Rank and File - Week One

IrishEyes' weekly wrap-up discusses personnel, position groups, and areas for improvement as Notre Dame heads into its Game Two battle in The Big House.

Final Thoughts – Defense

Any relevant final thought this week was already provided by the Irish defense: Zero. That's roughly 23 fewer than I thought Nevada's offense would muster and the 153 rushing yards allowed to the Wolf Pack was Nevada's fourth-lowest output over its last 14 games.

Junior LB Brian Smith made two nice plays in space on Colin Kaepernick and Toryan Smith produced one of the two best outings of his career with six tackles – two for lost yardage including a key 4th-and-1 stop in the second quarter – and a sack of Kaepernick.

For the second consecutive opener, SS Kyle McCarthy led the Irish in tackles with 9 (seven solo): get used to it – he'll easily repeat as the team-leader in that category with his responsibilities in the box as the eighth member of the Irish "Front Seven." McCarthy, who mentioned to IrishEyes on media day that his goal this season was "to make more big plays," made good on his promise with an interception at the Notre Dame 31-yard line.

Five Irish cornerbacks saw meaningful action – each afforded Nevada's lower-tier group of wideouts a generous cushion, the reasoning (I believe) was two-fold:

  • First: there was no chance Kaepernick could guide the Wolf Pack downfield with a succession of short and mid-range passes. It was obviously prudent for Walls, McNeil, Blanton, Gray, and Slaughter to sit back, break on the ball, and make the one-on-one tackle rather than risk a fluke touchdown over the top with the majority of the defense focused on stopping the vaunted Nevada rushing attack.
  • Second: Kaepernick can damage defenses with outside runs – with both cornerbacks playing off (especially the field cornerback), any forays by the Wolf Pack quarterback past the Irish front seven would be stifled by an Irish corner able to diagnose the run from his "back" position and come Up to make the stop. Of course, this is a moot point as the Irish front seven rarely allowed Kaepernick room into the Irish secondary.

Nitpicking the Defense

The Irish interior was generally handled by Nevada's trio of weak side (C/G/T) linemen: Kenneth Ackerman, Chris Barker, and Alonzo Durham. Both Jonathon Bender and Mike Gallett contributed to this effort as well (Nevada doesn't play a standard right/left alignment, rather using the field's strongside and weakside ("quick" in Wolf Pack vernacular) as their alignment guide.

Regardless of the verbiage, I felt Ian Williams had his second toughest game since the start of the 2008 season (USC last year ranking as the first). Williams wasn't asked to be a playmaker, necessarily, as the interior's basic job was to occupy blocks to allow the linebackers to make plays. Irish linebackers did make plays, but Williams, DT Ethan Johnson, and RDEs Kerry Neal and John Ryan were too often handled by single-blocks – and that's never the goal of a defensive lineman, regardless of the defensive game plan.

Kapron Lewis-Moore was likewise pushed around a bit on the left side, though the redshirt freshman did not enter the contest until the fourth series – a time in which the Wolf Pack front five was already game-tested. Lewis-Moore deserves credit for his hustling, backside recovery of a Nevada fumble at the Irish 6-yard line as well as improvement at the point of attack as the game progressed.

While the Irish made enough plays in one-on-one tackling situations (including three momentum-halting stops behind the line of scrimmage) there is certainly room for improvement. Nickel defender Sergio Brown has a knack for timing the blitz and coming clean, but he failed to breakdown when faced with Kaepernick in a one-on-one situation, badly missing at least once. Brown also still throws his shoulder at the ball carrier (in this case a wide receiver) rather than wrapping up.

The Irish front seven needs to be careful not to stunt themselves out of running lanes vs. its next two opponents. Likewise, too much pre-snap movement hurt the defense on the game's opening drive.

Final Thoughts – Offense

If the Irish again carry the rock 41 times for 178 yards in The Big House as they did on September 5 vs. Nevada, victory is nearly assured. This offense can move the football through the air and I have a feeling the return to health of junior wide receiver Duval Kamara and the continued development of young playmakers will make the offense more dynamic in three receiver sets over the coming weeks (probably not this Saturday).

Speaking of personnel alignments, the Charlie Weis two-tight end and three tight-end look is about to become a staple of your Notre Dame Saturday. Kyle Rudolph, Mike Ragone, and Bobby Burger simply deserve to be on the football field as game-ready athletes who are a few steps ahead of the younger, faster, more potentially dynamic receivers for which many fans will clamor. (Obviously Rudolph falls into both categories.)

Notre Dame's multiple tight end sets (present for 27 of the first 49 snaps: a span which covers all of the "meaningful" plays) offer the Irish their best chance at a balanced offense, as starting wide receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, and the half back duo of Armando Allen and Jonas Gray (as well as Rudolph) provide the offense with more than enough explosive talent on every snap of the football.

The Irish offense has been deemed "soft" over the last three seasons (and you'd be technically accurate to expand that to six of the last seven years at the program). The continued presence of Ragone and Burger will go a long way toward changing that perception in '09.

Finally, just one offensive holding call was charged against the Irish OL – backup center Dan Wenger was the culprit. Wenger had already moved his defender out of the gap but held him as he took him to the ground.

Nitpick Offense

There aren't many items for a non-coach to dissect in a 35-0 beating - one in which the scoring margin would have reached at least 42 points if Weis hadn't appropriately shut down the attack in the game's final 9-plus minutes.

Senior fullback James Aldridge performed well (and aggressively) in his new role before injuring his shoulder in the second half (we'll know more about Aldridge after today's presser); Armando Allen looked a bit stronger though still goes down too easily upon low contact; there were no dropped passes; only one missed open receiver by the suddenly sublime Clausen; and the offensive line paved the way for 507 yards, 178 on the ground vs. the nation's No. 6 rush defense from 2008 (the Wolf Pack wouldn't be at that level playing outside of the WAC, but they are a sound group defending the run).

Its hard to imagine any lineman grading out at less than a "B" though Duncan still appears vulnerable to the occasional bull rush (a footwork/base issue, certainly not due to his strength) and Young's internal clock failed him allowing the only sack of his quarterback on the day, though Clausen didn't flee the pocket for more than four full seconds on the play.

Kyle Rudolph was inconsistent as a run-blocker though still much better than as a true freshman at the end of last season. Michael Floyd only scored on three of his four catches…room for improvement?

Overall Special Teams

A grade of N/A would be appropriate. Freshman kicker Nick Tausch drilled two kick-offs near the goal line with a hang time of 4.2 seconds (according to Weis). He slipped on another and had two fairly short offerings. No field goal attempts.

As an aside, here's the group that will attempt to match last season's No. 1 nationally-ranked kick coverage group:

Kick Coverage Unit: (From right to left) Jamoris Slaughter, Mike Anello, David Posluszny, Sergio Brown, Scott Smith. Kicker Nick Tausch. Manti Te'o, Steve Filer, Anthony McDonald, Zeke Motta, Leonard Gordon.

And the Kick Return Unit as well: Front Wall – Zeke Motta, Anthony McDonald, Jonas Gray, Steve Filer, Leonard Gordon. Middle (Wedge) – Mike Ragone. Protectors – Scott Smith, Bobby Burger, Andrew Nuss (behind Smith and Burger); Deep Backs – James Aldridge and Theo Riddick.

Notre Dame employed new alignments on both their punt and punt return units. The "new" punt look with huge line splits and three punter "protectors" is en vogue…special teams coaches know more than I do about such things so I won't offer comment, especially following a game with no meaningful punts for ND.

I don't like the new approach of the cornerbacks on the punt return team (regarding the CBs facing the opposing "gunners"). In one instance, Jamoris Slaughter turned and ran (and turned twice more), affording a huge cushion while never attempting to make contact with Nevada's gunner until he had blown past him. The result was a meeting of Slaughter, his defender, and punt returner Golden Tate in a two-yard area. We'll see if this is an experiment or new philosophy on Saturday.

Personnel-ly speaking

Its ridiculous to offer the player rankings as promised after one game, so we'll start with a general overview of the team's personnel and my promise that the "rankings" will appear next week.

Top 15 Candidates:

  • Michael Floyd – If I were to rank Irish players 1-15 after Nevada, Floyd would be #1 with Clausen #1A. Floyd was a dominant, uncontainable (which I just confirmed actually is a word) force in the season-opener.
  • Jimmy Clausen – The junior signal-caller has completed 37 of his last 46 passes for almost 720 yards, with 9 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Now he needs to maintain that final number in The Big House and national recognition will follow. A win Saturday would rank as the biggest of Clausen's 24-start career.
  • Brian Smith – Made two of the defense's six momentum-changing plays with takedowns of Kaepernick behind the line of scrimmage. Smith's blitzing presence also allowed RDE John Ryan to come free and break up a 3rd down pass in the second quarter. As expected, Smith appears to be a much more effective player in space on the weak side than as a true middle linebacker (though the junior still plays inside in ND's preferred nickel package).
  • Eric Olsen – In his first game at center, Olsen provided two crushing blocks in space and offered a solid effort throughout the contest. Olsen likely graded as the team's best lineman vs. the Wolf Pack and is certainly the offense's emotional leader.
  • Kyle McCarthy – Steady Eddie. McCarthy won't be underrated nationally or by Irish fans much longer. He's more than a typical in-the-box strong safety (he'd like you to know that, by the way). Look for K-Mac to again save the Irish defense from several long/longer runs on Saturday.
  • Golden Tate – Tate offered the best downfield blocking performance of his career along with three receptions for 59 yards. He made contact with both defenders that had a shot at Floyd on the sophomore's 70-yard catch-and-run for a score and solid contact on at least three runs to the left side to help clear a path for Allen and Gray.
  • Sam Young – Fired up from the outset, Young led the way on fullback James Aldridge's 4th and 1 conversion on Notre Dame's first drive and threw the key block on Allen's 3rd and 2 conversion at the Irish 10-yard line (the next play was an 88-yard touchdown by Floyd).
  • Paul Duncan – Nevada defensive ends Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch combined for 21.5 sacks and 36 tackles-for-loss last season. Saturday, Moch had one TFL (a hustling tackle on the first direct-snap to Allen) and Basped, facing Duncan most of the afternoon, did not appear on the post-game stat sheet. An in-print apology to Duncan is in order after I surmised that he could not handle Basped one-on-one. Duncan won by knockout.
  • Toryan Smith – His 4th-and-1 stop of RB Vai Taua was the most exciting defensive play of the day. Though Smith still needs to shed blocks better, especially when the opposing center comes free, his 2009 debut was a better performance than most expected and the Irish need his strength vs. the run.
  • Irish Cornerbacks – N/A overall, as Kaepernick was unable to pose a serious challenge. The quintet played loose coverage by (obvious) design and both Gary Gray and Jamoris Slaughter appear ready to hit anything in front of them (Slaughter has "Safety" written all over him by the time he graduates in 2012-13). Darrin Walls returned, allowed no catches, and took a vicious crack back hit (welcome back!); McNeil had an uneventful, unchallenged day, and Robert Blanton showed physical and mental toughness on his end zone interception to end the half. This unit's first test is Saturday in Ann Arbor vs. a much better collection of athletes.
  • Trevor Robinson – Left in solo assignments for the entire afternoon and we never heard his name (that's a good thing). The Irish running game produced at least three successful plays over his right side/gap (I noted three, there obviously could have been more).
  • Chris Stewart – Made a great block downfield on Allen's 26-yard screen reception. I had Stewart down for four quality blocks with one weak effort (Theo Riddick's 3rd and 2 run that was dropped short of the marker).
  • Kyle Rudolph – The Ultimate Weapon. Rudolph caught a 3rd and 16 touchdown on a post pass from Clausen, then drew two defenders, leaving solo coverage on Michael Floyd (bad idea) on Floyd's 24-yard post-route score. Rudolph, by the way, was also open downfield on Floyd's 88-yard catch and run. I noted Rudolph for six quality blocks and five blocking mistakes on the day.
  • Mike Ragone – Played 27 (meaningful snaps, I did not track the final two drives); no receptions, only one route option that I saw, and excellent in-line blocking. I noted Ragone for seven solid blocks and just one sub par attempt. The junior tight end's first game in nearly 21 months was a rousing success. Ragone will make the Notre Dame running game better this season.
  • Armando Allen – He's becoming the consummate veteran runner and a nice match for Weis' offense. I don't know if Allen will ever be an explosive runner, but I'm now certain the Irish offense would struggle without his continued presence.
  • Harrison Smith – N/A. Nevada never challenged deep. Smith did save a long run (on McCarthy's only "missed" tackle) and displayed the exact sideline tackle technique featured in Coach Corwin Brown's tackling drills early each practice. No news is good news when a defense's free safety receives an "N/A" in a shut-out win.

Limited-Role Rankings:

  • Jonas Gray – Provided a definite spark, and more importantly, a second threat in any personnel grouping. The true sophomore finished his most meaningful contest in an Irish uniform with 9 carries for 51 yards including a first-patient, then aggressive 19-yard run on a toss right that was marked just short of the goal (keep him in, Charlie!). Armando Allen finished the drive with an untouched one-yard run (and smiled an apology to his understudy who awaits his first touchdown in an Irish uniform).
  • Duval Kamara – Three notes on Kamara who first appeared on Notre Dame's fourth offensive series: 1.) He threw what might end up as the textbook block(s) of the season – for any position – vs. Adam Liranzo on Armando Allen's 26-yard screen reception. 2.) He absolutely destroyed a Nevada linebacker on a crack back block during Tate's end around, 3.) He needs to run better decoy routes: Kamara barely jogged during an (obvious decoy) out-route when Clausen missed Rudolph over the middle.

    Kamara makes this offense better with his downfield blocking skills (and desire).

  • Robby Parris – Veteran, sneaky effort on his key 3rd and 5 catch to keep the first offensive drive of the season alive. Parris will need to make about 10 crucial receptions over the course of the next 12 games. I noted Parris for two solid blocks, the first on the game's second play when he cut a Nevada defender downfield (went down like a folding chair) on Rudolph's 11-yard TE screen; the second on freshman Theo Riddick's leap over defenders later in the contest.
  • Bobby Burger – If Ragone is the team's best blocker in space, Burger is 1A. I noted Burger for six quality blocks, no missed blocks, and one perfect block during which he was called for a completely false hold to pave the way for Allen over the left side. Burger teamed with Sam Young (a separate block) to allow Allen a lane during the runner's 3rd and 2 conversion deep in Irish territory. He also finished a block, then turned to help pancake Robby Parris' assigned defender on Riddick's leaping carry.
  • James Aldridge – Five positive plays (nothing notably negative): three lead blocks (two of which showed strong contact); a 9-yard run off right tackle and the season's first 4th and 1 conversion. The Irish need Aldridge healthy for the battle vs. Michigan State in South Bend or the short-yardage attack could suffer.
  • Manti Te'o: Yeesh...someone's getting hit in The Big House...

Unit Rankings

My summer Unit Rankings (based about 80 percent on what we had seen in the past and 20 percent on logical improvement – as well as developed and healthy depth) were as follows: WR, DB, Kick Coverage, QB, RB, LB, TE, Return Teams, Kicking Game, OL, DL.

With the knowledge that the Irish have played just one game vs. a middling opponent (you could also refer to Nevada as a "dangerous" opponent that played miserably), and that these are real-world NOT just Nevada-specific rankings, here's your first weekly update with a quick comment:

  1. Wide Receivers – No reason to change after that effort…improved downfield blocking as well…zero drops…talent waiting in the wings.
  2. Quarterbacks – I'd be crazy not to move this group (Clausen) up to No. 2.
  3. Defensive Backs – Nothing allowed behind them…never tested. Solid tackling group of cornerbacks.
  4. Tight Ends – The No. 7 summer ranking was wrong, but I had figured that out in mid-August. Rudolph is a legitimately great receiver and improving blocker. Ragone and Burger are angry, aggressive players – a perfect combo for this team and program.
  5. Kick Coverage – By default. They did nothing wrong and are the defending national champions at their responsibility. I do think they'll miss David Bruton at some point. Also, Sergio Brown s much better in kick than punt coverage as a tackler.
  6. Linebackers – Though the Irish played more nickel than base 4-3, the Smith Bros. – Brian and Toryan, were two of the three defensive stars of the contest and made four drive-halting plays. I'm less concerned about this group (with the addition of Fleming, Te'o, Scott Smith, Filer, McDonald, et al) than I am of the next …
  7. Offensive Line – It's a new season, but I haven't forgotten the past yet. They performed well in one home game against a WAC opponent. We'll see more in the coming weeks. Gold Stars all around for one game, however. I thought the OL played better than the RBs as a unit as the RBs too often "get" exactly what they should on each run.
  8. Running Backs – Nothing spectacular but they showed promise…I wouldn't have wagered more than 150 rushing yards in the opener…Gray looks like he could really help…Allen is solid, sound, and a leader…Aldridge is necessary to the group's success, he'll be missed by MSU if his shoulder injury is serious…Riddick has quicks and energy…Hughes needs to step up for the unit to improve.
  9. Defensive Line – Pushed around a bit too much up front but limited one of the nation's most productive rushing attacks to 153 yards on 29 carries. The game plan was to stop Kaepernick and let Taua try to beat them – Kaepernick finished with 39 net rushing yards and completed less than 50% of his (awkward) passes.
  10. Return Teams – The jury is still out on the new blocking scheme (I'm not a fan) Of course, there's a 99.999% chance the coaches know a little more than I do on the subject! And a .001% chance they're making a soon-to-be costly mistake for the sake of change. A nice effort by sophomore John Goodman in a garbage-time punt return for 24 yards - he looked the part. Not really an N/A situation for this group but its unfair to rank them ahead of the DL…a unit that helped to pitch a shut-out and had a direct impact on the contest.
  11. Kicking Game – N/A with zero field goals attempted.

Nevada Roundup

5 Items You Might Have Missed: Kamara's continued blocking on the 26-yard screen; Kamara's crack back on an unsuccessful (three-yard) end-around by Tate; Burger and Young staying with their blocks to allow Allen a first down deep in Irish territory; Parris' cut of a Nevada defender on Rudolph's 11-yard screen; Nevada's safety doubling Rudolph downfield on Floyd's 24-yard post touchdown. The play and personnel grouping was identical to Floyd's post-touchdown vs. Pittsburgh last season.

Offensive Players of the Game: Jimmy Clausen and Michael Floyd

Defensive Players of the Game: Brian Smith and Kyle McCarthy

Unsung Players of the Game: Mike Ragone, Bobby Burger, Harrison Smith

(I) Thought He'd Have a Better Game: Sergio Brown and Ian Williams

(I) Thought He'd Play More: Hafis Williams and Manti Te'o. Kerry Neal to a lesser extent.

Nice to Meet You

18 players made their debut in an Irish uniform Saturday:

  • Freshman: Theo Riddick, Zeke Motta, Nick Tausch, Jordan Cowart, Manti Te'o, Shaquelle Evans, and Tyler Eifert.
  • Sophomores: Anthony McDonald, David Posluszny, Jamoris Slaughter, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sean Cwynar, Dayne Crist, Deion Walker, Hafis Williams, John Goodman, and Lane Clelland.
  • Senior Transfer: Bobby Burger.
  • I Was Told There Would Be No Math

    • Over 16 seasons as a defensive-coordinator, Irish Co-DC and play-caller Jon Tenuta's defenses have limited opponents to 14 points or fewer in 11 of 16 opening-season contests.
    • Nevada was successful on just 2 of 11 3rd down conversions and 0-1 on 4th down. The Irish converted 6 of 12 on 3rd down, including two touchdowns and were 1-2 on 4th down.
    • The Irish are now 16-0 under Charlie Weis when outrushing their opponent. Notre Dame outrushed the Wolf Pack 178 yards to 153 in the opener.
    • Saturday marked the first shut-out of the Charlie Weis era and averaged 8.36 yards-per-play…the highest total of the Weis era.
    • Notre Dame's 28-point first-half outburst marked the largest point total for a season-opener since the 1989 squad scored 33 on Virginia in the season's Kick-Off Classic.
    • Michael Floyd's 47.3 yards-per-reception broke the school record (41.6) set by Jim Morse (against USC) in 1955.
    • The Clausen-to-Floyd 88-yard touchdown marked the third-longest connection in program history. A 1981 Blair Kiel to Joe Howard touchdown covered 96 yards.
    • On Saturday, the Irish were one of two FBS schools to commit no turnovers and fewer than three penalties (coincidentally, Nevada's biggest rival, the UNLV Runnin' Rebels, was the other).
    • Jimmy Clausen is the nation's No. 1 ranked quarterback in terms of passing efficiency with a mind-boggling (not to mention confusing) 303.67 mark.
    • Since the series resumed (after a 35-year hiatus) in 1978, Notre Dame's record vs. its upcoming opponent, the Michigan Wolverines, is 12-11-1. 15 of those 24 contests have been decided by one score, with 10 games decided by a score in the final two minutes.

    Later Today: Michigan week kicks off with coverage of Irish head coach Charlie Weis' weekly press conference.

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