2007 Independent Preview
2007 Independent Preview
Navy setting course toward another bowl season
Notre Dame is no longer the only independent football team with a bowl game agreement. Navy, which is riding a four-year streak of eight wins or more, recently signed a one-year deal with the Poinsettia Bowl. As long as the Midshipmen win six games, they'll have a home in San Diego. The Mids, however, desire more from their season, namely a Top 25 ranking and respect to go with it. The Fighting Irish have respect, but they'd like to settle on a quarterback. High school phenom Jimmy Clausen looked average during the spring and will compete with two others to replace Brady Quinn. Notre Dame would also like to stop someone on defense, which is why it hired Corwin Brown as its defensive coordinator and allowed him to institute the 3-4.
One team that will still be searching for respect when the season's over is Army. The Black Knights took a step in the right direction by hiring the exuberant Stan Brock, a 16-year NFL veteran who served as an assistant under Bobby Ross. But Brock doesn't have a lot to work with.
Navy - 2006: 9-4
Junior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada spent the summer working on his throwing, but as was the case last year, it will be his running that determines the Midshipmen's success this season. After taking over as the starter against Notre Dame, Kaheaku-Enhada rushed for 507 yards and 10 touchdowns, while passing for only 384 and five touchdowns. Navy should be a rushing juggernaut once again, with Kaheaku-Enhada, senior running backs Reggie Campbell (1,778 total yards and 16 touchdowns in two seasons) and Zerbin Singleton and junior Shun White, who rushed for 116 against Boston College in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. The running game will also be helped by senior Antron Harper's move from guard to center. A rash of injuries during the preseason prevented several starting linemen from taking part in drills, but it also revealed some depth, most notably at the tackle position, where four players will compete to be in the regular three-man rotation.
Attrition is a fact of life at the service academies, where redshirting players is a luxury, not an automatic. Two years ago head coach Paul Johnson had to replace almost the entire offense; this year, he has to find nine new starters on defense, including the entire defensive line and most of the secondary. The defensive backfield might have been more stable had it not been for the departure of Jeromy Miles, who transferred to Div. I-AA UMass. Junior cornerback Rashawn King is the most experienced returner, but even he's competing with classmate Ketric Buffin. Nobody on the Midshipmen's defensive line has ever started a college game before, yet sophomore nose guard Nate Frazier is receiving starter-like hype. Despite only playing in three games last year and failing to make a tackle, Frazier (6-foot-3, 285) is considered to be a future NFL prospect. Although there are question marks up front and in back, the middle of Navy's defense will be solid with the return of senior inside linebackers Clint Sovie and Irv Spencer. Sovie started nine games last year, finishing fifth on the team with 61 tackles.
In his sixth year, head coach Paul Johnson has the Navy football program on a very successful automatic pilot. The Midshipmen have won eight or more games the last four years and have beaten Army the last five years. They even have a deal with the Poinsettia Bowl, which guarantees them a spot assuming they win the requisite six games.
Navy, however, desires more. According to Sovie, they want to be in the Top 25. If Navy is to crack it and remain there, it will have to win one or even two of three "swing games" at Pittsburgh, against Wake Forest and at Notre Dame. Two wins would get Midshipmen to 11 wins, and get people talking about them.
Navy doesn't need a dynamic offense to win games, but it does need a stout defense, and this year's edition has too many question marks there. The secondary could hurt the Mids, especially against a schedule with several teams who like to air it out. They'll achieve nine wins, but will have to settle for the top 50 and the Poinsettia come the holidays.
Regular Season Prediction: 9-3
Notre Dame - 2006: 10-3
Despite Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis' promise that he'd settle on two quarterbacks after the spring, it remains a three-player competition heading into the preseason. The most recognizable of the players is freshman Jimmy Clausen, the most sought-after recruit in the country and perhaps the last 10 years. Clausen, who endured LeBron James-like media scrutiny his final two years at Oaks Christian High in Westlake, Calif., enrolled in January to compete with junior Evan Sharpley and sophomore Demetrius Jones. He failed to distinguish himself during the spring, but also didn't play himself out of contention. Although Clausen is the popular pick to start, Sharpley is the logical one. He backed up Brady Quinn last year and has the better understanding of Weis' elaborate offensive schemes. Jones is the wildcard. He's the best athlete of the three, with the ability to run and throw. That skill set, however, isn't coveted in Weis' system, so he'll have to become a better passer if he wants to distinguish himself. Although much of the preseason offensive chatter revolves around the quarterbacks, the Fighting Irish's best offensive player is senior tight end John Carlson. A wide receiver in a tight end's body, a la Jeremy Shockey, Carlson caught 42 passes for 634 yards and four touchdowns last year, and will make the first-year starting quarterback's life a lot easier.
Weis is hoping that first-year defensive coordinator Corwin Brown's 3-4 defense will do for the Irish what it did for the NFL's New England Patriots and New York Giants teams Weis was associated with for much of his career. Since Notre Dame will now employ three defensive linemen instead of four, that meant several position changes in the spring. Two players who should benefit greatly from the reshuffling are junior Derrell Hand and sophomore John Ryan. Hand was an ineffective tackle in the 4-3, but flourished as a defensive end during the spring. Ryan was a decent defensive end last year, but now will be thrust into the spotlight as an outside linebacker. The jewel of the defense, however, remains the same: senior safety Tom Zbikowski. Zbikowski struggled last year compared to his sophomore year, which he blames on his burgeoning professional boxing career.
But Zbikowski has put his boxing interests aside for the moment and is totally committed to football, which is bad news for opponents. At his best, Zbikowski is a dynamic player, with the ability to deliver big hits and a preternatural awareness of the ball in the air which led to five interceptions as a sophomore. He's also a talented punt returner.
Notre Dame has a wealth of talent, but only seven returning starters, including only three on offense. Quarterback is going to garner most of the attention during the preseason, as three are whittled down to one. In a private moment Weis might express the desire to see Clausen win out. But it's not because Weis chief operator of the Clausen Hype Machine. If Clausen truly is the talent that everybody thinks he is, the more time he spends in Weis' offensive scheme, the better he'll perform, a la Brady Quinn. Making Clausen's transition to the college game easier is the presence of quarterback's coach Ron Powlus. The former Irish signal caller endured much of the same hype Clausen is now and can help Clausen get through it. Considering its offensive state, Notre Dame's defense must improve. Whether the 3-4 will do that remains to be seen. Perhaps there's a reason that more than only a handful of college programs use it. It's hard to envision the Irish as a 10-win team considering their brutal schedule, which includes Michigan, USC, Penn State, Boston College and UCLA. The good news is they'll play five homes games in a row, including BC and USC back-to-back.
Regular Season Prediction: 8-4
Army - 2006:
Stan Brock hadn't been a college head coach for three months when he put to use a lesson from College Coaching 101: After naming sophomore quarterback Carson Williams the starter heading into the spring, he immediately called the race between him and senior David Pevoto even, thus delaying a decision until the preseason. Brock, however, can only avoid it for so long. Pevoto and William both have their merits.
Williams, who took over for Pevoto last year, is more talented, having spurred the ACC and SEC to join the Knights. Pevoto isn't a bad passer, he's a better leader, and he's probably hungrier with only 12 games left in his college career. The problem is both of them have been woefully ineffective as starters. That will put even more pressure on the running backs. While Army has four returning - juniors Wesley McMahand, Jamal Robinson and sophomore Tony Moore - none having rushed for more than 100 yards in a game last year and both were hurt during the spring. Senior Jeremy Trimble is back at wide receiver, representing the Knights' only deep threat. If the offense can gain a foothold, it will benefit from the addition of offensive coordinator Tim Walsh, the former head coach at Portland State. Walsh is known as an offensive innovator who's not afraid to throw the ball down the field.
Army was great at shutting down opponent's passing attacks last year, ranking 7th nationally. Alas, the Knights were awful at stopping the run, ranking 115 out of 119 teams. The same should be true of this season's team. Senior strong safety Caleb Campbell is back after tearing his MCL and ACL at the end of last year, and joins senior cornerback John Laird to form a nice foundation in the secondary. After the defensive backfield, however, playing time is up for grabs. Senior Charlie Rockwood is the only returning starter at linebacker, and the defensive line is even more of a question. The defensive tackle position has the opportunity to be a strength with the return of senior Tony Fusco, the team's top returning tackler, and the addition of sophomore Ted Bentler. Bentler, whose brother Fritz Bentler also plays on the line, earned a varsity letter at Iowa his freshman year before transferring. Although he hasn't played a down he's already impressed coaches and earned the "Sledgehammer" award during the spring, the highest award a player can receive.
Whether or not Army is a success in Stan Brock's first year as head coach depends on your perspective. The Black Knights will not reach the level now enjoyed by Navy and will most likely lose their sixth straight to the Midshipmen. The defense hasn't improved significantly from last year and a cloud will hang over the offense until Brock chooses a starting quarterback. And if one or both of those quarterbacks don't perform, that cloud will linger throughout the season. If Williams can reaffirm himself as the starter, however, he has more upside the Pevoto and could help transform Army from a speed bump on other team's schedules to a four- or five-win team. The Knights' schedule is favorable, with winnable home games against Rhode Island, Temple and Tulane.
Regular Season Prediction: 3-9