Notre Dame Football 2008: An Early Look at the Players to Watch
Notre Dame's football team may be a year older and (hopefully) a year wiser, but many of the players are still relative unknowns.
Who are these guys?
The following is a quick position-by-position breakdown of Irish players to watch in 2008.
No surprise here, Jimmy Clausen is the man.
A year of experience and a better line should do wonders for Clausen. However, it was hard to gauge Clausen's performance in the spring game due to the two-hand touch rule for quarterbacks. Also, there were many, many drops by the receivers.
Entering his junior year, James Aldridge is now a veteran and will once again begin the season as Notre Dame's starting tailback.
However, Robert Hughes earned playing time last year through his solid performance. His 100+ yards in the spring game prove that he's hungry for even more carries this season.
Armando Allen rounds out Notre Dame's talented backfield trio. Allen is the lightning to Hughes' thunder. But word from the spring game was that Armando was too eager to run into contact, instead of breaking the play to the outside.
Also of note is that junior wide out Barry Gallup will be switching to running back for the coming year.
Asaph Schwapp is an intimidating individual, but his blocking technique has been a source of criticism from the Irish faithful. Add to that the fact that Schwapp isn't a factor as a ball carrier and a receiver, and you don't have much of a fullback there.
Perhaps that is why sophomore linebacker Steve Paskorz has been taking reps at fullback, a position he played in high school.
There's a lot of talent—and depth—in the Irish receiving corps, but the trick is using it correctly.
David Grimes thrived as a slot receiver in 2006, but struggled as a primary target in 2007. Grimes is all of 5'10", so the slot may be the best place for him.
That would likely put Duval Kamara and Robby Parris on the outside. Both Kamara and Parris are athletic and tall (the former 6'5", the latter 6'4"), but are prone to dropping passes.
Parris had his share of drops late last season, and Kamara caught bad hands disease in the spring game.
Recruiting fans will be eager to see freshman Michael Floyd join the mix, and with Floyd's talent it's only a matter of time before he's out on the field.
That leaves veterans D.J. Hord and George West struggling to get their reps in.
Of course, there's also the speedy Golden Tate. As soon as he learns to run anything other than the "go" pattern, he'll be a very dangerous threat.
Tight end was once a position of strength for Notre Dame, but graduation and transfers have left the Irish very thin there.
Mike Ragone will step into the starting lineup, looking to repeat Anthony Fasano and John Carlson's NFL-calibre success.
To add depth at the position, fullback Luke Schmidt is being transitioned into an H-back role. At 6'3", Schmidt certainly has the height for the role.
According to many, the offensive line was the source of many of Notre Dame's problems last year. The positive news is that Notre Dame now returns five lineman with at least some starting experience from 2007.
The line will be anchored by right tackle Sam Young, now entering his third season as a starter.
The line has also bulked up considerably over the offseason. The poster boy for the new lineman diet is Young, who went from 287 pounds last fall to 330 pounds this spring.
It's a good thing the 3-4 defense only requires three lineman on the field at one time, because the Irish have very little depth along the line.
Gone are Trevor Laws (graduation), Pat Kuntz (academic issues), and Darrell Hand (medical).
Stepping in are Ian Williams, a freshman All-American, and Justin Brown, who has been a reliable backup and spot starter over the course of his career.
The depth issues have forced Morrice Richardson and John Ryan to move back from outside linebacker to defensive end (their original positions in the old 4-3). Richardson and Ryan will compete for the final starting spot on the line.
That leaves a line that is not only short on depth, but also undersized compared to the ideal 3-4 line. That could be a cause for concern with the defense, especially since it puts more pressure on the linebackers.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the linebacking corps was new coach John Tenuta.
Tenuta's tenacious blitzing no doubt has the young, talented Irish linebackers licking their chops.
However, it caused them to be too aggressive in the spring game, often charging into the backfield only to watch the ball carrier run by them in the other direction. Hopefully that will improve by September.
Maurice Crum is back to anchor the Irish linebackers, joined on the inside by Toryan Smith. Smith began each of the last two seasons in the starting lineup, only to be replaced by Joe Brockington shortly thereafter.
Brian Smith and Kerry Neal broke out as freshman last year, and this year they will start at the two outside linebacker spots.
Also of note is that safety Harrison Smith will move to linebacker this year, possibly setting up an all-Smith linebacker formation (Toryan, Brian, Harrison, and Scott).
Those who watched Notre Dame closely last season may not argue that David Bruton was the best safety the Irish had. Bruton is back at free safety, and also joins Mo Crum on the Nagurski preseason watch list.
Joining Bruton at safety will be Kyle McCarthy, who saw a good deal of playing time in 2007 as a backup. He will be in the hybrid set where Tom Zbikowski moved to linebacker on passing downs.
Bruton and McCarthy are both hard hitters, so it will be interesting to see if one is called on to play that hybrid linebacker role this year.
A few years ago, Notre Dame's secondary was easily the weakest group on either side of the ball. Now with Bruton, McCarthy, and a group of solid corners, it may be one of the best.
Darrin Walls and Terrail Lambert earned their stripes in 2006, played solid ball in 2007, and are back as starters in 2008.
Raeshon McNeil is a very capable backup.
The player to watch, though, is sophomore Gary Gray. Gray was a highly-touted pickup in 2007, but missed the entire season with an injury. He's back this year, and should be eager to prove his worth.
The kicking game has been mediocre at best over the past few seasons.
There's no clear leader at placekicker, although the official spring depth chart gives the edge to Brandon Walker, with the forgotten Ryan Burkhardt second. Presumably, Nate Whitaker will be given a chance again as well.
Punting is less of a worry; Eric Maust handled the role capably in Geoff Price's absence last year. Maust will be back as the full-time punter this year.
The new holder will be walk-on tight end Kevin Brooks.
The Irish haven't gotten much out of their return game in the Charlie Weis era, and the one good option (Tom Zbikowski) is now gone.
David Grimes will start the season at punt returner, with Armando Allen and Darrin Walls at kick returner. But George West, Gary Gray, Golden Tate, and Barry Gallup will be waiting in the wings.
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