Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Spring has sprung | by Pat

It's a great day for Irish football fans as spring football season officially kicks off today with Media Day. We'll get to the quotes, pictures, and other assorted details later, but for now let's start with what we see as the top five questions about the team. As spring is a time more for player development and less for scheme we're going to stick to personnel type questions and leave the "will the DB's stop biting on the play action" type questions for the fall. Let's get started.

1. Who will fill Corey Mays and Brandon Hoyte's shoes at linebacker?

No position loses more than linebacker. Two of last year's starters, Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays, are gone and need to be replaced. Not only that, but the sole returning starter, Maurice Crum, is rumored to be out for the spring due to back surgery. That means that there are three starting spots up for grabs this spring and no clear favorite. With lots of opportunities for the young (and not so young) linebackers on the team to stake their claim on the starting positions, it should be an exciting spring. Not only are there no clear favorites to move into the starting lineup, it's also unclear exactly where the current crop of replacements will end up once the dust settles. For example, how the other linebackers perform this spring might determine where Crum ends up when he returns in the spring. Will he have to stay at Apache, replace Hoyte at Will, or, as some rumors suggest, see a move to the middle?

Here's a sampling of some of the linebacker related questions that coaches and fans alike will be focusing on this spring. Will Anthony Vernaglia finally have his breakout that fans have been waiting for? Can the rising senior linebackers (Mitchell Thomas, Joe Brockington, Nick Borseti) find a spot on the field? Will Abdel Banda come back from an injury-filled 2005 and stake a claim for playing time? Who will be the first freshman (Scott Smith, Kevin Washington, Steve Quinn) to earn PT? Will any of these linebackers ultimately be good enough to adequately replace Hoyte and Mays? Questions abound at the linebacker position. Expect some of the best battles of the spring here.

2. Will a definite #3 wide receiver emerge?

Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight have a total of 198 career receptions between them. The rest of the wide receivers on the roster only have 3. When Brady Quinn tires of throwing completions to Jeff and Rhema, who will he target? With ND's thin depth chart at tight end -- only two scholarship tight ends this spring -- having a third receiver ready to go for the fall will certainly be a staff priority. The question is, who will it be?

Senior-to-be Chase Anastacio only has one reception in his first three years although he has made a name for himself as a special teams ace. This spring might be his last chance to crack the lineup. The junior class of wide recievers actually consists of a pair of position transfers in the form of former QB Darrin Bragg and former safety/running back Junior Jabbie. Both should have plenty of opportunites to impress, but it will probably be an uphill climb for both. The most likely candidates are actually the two sophomores. David Grimes probably has the upper hand out of all the options as he has started to see some time on the field at receiver towards the end of the 2005 season. His classmate, DJ Hord, is the player that most fans hope step up. Hord's calling card is speed and ideally he would be able to provide the speedy deep threat to compliment the strengths of Samardzija and McKnight. The darkhorse in this race is early entry freshman George West, although it's likely he'll make an impact on special teams before getting playing time at receiver. Three more wideouts show up in the fall and while it's hard for freshman WR to make an impact, due mainly to poor blocking skills and unrefined route running, any player hoping to see passes thrown his way in the fall will have to take advantage of the lack of receivers on the roster this spring and make a move up the depth chart.

3. Who's the fifth lineman?

The only true missing link on offense this spring will be at right tackle. Either Dan Santucci or Bob Morton will slide over to right guard to replace Dan Stevenson. That leaves the question of which inexperienced player will be able to grab the starting right tackle job left open by departing Mark LeVoir. 5th year senior Brian Mattes probably will get first crack at it, but it will be interesting to see what a year in a college weight program does for the sophomore duo of Paul Duncan and Mike Turkovich. Both impressed early last year but still had a ways to go in terms of adding strength. Getting a quick start will be key in this race as one of these three will probably end up as the backup to Ryan Harris at left tackle. Eventually that backup will have to take reps with the 2nd team at left tackle which will make it harder to earn the starting spot on the right. With highly regarded tackle Sam Young showing up in the summer, getting quality reps in with the first team during the spring will be a huge advantage for the guys already on the roster.

4. Which defensive end will start opposite Victor Abiamiri?

After watching opposing teams pick our the secondary, a pass rush is near the top of any Irish fan's wish list. But for that to come true, the defensive end opposite Victor Abiamiri is going to need to really produce next season. The good news is that Chris Frome, Ronald Talley, and Justin Brown all saw time as starters last season and return this spring with a year of experience under their belt. The bad news is that they only combined for 3 sacks. Frome will be coming back from season ending knee injury so obviously getting healthy and building confidence in his knee will be the goal for him this spring. Talley and Brown plenty of both showed flashes of potential last year, but still weren't quite there from a strength standpoint. Hopefully an off-season under Coach Mendoza will have them ready to go this spring. Going into their junior year they will need to push each other since the thin depth chart behind them won't provide much challenge from other players. It would be great of one of the three stepped up to the point where the coaches felt comfortable moving Victor Abiamiri to the weak side where he could really focus on rushing the QB. Time will tell if that happens.

5. Who will have the breakout spring?

Irish fans are always on the lookout for the next great player. And what better time to find them than in the spring? Whether he's the underclassmen who walked in the the weight room in January and emerged a different person in March or the player who makes the leap in his final year in an Irish uniform (can we just call it "pulling a Stovall" from now on?) the annual "breakout" search is always a fun one. Rather than just list any of the possible candidates, I'll list out the players that would most help the team with a breakout spring.

Since question #1 on our list is about linebackers, it's safe to say that many Irish fans are hoping for one of the linebackers to make his inclusion in the starting lineup a no-brainer. Notably, Mitchell Thomas and Anthony Vernaglia seem to have both the size and speed that fans would love to see flying all over the field. Thomas may be running out of chances to crack the starting lineup while Vernaglia's debut in the starting lineup has been eagerly anticipated ever since he turned down Pete Carroll and headed to South Bend.

Another fan favorite recruit, Justin Hoskins, also has fans nervously wondering if he will ever make an impact. I can't see Hoskins and incoming recruit Munir Prince both finishing their careers at running back so if Hoskins doesn't want to be the one shifted to wide receiver or cornerback, he's going to need to show his stuff this spring. Missing nearly the entire spring session last year really hurt him and he can't really afford another setback like that if he wants to enter the running back rotation that adds early entry James Aldridge this spring. Hoskins can add a real speed threat to the running backs so obviously it would be great if this spring he can prove he deserves to get a few carries a game.

David Bruton appears to have an Nduwke-sized obstacle between him and the starting lineup, but it was hard to watch him blazing down the field on special teams last year and not imagine him as the ball-hawking free safety ND fans crave. It has been reported a few different places that Nduke won't be moving to linebacker, so Bruton isn't going to be handed the starting job, he's going to have to earn it. Even if he can't knock Nduwke out, Bruton's development will be key to a safety position that might lose both starters at the end of next year.

Other possible "breakout" names to keep an eye on this spring include Terrail Lambert, Dwight Stephenson, Jr., Darrin Bragg, D.J. Hord, Scott Smith, Darrell Hand, George West, and Chris Stewart. Truthfully, every player on the roster should be included here and that is one of the fun things about spring practice. You never know when the next Fighting Irish football star is about to debut.

Spring Depth Chart

So I figured I'd offer up my guesses for the final spring depth chart. Keep in mind that last year I pegged Freddie Parish as our starting free safety so all predictions are dubious at best. Feel free to remind me of my mistakes later in the year. Note that I didn't include Crum since it doesn't sound like he's practicing and this is a spring roster. It's safe to say he'll be starting (somewhere) next fall.

Brady Quinn
David Wolke
Victor Abiamiri
Justin Brown
Darius Walker
Travis Thomas
Derek Landri
Pat Kuntz
Asaph Schwapp
Ashley McConnell
Trevor Laws
Darrell Hand
Rhema McKnight
David Grimes
Chris Frome
Ronald Talley
Jeff Samardzija
D.J. Hord
Joe Brockington
Abdel Banda
John Carlson
Marcus Freeman
Scott Smith
Mitchell Thomas
Ryan Harris
Paul Duncan
Anthony Vernaglia
Steve Quinn
Dan Santucci
Bob Morton
Mike Richardson
Terrail Lambert
John Sullivan
Bob Morton
Ambrose Wooden
Leo Ferrine
Bob Morton
Chris Stewart
Tom Zbikowski
Ray Herring
Brian Mattes
Mike Turkovich
Chinedum Ndukwe
David Bruton