Sam Young (Junior, RT)
Sam Young will, by all accounts, be one of the most important players on the Irish offense. A junior who has started every game since his freshman year, Young needs to be an anchor on the right side of the line, and will be looked to for leadership by the younger players.
Though he appeared to have a down sophomore season after a promising freshman campaign that won him Freshman All-American honors at right tackle, there were mitigating factors: Young had a wrist injury that prevented him from being able to play his natural position on the right side, so he was shifted to left tackle. As a result, he was often beaten by faster weakside ends.
However, 2008 returns Young to right tackle where he belongs. He’s reportedly put on some 15 pounds of muscle and will play this fall at around 6’8” 330 lbs. Along with 340 lbs. right guard Chris Stewart, a lot of brute strength should be pushing the strong side of the line.
Expect Young to have a breakout season that will remind pundits why he was one of the top rated players in the nation coming out of high school.
Robert Hughes (Sophomore, RB)
Hughes is part of a deep backfield that includes junior James Aldridge, sophomore Armando Allen and incoming freshman Jonas Gray. The 5’11” 235 lb. bruiser has excellent vision and footwork for a player of his size, which allowed him to compile back-to-back 100 yard rushing performances in the last two games of the year.
On the season, Hughes carried only 53 times, but had 294 yards and four TDs, rushing at 5.5 yards a pop. While Aldridge technically remains the starter, it is Hughes who may be the key cog in the Irish rushing attack.
If he continues to run as hard as he did at the end of the season, he may have the best 2008 of any of the talented backs on the Irish roster. Hughes has also endeared himself to fans with his tough running, and expectations will be higher for him than they will for any of the other rushers.
David Bruton (Senior, FS)
David Bruton is one of the hardest-hitting players on the Irish defense and could be a legitimate All-American candidate after a very promising 2007 season. The secondary was one of the few strengths of that team, and it returns nearly intact (save for the loss of strong safety Tommy Zbikowski to the NFL).
Bruton enters his second full-year as starter after spending his first two years as a standout special teams player. Bruton was always a remarkable athlete, but his ball-hawking instincts and field awareness have really matured in the past couple of years, and he appears poised to have a huge 2008 season.
Surprisingly, Notre Dame looks to have one of the better secondaries in the nation, with 5th year senior (and 3 year starter) Terrail Lambert and junior Darrin Walls at cornerback. This should allow Bruton some free reign at free safety, especially if safety Harrison Smith finds a place on the field in a hybrid role – Smith was one of the standout players in spring ball, and his presence could allow Bruton to more of a playmaker around the field.
He is a true “center fielder” type safety, and his instincts and recovery speed, combined with his hitting ability, make him one of the better safeties in the nation and an important player on the Irish defense.
Kerry Neal/Brian Smith (Sophomores, OLB)
Neal and Smith both saw substantial spot playing time as true freshmen in 2007, and both are expected to be full-time starters this fall. The duo play opposite linebacker spots in defensive coordinator Corwin Brown’s 3-4 scheme, and the addition of Jon Tenuta at linebacker coach would seem to increase their chances of being big playmakers.
Neal’s biggest play was a fumble recovery of a UCLA ball that was eventually downed on the 2 yard line, while Smith’s biggest play was an interception of BC quarterback Matt Ryan that was returned for touchdown.
If both linebackers continue to develop, they could be formidable forces on the outside, especially as pass rushers. Neal in particular is expected to play with a hand-down in four-man fronts on third down situations. Both Smith and Neal need to be better in run support; this is particularly crucial this season because the defensive line is thin.
A year in the weight room and under the auspices of Tenuta will no doubt help, which is important because the two sophomore linebackers will be relied upon to help anchor the defense.