We caution to offer optimism because the first-team offense and defense had it pretty easy on Saturday. Both units played against what many would consider the second and sometimes third team opposition.
Having said that, we were very impressed with a number of areas on Saturday. Let's start with the offensive line.
The Irish offensive line had a very good day on Saturday despite missing a few key members. Many believe that John Sullivan will start at center in the fall, and Bob Morton will be moving to left guard with the insertion of Sullivan.
On Saturday, the Irish were without both Sullivan and projected starter Mark LeVoir at right tackle. Darrin Mitchell played left guard and Scott Raridon was inserted at right tackle. We were very impressed with the number of big holes being opened by the Irish offensive line. We were especially impressed by the guard and center play and the huge holes opened inside at times, as well as the tackle play pushing the rush up field and away from the quarterback. Scott Raridon should be singled out as we watched him closely and he impressed us with his play.
What we didn't see was a lot of blitzing from the Gold team while playing the first unit. But, playing straight up, the Irish were easily opening running lanes for Ryan Grant and all backs.
In talking with offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick after the game, he admitted the Irish spent a lot of time working on picking up the blitz this spring—something they struggled with all season in 2003. What we saw this spring would coincide with Diedrick. The Irish looked much more effective in picking up the blitz. If they can do that, added with larger running lanes for Irish backs, this offense could be pretty good.
Again, don't get overly exited about the offense just yet. They didn't play against a Michigan-quality defense on Saturday, but there was plenty to smile about all the same.
Two backs who really impressed us were Rashon Powers-Neal and Ryan Grant. Powers-Neal had the impressive run, and boy did he look fast out there doing it. What also impressed us were a few lead-blocks that he had on the outside and his blocking in the passing game. Powers-Neal has clearly made a move to start and maybe even star.
We were also very impressed with Ryan Grant's patience and anticipation when carrying the football. On both touchdown runs, the whole took a bit of time to develop and Grant patiently surveyed his options before finding the correct hole and exploding through. Patience is one thing, but anticipation is what makes great backs and Grant showed plenty of that as well. Even Willingham mentioned Grant's anticipation in his press conference after the spring game and we concur with Willingham—Grant looks like a different back..
We were also impressed with the starting linebackers—Brandon Hoyte especially. We watched Hoyte a lot in pass coverage and Hoyte was in good position on every play we saw. He made some great breaks on the ball and looked like a seasoned pro out there in coverage. Also, just seeing Goolsby and Curry out there makes one more confident in this defense. Both should have outstanding years for the Irish in 2004.
The secondary is the greatest concern for most Irish fans and we can only comment on what we saw. Tom Zbikowski will push Quentin Burrell for the starting spot on the fall. We're not sure which player will win the job, but the competition will certainly help the secondary.
Dwight Ellick did get beat on the Jeff Samardzija touchdown, but he was in perfect position on the play. The ball was thrown behind both Samardzija and Ellick, and Samardzija reached back and made an amazing play. There wasn't much Ellick could do on the play because it was just a great play made by an impressive receiver.
Chinedum Ndukwe showed why people are high on him. He's a rangy player that moves well for a strong safety. He showed his limited experience at times, but looked to understand what his responsibilities were and was quick to the ball. He has a ways to go but his talent is obvious.
We were also impressed with Freddie Parish and his ability to sniff out a play. He was clearly injured most of the game but refused to come out.
We are also sure that the competition at tight end has made everyone better. Every tight end we saw impressed us. We couldn't pick a guy who was clearly better, but all looked better at receiving, blocking and route-running. We expect the tight ends to play a larger role in 2004.
At wide receiver, Jeff Samardzija impressed us the most. He has a wealth of talent that even we didn't think he had. Samardzija is clearly the third best receiver right now, and we're not sure he won't be the second or first when all is said and done.
Lastly, Brady Quinn impressed us a great deal. But, so did Carlyle Holiday in the spring and fall of last year. Clearly Quinn has improved a great deal. What we don't know is how he'll perform under pressure. All we can say is we really liked what we saw in Quinn. He made a number of excellent throws and proved that if given time, he can deliver the ball on the money and make big plays in the passing game.
If we had any complaints it would be that we would've liked to see the 1s play the 1s for at least a series or two. We didn't get to see that and that was disappointing.
Overall, we were very impressed with both the first-team offense and defense. What concerns us is the overall depth of the team. There appears to be a significant drop off in talent after the first string at more than a few positions. Still, both units impressed in a scrimmage that was designed to impress, but at least they did impress.