Independents Football Preview

    
August 20th, 2009

Notre Dame wants a BCS bowl game

By Raphielle Johnson

 

Is Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis sitting on a hot seat? Some may say so while others will state that he’s got more time to get the Irish back to being “Notre Dame”. But there is no argument when it comes to how important a big year would be for he and his program. After ending 2008 on an upswing thanks to a blowout of Hawaii in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, Notre Dame is expected by many to win at least nine games due to a schedule littered with winnable games. And Notre Dame has the talent back needed to accomplish such a feat, as well as grab a BCS at-large bid.

 

QB Jimmy Clausen took ownership of the offense in the offseason, hosting a few of the wide receivers at his home in California in order to build on-field chemistry. In 2008 Clausen completed 60.9% of his passes, throwing for 3,172 yards and twenty-five touchdowns. But the number the offensive coaches want cut down on his interceptions, which totaled seventeen. Luckily for Clausen, every key receiver from last season outside of David Grimes is back on campus.

 

Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, Duval Kamara and tight end Kyle Rudolph make up a quartet of receivers that can give opponents fits all season long. And in talking about the passing game one must not discount RB Armando Allen, who finished second on the team with fifty receptions in 2008. Allen was part of a three-back platoon in the run game, with Allen, Robert Hughes and James Aldridge all rushing for at least three hundred yards apiece. Jonas Gray also saw action and stands to add depth to the position. Up front the Irish return four starters with seniors Sam Young and Chris Stewart leading the way.

 

Defensively, Notre Dame will need to return more than a few contributors to the 2008 edition. Six starters return, but the Irish will have to replace defensive mainstays David Bruton and Maurice Crum Jr. Leading tackler Kyle McCarthy, who finished 2008 with 110 tackles and two interceptions, is back as is fellow safety Harrison Smith. Linebacker is a position where youngsters could make the biggest impact, with Brian Smith being the lone returning starter at the position. Senior Toryan Smith has a wealth of experience, and he’ll now start in the middle.

 

Strongside linebacker will be an interesting competition to watch, with senior Scott Smith looking to hold off challenges from sophomores Darius Fleming and Steve Filer. Other youngsters expected to earn snaps this season include sophomores David Posluszny and Anthony McDonald, and highly touted freshman Manti Te’o. The secondary may be in the best shape of any unit despite the graduation of Bruton.

 

The aforementioned McCarthy and Harrison Smith are back, as is corner Raeshon McNeil. McNeil finished 2008 with two interceptions, tying McCarthy in that category for the returnees. The special teams will also be solid thanks to the abilities of kicker Brandon Walker and punter Eric Maust. Both will be challenged by freshmen in the form of kicker Nick Tausch and punter Ben Turk and the Irish will also look to duplicate 2008’s kick return unit, which led the nation by allowing just 16.5 yards per kickoff return.

 

The pieces are there for a run back to the BCS, especially considering the personnel losses that hit many of their opponents on the 2009 schedule. But has Notre Dame matured enough to handle the heightened expectations? That’s a question that will have to be answered in time.

 

Army

 

West Point will welcome a new head coach in 2009, with Rich Ellerson arriving by way of Cal Poly with the hope of kick-starting one of the game’s storied programs. Ellerson is one of college football’s leading experts on the triple option offense and had much success at the FCS level with the Mustangs. After failed attempts to “modernize” the offensive system the Black Knights have decided that they need to get back to their “roots”, and the hiring of Ellerson is a great move in that direction.

 

Due to the difference in talent pools that they can recruit from, the service academies have leaned upon option offenses for years. The objective of the coaching staff in the spring was to make sure they had players in the positions where they’d be most effective within the triple option system. That’s why you’ll see 6-foot-10 Ali Villanueva, who started spring drills by moving from tackle to guard, now on the field as…a starter at wide receiver. Damion Hunter and Davyd Brooks are more established at the position and will also see plenty of snaps.

 

But the key positions in the triple option are the spots in the backfield. Chip Bowden and Max Williams entered fall camp in a tight battle for the starting spot, and senior Carson Williams and sophomore Jimmy Reiter will also work in hopes of garnering a look under center. There were also changes on the line with Coach Ellerson favoring slimmer linemen that can move their feet, thus making the triple option a true threat to defenses. If your linemen can’t move with fluidity you’re going to have a hard time springing the option attack loose.

 

CeDarius Williams will look to replace the departed Collin Mooney at fullback, and that will not be an easy task. Mooney rushed for 1,339 yards in 2008, breaking the school’s single-season yardage record (considering that Army also produced Glenn Davis and Felix “Doc” Blanchard, “Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside”, that’s an amazing feat). Slotbacks Patrick Mealy, Jameson Carter, Ian Smith and George Fletcher are all in the running to see playing time as well; everyone will be given a fair chance to go out and earn snaps.

 

The lines are in a state of change, with the offensive line looking to get quicker and the defensive line getting acquainted with the “Double Eagle Flex” system that Coach Ellerson actually helped devise. The work of he and others on that Arizona coaching staff resulted in “Desert Swarm”, a defense that took the Arizona program from national unknown to household name in the mid-90s. Co-defensive coordinators Chris Smeland and Payaam Saadat spent all spring going over this system, one that can be a hit with players due to its attacking nature. If Mike Gann can stay healthy after missing most of 2008 he’ll be a very good fit for the defense at defensive tackle. He and Victor Ugenyi will be counted on to shore up the middle, while ends Josh McNary, Milton Holmes and Carson Homme will all have ample opportunities to make plays.

 

At linebacker Stephen Anderson is the lone returning starter, leading the Black Knights with eighty-two tackles in 2008. Due to a hamstring injury during the spring other players (notably Bill Prosko and Andre Shinda) got an opportunity to compete at middle linebacker in Anderson’s stead. Steve Erzinger is the likely starter at rover, and Andrew Rodriguez had an impressive spring at the whip linebacker position. It will take some time for the defense to take shape, but the Black Knights will attack.

 

The secondary has a lot of experience, with Mario Hill and Jordan Trimble being the leading candidates to start at corner. Safeties Donovan Travis and Desmond Lamb are just two players with game experience who should fit into the new system quite well. Matt Campbell performed well as the placekicker in 2008, but there is a question to be answered in regards to the punting job. It may be a bit too much to expect huge strides in the won-lost record for Army, but if they can improve upon last season’s win total (3) it would be a good start to the Ellerson era.

 

Navy

 

Head coach Ken Niumatalolo had a tough task in front of him in taking over for the departed Paul Johnson in 2008. But there wasn’t drop in Annapolis with the Midshipmen winning eight games and the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. The Midshipmen have now won the trophy symbolic of the series between Air Force, Army and Navy for six consecutive seasons, and they’ve beaten their two biggest rivals a combined thirteen consecutive times. Also to Navy’s credit are four straight seasons leading the nation in rushing offense, averaging 292.4 yards per game.

 

Navy has a number of experienced players back on campus, with quarterback Ricky Dobbs looking to lead the Midshipmen back to a bowl game. Dobbs played in eight games last season despite the presence of Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada and Jarod Bryant, rushing for more than 500 yards on the season. But the question will be in the backfield, with leading rushers Shun White and Eric Kettani both graduating. Alexander Teich has the inside track on the fullback position while Bobby Doyle and Marcus Curry left spring on top of the depth chart at the slotback positions.

 

Navy also enjoys the comforts of having some experience at wide receiver as well as on the offensive line. Mario Washington and Mike Schnupp are the likely starters and they’ll have a lot to do in replacing 2008 leading receiver Tyree Barnes. On the offensive line LG Osei Asante leads a group that features two seniors and two juniors heading into 2009. Sophomore Brady DeMell is the lone underclassman starting on the offensive line this season.

 

Defensively the Midshipmen return a number of experienced options on all three levels. Jabaree Tuani, who was named ECAC Rookie of the Year last season, is back on the defensive line as are seniors Michael Walsh, Matt Nechak and Jordan Stephens. But for as much experience as there is up front, the linebackers may make up the best group within the defense. Ross Pospisil, Clint Sovie and Ram Vela are all back for one more rodeo, as are inside linebacker Tony Haberer and outside linebacker Craig Schaefer. In a 3-4 scheme you’re only as good as your linebackers, and the Midshipmen have some very good answers at the position.

 

The secondary has just one senior starter in corner Blake Carter, and he’s also the secondary’s leading returning interceptor with just one pick. Players such as Carter, free safety Kwesi Mitchell and rover Wyatt Middleton will have their work cut out for them in replacing standouts such as Rashawn King and Ketric Buffin, both of whom tallied three interceptions in 2008. If the secondary can make strides in fall camp Navy would essentially be a lock to go bowling once again.

 

However, the kicking game will be an area to watch as well. Punter Kyle Delahooke is back after averaging 41.6 yards per punt in 2008, but how will Coach Niumatalolo go about replacing the reliable Matt Harmon? Sophomore Jon Teague led the kicking battle heading into fall camp, but he’s yet to attempt a field goal at the collegiate level.

 

Also working against the Midshipmen in regards to answering questions about the secondary and kicking game are the first three games of the season: at Ohio State, Louisiana Tech and at Pittsburgh. That could put their streak of six straight seasons with eight wins or more in jeopardy.

 

Storyline: Can Notre Dame take advantage of a manageable schedule and get back into BCS bowl contention?

 

Players of the Year: Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen and Notre Dame SS Kyle McCarthy

 

How they’ll finish

            Notre Dame 9-3

            Navy 7-6

            Army 3-9

 

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