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Monday, April 23, 2007
Irish, Cards, Nittany Lions, Buckeyes spring forward

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IRISH EYES STILL FOCUSED ON QBS

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The man operating the press box elevator at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday afternoon had just a simple question.

He had been stuck in his quaint quarters for the duration of Notre Dame's annual Blue-Gold game, unable to see or hear what had been taking place on the field. So in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, when the elevator filled with writers, fans and boosters eager to make an early exit, he pounced.

"How did the quarterbacks play today?" he asked. "What about that Clausen kid?"

Jimmy Clausen
Matt Cashore/US Presswire
Jimmy Clausen completed 3 of 7 passes for 23 yards in Notre Dame's Blue-Gold game.

The people in the jammed elevator looked at one another and shrugged. They weren't being rude, they just didn't know what to say. Freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen's play was, well, unremarkable. Which is just the way Charlie Weis wanted it.

The Notre Dame coach has been tight-lipped about his four-man quarterback competition throughout spring practice, and Saturday's game did little to unveil more.

One year after Clausen used the Blue-Gold game to announce his commitment to the Irish by arriving at the College Football Hall of Fame in a Hummer limousine, the 2006 USA Today Offensive Player of the Year was pedestrian in his on-field debut for the Irish, completing 3 of 7 attempts for 23 yards.

So, too, were the three other players competing with Clausen -- who graduated high school a semester early, allowing him to join the Irish this spring -- for the right to replace Brady Quinn this fall. Clausen, sophomores Demetrius Jones and Zach Frazer, and junior Evan Sharpley combined to complete 11 of 25 attempts for 77 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

What does it mean? At least two more weeks of angst for ND Nation before Weis announces after Memorial Day the two candidates who will compete for the starting quarterback job.

To read the rest of Wayne Drehs' story, click here.

"WE ARE … WITH YOU"

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Wearing far more orange-and-maroon than blue-and-white, 71,000 Penn State faithful stood in complete silence at the Blue-White Game on Saturday, honoring the 32 students and teachers slain at Virginia Tech. Offensive tackle Gerald Cadogan had just addressed the crowd on behalf of the team, reaching out to the grieving students in Blacksburg. "From our campus to your campus," he said, "we offer our hearts." The Blue Band would play "Amazing Grace" and "Tech Triumph." The cheerleaders would lead chants of "We Are … With You."

And, from his traditional spring game perch in the radio booth, Joe Paterno reverently donned a VT hat. It was a cap given to him by the family of Jeremy Herbstritt, a Penn State grad who was earning a master's in civil engineering at Virginia Tech before dying in the tragedy.

Joe Paterno
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions paid tribute to Virginia Tech on Saturday.

"To see all those kids come across campus," Paterno said of the orange-and-maroon masses, "you realize that there's something about intercollegiate athletics that's special."

So, maybe it was perspective that led the crowd to forgive Anthony Morelli (11-of-18, 104 yards) for locking in on a triple-covered Derrick Williams and tossing the day's only interception. And no one seemed overly concerned that RB Austin Scott still danced in the hole more than his predecessor Tony Hunt ever did. Or maybe folks realized the starting skill players were matched with a Blue squad offensive line composed of second- and third-teamers.

But as much as the crowd served to remind Paterno of the power of sports, it also underscored how trivial the most burning questions of the spring seem now.

Can Morelli run the offense as soundly as he did in an Outback Bowl win over Tennessee? Is Scott still sharp after spending a redshirt year on the scout team? Will the defense be weak up the middle after losing both starting tackles and LB Paul Posluszny to graduation?

But spring games have never been the most accurate forecast of a team or a player.

"Let me put it this way," says Penn State QB coach -- and one-time scout-teamer -- Jay Paterno. "Even I led a scoring drive in the Blue-White Game."

So, when September rolls around, few fans will remember exactly who played well and who raised more questions in the Blue-White Game. Fewer still will remember the final score (the White won 30-6).

But no one who was there will soon forget the day that the Blue-White game turned orange and maroon and Joe Paterno wore a Virginia Tech baseball cap, especially those who needed a sunny day the most.

"I love it," Mike Herbstritt, Jeremy's father, told the local paper, the Centre Daily Times. "Jeremy is right here. We're going to celebrate this with him."

NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Alabama's spring football game morphed into Woodstock this weekend in Tuscaloosa, with 92,000-plus turning out to hear Nick Saban play a psychedelic guitar rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Or something like that.

The A-Day attendance is a preposterous number, reflective of the mania accompanying Saban's arrival as coach of the Crimson Tide. But attendance doesn't equal right-now relevance.

In 2007 terms, Saban to Alabama was not the most important coaching move of this offseason. Neither was Randy Shannon's elevation at Miami, Dennis Erickson's latest reinvention of himself at Arizona State or Tom O'Brien's migration down the East Coast to North Carolina State.

Steve Kragthorpe
Dave Klotz/Louisville Athletics
All eyes will be on Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe this fall.

It was Steve Kragthorpe to Louisville. Even if "only" 28,000 people -- easily the largest spring game crowd in school history -- watched the Cardinals on Friday night.

Saban, Shannon, Erickson and O'Brien will begin 2007 well south of the national top 10. Kragthorpe and his Cards will be ranked right in that neighborhood.

It isn't every day a guy vaults from Tulsa to the top 10, inheriting the best returning quarterback in the nation and 56 other lettermen from a 12-1 team along the way. That's the luxury Kragthorpe has landed in. And the pressure.

Because Brian Brohm, Louisville's three leading receivers and most of its offensive line return, there is zero time in the honeymoon suite for Kragthorpe. Expectations will call for the Cardinals to compete for a national title right away.

If they fall short, you probably won't see fans shrug and write it off to significant defensive losses from 2006 -- including expected top-10 pick Amobi Okoye. They'll stare at the coach, scrutinizing the differences between him and the surly offensive savant he replaced in Jiffy Lube time.

Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich went after Kragthorpe minutes after Bobby Petrino finally followed through on his annual flirtations with other jobs, leaving for the Atlanta Falcons in January. That followed Jurich's wildly successful hiring M.O.: appoint yourself as a one-man selection committee, identity a single leading candidate and go get him before anyone has time to lament the loss of the last guy.

In truth, Kragthorpe had been Jurich's coach-in-waiting since 2004, when it looked as though Petrino might get the LSU job that Saban abandoned to flop in the NFL. (Interesting what a circular chain reaction this has been.) Petrino's tail-between-the-legs return to the Ville after Les Miles went to LSU simply delayed Kragthorpe's career upgrade until now.

But some Cardinals fans wondered whether their program had grown beyond a rapid-fire raid of Conference USA. Some wanted a higher-profile hire to serve as tangible proof that Louisville football had completed its journey from striver to perennial contender.

It's now Kragthorpe's job to prove he can win big without a big name. And to validate Jurich's normally impeccable instincts.

Know this much: Kragthorpe hasn't been afraid to do things his own way so far, including changing the rules of how the spring game would be played and scored.

Brian Brohm
Dave Klotz/Louisville Athletics
Brian Brohm threw four interceptions in Louisville's spring game Friday.

He set up an offense-vs.-defense game that mostly matched good-on-good, or starters against starters. The result was fairly jarring for Louisville fans accustomed to offense-centric spring ball: The defense won 51-45, picking off Brohm a shocking four times.

That's double the career high for picks in a real college game for Brohm, which prompted a fairly anxious question about the star QB when the spring scrimmage was over.

"Brian did some good things," Kragthorpe said. "The thing you have to understand, Steve Kragthorpe runs this show a little differently. This thing isn't orchestrated so that the offense has success like it's been in the past.

"I want to have the offense out there being competitive, the defense out there being competitive. We were pretty vanilla on offense, pretty vanilla on defense, but you've got to understand: I'm going to let these guys play. It's a little different than it's been in the past."

That answer said a lot -- and not just that Steve Kragthorpe likes to refer to himself as "Steve Kragthorpe." The rest of the message goes beyond a single spring game.

The rest of the message says there is a new sheriff in town and it's time to adjust to that fact. And this sheriff cares about both sides of the ball. He's not necessarily going to get his jollies out of overloading the stat sheet.

If there was any legit criticism of Petrino -- beyond his apparently congenital dishonesty and his general joylessness -- it was a pandering to the offensive side of the ball. Even as a head coach, Petrino was an offensive coordinator at heart: in love with drawing up plays and piling up yards and points.

He was good at it. Kragthorpe might not field a team that confuses, executes and produces like Petrino's, but he has shown signs of caring more than his predecessor about stopping opponents.

The defense will have to be decent at worst, given a schedule that includes at least three significant road challenges: at archrival Kentucky, at West Virginia and at South Florida. Rutgers comes to Louisville to close the regular season on a Thursday night in late November.

After the 2007 season, Kragthorpe can get on with the long-term side of the job, including the daunting task of matching Petrino as a recruiter. But for now, he should have almost everything a coach needs to compete for a national title -- especially a coach who just upgraded out of C-USA.

No current first-year guy has stepped into a better spot than this. Or a more pressurized spot. This is the hire to watch this fall.

CLAUSEN MAKES ND DEBUT
Jimmy Clausen was the center of attention in South Bend on Saturday.
COLUMBUS DAY
BRUCE HOOLEY, special to ESPN.com
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Sunny skies and mid-70s temperatures lured more than 75,000 Ohio State fans to the spring game Saturday in the hope that the soon-to-be-draft-ravaged Buckeyes might still look a lot like the team that reached the BCS national title game last season.

Well, not to worry.

OSU scored one offensive touchdown, and its quarterbacks spent the afternoon sprinting for shelter from an ill-tempered pass rush.

Jim Tressel
Tressel
The results confirmed what many anticipated, that coach Jim Tressel will resort more to the offensive style that won the 2002 national title than the five-wide receiver sets that took his team to the brink of another championship before Florida administered a 41-14 beating in January.

That means the next Troy Smith (redshirt freshman QB Antonio Henton) will start his eligibility clock exactly where Smith did -- on the bench -- while a caretaker QB administers a more conservative OSU attack.

Barring catastrophic injury in the summer or fall camp, junior Todd Boeckman will direct the Buckeyes this fall.

By the time he starts the Sept. 1 opener against Tressel's former school, Division I-AA Youngstown State, Boeckman will have waited nearly five years since his last meaningful snap as a high school senior.

He essentially was part of OSU's 2003 recruiting class, but delayed his enrollment until January 2004 to preserve a year's eligibility. He therefore was considered a redshirt that season, then sat at No. 3 on the depth chart in 2005 and 2006 while Smith rewrote the school's passing records.

Boeckman won't evoke images of his Heisman Trophy-winning predecessor, but he is a reasonable facsimile of Craig Krenzel, who safely administered a Maurice Clarett-heavy offense in 2002 to an upset of defending national champion Miami.

Jim Tressel
Boeckman
Boeckman won the job this spring over Henton and sophomore Rob Schoenhoft because he best executes the three mantras of Tressel-ball -- make good decisions, commit zero turnovers, make big plays.

Notice what's last on the list?

So, from the foot-on-your-throat pressure of Smith's five-wide gunslinger approach, OSU goes back to the no-running-with-scissors style that makes, as Tressel often is wont to say, the punt "the most important play in football."

He hopes to get away with that strategy again this season -- as he did in 2002 -- because of a defense that dictates to opponents.

Although the Buckeyes lost three defensive line starters, one linebacker, and an All-Big Ten safety and cornerback, its most robust depth is on the defensive side.

In the spring game, linebacker Marcus Freeman returned one of Henton's three interceptions 49 yards for a touchdown and linebacker Larry Grant returned a fumble 80 yards for a score.

Grant could be the come-from-nowhere force this fall that Matt Wilhelm was on the '02 Buckeyes, rebounding from a nondescript junior year to make plays all over the field as a senior.

Grant separated Boeckman from the ball to set up the fumble return, and he did another Jarvis Moss on Schoenhoft in the first half.

Were those protection problems the result of an offensive line divided by the intra-squad nature of the spring game or of the bothersome mano-a-mano deficiencies Florida exposed?

There's no way to know, but tackle Kirk Barton -- one of only five seniors on this year's roster, compared with 18 last season -- didn't play in the spring game, and neither did tailback Chris Wells.

It's Wells who will play the Clarett role -- sans divalike qualities -- this fall.

A sprained ankle kept him out Saturday as a precaution against further injury, which is the one circumstance Ohio State absolutely cannot afford this fall if it is to be a Big Ten title contender once again.

SPRING GAME REVIEWS
Notre Dame, Alabama, Ohio State and Louisville looked for answers in spring games this weekend.
SPRING CLEANING
Bruce Feldman, ESPN The Magazine
With another batch of spring games in the can, Bruce Feldman takes a look at some of the biggest headlines, surprises and scares. Feldman's blog Insider
PERFECT ATTENDANCE
More than 92,000 turned out to watch Nick Saban's first spring game at Alabama.
NOTRE DAME NOSTALGIA
Lou Holtz returned to the Notre Dame sideline for Saturday's Blue-Gold game.
LOOKING BACK
SPRING GAMES
RB Jabbie stars in ND's spring game
Overflow crowd watches Saban's Bama debut
Defense rules in Buckeyes' spring game
HOOK 'N' LADDER
ESPNU breaks down the spring practices of Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Miami, Oklahoma, Texas and USC.