Friday, November 13, 2009

Draft Watch: Notre Dame @ Pittsburgh

1) Notre Dame Offensive Line vs. Pittsburgh Defensive Ends: Most games are won in the trenches and this one will be no different. How the Fighting Irish offensive line holds up against the explosive unit up front for the Panthers will dictate whether or not the Golden Domers will have a chance at pulling off the upset.

Pittsburgh has recorded a whopping 39 sacks this season and most of the pressure comes from their front four led by junior Greg Romeus, who has a team-high 7.5 sacks, nine quarterback hurries and four passes defensed. The former basketball player is still developing as football player, with his pass rushing skills serving as the strength of his game. At 6’ 6” and 270 pounds, Romeus has prototypical size and is an exceptional athlete. He also has a tremendous wingspan, which allows him to keep offensive linemen from getting into his body, as well as knock down passes when he doesn’t get all the way to the quarterback. Senior defensive tackle Mick Williams (three sacks) leads the team with 13 tackles for a loss and is a force against the run using his quickness to knife by blockers to meet ball carries in the backfield. Those are the leaders, but they have depth as well. At defensive tackle, sophomores Myles Caragein (five sacks) and Chas Alecxih (four sacks) come off the bench to put pressure on the quarterback. Similar to Williams (6’ 1”/280 pounds), Caragein (6’ 2”/275 pounds) and Alecxih (6’ 5”/272 pounds) are undersized and will need to put on some weight if they are going to play on Sundays. At end, junior Jabaal Sheard starts opposite of Romeus and is still working on his pass rushing skills (2.5 sacks), but is coming along rather well as a run stopper (30 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss). Sophomore Bandon Lindsey who looks more like a linebacker (6’ 2”/240 pounds) has recorded four sacks and four quarterback hurries off the bench and could replace Romeus as the team’s top pass rusher in 2010 should Romeus declare for the NFL Draft.

The Irish counter with a veteran offensive line that has four seniors on the first team and averages nearly 6’ 6” and 315 pounds, however the group hasn’t had a particularly impressive 2009 campaign. Senior right tackle Sam Young is the best of the bunch, but as a true freshman it appeared he was well on his way to being a first round pick. While he is a good athlete and at 6’ 8” and 320 pounds the senior is an imposing figure, but the fact is he is not playing the left tackle and that has raised questions amongst scouts. Young has not improved his footwork or technique the way talent evaluators have hoped despite his experience. No longer a first round talent, Young could go anywhere from the second-to-fourth rounds, depending on how he finishes the season and fares in the off-season. Left tackle Paul Duncan is also a monster of a man at 6’ 7” and 315 pounds, but lacks what the pros look for in terms of mobility, which is why it is doubtful he will be asked to protect the blind side at the next level. Duncan is likely a priority free agent at this point, but should he get an opportunity to showcase what he can do at an NFL camp, he could be developmental player worth investing in. One player who may have helped his draft status this season is center Eric Olsen, who at 6’ 4” and 305 pounds brings excellent size. The New York City native is also a versatile talent, who started at guard last season before Charlie Weis decided to move him over to center. Olsen looks like a solid mid-round choice. The reason for the move was the Irish wanted to get sophomore guard Trevor Robinson (6’ 5”/305 pounds) into the starting lineup. When it’s all said and done, the young road grater could turn out to be the best pro of the group.

2) Irish Air Attack: Quarterback Jimmy Clausen throwing to wide outs Michael Floyd and Golden Tate make Notre Dame one of the most feared teams in the nation when they take to the air. Clausen, a junior, is putting together quite a statistical season—well on pace to career highs in yards (3,693), touchdown passes (27) and completion percentage (67.9 percent). Even more impressive is his three interceptions (on pace for four) after he threw the ball to the other team 17 times as a sophomore. Clausen has an NFL arm and throws one of the prettiest deep balls of any quarterback in the nation. Just as impressive has been his toughness fighting through turf toe and a bruised hand, not to mention his clutch play in the fourth quarter. Many of Notre Dame’s wins have been of the come from behind variety. Coaches will surely take note of his ability to make plays in pressure situations, as well as at less than 100 percent. Even so, the signal caller is not quite a finished product. He doesn’t always use the whole field and many of his numbers come courtesy of acrobatic catches made by his talented wide outs. Clausen will have to make a decision at the end of the season, he could be a top 10 overall pick should he declare. Tate, a fellow junior, could also make an early exit from South Bend. The pass catcher has displayed excellent hands, ability to make plays after the catch, as well as stretch the field. The Tennessee native has already topped 1,000 yards (for the second straight year) and leads Notre Dame with his 65 receptions, 1,059 yards and 10 touchdown receptions. He lacks ideal size (5’ 11” and 195 pounds), but is very strong, both his lower body and his hands. The high school tailback averages 16.3 yards per receptions and 7.5 yards per carry (two rushing touchdowns) and could see some time taking the snap when the Irish go to their version of the “wildcat”. Maybe the most talented player on Notre Dame is Michael Floyd, just a sophomore. Floyd missed five games with a broken collarbone, but returned last week and did not miss a beat catching 10 balls for 141 yards and a touchdown in the Irish’s loss to Navy. Floyd has prototypical size (6’ 3”/220 pounds) and speed, which is why he looks like a future first round pick. In four games, Floyd has five touchdowns and averages 21.7 yards per catch. Even when double teamed Floyd is almost unstoppable on deep routes, his vertical leap allows him to make catches in traffic. Notre Dame will be without talented sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph who is out for the remainder of the regular season with a shoulder injury.

3) Panther Air Attack: Bill Stull
, yes Bill Stull may have played himself into a draftable grade with his play as a senior. Watching the Pittsburgh offense this season, it is hard believe this is the same group that lost the Sun Bowl to Oregon State 3-0 last season. Stull was 7-of-24 passing (29.2 percent) for 52 yards versus the Beavers. His junior numbers were nothing to right home about—57 percent completion rate, nine touchdown passes, 10 interceptions and 25 sacks. At certain points they would strike up the band for first downs and no one had Stull on their draft board. Oh what a difference a year can make. Stull is completing 67.6 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions (eight sacks). He is making better decisions, quicker, with improved accuracy. The senior is also connecting on big plays averaging 8.58 yards per pass compared to 7.14 last season. However, the hometown boy isn’t going to be the first Pitt quarterback to be drafted in the first round since Dan Marino (Joe Flacco doesn’t count), but could have played himself into being a late round selection, at the very least a priority free agent. A big reason for Stull’s success is the emergence of sophomore receiver Jonathan Baldwin and senior tight end Dorin Dickerson. Baldwin showed flashes as a freshman and is truly flourishing in his second season—leading the team with 35 receptions for 698 yards (four touchdowns). He has great size at 6’ 5” and 225 pounds, which allows him to go up and get the football, a mismatch for most college corners. Baldwin lacks prototypical speed, but still manages to be a big play threat (19.9 yards per receptions). In one-on-one coverage he is extremely hard to contain. As much as Stull has elevated his game, Dickerson has been a true revelation as a senior. He came in highly touted and rivals anyone on the roster as the most impressive athlete on the team. Seeing time at linebacker and wide receiver earlier in his career, Dickson has finally found a home at tight end, although he may not stay there as some view him as an H-Back or even a fullback at the next level. Dickerson is a touchdown maker with 10 scoring grabs on the season among his 39 receptions (450 yards). Against Syracuse last week, Dickerson caught seven passes for a career-high 118 yards. At 230 pounds, he is undersized for a tight end, but he can stretch the field and is dangerous after the catch.

Photos Courtesy of University of Pittsburgh, Notre Dame Sports Information