NEW LOOK IRISH BATTLE GEORGIA TECHposted by John Vannie
The relatively young Irish lineup is sprinkled with familiar names on both sides of the ball. Center John Sullivan anchors the offensive line, but he will line up with three new faces and sophomore Sam Young, who started as a freshman in 2006. The receiving corps is predominantly new, as David Grimes is the only member of the group that saw significant action last year. Darius Walker has moved on, and the running back job will be shared by five capable and diverse players. Two freshmen, speedster Armando Allen and versatile powerhouse Robert Hughes, are in the mix and will see action behind Travis Thomas.
Coach Charlie Weis has tried to keep the identity of his starting quarterback a secret until kickoff, but freshman phenom Jimmy Clausen is not likely to take the initial snaps while continuing to recover from minor elbow surgery in June. Sophomore Demetrius Jones should get the nod, and he will give Weis considerable play-calling options.
Despite the makeover on offense, the biggest area of concern for Notre Dame fans is the defensive line. Trevor Laws is the only returning veteran, and the players that will line up alongside him in Brown’s 3-4 alignment are hardly household names. Patrick Kuntz will make his debut at nose tackle, and he will be spelled by 300-pound freshman Ian Williams. Justin Brown and Dwight Stephenson will share the duties at end opposite Laws, but the operative fear is that both may be a bit undersized. Laws will start on the defensive left side since most offensive teams are right handed with regard to the running game.
Maurice Crum leads an otherwise unproven group of linebackers. Players such as Anthony Vernaglia, John Ryan, Scott Smith, Morrice Richardson, Joe Brockington and Toryan Smith all saw action last season, but it is not clear who will emerge as the most productive players in Brown’s more aggressive system. Others such as highly regarded freshmen Kerry Neal and Brian Smith may play themselves into the mix. The outside backers will be counted upon to provide a pass rush in Brown’s scheme, and the players who provide the most productivity will stay on the field.
The strength of the defense lies in the secondary, where strong competition among a group of impressive athletes has produced a quality two deep rotation. If the group in front of them is able to pressure the quarterback, this collection of speedsters will make it difficult for opponents to create the big plays that were so prevalent last season. A lean and healthy Tom Zbikowski returns at safety, and he is joined by David Bruton, who is a superb athlete in his own right. The starting corners are Terrail Lambert and Darrin Walls, with Ambrose Wooden and Raeshon McNeil right behind them.
Once again, the kicking game is a question mark for Notre Dame. Brandon Walker and Nate Whitaker will compete for the placekicking chores right up until the coin toss. Geoff Price returns for his final season as the Irish punter, and he should garner some attention as an All-American candidate.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Georgia Tech Defense
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, the Irish do not currently have the personnel to run the same sophisticated pass-oriented offense we have seen in Weis’ first two seasons. Success this year and particularly against Georgia Tech will depend on whether Notre Dame can adopt the nastiness and physical play Weis promised in December 2005 but has not yet delivered. The offensive line has been retooled for this purpose, and the diverse stable of running backs is capable of punishing opposing defenders.
Tight end John Carlson and Grimes will ensure that the quarterback will have capable targets to throw to and move the chains. The Irish have been in search of a legitimate deep threat at receiver, and this may be the season the D.J. Hord finally emerges in that role. George West has also had a good fall camp, and freshmen Duval Kamara and Golden Tate are getting a long look from the staff. Both should see action this season, with Kamara most likely to play early.
Weis will also employ multiple tight end sets from which he can run or pass. Will Yeatman and Konrad Reuland are a big, talented pair of sophomores behind Carlson, and freshman Mike Ragone may line up in the slot where he can use his above-average speed.
Georgia Tech will counter with an experienced defense coached by Jon Tenuta and led by linebacker Phillip Wheeler. The Jackets will blitz all afternoon against the Irish and hope to force Jones into long third down conversion attempts and turnovers. Darrell Robertson leads a strong front four that will resist Notre Dame’s efforts to move the ball on the ground. Meanwhile, Wheeler will look to blitz, and his collisions with Irish fullback Asaph Schwapp will echo throughout the stadium.
Weis will attempt to counter the blitz with screen passes, and Jones will not hesitate to run both on scrambles and designed plays. Allen should be a perfect weapon to use on screens, and one breakaway play by the freshman will electrify the anxious stadium crowd.
The Jackets also boast a veteran secondary. Cornerback Avery Roberson and safety Djay Jones are quality players who will make the Irish receivers earn every catch and yard. The entire Tech defense pursues extremely well, and the key for the Irish will be their level of success when they go right at them. Weis can do this with multiple tight ends and battering rams at running back such as Thomas, Hughes or James Aldridge. He can also spread out the Jackets and create favorable matchups for speedsters such as Allen, who might just be the key player in this game.
Georgia Tech Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
The Yellow Jackets are also breaking in a new starter at quarterback after four seasons with Reggie Ball at the helm. From his relatively brief appearances and Gator Bowl start last season, left-hander Taylor Bennett appears to be a competent college quarterback. Since he can no longer throw to All-World receiver Calvin Johnson and will be looking instead for James Johnson, Bennett may not exactly light up the Irish secondary as some pundits have predicted.
Tashard Choice is poised for a productive season as the featured back in Coach Chan Gailey’s offense. Georgia Tech is strong in the middle of its offensive line with a trio of seniors. Center Kevin Tuminello and guards Nate McManus and Matt Rhodes will put pressure on Kuntz to hold his own until help arrives. If the Irish are able to battle the Tech ground attack to a stalemate, Bennett does not have the weapons at receiver or the foot speed to win the game by himself.
Knowing this, Brown’s strategy will include a number of run blitzes, tight, press coverage on the outside receivers and an array of different looks in an effort to confuse Bennett. This represents a welcome departure from recent, more passive defensive schemes at Notre Dame, but the question remains whether the Irish front seven can hold up physically when the battle is joined.
The conventional wisdom has been that Notre Dame’s defenses lack speed, but the Irish may surprise a few people in that regard. Whereas Rick Minter’s cumbersome reads and generally reactive approach caused his defense to appear slow and resulted in numerous breakdowns, Brown’s simplified style should yield a more accurate measure of overall team speed. The Irish hope this will also lead to better results.
Notre Dame finally has the depth required to stock its special teams with talented players to improve upon a disappointing performance in 2006. Fans will be pleased to see Zbikowski return to form as the punt returner, while Allen brings incredible skills to the kickoff return team. The return game is the area in which Notre Dame has a clear advantage, and a big play here may be the difference in an otherwise even contest.
The kicking game may slightly favor Georgia Tech, since Travis Bell is an experienced kicker and Notre Dame will deploy an unknown commodity. Both teams are in good shape with veteran punters. It will be interesting to see if either kicker can get the ball to the goal line now that kickoffs will be launched from the 30 yard line. Field position will dictate offensive strategy and have a major impact on the outcome.
Georgia Tech’s defense will cause the Irish problems at times with its aggressive style. Tenuta will guess right with his blitzes with sufficient regularity, and therefore will keep sending his men into the gaps throughout the afternoon. Jones must play with poise in the pocket and make plays with his legs if needed. Weis’ teams usually minimize turnovers, but this revamped offense may need a few games under its belt before the bugs are ironed out. Unfortunately, the schedule does not permit a slow learning curve, and the Irish will have to establish an identity and make enough big plays to win.
The game will be a defensive struggle and will turn when one team proves it can run the ball more efficiently than its opponent. Field goals made and missed will be a key element in the outcome, and a long return on special teams could tilt the scales in Notre Dame’s favor. Neither the Irish nor Tech is likely to mount a successful comeback from a two touchdown deficit, and neither quarterback is likely to throw for 300 yards. The winning team will probably have a run/pass ratio of two to one and at least 200 yards rushing.
The key elements that will determine the outcome are as follows:
Which offensive line can sustain an effective ground attack?
Which quarterback will be more accurate and make fewer mistakes?
Will Notre Dame be able to handle the blitz?
Will the Irish generate any pressure on Bennett?
Which secondary will employ tight coverage without giving up the big play?
Can Notre Dame generate a scoring play on special teams?
Field goal conversion
The Irish have a better collection of offensive weapons than Tech, and Weis will find ways to score points. Corwin Brown's forceful personality has made an impact on this team since he arrived on campus, and it's difficult to imagine that his defense will be run over in his Notre Dame debut. Unless the Irish dig themselves into a hole with turnovers and surrender gift points, they can load up against the run and force Bennett to beat them. He won’t.
Notre Dame 24 Georgia Tech 17