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Football Recruiting: Signed and delivered

Heather VanHoegarden | Thursday, February 2, 2006

With two offensive linemen going to the NFL this year and three graduating the year after, Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis knew he needed not only depth, but talent-and he got both.

Weis got a lot of things on signing day as the commitments poured in – 27 to be exact, including six offensive linemen, five defensive backs, four wide receivers, three running backs, three defensive linemen, two quarterbacks, two linebackers, one tight end and one kicker.

Notre Dame addressed its needs with this class, getting not only depth, but talent at every position.

Offensive line

With the graduation of Mark LeVoir and Dan Stevenson, the Irish are left with Ryan Harris, Bob Morton, Dan Santucci and John Sullivan as returning starters. On the bench are freshmen Paul Duncan and Michael Turkovich, who saw limited action in their first season, leaving the Irish thin at this position.

But with the addition of 6-foot-7 Sam Young, who chose Notre Dame over USC, Dan Wenger, a true center who played with Young in high school, Notre Dame improves itself dramatically. Additionally, the Irish picked up highly-rated Eric Olsen and Chris Stewart, who enrolled in January, and should benefit from some weight training, as he currently weighs about 340 pounds. Olsen did not allow a sack during his high school career. Matt Carufel, who hails from the same high school as Harris and Irish tight end Marcus Freeman, was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Minnesota.

Finally, Notre Dame signed Bartley Webb, a 6-foot-7 lineman who Weis was high on as well.

“Of all the guys I’ve seen, this is one of the most polished pass blocking tackles I’ve seen coming out of high school in my short time back into the college ranks,” Weis said Wednesday.

Quarterback

Despite the fact there is no doubt who the Irish quarterback in 2006 will be, the position is wide open after Heisman Trophy candidate Brady Quinn graduates next year.

This year’s backup, David Wolke, has not seen significant action in his two seasons, and freshman Evan Sharpley, who was a three-star recruit out of high school, did not play this year. Behind them is walk-on Dan Gorski, who did not see action in his first year at Notre Dame.

Weis said one of his goals was to get two quarterbacks, and he got two very good signal-callers in Demetrius Jones and Zach Frazer. Jones poses a dual threat, while Frazer is more of a drop back passer, but Weis said they will both have ample opportunity to compete for the position after Quinn leaves.

Running back

Although 1,000-yard rusher Darius Walker has two more years in an Irish uniform and Travis Thomas has one, a pair of commits could push for playing time as early as next year.

James Aldridge, from nearby Crown Point, Ind., enrolled in January and will be able to participate in spring practice, giving him a head start.

“He can do it all,” Weis said. “We’re excited to have him here at the semester so we can get him involved in the spring.”

Joining Aldridge is Munir Prince, the Gatorade Player of the Year in Missouri, who Weis described as a “dynamic” player. Prince and Aldridge give the Irish power and speed behind Walker and Thomas.

Fullback

With the departure of Rashon Powers-Neal mid-year due to disciplinary issues, Asaph Schwapp saw significant playing time as a true freshman. But the position was thin with the only backup being Ashley McConnell. With the signing of Indiana’s Gatorade Player of the Year, Luke Schmidt, the Irish add a big body that also gives them depth.

Wide receiver

Rhema McKnight should return for a fifth year, barring unforeseen circumstances, and Jeff Samardzija will come back after an All-American season to finish his eligibility, giving the Irish two extremely talented receivers at the top.

Joining them are D.J. Hord and David Grimes, two true freshmen who saw limited playing time this year.

And with the additions of Barry Gallup, George West, Robby Parris and Richard Jackson, Weis gives his team playmaking ability and game-breaking speed. West is already enrolled at Notre Dame, and is widely considered one of the best kick returners in the country, while Parris and Jackson are bigger receivers.

Tight end

Anthony Fasano decided not to come back for his fifth year of eligibility, leaving the Irish with John Carlson as their No. 1 tight end. Behind him is Marcus Freeman, who could come back for a fifth year, and true freshman Joey Hiben, who didn’t see much action this season.

The Irish picked up one tight end, but he is a good one. Konrad Reuland, who the Irish took out of Southern California – USC territory – is a big, physical athlete who could compete right away, depending on Freeman’s status.

Cornerback

One of Notre Dame’s biggest problems last year was its secondary, as the Irish allowed 265 yards of pass offense per game, including 342 in the Fiesta Bowl.

But the Irish don’t lose any cornerbacks, as Ambrose Wooden and Mike Richardson both return, assuming Richardson returns for his fifth year. Leo Ferrine returns as the nickelback and Terrail Lambert and LaBrose Hedgemon are the backups.

But coming in are two big-time cornerbacks, Raeshon McNeil and Darrin Walls. Both were U.S. Army All-Americans and Weis expects them to play early.

“Anyone who wants to know about his cover ability, just go watch the highlights of the All-American game where he’s supposed to be playing against the best and is shutting everybody down,” Weis said of McNeil.

Walls and McNeil are joined by Leonard Gordon, who can also play safety.

Safety

Again, the Irish don’t lose anybody at this spot, with both Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Nduwke returning. Their backups, Kyle McCarthy and David Bruton, both true freshmen last year, return as well. Bruton saw action on special teams but McCarthy didn’t play. Meanwhile, Ray Herring is waiting in the wings after playing on special teams this year.

Wednesday, the Irish signed Jashaad Gaines and Sergio Brown. Both are big, athletic safeties who played both ways in high school.

Linebacker

With the graduation of captain Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays, the Irish have two spots to fill here. Maurice Crum returns at the Apache position. Also returning for the Irish are true freshmen Steve Quinn and Scott Smith, who saw action on special teams last year, Anthony Vergnalia, who has three years of eligibility remaining, but hasn’t seen significant playing time this year, Joe Brockington, who saw limited action in 4-4 packages and rising senior Mitchell Thomas, who could compete for playing time.

Weis landed two outstanding prospects in Morrice Richardson and Toryan Smith. Richardson was both a defensive end and linebacker in high school and has the ability to get to the quarterback. Meanwhile, Smith should be in the mix right away to replace Mays at the Mike linebacker spot.

Defensive end

With the return of Chris Frome and Victor Abiamiri, the Irish have two solid starters. And since Frome was injured during the USC game on Oct. 15, backups Ronald Talley and Justin Brown picked up valuable experience.

However, the Irish still picked up two solid players here, in John Ryan and Kallen Wade. Ryan improved his stock at the Notre Dame camp over the summer and Wade had 13 sacks as a junior.

“This guy reminds me a lot of a young Jason Taylor,” Weis said of Wade. “He looks like him, plays like him. Let’s hope he produces like him when he gets in school.”

Defensive tackle

Although the Irish only lose Brian Beidatsch at defensive tackle, they are not incredibly deep. With Derek Landri and Trevor Laws anchoring the middle, Notre Dame is solid, but it drops off after that with true freshmen Pat Kuntz, who played sparingly, and Derrell Hand, who didn’t see any action.

Notre Dame signed Paddy Mullen as a tackle, but he could also play tight end. However, with the lack of depth at tackle, Mullen could find himself playing earlier here than he would as a tight end.

“We’re counting on Paddy to come in here as a defensive tackle,” Weis said.

Kicker

With the graduation of kicker/punter D.J. Fitzpatrick and no real backup at the kicker position, Notre Dame badly needed a kicker to go along with backup Carl Gioia. At punter, Geoffrey Price looks to succeed Fitzpatrick, but that is unclear as well.

The Irish signed Ryan Burkhart, a player who Weis said has a lot of pressure on him coming in because the position is so wide open. Burkhart has “pop every time he hits the ball,” Weis said.

“We’ve told Ryan that we’re expecting him to come in here as a freshman and compete for playing time form the second he walks in the door,” Weis said of Burkhart, who he said can kick off as well. “I think that’s what he’s expecting from us.”