Notre Dame has plenty of holes to fill on defense in 2005. Only three starters return from the much-maligned 2004 defense. Defensive coordinator Rick Minter will have his hands full just trying to find starters this fall--and what about depth for 2005?
It all begins up front on defense and the Irish had a stellar defensive line against the run in 2004. The Irish surrendered just 88 yards per game on the ground in 2004, good enough to finished ranked No. 4 out of 117 teams in the country. However, three out of the four starters must be replaced in 2005.
Defensive tackle Trevor Laws will likely team up with returning starter Derek Landri in the middle. Laws has bulked up to 290 pounds heading into his third season, and his squatty body gives him the ability to get under the pad level on opposing offensive blockers. His quickness gives him a big advantage over usually slower offensive lineman and the ability to make plays in the backfield—something ND has been lacking as of late.
Laws will likely win the interior spot opposite Landri, but don't count out fifth-year senior Brian Beidatsch. The Irish have a long tradition of fifth-year players rising to the occasion. One has to look no further than last year and the outstanding season Greg Pauly added to the defensive front in his final season. While most are willing to concede the position to Laws, both Laws and Landri should get some competition from Beidatsch inside.
Defensive end is somewhat of a scary situation heading into fall camp. Junior Victor Abiamiri has one end slot locked up, and we expect senior Chris Frome to man the other position. Frome is listed at 271 pounds heading into fall camp, and his athleticism has been seen many times on the field on kickoff coverage. Frome is usually one of the first men down in coverage when playing on special teams.
Frome's quickness should help both he and Abiamiri in getting to the quarterback as opposing teams won't be able to constantly double-team Abiamiri if Frome can generate some pressure.
But after Frome and Abiamiri, the Irish are in no man's land at defensive end. Senior Travis Leitko is absent from the team roster. No explanation has been given as of yet on his absence, but we've heard that he's not likely to be on the roster this season, but that has yet to be confirmed.
The Irish have zero playing experience after Frome and Abiamiri, and the depth at the position (Ronald Talley, Dwight Stephensen Jr. and Justin Brown) all are somewhat green in terms or development and technique.
Talley missed of all of spring practice due to a suspension, so he'll have a lot of learning to do in camp, and Stephensen was switched to defensive end just this past spring. Brown, while said to be talented and quick, doesn't have much playing experience even from his high school days as he picked up the sport late after spending most of his time on the basketball court.
The Irish must develop at least one, if not two, players who can spell Frome and Abiamiri or they will wear down as the season progresses. This is a very big concern of mine, as I'm sure it is for the coaching staff.
In reality, Notre Dame has five defensive linemen that have playing experience. After those five, this unit is as green as we can ever remember heading into a new season. Defensive line coach Jappy Oliver will have his hands full this fall camp.
The Irish will also have to replace three-year starter Derek Curry and two-year starter Mike Goolsby at linebacker. All signs point to fifth-year senior Corey Mays taking over at Mike linebacker, but the other position, Apache, is definitely up for grabs.
Chinedum Ndukwe was tried at the Apache position this spring, but we've heard he has since been moved back to safety. We're not sure if the move of Ndukwe is a situation where the Irish coaching staff is trying to put the best 11 men on the field, or if Ndukwe couldn't grasp the position. We're going to guess the former, and that Ndukwe was moved to safety to make room for potential star linebacker Maurice Crum Jr..
The previous coaching staff was very high on Crum and his athleticism, and we're going to guess Crum showed that this spring, making him too valuable to sit on the sidelines.
Crum will have competition from another impressive athlete in Anthony Vernaglia. Vernaglia played safety during his freshman season, but we hear he's being switched to Apache this fall, but that has yet to be confirmed by the Irish coaching staff. Vernaglia possesses many of the same traits as Crum, and his size (6-3, 225 pounds) should be a big advantage at this critical linebacker position. Crum will have the advantage of spending his first season at linebacker, but we doubt Vernaglia will concede anything before it's decided. This might be a position to watch.
The only certainty right now in the defensive backfield is that junior Tom Zbikowski is going to play somewhere. After that, we're not sure what will happen in the secondary.
However, expect senior Mike Richardson to lock down one corner spot this fall—at least early in the season. It was obvious this spring that Richardson had made a positive impression on secondary coach Bill Lewis, and he was the only player the coaching staff would single out at the position. But as time goes on, the sophomore defensive backs could make a push for playing time. We're going to guess that Richardson ends up at the Boundary corner position as he's very solid against the run, and he'll have less space to cover playing this position.
Obviously junior Ambrose Wooden is a guy many would like to take the starting position opposite Richardson, but unfortunately, Wooden was hurt most of spring practice and was limited to very little contact. The big question for Wooden: can he find the defensive mentality needed to play corner? We think he can and will, but I wouldn't pencil him in as a starter at this point by any means.
Sophomores Leo Ferrine, Terrail Lambert and Junior Jabbie will also be battling for playing time. We've heard good things about all three, but so far, nobody has really distanced themselves from the pack.
We wouldn't be surprised to see Wooden, Jabbie, Lambert and Ferrine all line up with the first team at some point during fall camp. Corner will be a hotly contested position throughout camp, and to be honest, we can't really handicap this race. It wouldn't shock me if any of the four ended up starting against Pittsburgh.
The safety position opposite Tom Zbikowski is also open. Ndukwe should be battling junior Freddie Parish for the position this fall. Both have shown glimpses of being able to handle the position, but neither is a shoe-in to take the job.
Don't be surprised to see the entire secondary jumbled all fall camp as the Irish coaching staff tries to find the right or best combination. For example, it might be possible to see Zbikowski move to strong safety to make room for a sophomore like Leo Ferrine to play free safety. This is, by far, the most wide open situation in the secondary we can remember. Someone will have to jump up and take these positions.
If the Irish coaches are still noncommittal in naming starters in the secondary the week leading up to the Pitt game, I'd start to get worried.
On the offensive side of the ball, most starting positions are most likely wrapped up at this point. The Irish have 10 starters returning as well as Darius Walker.
However, there are some interesting position battles that will take place for playing time.
For example: which running back shares carries with Darius Walker? Junior Travis Thomas will try to hold off the charge from sophomore Justin Hoskins. What can Hoskins do with the ball in his hands? We're not sure as he was suspended this spring, but he's got plenty of athletic ability to make the race interesting. Also, don't count out Rashon Powers-Neal getting meaningful carries this fall.
The battle for the backup tight end position should also be interesting, but when Weis has talent like Marcus Freeman and John Carlson as backups, one could expect both to receive a lot of playing time along with starter Anthony Fasano. We do expect at least one of Freeman and Carlson to really step up their game this season.
Most people don't consider the backup quarterback position that vital, but Brady Quinn is one injury away from Irish fans seeing sophomore David Wolke or true freshman Evan Sharpley in the game. While both have potential, only Wolke has seen any game action (just one series), and Sharpley will be in his first season for the Irish. This position could definitely factor into the season so it's worth watching. I'm quite sure coach Weis and coach Vaas will certainly be watching this battle.
Probably the most important position for Irish fans to watch on offense this fall camp is offensive line. Not because many of these backups will play meaningful minutes, but because they'll be counted on heavily in the next few years. Can senior Brian Mattes provide quality depth at tackle? Will anyone step up at guard?
While these questions don't seem that important now, they will be if someone along the offensive line gets injured, and it will definitely be important for the future of Notre Dame football. Keep an eye on the depth at offensive line. This position could really be in trouble in the future if players don't step up in the near future.
There are plenty of spots up for grabs this fall, which should make for some interesting battles. There could be a few surprises along the way after fall camp, but developing both starters and depth will be critical to Notre Dame's success this season.
As former Irish coach Lou Holtz used to say: "if you can't name a starter, you essentially have two backups." Keep that in mind while sifting through the piles on information we provide in the next few weeks.