Sunday, April 29, 2007

Best Irish Draft in a Decade

As the second day of the 2007 NFL Draft winds down, the big story of the weekend remains Brady Quinn's long day yesterday, as he very publicly slid down the draft board until the Cleveland Browns traded up to take him with the 22nd overall pick. As a big fan and defender of Brady Quinn, I felt really bad for him, although it looks like he landed in a spot that may be perfect for him.

But lost in the agony of Brady's tough day is the fact that this was the best draft year for Notre Dame since 1997. Three Irish players were first day picks (Quinn in Rd. 1, Victor Abiamiri in Rd. 2 to Philly, and Ryan Harris in Rd. 3 to Denver). Notre Dame has not had three first day draft picks since 1997, when four Domers went on Day 1 (Renaldo Wynn in Rd. 1 to Jacksonville, Marc Edwards in Rd. 2 to San Francisco, Bert Berry in Rd. 3 to Indy, and Kinnon Tatum also in Rd. 3 to Carolina). Since 1982 Notre Dame has had three or more players taken on Day 1 (Rounds 1 through 3) on just seven occasions, including 1997 and 2007.

  • 1988. Tim Brown (Rd. 1), Tom Rehder (Rd. 3), Chuck Lanza (Rd. 3). Five Irish drafted overall.
  • 1990. Anthony Johnson (Rd. 2), Tim Grunhard (Rd. 2), Jeff Alm (Rd. 2), Pat Terrell (Rd. 2). Nine players drafted overall (the Draft had more than 7 rounds in that era).
  • 1991. Todd Lyght (Rd. 1), Ricky Watters (Rd. 2), Chris Zorich (Rd. 2), Bob Dahl (Rd. 3). Ten players drafted overall (more than 7 rounds in Draft).
  • 1993. Rick Mirer (Rd. 1), Jerome Bettis (Rd. 1), Tom Carter (Rd. 1), Irv Smith (Rd. 1), Demetrius DuBose (Rd. 2), Reggie Brooks (Rd. 2). Nine players drafted overall (more than 7 rounds in Draft).
  • 1994. Bryant Young (Rd. 1), Aaron Taylor (Rd. 1), Jeff Burris (Rd. 1), Tim Ruddy (Rd. 2), Jim Flanigan (Rd. 3), Willie Clark (Rd. 3), Lake Dawson (Rd. 3). Ten Irish drafted in 7 rounds).
  • 1997. Renaldo Wynn (Rd. 1), Marc Edwards (Rd. 2), Bert Berry (Rd. 3), and Kinnon Tatum (Rd. 3). Five Irish drafted overall.
  • 2007. Brady Quinn (Rd. 1), Victor Abiamiri (Rd. 2), Ryan Harris (Rd. 3). Also Drafted: Derek Landri (Rd. 5 to Jacksonville), Mike Richardson (Rd. 6 to New England), Dan Santucci (Rd. 7 to Cincinnati) and Chinedum Ndukwe (Also in Rd. 7, also to Cincinnati), for a total of seven players drafted this year.
Looking at this list tells us a couple of things. First, and perhaps foremost: Lou Holtz was a heck of a football coach. Except for this year (2007), every other year since 1982 with three or more first day draft picks was during Coach Holtz's tenure. The second thing I take from the above list is that Coach Weis does seem to have the program headed in the right direction. It's true that this year's draftees were not Weis recruits, but you have to wonder whether any of these guys were destined to be first day picks before Charlie Weis showed up. I think not.

So I wish Brady Quinn all the best in Cleveland, playing for my new favorite NFL team. And I am also very excited for the future of Notre Dame football, as the results of the NFL draft show very clearly that our players are getting top-flight coaching for the first time since the Lou Holtz years.

[Note: Post edited to add players drafted in Rd. 7, after the time of the original post.]

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Why is this man smiling?

The crew at Blue-Gray Sky have once again outdone themselves with a wonderful gallery of photos from the 2007 Blue-Gold game, which was played this past Saturday under a bright blue sky in Notre Dame Stadium. In perusing the BGS gallery, as well as other photo coverage of the game, I was struck by the photo of Coach Weis featured above. (Photo credit to BGS contributor John Maxwell). Is anybody in Notre Dame Stadium having more fun this man? I don't think so. Every other photo I have seen of Charlie from that day also shows him smiling, whether pre-game, in-game, or post-game. I'm sure there's an image of him somewhere with a more serious expression, maybe even a scowl. But the above image is very representative.

So what's my point? My point is that Charlie Weis absolutely loves his job. He loves being the head football coach at the University of Notre Dame. He loves being in Notre Dame Stadium, and he loved seeing Lou Holtz and Ara Parseghian back on the sidelines as much as any fan in the stands did. And he loves coaching Notre Dame kids. Charlie Weis has lost his star quarterback, top running back, and top two receivers, as well as key members of the offensive and defensive lines. You would think that he might have been distracted on Saturday by the four-way quarterback race, or the need to find somebody to throw the ball to. With 50,000+ of the Irish faithful filling the stadium for a glimpse of the future, Charlie had every right to be a little nervous. A little tense, anxious, or even testy. But he wasn't. Instead, he had a goofy grin on his face, amused by a trick play called by one of the honorary coaches. Just having fun with his guys.

I can't tell you how refreshing that is. Wins and losses aside, Notre Dame needs a football coach who loves the University and all that it stands for. I went to school during the Gerry Faust years. Being a Notre Dame fan in that era was maddening. We beat USC three of four years I was there, and lost to the Air Force Academy all four years (my Dad's alma mater). We would beat Michigan and Miami, then lose to Arizona and tie Oregon (1982). Stuff like that. But as frustrating as the team could be on the field, no one doubted that Coach Faust had a heart of gold and that he loved the University with all his golden heart. It was hard to harbor bad feelings toward the guy, even if he was in way over his head.

Lou Holtz was the same way. You knew he "got it" when it came to the whole Notre Dame experience. But Bob Davie never "got it." I'm sure he respected the football tradition, the National Championships and the Heisman trophies. But he never really understood the University. He never understood the Notre Dame way. To him, the Notre Dame way just meant that it was harder to get "baw players" and "ath-a-letes" into school. To him, the Notre Dame way meant that we would never win again, because expectations were unrealistic. Ty Willingham , I think, understood the Notre Dame way on an intellectual level. He embraced the concept of the true student athlete, the idea that character counts. But Ty never seemed to embrace the University and its tradition on a gut level. He maintained his emotional distance, never really investing himself in the place, and it showed.

With Coach Weis we're back to where we should be, with a football coach who embraces Our Lady's University and all it stands for. His enthusiasm and his faith in Notre Dame is infectious - it spreads to the coaches, the fans, and the players. The high school student-athletes who are exposed to this enthusiasm and belief can feel it too - and they want to be a part of it.

So why is Charlie smiling? Because he loves his job, a job which I suspect he feels he was meant to have. But there's something else in that smile. I can't help but get the feeling that Coach Weis knows something we don't. That he's got one or more guys who will do just fine at quarterback, that we're deep with quality running backs, that the offensive line will finally be truly "nasty," and that our new defensive coordinator is doing a very good job. In short, I think Charlie's smiling because he likes his team, and he likes their chances.

I just hope he's still smiling in November.

Monday, April 23, 2007

What you see is what you get?

In my last post, I had this to say about Blue-Gold games in general:

Well, to me it looks like what you see is what you get. If a player has a big Blue-Gold game, he's a pretty decent player and he's likely to have a pretty good Fall season. If the offense is prodigious in the Spring, you'll probably be able to move the ball in the Fall. If the defense dominates the Blue-Gold, the defense will likely be the better unit come September. So, while you're tempted to say that the Blue-Gold is fairly meaningless, I would have to disagree. Looking back a few years tells me that teams don't change drastically over the summer. Warning signs in April are serious weaknesses in October. Strengths now will likely be the team identity in five months. Not to put any pressure on anyone, or add to the anxiety already in the air. Should be an interesting scrimmage tomorrow. Hope the weather cooperates.
So, after last Saturday, a day on which the weather did cooperate, what do we have? We have a quarterback derby that is still very much in the air. Before the game, Zach Frazer was pretty vocal about being #1 in the race, at least in his own mind. Then he went 0 for 4 with a pick. Demetrius Jones was only 3 of 6 with an INT, but also threw the only TD pass of the day, and had a very nice 31 yard run in a key spot. Evan Sharpley was 5 for 7 for only 31 yards, and got "sacked" 4 times. Wonderkid Jimmy Clausen was 3 of 7 for 23 yards. As a group, the four quarterbacks were 11 of 24 attempts for a whopping 77 yards, 1 TD and 2 INTs. You'd have to say nobody set Rock's House on fire from the quarterback spot.

On the ground, contrasted with just 24 passing plays (by the QBs), the Blue & Gold squads ran the ball 44 times for a net 211 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per rush (excluding QB runs and sacks). The combined squads had 12 first downs via the ground, only 2 converted through the air. The offensive surprise of the day was Junior Jabbie, who had more than twice as many yards as any other rusher (net 87 yards on 13 carries). Travis Thomas, James Aldridge, Asaph Schwapp, and Armando Allen were all within spitting distance of 30 yards gained and 4.0 per carry.

All offense taken together averaged just 3.2 yards per play. (3.0 for the Gold, 3.5 for the Blue).

The defenses, aside from holding the offense to just 3.2 yards per play, had 2 interceptions (one returned for a TD), 9 two-handed "sacks", and 8 other tackles for loss. Longest pass completion was just 15 yards.

The offensive MVP was an unknown running back (Jabbie), not a QB or receiver. The defensive MVP was a defensive back (Bruton), which is a good sign.

So, if I'm right, if "what you see is what you get" in the Spring game, what do we get from the Irish this year? Well, it looks like the coaching staff would very much like to take the pressure off the quarterback and rely much more heavily on the run to move the ball and control the clock. Judging from the performances of the running backs, I think we're going to see the carries get spread around to a lot of very fresh running backs, at least until a true #1 emerges. Travis Thomas was expected to be the lead dog in this pack, but he didn't separate himself from the younger guys at all. The passing game was almost entirely a short, ball control game. The tight ends were heavily involved, the wide receivers were not.

From all reports, the defense appeared to be improved. More big plays (sacks, INTs, tackles for loss), more aggression. Guys weren't caught out of position. Play against the power run game (judging by the stats) was respectable. From this brief glimpse, Corwin Brown's new scheme seems to be a big improvement over the past two seasons. And we need a big improvement to compete this year. When we had Brady Quinn, we didn't need a great defense, just a competent one. We didn't get even that, as the D got scorched for big plays time after time in big games. Breaking in a new quarterback, with a very young O-line and young wide receivers, we need a defense that is stout. Our offense needs to get the ball on a short field. We need to be dominant in the field position game, and we need scores from the defense and special teams.

So, it appears that we have a young, conservative offense relying on the running game to move the ball and control the clock. It looks like we have an improved defense that will have to shoulder more of the load next year. It looks like we have no idea who the quarterback or even the top running back will be.

The $64,000 question is: How much of what we saw was reality, and how much of what we saw was Coach Weis being coy? The new defense was not really tested by a deep passing game, and the quarterbacks were not throwing the ball down field. So those of us sitting (figuratively) in the stands don't really know how conservative the offense will be, or how well the QBs are progressing. But Coach Weis (like his mentor Bill Parcells) is very fond of saying "All I can go by is what I see." What did you see on Saturday?

Friday, April 20, 2007

What's in a (Blue-Gold) Game?

Tomorrow is the the big day - the 78th annual Blue-Gold game at Notre Dame. Did anyone here not know that already? Seriously? As I may have mentioned before, this year's edition of the Spring Classic figures to be one for the ages. I really wish I could have made the trip to see Ara and Lou patrolling the sidelines, to see the new defensive scheme, and mostly to watch the four-way battle at the quarterback spot. There has been much speculation about what everyone will see tomorrow, and what it all will mean. Is Clausen the starter already? Has D. Jones fallen down the depth chart? Can any of these guys walk and chew gum at the same time? All the anticipation and speculation led me to wonder: Does history offer us any lessons to be taken from the Blue-Gold game? Have past performances generally been a good indicator of what would transpire in the Fall? Or are Spring flings just anomalous blips that don't fit the pattern that emerges in the Fall?

So I thought I'd dig a little. Blue-Gold data has proven to be a little elusive (at least to me) but I did manage to track down some vital stats going back to the 1998 contest. I'll leave it to the crew at BGS to provide deeper historical and statistical analyses (because they're just better than the rest of us), but here is what I dug up:

  • 2006. Blue defeats Gold, 10-7 on a Carl Goia field goal. Offensive MVP was Travis Thomas (8 rushes for 104 and a TD). Defensive MVP was Trevor Laws (6 tackles, including 2 sacks).
  • 2005. Blue defeats Gold, 28-6. Offensive MVP Brady Quinn (8 of 12 passing for 102 yards, 2 TDs). Defensive MVP Trevor Laws (1 sack and 3 total tackles for loss).
  • 2004. Blue defeats Gold 35-7. Offensive MVP Brady Quinn (17 of 22, 263 yards, 1 TD). Defensive MVP Tom Zbikowski (1 INT).
  • 2003. Blue defeats Gold 17-14. Offensive MVP quarterback Chris Olsen (11 of 25, 146 yards). Defensive MVP Justin Tuck (3 sacks).
  • 2002. Gold defeats Blue 3-0 on Nick Setta field goal. Offensive MVP Ryan Grant (7 carries for 45 yards). Defensive MVP Gerome Sapp (5 tackles, 1 INT).
  • 2001. "Defense" defeats "Offense" 74-40. Is nothing sacred? Offensive MVP David Givens (2 TD catches). Defensive MVP Shane Walton (INT return for TD).
  • 2000. "Defense" defeats "Offense" 39-31. Offensive MVP Jabari Holloway (4 receptions). Defensive MVP Anthony Denman (39 yd INT return for TD).
  • 1999. Blue defeats Gold, 49-10. Offensive MVP Jarious Jackson (5 of 6 for 73 yards and a TD). Defensive MVP Anthony Denman (6 tackles, 1 INT).
  • 1998. Blue defeats Gold, 38-7. Offensive MVP Autry Denson (11 carries for 109 yards). Defensive MVP Kory Minor (5 tackles including 1 sack).
Do these results tell us anything? I think so. First, based on historical trends, the Blue team has to be considered a prohibitive favorite. They are 6-1 over the last 9 games. Second, Bob Davie is an idiot. By April of 2001 Notre Dame had been playing an annual Spring football game for 70 years. By long tradition, this event has been called the Blue-Gold game. Yet, for the 71st edition of this classic, Coach Davie decides he doesn't want to play Blue versus Gold. He's going to play "offense" versus "defense." Because that sounds so much better. And tradition doesn't really matter at a place like Notre Dame, does it? Sheesh.

What else? Well, to me it looks like what you see is what you get. If a player has a big Blue-Gold game, he's a pretty decent player and he's likely to have a pretty good Fall season. If the offense is prodigious in the Spring, you'll probably be able to move the ball in the Fall. If the defense dominates the Blue-Gold, the defense will likely be the better unit come September. So, while you're tempted to say that the Blue-Gold is fairly meaningless, I would have to disagree. Looking back a few years tells me that teams don't change drastically over the summer. Warning signs in April are serious weaknesses in October. Strengths now will likely be the team identity in five months. Not to put any pressure on anyone, or add to the anxiety already in the air. Should be an interesting scrimmage tomorrow. Hope the weather cooperates.

Monday, April 16, 2007

"Day of Silence" at Notre Dame

Numerous student groups at the University of Notre Dame are urging members of the campus community to observe a "Day of Silence" on April 18th. According to organizers, those who choose to participate in the Day of Silence can carry a card and wear a button to explain why they are not speaking.

And why aren't they speaking? Is it to remember the students murdered at Virginia Tech today? Is it to remember the victims of radical Islamist terror worldwide? Or the brave soldiers who have died in the fight against terror? Is it to honor Jackie Robinson on the 60th anniversary of his breaking the color barrier in Major League baseball?


The "Day of Silence" is part of the "Stand Against Hate," a full week of activities designed to spread awareness about issues faced by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community - including harassment and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals - with the hope of bringing the issue back to the center of campus consciousness.

In addition to the "Day of Silence," the "Stand Against Hate" will include a display of the Holocaust memorial on South Quad (on Tuesday) that will include symbols used by Nazis during the Holocaust to label and identify their victims.

It's this type of brave stand against bigotry and oppression that makes me so proud to be a Domer. Not!

Are LGBTQ (what the heck does Q mean?) persons really subjected to harassment, discrimination and hate at the University of Notre Dame? Or are they instead subjected merely to disapproval? Because there is a big difference between the two. Notre Dame students, faculty, and administrators are an educated group, and the culture on campus is steeped in political correctness and tolerance. I find it hard to believe that any group of people is really subjected to harassment and hate on that campus. Well, I take that back. Republicans and conservatives might be subjected to hate and harassment, and have their freedoms of speech and expression curtailed. And sometimes the members of ROTC on campus are subjected to shoddy treatment (there was an anti-ROTC protest on campus just a few weeks ago).

Notre Dame is a Catholic University. It is open to persons of all persuasions, but it still remains true to it's Catholic roots, dedicated to religious belief no less than scientific knowledge. That's part of the package when you get off the bus. This is not a secret. And the Catholic church teaches that God's gift of sexuality is intended by God to be shared between husband and wife. Sexual relations outside of marriage (whether between man and woman, man and man, woman and woman, Q and Q, priest and child) is contrary to the Church's teachings. Thus, at a Catholic University, it is no surprise that sexual relations outside of marriage are not encouraged. Setting LGBTQ issues aside, the University goes to significant lengths to "harass" and sexually discriminate between its students in order to prevent heterosexual relations between non-married persons. Single-sex dorms, parietals, and University rules are all designed to impede heterosexual students from exercising sexual "freedom." LGBTQ students should expect no better. LGBTQ sexual practices and choices are contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church and contrary to the values of the University community. Because of that LGBTQ students will encounter, at times, disapproval of their chosen lifestyle. But disapproval is not hate. Jesus taught that he who is without sin should cast the first stone, thus Christ taught tolerance and forgiveness. Neither Christ nor the Church teaches hate. But tolerance does not always mean agreement or approval or endorsement.

I am also disturbed by the inclusion of the Holocaust memorial in this week's activities. Yes, homosexuals also suffered at the hands of the Nazis. But using the memorial as a prop this week trivializes what happened to the Jewish and homosexual victims of National Socialism. More than six million Jews were slaughtered in cold blood by the Nazis. Slaughtered not because of anything they actually did, but merely because of their ancestry. The Holocaust was Evil on a scale beyond imagining. To draw a parallel, however tenuous, between the victims of the Holocaust and the "victims" of "hate" at the University of Notre Dame is truly insulting. As noted above, LGBTQ students at Notre Dame may face disapproval, but they do not face hatred. Using the Holocaust memorial as a prop in the "Stand Against Hate" merely demonstrates that the LGBTQ community doesn't really understand what true hatred is. Of course, the subtle, unspoken message in using the Holocaust in this way is that while the LGBTQ students are victims of Nazi-style hatred, those who disagree with or disapprove of the LGBTQ lifestyle are the modern equivalent of the Nazis themselves.

Who's hating now?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Will Brady Quinn be a Buc?

The South Bend Tribune reported today on Jon Gruden's visit to the Notre Dame campus this weekend. Gruden returned to his roots to speak at the Notre Dame coaches clinic. But it sounds like he spent a lot more time with Brady Quinn than he did with the coaches attending the clinic. According to the article, Gruden had nothing but high praise for Quinn's preparation to play at the next level, both physically and mentally. This would all be of only passing interest, but for the fact that Coach Gruden holds the #4 overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft. The Bucs, of course, have young starter Chris Simms returning after missing 13 games due to a routine splenectomy last season. Just kidding - the guy lost his freaking SPLEEN! He almost died! But he says he's all better now. Forgive me if I'm a little skeptical that one can bounce back so quickly from that particular procedure. As an insurance policy, the Bucs signed cagey veteran Jeff Garcia in the off-season. If I had to bet, I'd take Garcia to beat out Simms for the starting job. There has been talk for a long time that Gruden has never been in love with Simms as a starting QB, and the impact of the spleen injury will not help the situation.

Enter Brady Quinn. Physically and mentally ready to move up, he comes from a University for which Coach Gruden has a great fondness. To step in and be an understudy to Jeff Garcia while he gets oriented to the NFL would be a great situation. And having played under Charlie Weis, you have to think that Brady would be able to handle "Chucky's" famous intensity. Although Tampa Bay doesn't have a glaring "need" for a quarterback, I found it very interesting that Coach Gruden not only brought former Irish player Maurice Stovall with him to work Quinn out (which makes some sense), but that he also brought in Tampa Bay wide receiver Michael Clayton. That seems like a lot of trouble to go to for a team that isn't seriously considering using its #4 pick on a quarterback. Of course, it may be that Tampa wants to trade down, and is trying to pressure the Vikings or Dolphins into making a better offer for the #4 pick. Or maybe Gruden wants to trade up to #2 or #3, and wanted to get a good look at Brady before making an offer to Detroit or Cleveland. Hmmmmmmmm.

Getting to Know: Corwin Brown

The Chicago Sun-Times has a terrific story today on new Notre Dame defensive coordinator Corwin Brown. The article provides some background on Coach Brown's childhood in a rougher area of Chicago, and shows how he was able to rise above it through hard work, strong character and great parents. You should read the article to get to know more about the new Irish DC. I think you'll also gain a greater appreciation of how effective Coach Brown will be as a recruiter of young football players who are growing up in situations he is very familiar with. Of course it remains to be seen whether all the work ethic and great character will translate into an improved defense, but the more I learn about Corwin, the more I am pulling for him to be a smash success.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"Quite frankly it bored the players"

The South Bend Tribune ran a short piece today, the gist of which was that former Notre Dame quarterback Arnaz Battle, now a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, thinks Brady Quinn has the tools to be a very good NFL quarterback. We covered that ground pretty thoroughly in my previous post. But there are some nuggets included in the story that really caught my eye, which, I think, really demonstrate how the Notre Dame football program got off track offensively under Lou Holtz and Bob Davie. First, the article notes:

Once Quinn signs a contract and shows up at camp, he'll be the only ND quarterback playing in the NFL as a quarterback. The only other two former Irish signal-callers on active rosters -- Battle (49ers) and Carlyle Holiday (Packers) -- are wide receivers.
Read that very closely. As of today, there are no quarterbacks playing in the NFL who played at Notre Dame. Can that be true? Notre Dame has a proud quarterback tradition, and for a long time there were more players on active NFL rosters from Notre Dame than from any other college (is this still true?). Yet, no Notre Dame quarterback is playing QB in "the league." It's very popular for Notre Dame fans to idolize Lou Holtz and ridicule Ty Willingham. But it was under Holtz (who was the greatest Notre Dame coach since Ara) that the offensive philosophy turned to the option. Although that style was very successful in winning games at the college level, it hurt our ability to either (a) recruit quarterbacks (or receivers) out of high school who had real NFL potential, or (b) to develop the quarterbacks (and receivers) we did have into top pro prospects. Yes, we landed Ron Powlus, who had a nice college career. But he never reached the potential many thought he had coming out of high school. Toward the end of Holtz's tenure, and into the Bob Davie era, we were running offenses that called for "athletic" quarterbacks (a la Donovan McNabb) who could both pass and run effectively. Thus we had quarterbacks who were very talented athletes (Battle and Carlyle Holiday) and effective at the college level, but who weren't NFL prospects at the quarterback position. Here is what Arnaz told the SBT about the lack of Irish quarterbacks in the NFL, and about playing in the Notre Dame offense during that era:
"It's kind of a funny stat really," Battle said, "but it doesn't surprise me. You have to look at the offense we were running at Notre Dame before Brady came in. It was an option-style offense, and quite frankly it bored the players. And if you had dreams of playing on the next level, you were going to have to change positions.

"I would have loved to play in (current Irish head coach) Charlie Weis' offense, either as a quarterback or wide receiver. I think I could have played either, but (with) the benefit of hindsight, I'd take receiver now. It's an explosive offense. The players have fun in it, and they win in it."
Did you catch that? In Battle's view, under the offensive scheme in place while he was at Notre Dame, quarterbacks didn't really have a chance of making it to the NFL. I love Lou Holtz, and I will repeat that he was a great coach and restored the luster to the golden dome. But I do believe the decision to install an option scheme set the program back in terms of its ability to consistently attract top talent at the quarterback and wide receiver positions. I am not an apologist for Tyrone Willingham. I was a big supporter of his when he came in, and was bitterly disappointed at the lack of progress under his watch. But probably the best thing he did while he was at Notre Dame was to install a real pro-style offense. Even though the execution of the offense was poorly done, the commitment to a pro-style scheme meant that the Irish at least had a chance to get some top pro-style quarterback and receiver prospects. Like Brady Quinn. And although Willingham left the cupboard frighteningly bare at many positions, at least Coach Weis had Brady Quinn and some talented wide receivers to work with when he showed up in South Bend, which played to his strength. And Weis has been able to parlay his NFL success and his development of Quinn into the recruiting coup of the decade - Jimmy Clausen.

Come next season, there will once again be Notre Dame quarterbacks playing the position in the NFL, and judging from the results so far under Coach Weis, that will likely be the case for many years to come.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Defending Brady Quinn

Brady Quinn doesn't need me defending him, but in light of recent criticism leveled at BQ on the eve of the NFL draft, I'm going to do it anyway. Quinn detractors are repeating the mantra that BQ is a nice quarterback, but that he "didn't play well in big games." ESPN's resident moron Merrill Hoge stated on national radio that he didn't feel that BQ was worthy of being selected in the first round of the draft. We'll take these one at a time.

First, the "Big Game" canard. Despite the fact that Brady Quinn has completely re-written the record books at Notre Dame, a University with a pretty fair quarterback tradition, some assert that Brady padded his numbers against inferior teams and failed to perform in big games. I'm not sure which inferior teams they refer to - probably the service academies. And it's true, the service academies are not perennial Top 25 teams. But are they really less credible than the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Tulane, North Texas State, or Appalachian State? LSU's JaMarcus Russell fattened his stats on these lesser teams. How do the service academies stack up to Miami of Ohio, Bowling Green, Cincinnati, San Diego State, and Northern Illinois? Those are some of the fearsome opponents that Ohio State and Troy Smith faced over the past two seasons. So not all of Brady's games came against big-time competition, but he certainly didn't play a notably weaker schedule than the quarterbacks to which he is being compared.

But what about the "Big Games"? How do we define a big game? I suspect that many commentators define a "Big Game" as "any game that Notre Dame loses." Over the past two years, using that definition, the Irish have played in six big games, having lost to USC (twice), Michigan, Ohio State, LSU, and Michigan State. I think we can all agree that Michigan State in 2005 (despite the Irish loss) is not a big game. Besides, if we include the MSU game it messes up the critics' hypothesis since Brady played out of his mind in that game (He went 33 of 60 attempts for 487 yards and five touchdowns with a passer rating of 147.35). Brady played well, ergo, it wasn't a "big game."

What about the other five losses over the past two years? Here's the breakdown:

  • USC 2005. Brady's stat line was 19 of 35 attempts (54.3%) for 264 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, and a passer rating of 121.36. All against a defense that would play later that season in the BCS Championship game (losing to Texas). At the time, the 2005 ND v. USC game was considered the Game of the Century. Brady led the Irish to a late touchdown that would have sealed one of the greatest Notre Dame wins of all time, if only the defense could have contained USC on 4th-and-9. How can anyone look at that game and question BQ's Big Game bona fides?
  • Ohio State (2006 Fiesta Bowl). Brady's Stat line was 29 of 45 attempts (64.4%) for 286 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs, passer rating of 117.83. Is that really a bad performance? Against one of the top defenses in the country? Despite the total inability of our defense to slow down OSU, Brady and the offense was able to keep the game in doubt until about 6 minutes left in the game. Yes, the Irish lost the game. Was it because Brady played poorly? With a passer rating of 117+? In a game where the running game and the defense were so invisible that BQ had to throw the ball 45 times? I don't think so.
  • Michigan 2006. Brady's stat line was 24 of 48 attempts (50%) for 234 yards, 3 TDs and 3 INTs, passer rating of 99.07. This game was the beginning of the end for BQ's Heisman campaign. People like to point to the three interceptions in this game as proof of Brady's poor Big Game performance. And it's true he wasn't sharp in that game (at least early). The first INT bounced off his receiver's shoulder (thrown a bit behind him). The second INT came when his arm was hit on a throw. The third came late in a desperation situation. Brady didn't play a great game. But he did throw three TD passes and pass for a decent percentage against another very good defensive team.
  • USC 2006. Brady's stat line was 22 of 45 attempts (48.9%) for 274 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs, passer rating of 122.04. What else is BQ supposed to do? Three touchdown passes and almost 300 yards against one of the best defenses in the country. Only Washington State (287 yards) and Michigan (309 in the Rose Bowl) hung more passing yards on that defense. Not to mention that the pass protection in front of Brady was porous and that he was running for his life much of the night. But this performance is counted as another failure to perform in a "Big Game."
  • LSU (2007 Sugar Bowl). Brady's stat line was 15 of 35 completions (42.9%) for 148 yards, 2 TDs and 2 INTs, passer rating of 85.81. This was a tough game to watch. Notre Dame was outplayed in every facet of the game, and quarterback play was no exception. But if you watched that game, you realized that BQ's performance wasn't quite that bad. There were several dropped balls that killed drives. (Both Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija played poorly, and Rhema's repeated drops probably cost him a lot of money as his NFL draft stock fell drastically that day). LSU was able to single cover our receivers, and put more players into rushing the passer. Brady was under a lot of pressure the whole game, and he wasn't getting a lot of help. It wasn't a good performance by BQ or anyone else in a gold helmet.
So those are the five "Big Games" that most of the critics want to remember. And if you define "Big Game" as games that ND lost that would be the end of the discussion. But those weren't the only Big Games Brady has played in the past two years. How about these games, which nobody mentions:
  • Pittsburgh 2005. Unranked Notre Dame was on the road against #23 Pittsburgh in a nationally broadcast night game. It was a much-hyped match up between two former NFL coaches, each in their first game as college head coaches. BQ went 18 of 27 (66.7%) for 227 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT, passer rating of 154.33. The Irish destroyed a Pittsburgh team that still has never recovered. Looking back, you can say that Pitt wasn't very good, but at the time nobody knew that and it was considered a very big game.
  • Michigan 2005. #20 ranked Notre Dame playing in the Big House against #3 ranked Michigan. Does it get much bigger than that? Really? Quinn went 19 of 30 (63.3%) for 140 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INts, passer rating of 124.53. You can maybe see why I wonder if "Big Games" are only those that ND loses. This was a big upset against a #3 team on the road, and BQ was magnificent. How can you look at this game and say he doesn't play well in big games?
  • Tennessee 2005. Granted, the Vols weren't awesome in 2005. But a Notre Dame home game against a traditional SEC power is still a pretty big game. A win brings a lot of credibility, a loss kills your season. Quinn went 20 of 33 (60.6%) for 295 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs, passer rating 165.70. That's pretty big.
  • Penn State 2006. Notre Dame ranked #4 versus #19 Penn State. A Top 20 opponent. Quinn goes 25 of 36 (69.4%) for 287 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs, passer rating 163.91, as the Irish destroy the Nittany Lions. A huge performance in a Big Game.
  • Michigan State 2006. This might not have been a Big Game going in (Irish ranked #12, MSU unranked), except that it was a very important game for the team. MSU had beaten Notre Dame at home the previous year, and humiliated the Irish by planting a flag in the turf at Notre Dame stadium. MSU had owned the irish in recent years. We had to get the Spartan monkey off our backs. At halftime the Irish trailed 31-14. At the beginning of the fourth quarter it was MSU 37, ND 21. By the time it was over, Brady Quinn had engineered a 40-37 miracle win in a driving rain storm. Brady's stats were 20 of 36 (55.6%) for 319 yards, 5 TDs and 1 INT, passer rating 170.27. IN A MONSOON!
Bottom line, those questioning Brady Quinn's Big Game performances are either obtuse or ignorant. It is true that Brady had some tough games against the most elite defenses in college football, that he wasn't able to win games against USC, LSU, Ohio State all by himself. But honestly - who can beat teams of that caliber single-handedly?

As for Merrill Hoge. He made big headlines for himself last week by stating on the radio that he didn't think Brady Quinn was worthy of a first round pick. He thinks Brady is a "nice" pro prospect, but not "special." According to Hoge, quarterbacks like BQ come along every year, while players like JaMarcus Russell are "once in a decade" type players. When pressed for specifics, Hoge observed that Bradys' accuracy wasn't the best. That's it. After all these huge proclamations, all Merrill could really point to was BQ's accuracy. Duh. Anyone who watched Quinn over his career observed that Brady was not as consistently accurate as might be hoped. Especially early in games, it seemed that adrenaline caused BQ to throw a lot of high balls (much like Brett Favre). He was sometimes behind receivers on crossing routes, or short on sideline routes. Sometimes those were unforced errors, but sometimes BQ was throwing under a lot of pressure. Too frequently his receivers dropped pretty good passes. But I think Hoge misses some very key points. Unlike JaMarcus Russell, or Troy Smith, or Matt Leinart, Brady Quinn seldom had the luxury of throwing to receivers running free down the field. Despite the acclaim that Jeff Samardzija, Mo Stovall, and Rhema McKnight have earned, rarely were any of them wide open. They were usually covered, often quite well, and it took either a great throw or a great catch (or both) to get a completion. To put up the numbers he did, Quinn had to squeeze a lot of very accurate throws into very tight spots. Which he did, often enough to shatter almost all Notre Dame passing records.

Hoge also downplays the things that Brady does exceptionally well. BQ took a physical beating for four years at ND, and didn't miss a game. His size, strength, and toughness will serve him well in the NFL. His work ethic is almost unparalleled. And he's smart. He understands the offense and the defense, gets the play called, audibles to a better play, makes his reads, delivers the ball to the correct receiver, and makes very few mistakes. Accuracy can be improved, but the ability to handle the game mentally at a high level is a much tougher proposition. Quinn has proven he can do that, which makes him a very hot prospect. NFL history is littered with big-arm guys who washed out because they could never master the mental aspects of the game. Brady Quinn will not be added to that list. Will Merrill Hoge's "special" player, JaMarcus Russell be next?

Brady Quinn doesn't need me to defend him. But I'm sick of the anti-Quinn talk and had to vent a little. I actually feel a little better now.

UPDATE 4/13/2007: I just ran across a nice analysis comparing the performances of Brady Quinn and JaMarcus Russell against quality defenses. My post wasn't really intended as a comparison between the two quarterbacks, but the post provides some good fodder for discussion. Thanks to "ckparrothead" at for crunching the numbers.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

"Fighting Irish" and the Leprechaun Under Review?

Mark Layne filed a rather disturbing story today claiming the the University of Notre Dame is reviewing its use of the "Fighting Irish" nickname and leprechaun mascot in order to stave off potential NCAA legal action. You should read the whole story, but here are some excerpts:

A mythical figure from Irish folklore, the leprechaun is a small male faerie known for his feisty, ill-tempered, and mischievous nature. Said to be possessed of magical powers, leprechauns can supposedly guarantee wealth and protection to any who might capture one ....

The irascible, elf-like creature first appeared in a cut-away green suit, Irish country hat, and shillelagh at the start of the 1965 football season. He has since become a fixture at all home varsity sporting events. Prior to the leprechaun, the University’s official mascot was an Irish terrier named Clashmore Mike, and prior to that, an artichoke.

Surprisingly, though a seemingly benign if not embarrassing symbol, the familiar leprechaun does not enjoy the support of all Notre Dame fans and faculty.

Notre Dame alumna, Eileen Shanahan, is disgusted by what she considers an abuse of elfin iconography. “I mean – leprechauns are people too, aren’t they? So is it fair to stereotype them all as odd, nasty little men always begging for a fight?”
As I said, if you care about this issue, you should read the whole article. Thanks to Mr. Layne for bringing this issue to our attention.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Anthony Vernaglia: Corwin's First Test?

The last couple of days has brought a lot of hype/buzz on Anthony Vernaglia. New Irish Defensive Coordinator Corwin Brown is apparently very familiar with Vernaglia, having worked very hard to recruit him while an assistant coach at the University of Virginia. The recent stories are very appropriate to Spring as the running theme is the "resurrection" of Anthony's disappointing career. Vernaglia came to Notre Dame in the Fall of 2004 as a very highly touted recruit out of Orange Lutheran High School in Orange, California (right here in Orange County). For each of the last two seasons (2005 and 2006) observers of the Notre Dame football program have waited expectantly for Vernaglia to have that breakout year and live up to the hype, only to be disappointed. Very disappointed. Being from Orange County, I have casually followed Vernaglia's career, which isn't easy since he has been nearly invisible as a player. In 26 minutes and 19 seconds of playing time last year over the course of eight games, Anthony logged one tackle. One lousy tackle. From my observations of the televised games last Fall, Anthony did not look like a linebacker. He seemed uncertain about where he was supposed to be on most plays, and was late to react as the plays developed. He also did not appear to me to be physical enough to be a linebacker. The result was that he was easily blocked and therefore late to the play, arriving at the pile well after the whistle. Having started the year as either #1 or #1A for the Apache linebacker spot, Anthony lost the competition and ended his season as #2 for the spot (at best).

Enter Corwin Brown and the new 3-4 defensive scheme. According to the latest stories, Coach Brown knows and likes Vernaglia, and has high expectations for him. The new 3-4 scheme is supposedly much better suited to Anthony's skill set, and he is very excited to have a new chance to prove himself as a linebacker, after having asked Coach Weis to try him out as a wide receiver this Spring. Apparently the position switch idea has been scrapped, and Vernaglia has been making a favorable impression on the coaches so far this Spring.

I am skeptical. As previously noted, Vernaglia just did not look like a linebacker to me last season. Coach Brown is preaching aggressiveness and "flying around the ball" as central themes of this defense, and those were two things that Anthony did not do when given the chance on the field last year. I will admit I have always been a little skeptical of Vernaglia. When he commited to Notre Dame coming out of high school, an acquaintance of mine who followed the Orange Lutheran program very closely expressed surprise that Notre Dame even recruited AV. My friend thought that Anthony had great athletic ability, but felt that he lacked the toughness and heart to be a great player in college. Others have chimed in with questions about Vernaglia's "make up." My friend thought at the time that Anthony got a lot more attention as a recruit than was warranted because his father had played football for Joe Paterno at Penn State, and because the family was pretty aggressive in marketing him as a player.

Vernaglia's season was cut short last year when he suffered a minor knee injury in the Navy game. Although the injury put Anthony into a day-to-day status, according to Coach Weis, he did not play the rest of the regular season.

There has been a lot written and said about how the new 3-4 scheme will be a better fit for Notre Dame's personnel. In my view, there may be no better test of this thesis than the development, or not, of Anthony Vernaglia this season. If Coach Brown can convert Vernaglia from an athletic disappointment into a productive linebacker, that will speak volumes about Coach Brown as an evaluator and developer of player talent. It will also say a lot about Coach Weis as an evaluator of coaching talent. I won't get into what it says about Rick Minter.