Of Personnel, Punters, and Precision

Of Personnel, Punters, and Precision

With a matchup against Washington on tap and the team's bye week on the horizon, the local media had a few personnel-related questions for Irish head coach Charlie Weis.

Weis answered a variety of personnel questions during his Tuesday press conference. The skinny? Along with additional playing time for heralded freshman Manti Te'o, Irish fans should see at least one new face make his collegiate debut Saturday.

Who's the New Guy?

Davie, Florida freshman Ben Turk lost a close training camp battle for the Irish punting job with incumbent Eric Maust. Weis mentioned (in August) that the competition was too close to call, and that he felt erring on the side of caution (sticking with the senior at the start of the season) was the prudent decision.

But Maust struggled in September, most notably with a 29-yard punt prior to the Wolverines' game winning drive in a 38-34 loss at Michigan; and then again Saturday night, as his first two punts covered a (net) 16 yards due to long returns by Purdue's Aaron Valentin.

Weis decided it was a time for a change.

"We've gone for the last several weeks with Eric and its been kind of close in practice so we went with the experience," Weis reiterated on Tuesday. "I think the only facet of special teams that we were disappointed with last week was our punt team. Now it's not all Eric's fault, but we were disappointed with the punt team.

"Based off the fact that it's been pretty even in practice between the two of them we figured we'd give the freshman a chance."

Weis mentioned in late August that Turk undoubtedly has a stronger leg than does Maust, but that punting isn't only about striking the ball the farthest.

And oh Yeah, that Guy...

Message board discussions during the summer months generally focus on three main topics regarding a team's upcoming football season:

  1. Win/Loss Predictions
  2. Which freshmen will start in the opener?
  3. Which freshmen will start by the end of September?

This off-season was no different as everyone had an opinion on the possible instant impact that freshman linebacker Manti Te'o would provide.

Technically, Te'o has started twice (at Michigan and at Purdue) but ceded his spot to senior Toryan Smith (starter vs. Nevada and Michigan State) for the bulk of the contests.

Te'o's biggest impact to date has been part of the Notre Dame Dime package (he enters the game with 5th-Year senior safety Ray Herring in a lineup that gives the Irish three-four down linemen; one-two linebackers; and six defensive backs.

Irish fans and coaches alike are anxious to see more, and it appears that extended playing time is on the way.

"He'll play more this week, that's all I'll tell you," said Weis on Tuesday of the freshman already known by one name. "I'm not going to go over the game plan but he'll play more."

Weis was asked about the freshman's progress by Washington's media as well.

"We knew coming in the door that Manti was going to be one of the more athletic guys that we brought onto this team with size and speed," Weis continued. "As he's gone through this learning process, he's getting close to gaining the trust of the defensive coaches to be able to put him on the field more. You're going to start seeing him a whole bunch more this week.

"I have high expectations for Manti – similar to Kapron (Lewis-Moore, who I had asked about previously) that we were talking about here just a second ago – I think you'll see Manti playing his best ball in October and November."

Te'o recorded his first sack on the game's penultimate play Saturday evening to help put the Boilers away.

Back in the Saddle?

Saturday night at a rowdy Ross-Ade Stadium, Irish junior running back Robert Hughes played one of the four best game's of his career (Duke and Stanford in '07; Michigan in '08).

What can we expect from Hughes vs. the Huskies and going forward?

"We'll list him as the starting fullback but in reality he's really looking for half back reps," Weis said on Tuesday. "Trust me, he wants the half back reps.

"The one thing he's going to have to fight is Armando (Allen) is back and (ready). I don't think Armando's going to be able to play every play so (Hughes) will fight with Jonas (Gray) to get the rest of those reps.

"Based on last week's performance, he's earned the right to fight for those reps."

Stemming the Tide

Freshman wide receiver Shaquelle Evans has been in the news since mid-August when he was singled out by Weis for his speed and ability to beat press coverage by cornerbacks in practice.

Through four weeks, Evans has three receptions (all on short hitch-routes) for 27 yards.

On Tuesday, Weis was asked if the true freshman receiver's progress has been stunted by what most football outsiders view as the biggest hurdle for young skill players: reading the coverage.

"I think Shaq can read the coverage. I think the nuances of the routes are sometimes more challenging. (Freshman) can read whether they have a press or roll corner," Weis explained.

Note: A "press" cornerback will generally jam the wide receiver at the line of scrimmage…play close from the snap. A roll corner will play either a zone or looser man-to-man (backpedaling rather than bumping/jamming the receiver).

"For example," Weis continued, "when (a receiver) runs a comeback, and it's at 14 yards and you plant your inside foot and you're coming down the stem (the end of the receiver's pass route) at a 45-degree angle…and in high school the (QB) couldn't throw it on the button right on the sideline…you didn't have that same type of timing issue because the corner was off you by 20 yards. So you came out of the route and just kind of turned around and the ball was there and you went and caught it.

"Now (in college) you have a guy driving on you because the corner is closer to you with less separation, and now the quarterback is bringing you (the receiver) down to the sideline, and if you don't come down that stem, and go make that play, its an incomplete pass and somebody looks bad on that play."

(For a real-world example that decodes the terminology above, just think back to Evans' now-infamous pass route that sailed out of bounds vs. Michigan during the game's crucial third down conversion attempt.)

Weis surmised that the technical aspect of the actual pass-route is a greater challenge for freshman receivers than understanding the defense in front of them.

"I think that learning how precise you have to be – the precision that goes with route-running – is probably the bigger issue."

Has Evans shown progress in this regard?

"Significantly," Weis began. "Part of the answer to that is the quarterback is letting him know what he's expecting. Now he's hearing it from both the coaches and the quarterback. It doesn't take players long to (understand) when they're getting it from both of those sides."

So He's Not an Official Member of the Purdue Backfield?

Sophomore SAM linebacker and nickel rush end Darius Fleming was (easily) the team's defensive MVP in Saturday night's victory. Reporters wondered about Fleming's progress, notably from a Week Two loss in Ann Arbor in which the first-year starter had a few (publicly) rough moments as a would-be-tackler in space vs. precocious Wolverines QB Tate Forcier.

"He really, this past week, was in the backfield all day," said Weis of Fleming's career-best effort.

Fleming, as Weis noted, totaled four tackles for loss vs. Purdue. The Irish sophomore mentioned to IrishEyes in August that he considers himself "a hybrid" player in his dual role as pass-rusher and strongside linebacker, but that he very much enjoys putting pressure on the passer.

Weis backed up Fleming's claim.

"I think he had three tackles-for-loss and a sack…I think he's most comfortable when he's turned loose to get after the quarterback. He plays at a high motor with a high speed and he's starting to get more comfortable with what he's doing."

Irish special teams captain and 5th-Year senior linebacker Scott Smith has noticed Fleming's progression as well.

"I think the biggest thing with Darius is he's extremely disruptive whether he's in a three-point stance playing end or whether he's standing up at SAM linebacker," Smith observed of his younger teammate. "He always seems to be somewhere on the opposite line of scrimmage.

"Just having that versatility and understanding of the scheme is a testament to him on how much he's worked and gotten himself in position to contribute with the multiple packages."

Fleming, was noted by Smith as one of the team's most athletic defenders and also mentioned the sophomore has one of the better understandings of the playbook due to his myriad duties in various defensive packages.

In Good Hands

Jimmy Clausen's backup and childhood friend, sophomore quarterback Dayne Crist, made his debut in the season-opening shutout of Nevada, finishing 2-2 for 17 yards. He followed that effort with a few emergency plays (due to Clausen's toe injury) in the first half vs. Michigan State in Week Three, throwing two passes, including a Hail Mary interception to end the half.

But Saturday night in West Lafayette marked Crist's much-anticipated assimilation to the Irish offense, and the sophomore responded with a 16-yard carry over the right side in his first meaningful action.

"I think it was a turning point for him," Weis said of Crist's planned role vs. the Boilermakers. "Last year he didn't play. This year he had the comeback (pass vs. Nevada) to Deion (Walker)…a meaningful throw.

"But this (Purdue) was him running the offense with the game in jeopardy. This was (Crist) leading us to a couple scores. And even when we weren't throwing it all over the place, he was the presence in the huddle. He was the guy in charge.

"I thought that experience for him will be invaluable and also prepare us for when Jimmy's not the quarterback anymore."

Will we see more of Crist this week prior to the team's bye?

"He'll get more reps than he's been getting," Weis offered. "It'll be to get him prepared to play in a game for things that I would call with him in the game, because they're not necessarily the exact things I'd call with Jimmy in the game."

It would be a major surprise if some of "those things" don't include the athletic Crist in the shotgun spread and as part of the team's Wildcat package.

As for Clausen's reaction to his understudy's impact last week...

"I've seen Dayne do that ever since we were little kids. We grew up childhood friends, we went to middle school together...and I've seen what he can do.

"I just told him, 'you're going to get a chance to go out there Saturday just do what you've done your whole life, just go out there with confidence and have a lot of fun.'

"He did a great job to help this team."

Scheming Around a Weakness...Redefining Rudolph?

With sophomore receiver Michael Floyd gone for the regular season, Weis was asked if there's a plan to feature super sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph in a similar manner, and if the "throw me the ball" comment from Rudolph to Clausen could become part of the Irish attack.

"I wasn't in the huddle when that communication took place," Weis began, "I could see them having that (communication).

"But even with that, if they (Purdue) would have double-teamed him and left Golden (Tate) over the top – because if you went back and watched the play you could see Golden was open behind him – it just so happened that Kyle was one-on-one so he was the one who was open.

"That play, even though Kyle said ‘give me the ball' if two (defenders) were on him and one was on Golden, the ball would have gone to Golden, even though (Kyle) requested the football.

Note: (It was actually junior wide receiver Duval Kamara who ran the route behind Rudolph on the game-winning touchdown pass, but the point remains).

So what about Rudolph as a "super weapon" as he was referred to by one member of the media on Tuesday?

"We have more than one of those," said Weis of plays designed to create a mismatch between Rudolph and a defenseless linebacker.

"We have some of those in there...not every one of them has an opportunity to get called. It might be a red zone play; it might be a goal line play; it might be a 3rd down call…situations have to play out where you get to that point," Weis explained.

Aside from finding individual mismatches, Weis was asked how he plans to compensate for the loss of Floyd, by any reasonable analysis, an irreplaceable single cog in the Irish passing attack.

"I agree with that," began Weis regarding the assertion that no player on the Irish roster can replace Floyd. "There is only one ‘pro' that comes with that – there are plenty of ‘cons' – but one pro is it forces you to do more game-planning. You have to be more creative. You have to create more opportunities schematically rather than fall into that (previous) comfort zone that ‘We'll just throw it to Floyd and he'll catch it.'

"So it forces you to create plays that before you (simply) created by #7 dropping back and looking for #3."

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