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Football: New fall, new faces

Ken Fowler | Saturday, August 19, 2006

The reinforcements are here.

During spring practice, Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis said the team’s 25 incoming freshmen would provide important depth during fall camp.

“I think the biggest area of concern is our offensive line depth chart until the reinforcements come in here,” Weis said March 21 at the team’s annual spring media day.

They’ve arrived, and they are battling each other and returning players for spaces on the depth chart.

But the new faces on campus are not the only ones that will be new to the field when the Irish kick off against Georgia Tech on Sept. 2 in Atlanta.

Three freshmen for 2007 came to Notre Dame in January. Offensive lineman Chris Stewart, running back James Aldridge and wide receiver George West were the first early-entrants in school history, enrolling for the 2006 spring academic semester and participating in spring practices.

The 6-foot-5, 340-pound Stewart entered Notre Dame as a guard, where he will likely play a backup role this season. His fellow freshman, 6-foot-7, 292-pound Sam Young, has fought for a starting job after arriving on campus this summer. Along with sophomore Paul Duncan, Young figures prominently in the battle for starting right tackle.

If Young starts, it will be only the fourth time in school history a true freshman has started any games on the offensive line. The last freshman to accomplish the feat was Ryan Harris – now the team’s senior left tackle.

Harris, who started eight games in 2003, said the six freshmen offensive lineman are far more advanced than he was when he came to Notre Dame.

“I think all of our freshmen that came in could legitimately perform and contribute to this team at our first game,” Harris said. “Sam Young, in particular, I don’t make those decisions – they are coaching decisions – what he has going for him is he’s very coachable and he works tremendously hard and he’s very eager to play.”

Whoever wins the right tackle job will have the dual role of pass blocking for fourth-year starting quarterback Brady Quinn and run-blocking for junior tailback Darius Walker, who gained 1,196 yards on the ground last season. With senior Travis Thomas expected to start at linebacker in 2006 after serving as Notre Dame’s backup running back a year ago. That’s given freshman Munir Prince a better shot at the backup running back job.

Walker has been impressed with Prince’s quickness throughout camp.

“The first thing you think of when you talk about my man Munir is speed,” Walker said after the team’s evening practice Wednesday.

Another No. 2 job with freshmen in the mix is at quarterback. Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones, both highly ranked recruits, have been sharing snaps with sophomore Evan Sharpley in the battle to backup Quinn.

“Both are good physically,” Weis said. “But obviously Evan has the mental advantage.”

On defense, Notre Dame added Sergio Brown, Jashaad Gaines, Leonard Gordon, Raeshon McNeil and Darrin Walls in the secondary. Brown, Gaines and Gordon came to Notre Dame as safeties, while McNeil and Walls were hyped cornerback prospects.

The team also added four freshman receivers: West, Robby Parris, Richard Jackson and Barry Gallup.

“It’s pretty rare when you get a big receiving class like that of four guys coming in for a team, for one,” said senior receiver Jeff Samardzija. “And then two, when you’ve got four guys who look like they could play in a week or two. It’s real boosting.

“It brings that confidence to the offense … knowing the young guys are picking up … right where everyone else left off where they left the program.”