have a couple more playmakers in the making. The most obvious is safety David Bruton. Bruton is a freakish athlete who is going to post some of the most impressive combine numbers of any defensive back at the combine next year and started to show playmaking ability. After the USC game last year, Weis mentioned that he had never seen a gunner block a punt by catching the ball right off the foot of the punter – neither have I or almost anyone else.
It’s been a long time since Notre Dame had a legit gamebreaker at the safety position. Guys like Gerome Sapp, Glen Earl, and even Tom Zbikowski had their moments, but none were the type of safety who could really change the course of a game the way an Ed Reed or a LaRon Landry could – Bruton has that kind of potential.
As a true freshman last year, Brian Smith flashed his potential when he picked off Matt Ryan and returned the pick for a touchdown against Boston College. That play completely changed the moment of the game at that time. Weis and the defensive coaches moved Smith to the middle after playing outside linebacker last year. The move was done in an attempt to get Smith in a position to make the most plays. As Weis described earlier in the summer, the MIKE position in this defense is where you want your biggest playmaker and he felt Smith was that player.
It’s still very unclear whether or not the Irish have a potential pass rushing specialist that can force opposing offenses to scheme around. Morrice Richardson and Kerry Neal both showed some promise rushing the quarterback last year from their outside linebacker positions. Richardson was moved to defensive end in the spring and appears to have locked down a starting spot. Neal meanwhile will still be listed as a linebacker even though he will likely be playing with his hand on the ground quite a bit.
At Georgia Tech, Jon Tenuta routinely had smaller, quicker defensive ends to rush the passer and it seems like Neal and Richardson could fit in that same mold. Can Richardson at 255 lbs handle playing DE in the run game though? We’ll soon find out.
The good news on defense is that there appears to be even more potential game breakers on the defensive side of the ball in the freshman class. While most won’t make much of an impact this year, the likes of Steve Filer, Darius Flemming, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson, and Robert Blanton have already started to show a lot of promise in camp. Of those freshmen, Johnson and Blanton appear the most ready to make an impact this fall. Both have been singled out by Weis as guys who look like they are ready to play.
It’s likely that, for the most part, we will still see more flashes of playmaking ability rather than consistent play because of the overall youth the Irish have on both sides of the ball. What’s very encouraging, however, is that for the first time in a long time the roster appears to be full of plenty of candidates to fill that playmaking void.