Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Notre Dame Football Preview
Defense, Special Teams, and Predictions

Defensive Line

Spotlight: Pat Kuntz

Also Returning: Justin Brown, Neil Kennedy, Trevor Laws, Dwight Stephenson, Jr.
Lost: Casey Cullen, Chris Frome, Derek Landri, Travis Leitko (graduation), John Ryan (position change), Ronald Talley (transfer), Derrell Hand (?)
Gained: Paddy Mullen, Kallen Wade (DNP as freshmen), Andrew Nuss, Emeka Nwankwo (freshmen)

One reason for the switch to the 3-4 is the talent available on this year's team. This is evident on the line, where experience is lacking and the top backup (Hand) may be unavailable for this season. 3-4 ends are bigger than 4-3 ends, and in the 3-4 the nose guard simply takes up space while the ends have more of an opportunity to make plays. That's why ND's top lineman, Trevor Laws, was moved to an end. Pat Kuntz gets his first chance to start, and he will be playing nosetackle despite his small size. But reports say he is a Derek Landri-style tackle - undersized, but with an unbeatable motor. After several years and several position changes, it looks like Dwight Stephenson, Jr. will finally see the starting lineup as the other end. If he doesn't, Justin Brown, one of the top backups from last year, will see playing time at the other end. After the starters and Brown, there isn't much experience but there is a ton of talent among many freshmen and sophomores who didn't see the field last year.


Spotlight: Toryan Smith

Also Returning: Maurice Crum, Jr., Joe Brockington, Steve Quinn, Scott Smith, Anthony Vernaglia, Kevin Washington
Lost: Nick Borseti, Kyle Charters, Mitchell Thomas (graduation), Travis Thomas (position change)
Gained: John Ryan, Morrice Richardson (position changes), Alex Lough, Kevin Smith (walk-ons), Aaron Nagel, Kerry Neal, Steve Paskorz, Brian Smith (freshmen)

Any one of the starting linebackers could have been put in the spotlight this year. Crum will again be expected to lead this unit. Highly touted out of high school, Vernaglia will finally get a crack at the starting lineup. He looks to earn a starting nod based on his all-around skills; the former safety should have superior coverage skills. Brought in as a defensive end, John Ryan becomes a pass rushing defensive end in the 3-4. Of course, Coach Weis promised that we could still see some 43 looks with 34 personnel, so that could be an indication that Ryan will play as a Willie McGinnest-style hybrid, occasionally lining up with his fingers on the ground. But Toryan Smith gets the spotlight because he has apparently stolen a starting inside linebacker spot. "Stolen" may be too harsh a word, considering the sophomore's talent. But the underrated Joe Brockington, who worked his way into the starting lineup last year, will again be coming off the bench thanks to Smith. Speaking of Smith, their are four Irish 'backers with that name, and it would be amusing to see them all on the field at once.


Spotlight: David Bruton

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Also Returning: Sergio Brown, Jashaad Gaines, Ray Herring, Kyle McCarthy, Tom Zbikowski
Lost: Chinedum Ndukwe (graduation)
Gained: Leonard Gordon (DNP as freshman), Harrison Smith (freshman)

Ironically, if you do a Google image search for David Bruton, one of the first results is from a high school all-star game... where he's getting burned by Mario Manningham. Bruton has good size for a safety at 6'2" and has been impressive on special teams. But as past years have shown, all the size, speed, and talent in the world don't help if you're not standing in the right location. Let's hope Bruton and Tom Zbikowski's technique and reads improve greatly under Corwin Brown, or else it could be another long season for the Irish. Following a disappointing 2006, Zbikowski surprisingly came back for another try in 2007. He'll be the veteran leader of this defense, and he appears to come back healthier, in better shape, and with a better focus on football. Ray Herring and Kyle McCarthy will be the top backups in this unit, and they should serve as rather competent backups to Bruton and Zbikowski.


Spotlight: Ambrose Wooden

Also Returning: Mike Anello, Leo Ferrine, Wade Iams, Terrail Lambert, Raeshon McNeil, Darrin Walls, William David Williams
Lost: Tim Kenney, Mike Richardson (graduation)
Gained: Munir Prince (position change), John Leonis (walk on), Gary Gray (freshman)

Wooden returns for his second year in the spotlight. Last time, it was because he was the closest thing ND had to a bright spot at corner in 2005. This year, it's because he was nearly forgotten thanks to injuries and the improved play of Lambert and Mike Richardson. Richardson is impressing in the NFL, while Lambert absolutely broke out with his performance against MSU. With Wooden and Lambert, ND is going into the season with two competent corners for the first time since the #15 jersey wasn't cursed. Speaking of that #15 jersey, Leo Ferrine was the nickelback two years ago, and now finds himself a third stringer. That's no slam on Ferrine, it's simply a testament to the guys who were recruited to replace him. Sophomores Walls and McNeil are the second stringers, with Walls likely playing the nickelback and McNeil coming in for dime situations. The highly touted Gary Gray has been hampered by injuries and will likely sit out this season. Meanwhile, the speedy but undersized Munir Prince will try to learn the cornerback position after a failed outing at running back.


Spotlight: Ryan Burkhart

Also Returning:
Lost: Carl Gioia, Bobby Renkes (graduation)
Gained: Nate Whitaker (walk-on), Brandon Walker (freshman)

Well, Burhart is the experienced scholarship kicker, but that doesn't guarantee him anything. Brandon Walker is a talented freshman with a strong leg, but he may be more of a punter than a field goal kicker. Walk-on Nate Whitaker is the X-factor here, and a good showing in practice will get him on the field on Saturdays.


Spotlight: Geoff Price

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Also Returning: Eric Maust
Lost: none
Gained: Xavier Burton (walk-on)

After years of looking like a bust, Price burst onto the scene in 2006 and instantly became a Ray Guy candidate. With a young offense and defense, Price could be the team MVP this year. Price will again be backed up by baseball's Eric Maust, and also by walk-on Xavier Burton

2007 Schedule

9-08-07 at Penn State
9-15-07 at Michigan
9-29-07 @ Purdue
10-06-07 @ UCLA
11-03-07 NAVY
11-10-07 AIR FORCE
11-17-07 DUKE
11-24-07 at Stanford

Predicted Wins Legend (final record in parentheses)
Sure wins (4-8)
Win 4 of these 6, and I'll call it a successful season (8-4)
True fans go into every game thinking their team has a shot to win (12-0)