Defensive LineSpotlight: Victor Abiamiri
Courtesy AP/Paul Sakuma
Lost: Brian Beidatsch, Patrick McInerney (graduation), Dan Chervanick (position change), Nate Schiccatano (transfer), Brandon Nicholas (not on roster)
Gained: Travis Leitko, (not on roster for 2005), Derrell Hand (DNP as freshman), Paddy Mullen, John Ryan, Kallen Wade (freshmen)
I was tempted to put the beast Trevor Laws in the spotlight, but in reality all eyes will be (and should be) on Victor Abimiri. Abiamiri's career his mirrored Justin Tuck's in a way: massive hype coming in, followed by numbers that are decent but don't fully live up to that hype. Abiamiri's eight sacks last year are impressive, unless you discount the fact that four came against a banged-up Stanford line. Still, I'm sure many an Irish fan is hoping that Abiamiri continues to mirror Tuck, as Tuck's final season made him a first day NFL draft pick.
Notre Dame is returning nine of eleven starters on defense, including all four defensive linemen. This in stark contrast to the past few years for the line, especially last year when Derek Landri was the only returning starter. Landri, considered undersized for a defensive tackle, has nonetheless been a solid presence on the interior for the past two years. Next to him once again will be Trevor Laws, an exciting player who worked his way into the starting lineup last year. Regular readers will know I've been high on Laws for quite some time now. Across from Abiamiri once again will be Chris From, returning from a season-ending injury (or a "seizing ending" injury, if you're Kirk Herbstreit).
Not only is the defensive line returning three starters, but there are also three backups with significant past playing time. Ronald Talley, already one of the first players off the bench, stepped up in Frome's absence. In doing so, he opened a few eyes, and sold a few tshirts. ("Play Like Ronald Talley Today" read the yellow shirts bearing his visage.) Justin Brown also got a small share of playing time thanks to the wear and tear life in the trenches put on the starters. Pat Kunz also saw some playing time last year, and that should increase this year. Finally, Travis Leitko, projected to be a starter last year, is back after a whirlwind year.
The experienced line will be solid against the line, but experts have been bemoaning the lack of a pass rush since Justin Tuck left. Who will put pressure on the quarterback? Will it be Talley? (Can it be Talley?) Or will it be one of the freshman? Or can Dwight Stevenson finally step up after a trouble career and finally make his mark on the field?
LinebackerSpotlight: Maurice Crum, Jr.
Lost: Joseph Borland, Brandon Hoyte, Corey Mays, Anthony Salvador (graduation), Casey Cullen (position change), Nate Schiccatano (transfer), Abdel Banda (left team for medical reasons)
Gained: Travis Thomas (semi-position change), Anthony Vernaglia (position change), Kyle Charters (walk on?), Kevin Washington (DNP as freshman), Morrice Richardson, Toryan Smith (freshmen)
As mentioned above, the defense only lost two of its nine starters, but those two were its best linebackers in Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mayes. The only returner is Maurice Crum. Crum moves from his low-profile spot at Apache linebacker to middle linebacker, a position often considered to be the leader of the defense. Crum faces enormous pressure this year, both to perform in his new and more challenging position, and to provide an air of leadership to the newcomers who will be flanking him.
Senior Mitchell Thomas and junior Anthony Vernaglia are even in the competition for strongside linebacker, and there have been indications that their playing time at the position will be even as well. Mitchell Thomas is a senior who is finally getting his due, as he has primarily been a special teamer to this point. Vernaglia came in as a highly-lauded athlete, but has yet to find his niche in the Irish defense. He is now settled in at linebacker, and this season will be his chance to prove the recruiting pundit right.
Little is known (by me, at least) about the third linebacker spot, other than the fact that it's no longer called the Apache. Charlie Weis, citing the axiom that the best 22 players should be on the field whenever possible, will give running back Travis Thomas some time at weakside linebacker. Thomas was a good strong safety in high school and was praised by Weis for his work on special teams. But I would be surprised if Travis gets much more than 50% of the snaps at linebacker. Joe Brockington appears to be the man who will get the other 50%. Brockington, who may still be recovering from a spring injury, was used as the fourth linebacker on goal line situations last year. Another name mentioned is sophomore Steve Quinn.
One person who will unfortunately not be battling for a linebacker spot is Abdel Banda. After battling injuries from the beginning of his freshman year, Banda has esentially retired from football for medical reasons.
SafetySpotlight: Chinedum Ndukwe
Lost: Anthony Vernaglia (position change), Freddie Parish IV (transfer)
Gained: Your guess is as good as mine, if not better.
(Note: UND.com lumped everyone under the "Defensive Back" label this year, so I apologize if I did any incorrect guessing when it comes to safeties Except for the guys I'm sure of, everyone is listed under Cornerback.)
Ooh, I hate putting up a picture like that, but that is exactly why Ndukwe is the spotlight player. Let's try again.
Courtesy AP/Keith Srakocic
There we go. Last year, Chinedum Ndukwe came into the season preparing to play the Apache linebacker spot. Appropriately, he bulked up to a linebacker weight, 230 lbs. Unfortunately, when he was moved to safety, his extra weight caused him to run line a linebacker. Last year, Mo Stovall was told by Coach Weis to lose 15-20 pounds to increase his speed and stamina. This year Ndukwe was put on the Weis Diet and is down to 210 lbs. That should hopefully get him closer to the 4.5 40 speed he clocked as a freshman wide receiver.
But, despite what the national media will tell you, the problem of Notre Dame's secondary wasn't speed. Tom Zbikowski is down in the 4.5 40 range as well. The problem was positioning and discipline. If you wanted to explain to an 8-year-old how to play safety, you would tell them to make sure no one from the other team gets past them. Too often last year, Zbikowski and Ndukwe failed on that simple task. Perhaps you can blame it on two agressive personalities that want to mix it up with the opponents' running game. Perhaps you can blame it on inexperience and previous bad coaching. Or perhaps you can just blame it on a new defensive scheme. Wherever the blame is placed, Notre Dame fans can only hope that the Irish secondary has beat the big play bug.
Backing up Zbikowski and Ndukwe, respectively, are Ray Herring and David Bruton. Herring mainly played in garbage time last year, but Bruton made a mark on special teams. (Bruton made such a mark, in fact, that Darius Walker's family bought #27 jerseys to support him.) Both have received nothing but praise from the Irish faithful for their performance in practice and limitied game experience.
CornerbackSpotlight: Ambrose Wooden
Lost: Matt Mitchell, Alvin Reynolds, Bret Shapot, Rich Whitney III (graduation), Junior Jabbie (position change), LaBrose Hedgemon II (transfer)
Gained: Mike Anello (walkon), Kyle McCarthy (DNP as freshman), Sergio Brown, Jashaad Gaines, Leonard Gordon, Raeshon McNeil, Darrin Walls (freshmen)
Again with the negative pictures. Wooden is in the spotlight because he needs to do less of that, and more of this:
Again, with Wooden at least, the issue isn't speed. Unfortunately, Wooden's speed was often best displayed when he hustled to stop a broken-away ballcarrier right before the end zone. Last year, Ambrose Wooden was third on the team in tackles, behind only experienced linebackers Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mayes. All of last year, I tried to determine if Wooden's high tackle totals were a good thing or a bad thing. That's open to interpretation, but most people would probably lean towards "bad." Wooden did a good job of staying near his man last year, but his plan of attack was to let the receiver catch the ball, then move in to make the sure tackle. With another year of experience under his belt, and another year with the same coaching staff, hopefully a more aggressive - yet still disciplined - Ambrose Wooden will emerge.
Mike Richardson will once again play across from Wooden. Richardson earns the Most Improved award on the defense. After a 2004 where he was only seen on opposing receivers' posters, Richardson developed into a decent corner. Leo Ferrine surprised some by earning the nickel corner role, and he presumably will continue that duty this year. That is, of course, unless classmate Terrail Lambert emerges to displace him. Behind Ferrine and Lambert are a talented group of freshmen, highlighted by Raeshon McNeil and Darrin Walls. To some, the freshmen corners are the saviors of the Irish defensive backfield unit.
(Useless trivia of the day: sophomore walkon Mike Anello comes to the gridiron from the ND ultimate frisbee team.)
KickerSpotlight: Carl Gioia
Lost: DJ Fitzpatrick (graduation), Craig Cardillo (position change)
Gained: Ryan Burkhart
Carl Gioia wins the spotlight by default - he was the only kick of which I could find a picture. For the past two years, Gioia started the season as the kickoff specialist, only to lose the job essentially for not kicking deep enough. He did attempt and convert one field goal against Stanford last year. However, he was infamously passed over in favor of an injured DJ Fitzpatrick later in that game. Bobby Renkes also saw some time at kickoff specialist two years ago, but he didn't last long either. The placekicking job may just go to freshman Ryan Burkhart, if he can prove he's consistent.
PunterSpotlight: Geoffrey Price
Gained: Eric Maust (freshman)
Speaking of consistency, there's the story of Geoffrey Price. Price came in as a highly touted recruit, but inconsistency on the practice field forced both Nick Setta and DJ Fitzpatrick into double duty. If he still hasn't found his groove, double walkon Eric Maust will try his leg. Yes, I said double walkon - Maust also made the baseball team as a right-handed pitcher. How about that.
2006 Schedule9-02-05 at Georgia Tech
9-09-05 PENN STATE
9-23-05 at Michigan State
10-28-05 at Navy
11-04-05 NORTH CAROLINA
11-11-05 at Air Force
11-25-05 at Southern California
Predicted Wins Legend (final record in parentheses)
Even ND haters say we will win these games (8-4)
Things still look good for a pessimistic ND fan (10-2
Those with Davieham flashbacks are probably expecting at least one trip-up (11-1)
True fans go into every game thinking their team has a shot to win (12-0)