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Young gun showdown

Joe Meixell | Friday, April 21, 2006

While Notre Dame returns nine starters on offense and another nine on defense, new faces will likely contribute significantly to the team in 2006.

Paul Duncanright tackle

With the graduation of starting right tackle Mark LeVoir, Irish coach Charlie Weis will choose from among fifth-year senior Brian Mattes, sophomore Michael Turkovich and sophomore Paul Duncan for the new starter at that position.

Although Weis has said that Duncan is the leading candidate after spring practice, he has been quick to point out that the position is still up for grabs. Duncan, a 6-7, 270-pounder from Dallas, Georgia, played in five games in 2005.

“[Right tackle] is going to be wide open,” Weis said. “Somebody is going to have to take that position, whether it is Duncan, Mattes, Turkovich or a player that’s not here yet.”

But Duncan enters as the favorite not only because of his spring, but also his size. Among the returning players, his 6-foot-7 frame stands out. Duncan could use a little more muscle mass on his body to thicken up, but that won’t be too difficult under Irish strength and conditioning coach Ruben Mendoza.

Duncan has the footwork necessary to patrol the outside of the line and the vision needed to see incoming blitzers. Irish offensive line coach John Latina said that communication among the young linemen has improved, which will make Duncan’s possible transition into the starting five much easier.

So long as Duncan beats out incoming freshman Sam Young, a top-10 offensive line recruit, he will see considerable development throughout the course of the season.

David Grimeswide receiver

After serving as Notre Dame’s No. 4 receiver for the majority of last season, Grimes will enter the 2006 campaign one spot up but behind a different 1-2 punch.

Grimes took the No. 4 slot in 2005 when Rhema McKnight suffered a season-ending knee injury against Michigan Sept. 10. Working behind Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija, he caught just two passes for 19 yards but was on the field for a majority of the team’s three-receiver sets in the latter part of the year.

Grimes will be in the shadows of Samardzija, a returning consensus All-American, and the fifth-year senior McKnight, who was Notre Dame’s leading receiver for the two years prior to his injury.

Grimes is probably the fastest returning receiver and possesses the hands necessary to make catches in traffic down field. He returned 15 kickoffs for an average of 22.8 yards and one punt for 17 yards last season.

James Aldridgerunning back

Aldridge entered spring practice as one of Notre Dame’s three early-enrollee athletes, surrounded by the hype he gained as a top-10 running back recruit.

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound recruit out of Chicago suburb Crown Heights, Ind. is expected to see considerable time in the backfield this season behind the veteran duo of junior Darius Walker and senior Travis Thomas.

Aldridge brings a combination of Walker’s patient outside running and Thomas’ hard-hitting style to the table, a prospect that will allow Weis to use him in all game situations. Weis said Wednesday that Aldridge’s presence will allow him to get “creative” with the playcalling.

Although Aldridge has seen slightly limited time in the spring, the 15 extra practices will quicken his learning curve compared to the rest of the freshman class.

George Westwide receiver

West joins Aldridge and offensive lineman Chris Stewart as the third of Notre Dame’s early-enrollee freshmen this spring.

West has seen significant time returning kickoffs this year and likely will join Grimes deep during times next season. West has enough quickness to drastically increase Notre Dame’s production on kickoff returns. Last season, the Irish averaged 19 yards per return in the category. West should be able to make an impact on special teams within the first few weeks of next season.

At 5-foot-8, 172 pounds, West is smaller and lighter than most receivers, but he possesses enough speed to make him the kind of deep threat Matt Shelton was for Notre Dame in 2004.

West, a native of Spencer, Okla., likely will be listed as the team’s No. 5 receiver – behind Samardzija, McKnight, Grimes and rising sophomore D.J. Hord. But expect West to catch a considerable amount of passes when he gets in a game as defenses focus on the team’s top-three receivers.