Thursday, August 10, 2006

College football preview: I-A Independents


--> Army Black Knights
The Army program has seen some hard times as of late. Under Todd Berry, the thought of a pass-based offense never really took to form. Army went just 4-32 under Berry, including 0-13 in 2003. Berry was jettisoned during that 2003 disaster, and veteran college and NFL coach Bobby Ross was brought in. Ross has worked tirelessly to restore the pride of this program, and while the immediate results have not been great (6-16 record), Ross has 16 starters back this year, and the return to independent status has helped them revamp the schedule to something more manageable.

While the skill position losses are going to be tough to overcome in the short term, the Black Knights are in position to gain bowl eligibility either this year or next year because of the work Ross and coordinator John Mumford have done with this defense.

In good shape: Defensive line. Ross’ first defense allowed 5.1 rush yards per carry, and while the pass rush still was woeful last year (13 total sacks), the run defense improved by more than a half-yard per carry. Further improvement is anticipated this year. The ends, Brandon Thompson and Cameron Craig, are talented and have good size. Craig led team with five sacks last year. Junior tackle Tony Fusco posted seven tackles for loss last year. The other tackle spot is the only question on the line. Senior Travis Prikryl is favored to start there, but he lacks any real playing experience.

Needs work: Offensive backfield. Zac Dahman was never a star at quarterback, but he grew nicely in his junior and senior years, and while he didn’t take great care of the football last year, he will be hard to replace now that he has graduated. Expect to see junior David Pevuto step in as the new quarterback, despite a disappointing spring game performance. The big loss, though, is at running back. Carlton Jones led the team with over 1,000 yards, and Scott Wesley paced the team with ten touchdowns. Both are gone, leaving a ton of inexperience behind them. Sophomores Jamal Robinson and Jerry Jones and senior Ricky Lay appear to be the top candidates to start the opener at Arkansas State. Their combined rushing total last year: 0 yards.

Overview: Whoever starts in the backfield will benefit from an experienced and improved offensive line. The entire line is back from last year, and all five projected starters are seniors. The middle of the secondary also returns, featuring junior strong safety Caleb Campbell and senior strong safety Randy Chasten. Ross has the kind of team that can be successful at Army – a veteran team. And he has a relatively manageable schedule that features home dates against Kent State, Rice, VMI, and Air Force. A six- or seven-win season is not beyond the realm of possibility, and that would likely mean a bowl berth that could be a huge boost to recruiting for Ross and his staff.

--> Navy Midshipmen
When Ross continues to work on righting the ship at Army, he doesn’t have to look any further than his school’s biggest football rival to find a successful program at a service academy that had struggled during the 1990s. Before Paul Johnson took over at Navy, the Midshipmen endured seasons of 1-10 and 0-10 in succession. After a 2-10 struggle in Johnson’s first season (the highlight of which was a struggle against Notre Dame in which Navy led much of the game), things turned around in a hurry. The Midshipmen are 26-11 in the three years since, with a 2-1 record in bowl games.

The best might still be to come. Navy has 16 starters returning from an eight-win team, something that isn’t too terribly common at service academies. As a result, expectations among the faithful may be at an all-time high.

In good shape: Running backs. Navy’s spread option attack is unique these days, and it’s keyed by an intelligent quarterback and a combination of speed and power from the running backs. The Middies have half the equation set entering the season, as the offensive backfield is relatively set behind their new starting quarterback. Senior Brian Hampton is set to take over under center, and if past history tells you anything, Navy won’t miss a beat. The Midshipmen went bowling in three straight years with different quarterbacks (Craig Candeto, Aaron Polanco, and Lamar Owens), so they’re used to it. At running back, Navy returns power back Adam Ballard, who started slow but finished with three straight 100-yard games. Junior Reggie Campbell is back after scoring five times in the bowl win over Colorado State, and senior Trey Hines mans the other halfback position. Both Campbell and Hines bring a track background and will be constant home-run threats.

Needs work: Defensive line. I’m being picky, because the only position that doesn’t return significant talent and/or experience is quarterback, and the last three years leave no reason to think Hampton will be a problem. The defensive line, however, has to overcome a lack of size, especially when defending teams that like to run the ball (they allowed 5.3 yards per carry against Maryland, 5.2 against Stanford, and 5.7 against Notre Dame – three of their four losses). Their 3-4 defensive scheme really could use an influx of size up front. Nose tackle Larry Cylc tips the scales at 290, and he’s the biggest defensive lineman on Navy’s roster. 275-pound David Wright actually won the starting job over Cylc in the spring, and the two starting ends, John Chan and Tye Adams, both come in at under 250.

Overview: Navy is loaded. They have talent at the skill positions (even at wide receiver, where leading pass catcher Jason Tomlinson returns). They have size on the offensive line, and they have very good speed and leadership at linebacker, where three of the four projected starters are seniors with starting experience. The only major glitch could be along the defensive line, where Johnson and coordinator Buddy Green have to continue to scheme around a severe lack of size. The schedule features the annual loss game against Notre Dame (Navy hasn’t beaten the Irish in 42 tries), and road games against Stanford and Connecticut that could be slightly tricky. Otherwise, Navy could be in position to post ten or eleven wins this year, and this could be their strongest team since the heyday of academy football in the 1940s and 1950s.

--> Notre Dame Fighting Irish
After three uninspiring seasons in four years, it was time for a change in South Bend. And Charlie Weis brought them the change they wanted. Weis stepped in last year and did a great job, leading the Irish to nine wins and a BCS bowl berth. It might have been a surprise for many, but Weis’ overhaul of the offense fit his talent perfectly, and he made it work without the benefit of anything remotely resembling an elite defense.

It has to be mentioned that the Irish did benefit from a dose of Lady Luck when it came to the schedule. Notre Dame had road trips to Pittsburgh, Michigan, and Purdue, all of whom ended up not being nearly as strong as anticipated in the preseason.

While Notre Dame still hasn’t won a bowl game since the 1994 Cotton Bowl (!), Weis has things moving in the right direction, and with legitimate star power at each of the skill positions on offense, the Irish are poised for another huge year.

In good shape: Passing game. Weis is a guru, and his influence was clear in 2005. Brady Quinn emerged as a star, throwing for just short of 4,000 yards and 32 TDs (only seven picks). The 32 scores broke the old school record of 19 (remember, Notre Dame’s offense has been primarily run-based for a lot of years). Quinn enters 2006 as the favorite for the H*i*m*n Trophy. Also exploding last year was receiver Jeff Samardzija, who joined Maurice Stovall in topping 1,000 yards last year (77 for 1,249 and 15 scores). Stovall is gone, but senior Rhema McKnight is back. McKnight was the top receiver for Notre Dame in 2003 and 2004, and got an extra year of eligibility after he blew out his knee in the Michigan game last year. With Weis calling the plays and Quinn at the controls, there’s little doubt that Notre Dame will have a prolific offense once again.

Needs work: Linebacker. The defensive line returns intact, and the secondary is very close to that. However, defensive coordinator Rick Minter will spend plenty of time working with his inexperienced linebackers. The top returning tackler among the linebackers (Maurice Crum) had only 57 last year, and Crum’s health is in question because of back problems. Sophomores Anthony Vernaglia and Steve Quinn, who combined for eight tackles last year, are the likely outside starters. So I’m sure you can understand how this unit might cause Minter some stress.

Overview: The only major questions with this team are on defense. Can Minter find some linebackers who can play? Will the secondary, led by animalistic safety Tom Zbikowski, continue to improve, or will it tail off? Can Notre Dame consistently stop the run? Outside of that, there isn’t much not to like about this team. The offense took almost impeccable care of the ball last year, with only 14 giveaways (and only four of them came in the final five games). With Darius Walker running the ball and Quinn throwing it, the Irish are going to score, even if they turn it over a few more times. The schedule is, well, insane. Road games against Georgia Tech, Michigan State, and USC, and home dates against Penn State, Michigan, UCLA, and North Carolina. The world seems to think that Notre Dame is a title contender, but I don’t see them getting through that schedule without a few bumps or bruises. Notre Dame will win ten or eleven and make a BCS bowl, and they’ll be in the race for the title game if their defense can stiffen up a bit.

--> Temple Owls
The numbers tell the story quite accurately here. The Owls were beyond miserable in 2005, finishing 0-11 and not at all coming close in all but one of their outings. Temple lost by an average score of 45-10, and they were outgained by an average of 461-247. The running game was nonexistent, the passing attack was bad, the run defense was a pushover, and they couldn’t stop teams through the air, either. The pass rush was anemic, and the pass protection wasn’t adequate, either.

Get it, yet?

New coach Al Golden, to put it kindly, has some work to do. He has a young, energetic staff, which can’t hurt. But Temple has one more year of play as an independent, which means a ton of paycheck games and only four true home games on the schedule. It’s going to be tough for Golden to get a lot of forward progress this year, but if he can get the attitude turned around, things might start to look up.

In good shape: Um…offensive line? This is tough. Only six starters return this year, and since the Owls were 0-11 last year, it stands to reason that they didn’t have a lot of depth. Right tackle Elliot Seifert is back, and he figures to anchor the line. Seniors Niel Dickson and Tariq Sanders figure to start at guard. Left tackle Jabari Ferguson is only a sophomore, but he managed to get into ten games last year, so he’s not completely green. Sophomore center Alex Derenthal started all eleven games last year. New line coach Bob Bicknell probably has the most talent to work with of any position coach on the team.

Needs work: I could say “Everywhere”, but I’ll take the defensive line. All four starters are gone, including end Mike Mendenhall and tackle Antwon Burton, so there is a lot of work to be done. The switch to a 3-4 under new coordinator Mark D’Onofrio (a former Penn State linebacker who had a cup of coffee with the Green Bay Packers before a bad hamstring curtailed his career) means they only need three starters, and there is some talent to work with. Sophomore tackle Terrance Knighton recorded 2.5 tackles for loss against Navy in his only start last year, and at 325 pounds, he’s a handful for any offensive line. But filling the end positions could be a challenge, and depth is a huge problem.

Overview: It’s hard to imagine this being as big a disaster this year as it was last year. 63-16 to Arizona State, 65-0 to Wisconsin, 42-17 to Toledo, 70-7 to Bowling Green, 38-7 to Maryland, 34-3 to Miami, 37-7 to Clemson, 41-14 to Miami (Ohio), and 51-3 to Virginia is going to be hard to top. The schedule is daunting once again, with home dates against Louisville and Clemson (in Charlotte, so not a true home game), and road trips to Minnesota and Penn State, but it’s much more manageable than it was last year. It would be a shock if Temple went winless again. What’s more realistic is that the Owls will win three or four games as they continue their transition to full membership in the MAC for 2007.

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