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Irish welcome return of five fifth-years

Michael Bryan | Thursday, April 16, 2009

After four years, they still have some unfinished business.

Five seniors will return for a fifth year this fall – offensive lineman Paul Duncan, safeties Kyle McCarthy and Ray Herring, linebacker Scott Smith and special teams star Mike Anello. After underwhelming performances by the Irish their junior and senior seasons, each returns hoping to contribute and conclude his career on a high note.

“There’s a lot left on the table the last four years, opportunities that I could have had that I left there,” Duncan said. “So now I’ll be able to come back and get this fifth year, I’m excited to right that ship.”

Duncan will provide more leadership to an improved offensive line whose success will be critical for the Notre Dame offense. He looks to be the presumptive starter at left tackle, and has drawn praise from new offensive line coach Frank Verducci and head coach Charlie Weis in spring practice.

Weis, who could not speak specifically about the seniors until they were officially approved for a fifth year and added to the roster, mentioned Duncan as a player who had caught his eye. “There’s a left tackle that has been one of the more pleasant people for me to look at so far in camp,” Weis said. “It’s been a good thing to watch.”

Duncan missed the entire 2008 season because of a hip injury. He started all 12 games of his junior season, with two starts at left tackle and 10 at right tackle.

Individually, Duncan said he feels he can improve on his past performance in the coming season. “I feel like I didn’t play up to the potential that I had,” Duncan said. “The way I approached things, I feel like I could have done a lot more.”

McCarthy also will have a starting role as a fifth year, returning at strong safety after a strong performance in his first year playing a bigger role in the Notre Dame defense.

“I set my goals high this year,” McCarthy said. “I want to be one of the best defensive backs in the country, flat out.”

The Ohio native led the Irish in tackling with 110 in 2008, and also recorded two interceptions and forced a fumble. McCarthy said he was confident heading into the season that he would perform well replacing NFL draft-pick Tom Zbikowski.

“I knew I could do it, I don’t know if you guys knew that,” McCarthy said. “You have to have confidence playing in the defensive backfield. Hopefully we can build on last year and continue to move forward.”

McCarthy has also adjusted in the spring to communicating with a new safety alongside him, as rising junior Harrison Smith has taken over at free safety after David Bruton’s departure.

“It’s different, but the guys we have in are coached so well that we know how to do it and we’re trained to do it, so it’s a pretty smooth transition,” McCarthy said. “As a young guy coming in a couple years ago, it’s been fun watching [Harrison] develop into an every-down player.”

The former walk-on and special teams standout Anello will bring his energy and toughness back for one more season, and the senior is champing at the bit to return. “I just can’t wait to get out there,” Anello said. “I’m going stir-crazy.”

Anello began seeing the field as a gunner in punt coverage as a walk-on during his junior season, and earned a scholarship for his senior year.

“It’s exciting [coming back] because … the opportunity to come back and play another year is something I couldn’t have dreamt about. I’m really excited about it,” Anello said.

Listed at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, Anello had 12 tackles on special teams in 2008, forced two fumbles and recovered one. He played a key role in the early-season victories over San Diego State and Michigan, where he had a forced fumble and a recovery that set up an Irish touchdown.

“The San Diego State game, after that I said, this is the best game of my life. Then the Michigan game happened,” Anello said.

Anello’s season ended early after breaking his tibia against USC, but he said the recovery process was going well. He was recently named to the Lott Trophy watch list for 2009, an award given to top defensive players who have the biggest impact on and off the field.

When asked, Anello said he didn’t know he had been named to the watch list, but was excited. “I hope I can live up that, eh?” Anello said.

Scott Smith will return and bring depth and leadership to a young but talented corps of linebackers. Smith recorded 12 tackles, including a sack, and played in all 13 games in 2009.

Herring will return behind McCarthy at strong safety, and will like Anello hope to make an impact primarily on special teams. Last season Herring also appeared in every game and tallied 17 tackles.

In order to qualify for a fifth year, players must have remaining NCAA eligibility, have graduated by the end of spring semester, and enroll in graduate studies at Notre Dame.

“We are happy to officially include all five players onto our roster,” Weis said after the group was approved for another year. “Their leadership is greatly appreciated.”