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Irish look for help from new faces

Mike Gilloon | Friday, April 21, 2006

The statisticians have their pencils ready. The Brady Quinn season preview show kicks off Saturday.

But while the whole nation expects the soon-to-be-senior Irish quarterback to throw for a half mile per game this season – and rightfully so – the real issue heading into Saturday’s Blue-Gold game is “Who else is ready to play?”

Can running back James Aldridge add some smash to Darius Walker’s spin?

Can strong safety Tom Zbikowski cover the deep ball as well as he stops the run?

Can Jeff Samardzija score more touchdowns than he did last season?

The college football analysts can predict all they want.

But they might as well just draw straws with any of the top 20 teams in the nation – any one could find the spark that takes them deep into the BCS calendar.

Not many expected a young burner from Wilkes-Barre, Pa. named Raghib Ismail would have made the impact he did for the national champion Irish in 1988.

Not many expected Kevin McDougal to steadily steer the 1993 Notre Dame squad to within a field goal of a national title.

Not many, that is, when the year began.

The Irish roster might as well be a dartboard right now.

Sure, Quinn, Samardzija, Walker, Zbikowski and the rest of last year’s performers will take care of business.

But how about Travis Thomas, Leo Ferrine and Maurice Crum, Jr.?

Notre Dame’s chances rest on players like them – guys with more toughness than talent who are aching for an opportunity to play.

Example A: Corey Mays.

The Irish linebacker entered as a stud recruit out of Chicago in the fall of 2001, only to spend the next four years playing almost exclusively on special teams. Last season – his first and only as a starter – he finished second on the team in tackles and, along with Brandon Hoyte, comprised the fiery core of the Irish defense.

In a sense, he was a bonus in Weis’ inaugural campaign.

Hoyte’s contributions were expected when 2005 kicked off.

Mays’ abilities weren’t fully appreciated until the season ended.

The expectations haven’t been this high for the Irish since David Gordon and that Jesuit college from Massachusetts kicked Notre Dame out of the No. 1 spot back in 1993.

And if the hopes of Notre Dame followers are to be fulfilled, another Corey Mays must blossom.

It could be James Aldridge. It could be Casey Cullen. It could be Terrail Lambert.

Who knows?

But there’s no reason to worry right now.

Of course it’s nice to watch Trevor Laws beat up on the second string offensive line like he did during an MVP performance in last season’s Blue-Gold game.

It’ll be entertaining to watch Zbikowski flex and fly around the field.

And Quinn – red jersey or green jersey – is worth the price of admission and more.

But it’s a practice – the 15th and final of spring football.

A fancy practice in front of a half full Notre Dame Stadium, yes.

But a practice nonetheless.

Spring games always seem to cause more teeth gnashing than watching the Clippers on NBA Draft day.

No one really wins.

For all the excitement to be had after a crisp Quinn-to-Samardzija touchdown pass Saturday, there will be an equal amount of grumbling over whether the Irish secondary is any better than it looked against Troy Smith, Ted Ginn and Ohio State.

For all the oohing and aahing over a pancake block by freshman behemoth Chris Stewart, there will be just as much complaining about the lack of a pass rush.

And for all the thrill of gold helmets gathering in the tunnel before the squad takes the field, there will be the frustration of waiting four and a half months to see just how good Notre Dame will be.

Contact Mike Gilloon at mgilloon@nd.edu

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.