Pressure-Packed Saturday

Demetrius Jones or Evan Sharpley or Jimmy Clausen. That's how the quarterback position reads on Notre Dame's game-week depth chart. Whichever of the three gets the starting nod in the season opener this Saturday afternoon against Georgia Tech, is going to feel it. It being pressure.

Not just the pressure of starting for the first time in their collegiate careers, but constant pressure from the Yellow Jackets defense.

Veteran quarterback, freshman quarterback, or first-time starter, Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta doesn't care. He blitzes 75 percent of the game, disguises it well, and has an outstanding history of making offenses miserable. The last three seasons, Georgia Tech defenses and their zone-blitzing attack have ranked in the nation's top-30 nationally, including last season where the Yellow Jackets held opponents to one touchdown or less in eight of 13 games.

Whoever is under center for Notre Dame, the sophomore Jones, the junior Sharpley, or the true freshman Clausen, is going to see a fast defense that is blitzing from all over the field. Eight starters return, including All-American candidate Philip Wheeler at middle linebacker, from a unit that ranked 20th nationally against the run and 9th nationally in pass-efficiency defense last season.

"You don't want them to have to think too much when they're playing," Weis said of the game plan for his quarterback Saturday. "You want to let them go out there and play.

"That's why you don't have an extensive package that is so ridiculous that they really you know, you set them up for failure. You can't do that."

To put his offense in a position to succeed, Weis is having his older players shoulder more of the responsibility, so that his quarterback can just go out there and play.

Fifth-year senior center John Sullivan will be the guy calling out the protections at the line of scrimmage, a job that veteran Brady Quinn did last season, and the current quarterback will do eventually.

In the mean time, the offense saw more than a healthy dose of blitzing during practice, and will continue to do so this week as they prepare for the game-day conditions of looking across the line of scrimmage at the likes of Wheeler, defensive end Adamm Oliver (2nd-team All-ACC last year) and safety Jamal Lewis (1st-team All-ACC last year).

"We're not intimidated at all," fifth-year senior running back Travis Thomas stated. "At least I don't feel intimidated. You know, our job, whether it's a lineman or a running back or a tight end, our job is to go up there and protect the quarterback, and we are going to do that by any means necessary."

"Yeah, I mean, when they blitz, they are taking a chance and they are going to have some good plays," senior tight end John Carlson added. "They are going to blow some plays on the backfield, but it also provides us with an opportunity to maybe break a big route or a long route or connect on a long pass. So there are two sides to that coin, and we just need to focus on our protections and making plays."

How will the Irish go about making plays in countering the constant blitz? Expect them to run right at Georgia Tech, just like West Virginia did in last year's Gator Bowl. The Yellow Jackets only surrendered 104.79 yards per game on the ground last season, but the Mountaineers rolled up 311 yards on 45 carries (6.9 avg.) in a 38-35 victory. That was pretty much without Heisman candidate running back Steve Slaton, who carried the ball just three times because of a badly bruised left thigh.

Obviously, quarterback Pat White and his 4.3 speed was anchoring the dynamic Mountaineers attack, that uses a lot of misdirection-plays, draws and shotgun-spread formations, but Notre Dame and its five running backs could be just as multi-dimensional in a different way.

All five of Notre Dame's runners provide different abilities that can keep the Georgia Tech defense on its heals.

"I think everyone knows we want to run the ball," Thomas said. "Not only do we want to run it, we want to run it hard. That doesn't mean that we are not going to be diverse. That doesn't mean that we are going to be one-dimensional. It just means we have different styles of running backs right now; five, and that means that you can do a lot of different things.

"I think it's a really good thing that we have that diversity in the backfield right now."

Real good for the quarterback. On top of the power running by Thomas, James Aldridge, Junior Jabbie and Robert Hughes, and the homerun threat of Armando Allen, all five of these guys are receivers out of the backfield. They all have enough wiggle and speed to be dangerous in space.

Get two or three of these guys going on Saturday, and that opens up the passing game. Like Carlson said, Georgia Tech is gambling by blitzing, and maybe he can get behind the defense for a big play.

"If you can run the ball well, it kind of sets the tone for the game," Thomas said. "If you're out there smacking the team in the mouth, getting the lines, the push, and you're getting four or five yards a pop, that just builds confidence and gets you on a roll and things are going good for you.

"And it also allows you to set up a passing game," Thomas continued. "When the running goes well, hopefully they will load up the box and you'll be able to get some nice shots in there. I think it goes hand in hand, and the more you can run the ball, the more you can control the clock."

With that, maybe the Notre Dame quarterback, whomever it may be, will feel a little less pressure.


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