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Football: Backups have chance to shine in spring play

Eric Retter | Thursday, April 6, 2006

After two weeks of practice, Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis’ message regarding his team’s progression was the same as it was during his first spring press conference March 21 – it’s too early to tell.

“I think that there’s some guys that are making significant progress, it’s just too early to tell halfway through spring, too early to tell who’s going to step up when you’re going full speed,” Weis said. “That full speed will come into fruition more when we get into a couple scrimmage situations with the culmination of spring.”

One area Notre Dame has especially looked for players to emerge has been in the linebacker position, where the Irish lost seniors Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays.

Though Notre Dame returns junior Joe Brockington and sophomore Maurice Crum, Jr. – who started at Apache linebacker last season – both players have sat out much of the spring due to injuries. But Weis said their absences have allowed other linebackers to compete for a position.

“It lets you get a look at some people who might have gotten a lot less reps, and I think that that’s a telling tale,” Weis said. “All of a sudden you’re saying hey, [Crum’s] not in here, [Brockington’s] not in here, who’s going to win these battles, who wants these spots.

Notre Dame sophomore Anthony Vernaglia, junior Mitchell Thomas and freshman Steve Quinn have been playing as the first team linebackers, but Weis indicated that could change as the spring progresses.

“I don’t think just because the first group was out [there] and the second group was out [there], that anything is etched in stone,” Weis said. “I think it’d be pretty premature to be making any rash judgments like Mitchell Thomas is our starting middle linebacker, but the reason why he was running first is because he was running best.

“You don’t run anybody out there first because you’re patting them on the back and saying, ‘Hey, it’s your turn today, buddy.'”

Weis said he likes what he has seen from his young safeties – who are competing against returning starters Chinedum Ndukwe and Tom Zbikowski.

“We’ve been very pleased, almost surprisingly pleased with the play of [freshman] Ray Herring and [freshman] David Bruton,” Weis said.

Notre Dame has opted to simplify the defensive playbook in hopes that communication mistakes will be minimized as it looks for new contributors.

“When you’re going through the spring and a number of guys are rolling through, it’s just not 11, 12, 13 guys you’re not playing out there, its 30,” Weis said. “I think it’s important to make sure, first things first, to eliminate communication errors on defense.”

On offense, Notre Dame is still finding a replacement for departing senior right tackle Mark Levoir. Irish senior Brian Mattes and freshmen Paul Duncan and Michael Turkovich have been working at the position.

“If Brian Mattes hadn’t been banged up to start the camp, just by seniority, we would have given him the first shot at right tackle,” Weis said. “But since he missed some stuff early on, it gave both Paul Duncan and Mike Turkovic an opportunity to both kinda play that position.”

Duncan has seen more action than his two teammates this spring, but Weis said there was a long way to go before he would decide on a starter.

“I would not anoint [Duncan] the starting right tackle at this point,” he said. “When the spring’s over, we’ll evaluate where we are right now, and when the freshmen come in, we’ll slot them in there, and may the best man win.”

Weis also discussed his young prospects at running back that will compete against returning starter Darius Walker. Walker rushed for 1,274 yards last season.

“I got three running backs coming in this year – James [Aldridge] is already here [and] by the way, he was running around pretty good the other day,” Weis said. “What do you do with these guys? You don’t want bring them in here and not have a plan.”

With junior Jeff Samardzija devoting time to the baseball team, Weis seemed unenthusiastic about his receiving corps – except for senior Rhema McKnight. McKnight is returning after missing most of last season with a knee injury.

“I don’t think any of them have stood out enough for me to go out of my way and say yeah, I’m fired up about so-and so,” Weis said. “I’m fired up about Rhema, how about that?”

Special teams remain more of an issue than offense or defense since the team has only practiced outside in game-like weather twice this spring.

“Though it’s more realistic to how games are going to be played, its not an idealistic way to come out of the box on special teams, so I don’t jump to any rash conclusions as far as specialists go,” Weis said. “I think the more we get outside, the more the kickers can be turned loose and we can be able to judge that a little bit more.”

In his second spring practice, Weis noticed the team has advanced and progressed much quicker than a year ago.

“I think that’s natural in all facets of our team. I think it’s natural on offense and defense and special teams,” he said. “I’m finding on both sides of the ball [that], with the guys who have played before, [progression] has been pretty good.”


u Notre Dame walk-on sophomore Wade Iams has been in the mix returning kickoffs for Notre Dame in practice.

“I think you got to keep on putting people out there and giving them reps and try to find the ones that eventually that give you the most yardage out of it,” Weis said.

u Freshman safety Kyle McCarthy is being held from contact drills due to injury.

“He’s doing everything else full speed, but we’re not letting him hit as much as those other guys,” Weis said.

u Weis and his coaching staff will hold a coaching clinic for the second straight season on April 7 and 8. One thousand coaches will attend, representing high schools from 28 states and three Canadian provinces.