Two-A-Days Impressions

<P>The first look of the season was a positive one. I spent the last week in South Bend watching the new and improved Irish. The offense is very new but are they improved? I don't think we will know that until the Irish strap the helmets on against Maryland. Let's take a look at the offense because that appears to be the big question mark this year. </P>

What we know. What we know is that Willingham and Diedrick plan to bring their version of the west coast offense to the land of the run. Notre Dame has long been known as a power rushing football team. A brand new system will likely mean more confusion. This is where the teaching and coaching come into play.

What I witnessed. I witnessed a new and very much improved Carlyle Holiday. Many Notre Dame fans wonder if an "option" quarterback can survive and possibly thrive in a west coast offense. I will be the first to say that he is adapting better than others. Coach Diedrick has worked wonders on Holiday's mechanics. He looks like a west coast quarterback. His footwork, throwing motion, set up and drops have all improved dramatically. The other good news is that he is very accurate throwing the football. He is placing the ball right where it needs to be. He throws the ball very well when his offensive line gives him protection. Pat Dilligham is a solid player for a walk-on. He is a step below Holiday but can throw the football. Freshman Chris Olsen really impressed me with his arm strength and his toughness. He refuses to look the part of a freshman and I have been impressed with his ability to learn the offense quickly and his accuracy. He could develop into a fine quarterback at Notre Dame. I think it's only a matter of time before he becomes the clear #2 quarterback.

Now for the bad news, the offensive line hasn't been giving Holiday or any quarterback enough time to throw the ball. History tells us that the defense always gets the best of the offense early in fall camp. I would say they definitely did that. The offensive line has done some things well but they need to be much more consistent in protection and running the football. Notre Dame fans have to hope that this unit can come together and start performing to the level expected of a Notre Dame offensive line. I have faith that they will.

I don't want to single any one player out but three of the starters appear to be performing at a high level. The other two are still working out the bugs. The future of the offensive line looks pretty good. I was impressed with OG Dan Stevenson and OC Zach Giles. Darrin Mitchell also played well at times as did Mark LeVoir. Two upper-classmen also impressed me in Ryan Scarola and Jim Molinaro. I would not be surprised to see Molinaro play more this year. The Irish have suffered a few recent injuries to Sean Milligan and Mark LeVoir. Let's hope they aren't serious and they can get the much needed repetitions in this new system.

Wide Receiver is quite a race so far. If you ever get the chance to make it to a practice, do it. To see the wide receivers go one and one with the defensive backs is worth the drive. This is true competition at it's finest. We all know that Arnaz Battle is going to start. After watching him all week, it's almost a felony crime that he hasn't been given the ball 20 times a game. Battle made at least one catch worthy of the Pro Bowl every day and it was usually 3-4 a day. It would be a stretch to say Battle will go in the first round of the NFL draft next year but whoever takes this player will get the bargain of a lifetime.

The other starter is really up in the air. In all reality, Notre Dame will likely be in 3 wide receiver sets more often than not. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Omar Jenkins . Everyone says Omar doesn't have the height of guy X , the speed of guy Y and the hands of guy Z. What he does possess is all three and does everything perfect. He is the most consistent wide receiver of this unit. He has great hands, good speed and separation. He fights for the ball and runs the best routes out of the wide receivers. If anyone makes Omar sit, they earned it, I am sure of that. Carlos Campbell is a fine receiver. He has good hands, good speed and runs precise routes. He isn't as big as most of them but he is consistent. He has been practicing with an air cast on his hand from an injury he suffered early. Carlos earned some playing time early on though and he makes all the catches look easy.

Ronnie Rodamer probably has the best hands on the team. He makes a lot of difficult catches look easy. Ronnie's problem has been staying healthy. He had a slight injury that made him miss a day of practice but he was back strong the next day. If they throw the ball to Ronnie, he is going to catch it. He looks very good this year. Matt Shelton has all the speed you could ever want. He was kind of gimpy for the week I was watching but you would never know it when he went deep. The kid can fly and he has pretty good hands too. If Shelton had 20 more pounds of muscle, this race would be over. He has all the talent but is a little slight of build. I do expect him to play because he is a legitimate deep threat and he does get open.

The two freshman have made this a wide open race. I will say that Rhema McKnight and Maurice Stovall possess more long-range potential than any of the wide receivers other than Battle. McKnight can be as good as Battle I believe. Stovall is a completely different player. McKnight has very good speed and he is a fighter. It's rare to see a freshman wide receiver this physical. He is not afraid of anyone and he makes play after play. He got injured early with a finger and what looked to be a groin but by the end of the week, he was back to the old Rhema. This player is going to excite Notre Dame fans for many years to come. Stovall is just a natural. People liken him to former Michigan State star Plaxico Burress but I think Mo is already better than Burress is. Maurice isn't a blazer but has better hands than Burress and is more fluid or natural. He was born to play wide receiver. He did hurt his wrist which caused him to drop a couple towards the end of my stay but he was lining up as the third receiver with the first team the last couple of days of my stay.

The wide receiver race is far from over. Any of the six could push himself ahead of the others. It honestly is that close. That means they have depth and any of the six can play at a high level. The two freshman are going to push for time because of their natural ability. I doubt Jenkins lets go of his spot though. He works very hard and you can't discount consistency.

Tight end is another very contested position. For those screaming that Notre Dame needs to throw to the tight end, Coach Diedrick is your man. Notre Dame did throw to the tight end in the practices I witnessed and often. Gary Godsey is penciled in as the starter. Others are going to push him for time. The Notre Dame coaching staff appears very impressed with former quarterback turned tight end Jared Clark. Clark brings some quickness and speed to the position. He needs to work on his blocking and his hands a little but he brings something that the others don't possess. I was particularly surprised by the play of Billy Palmer. Palmer has nice hands and has similar speed to Godsey. He was the most consistent catching the ball from the older guys. Matt Root also made some nice plays. He was banged up at the end of my stay but he has receiving and running skills and should battle for time.

The two freshman impressed me as well. I am going to make a prediction and say that Marcus Freeman is going to be one heck of a tight end. Freeman has very soft hands and is just a natural tight end. He is the most natural out of all the tight ends I saw. He is a faster and more athletic Jarbari Holloway. I would be tempted to insert him early and often. It was confusing watching Anthony Fasano. Notre Dame has two #88's and I was not always sure whom was Fasano and whom was the walk-on. If the #88 I saw was Fasano, he has a lot of potential. This guy had great hands and uses his body well. Fasano should factor in as well. I do believe Freeman is the future however. I was very impressed with his natural ability and athleticism.

Runningback is pretty much set. Ryan Grant is going to run the football and he is going to get yards. I was surprised at how hard he works in drills. Grant is probably one of the hardest workers on the team. He is 100% committed and 100% effort. He runs very hard and is the future for Notre Dame at tailback. I don't think most Notre Dame fans understand the role of the backs in the Diedrick offense. These backs are going to have to be able to catch the ball almost as well as the wide receivers. In practice, Notre Dame threw to the backs often so the backs are going to have to be able to catch the ball just as well as run the ball and they better be able to block as well.

The good news is #2 halfback Marcus Wilson can catch the football. He has great hands and a nice burst after the catch. He is not as big and as strong as Grant but he is a nice change of pace. One guy who really impressed me was Rashon Powers-Neal. Rashon has great hands and is a physical player with some lateral movement. He works very hard and is consistent. Don't be surprised to see Rashon getting some early playing time. Chris Yura also impressed me. Yura was born to be involved in this offense. He can catch the ball and he can pick up the blitz as well. He also had some nice runs when given the chance. Yura could push for playing time in his senior year.

The big back race has been kind of quiet. Tom Lopienski has been injured and didn't participate for the first 3-4 days that I was watching. He was back and participating later in the week. Mike McNair looked better than he ever has catching the ball. He didn't get a lot of carries but if he can prove he can catch, the staff is going to have a hard time keeping him off the field with his overall speed.

The two freshman looked a level below the backs they had. Nate Schiccatano has nice size and more speed than I thought he had. He just needs some reps and to improve his receiving skills. Jeff Jenkins also needs some time to develop. He hasn't been given many opportunities to show what he can do.

Overall, my thoughts after watching a week of two-a-days. This offense has enough talent to stretch the field. They have excellent depth at wide receiver. They have a great runningback and another that gives them a different look. They have size and athleticism as tight end. They have a vastly improved quarterback who can throw when given time and will kill you with his legs. The big question mark is the offensive line. This is a veteran group. It's time for them to step up and become the offensive line they can be. If they can do this, Notre Dame will win a lot of games this year. Top Stories