Biding Their Time?

Biding Their Time?

The Irish 101 Series continues its early look at the incoming freshman class and makes a pre-camp assessment of their prospects for playing time in 2009.

Greg Bell, Mark Bavaro, Frank Stams, Chris Zorich, Pete Bercich, Aaron Taylor, John Covington, Tim Ruddy, Oliver Gibson, Lyron Cobbins, Malcolm Johnson, Allen Rossum, Luke Petitgout, Anthony Denman, Jerome Collins, Justin Tuck, Jeff Samardzija, John Sullivan, Trevor Laws, Harrison Smith, and Kyle McCarthy.

Unlike the freshman phenoms featured in our previous "Instant Impact" column, the players listed above spent their freshman seasons on either the scout team, solely as special teams contributors, learning a new/changed position, or progressed at an unforeseen level later in their careers. And aside from the two active players on the list, each was eventually drafted by an NFL (or in Shark's case, MLB) team.

Below is the second part of our early look at the 2009 freshman close with a focus on those that might have to wait for extended playing time in an Irish uniform.

Possible Redshirts that Could Certainly Find the Field

Carlos Calabrese (Linebacker/Hitter): Calabrese is going to hit someone early in fall camp. That player, along with most of the Irish fan base will likely wonder why Calabrese isn't running with the first unit on September 5 rather than hoping to crack the field with the kick-off or punt teams. But there's more to playing middle linebacker in today's game than punishing the runner in the hole, and senior Toryan Smith as well as sophomores Steve Filer and David Posluszny will have the advantage over Calabrese due to familiarity with the scheme (while fellow freshman Manti Te'o has the purported advantage of super-human powers).

Calabrese is going to hit people for (likely) five seasons at the college level. We're just not sure if any of them will be shown on NBC, ABC, or ESPN this fall.

Tyler Stockton (Defensive Tackle): He's already been (famously) pancaked by a bona fide college lineman; he's already won a few battles in spring practice; and he appears to be the conduit to several of his classmates ready to hit campus for summer school. While one year of growth and valuable practice experience would be ideal for Stockton (the same route taken by sophomores Hafis Williams, Brandon Newman, and Kapron Lewis-Moore last season) the Irish defensive line may not have that luxury in '09.

Either Stockton or redshirt freshman Sean Cwynar (or both) will likely be needed for spot duty at some point along the 6-7 man defensive interior. Stockton's inclusion would likely help him to better compete with six returning DT/NT prospects in 2010, but burning a season of eligibility for a promising defensive lineman won't be a strategy Coach Weis and the Irish staff enter into lightly.

Theo Riddick (Running Back): Riddick has the natural quickness and suddenness after his initial cut to become a nightmare match-up in space. But five's a crowd at the tailback position, and Riddick will have to earn practice snaps over juniors Armando Allen and Robert Hughes, sophomore Jonas Gray, and fellow freshman Cierre Wood in an effort to impress the offensive minds leading the Irish in 2009.

Crucial, often overlooked aspects of the position such as ball security, timing in the screen game, and the willingness to give up his body in pass protection could prove to be key elements that would earn Riddick a few plays from scrimmage sooner rather than later.

With so many able bodies manning the tailback and wide receiver positions in '09, Riddick will likely receive a season on the scout team. But a player with Riddick's quickness and cutting ability could lend an immediate hand, albeit in small doses, to an already talented offense.

It's too early to make this comparison, and Irish fans might not appreciate the reference to an old enemy, but Riddick's cutting ability reminds me of former (1990-92) Miami Hurricane's all-purpose back (and Dallas Cowboys wide receiver) Kevin Williams. (With that over-the-top observation out of the way we'll now allow Riddick to grow into his role as a college football player.)

Dan Fox (Linebacker): Primarily a safety in high school, Fox will likely spend the 2009 season growing into the body of a collegiate outside linebacker. His speed and size (6'4" 220-range), not to mention his skill set, could yield early playing time on Irish coverage units though finding a role on the No. 1 kick coverage team in the nation will not be an easy task for any newcomer this season.

While Irish fans tend to lean toward the preservation method of the redshirt scenario for every freshman that is placed exclusively in a special teams role, the coaching staff realizes the need for explosive athletes on coverage units and for talented football players along each special teams unit.

Likely Scout Team Members/Redshirts

Chris Watt (Guard): Watt has a chance to work his way onto the two-deep at guard by season's end, but much of his 2009 playing time will be determined by forces outside of his control: namely the play of left tackle Paul Duncan and sophomore guard and O-Line swingman Trevor Robinson. If Duncan (or anyone else) struggles early there's a strong chance Robinson will bump (the struggling player) from his starting role. That opens up a spot behind senior Chris Stewart at guard.

A spot Watt could work his way into with a strong fall camp and September. Ideally, Watt will receive a season to learn behind a veteran line that looks to reach its potential this fall.

E.J. Banks (Cornerback): Banks, the 2009 class' only defensive back, has a leg up on most of his fellow freshman as his immersion into the Irish football program and the University began in January (Banks, along with Tyler Stockton and Zeke Motta, enrolled at Notre Dame for the '09 Winter semester after graduating from high school one semester earlier than scheduled).

Banks spent the spring learning the nuances of the program but was unable to participate while recovering from a knee injury. He was an explosive quarterback at the high school level, accounting for 24 touchdowns as a passer/rusher. It would be a major surprise if Banks is able to crack the two-deep depth chart at cornerback, a position with the deepest pool of talent on the '09 squad.

Look for Banks to attempt to make a move up the depth chart in Spring Practice 2010 in an effort to minimize the damage due to the departure of senior starters Raeshon McNeil, and (likely) Darrin Walls.

Alex Bullard (Guard – Center): Bullard will likely make the adjustment from guard to center in fall camp and work with the scout team in 2009. Senior starter Dan Wenger will have the opportunity to apply for a fifth season of eligibility at season's end. His return would push Bullard into a 2010 spring battle with sophomore Braxston Cave (and possibly Mike Golic, Jr., currently at guard) for the backup role next season.

Wenger's unlikely exodus would create a battle next spring for the most important position along the front five – one Bullard must begin to audition for during every practice in '09.

Zach Martin (Tackle): With Sam Young, Paul Duncan, Matt Romine, Taylor Dever (and Lane Clelland) occupying five tackle spots, Martin will likely use 2009 to benefit from the tutelage of new running game coordinator and O-Line coach Frank Verducci…not to mention add bulk to his 260-pound frame.

Young and Duncan will exhaust their eligibility after the season leaving the tackle spots open to competition in the spring.

Roby Toma (Wide Receiver): At 5'9 160-pounds, the ultra-coordinated Toma will certainly receive a season on the scout team. Toma can make an early impression in fall practice by doing what he does best: breaking open and catching the football.

Toma's possible role in the program was examined in an early June column, The Supporting Cast. Most successful college receivers don't hit the ground running with the flair of Michael Floyd. But a good number of them possess the natural receiving skills the undersized Toma exhibited as a high school player – skills that are much more valuable than those of a tall player who can only run fast in a straight line.

Tyler Eifert (Tight End): Like his former high school teammate John Goodman, Eifert is billed as an outstanding athlete capable of playing multiple positions. With the recent attrition at the tight end position at the University, Eifert will likely begin his college career there with a role on the scout team and plenty of room (and time) to grow into his 6'6" frame (listed at 220 pounds, Eifert has reportedly bulked up over 230 since signing day).

He and fellow freshman tight end Jake Golic are currently slotted behind a trio of talented players that could remain in South Bend through 2011. The freshmen will need to compete each day in August and throughout the fall to put themselves in the conversation next spring.

A 6'6" player with Eifert's speed and coordination could grow into a number of roles over his four to five seasons in the program.

Jake Golic (Tight End): Listed at 220 pounds, Golic has room to grow (and able bodies ahead of him on the depth chart). He'll likely spend the '09 season bulking up while maintaining his speed and learning the nuances of the position in Coach Weis' offense.

A talented trio of tight ends – Kyle Rudolph, Mike Ragone, and Joseph Fauria – should accompany Golic (and Tyler Eifert, above) on campus through 2011. But tight ends (and formerly fullbacks) often grow into valuable special teams contributors. If Golic can show an affinity for special teams work he could see an on-field role in 2010-11 before challenging for a role in the offense as a senior in 2012 (with two years of eligibility remaining).

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