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Football: Final Countdown

Matt Gamber | Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Chris Stewart is in the midst of his fifth spring with the Irish, and he’s the oldest guy on the team. But with a new coaching staff, a new scheme and a new practice attitude, there’s a learning curve for everyone — even the offensive guard who enrolled at Notre Dame in January 2006.

Still, his perspective as someone who has been there before should be valuable to the Irish, whose spring roster includes five early enrollees and several young players battling for playing time under the new regime.

“The biggest perspective [I can bring] is that it’s spring ball, a time to get better and a time to clean up some things,” Stewart said. “You’re always going to have pressure from the coaches … but you have to keep in your mind that the season’s a little bit away. There’s time get comfortable, learn new things and adjust to what’s best for you so when the season does come, you can play your best.”

Stewart and the other two fifth-year seniors — offensive lineman Dan Wenger and wide receiver Barry Gallup — will all serve as mentors of sorts this spring, despite going through adjustment periods of their own, Wenger said.

“It’s my fourth spring, and it’s my last spring,” he said. “I’m embracing it no matter what. It’s my last time as a college player and I’m trying to make the best of it. Fourth spring, fifth-year guy — you try to help the younger guys out, help them through this transition process as much as possible.”

Gallup said he knew immediately that he’d want to take advantage of his fifth-year option and talked to Irish coach Brian Kelly soon after he was hired.

“I feel like if you have the opportunity to play another year at Notre Dame, there’s not even a question,” he said.

All three of the fifth-years will vie for playing time this spring and throughout summer and fall camp. Stewart seems to have a comfortable lead for the starting left guard spot, and Wenger’s previous starting experience at both center and guard should give him the chance to work his way into the rotation, starting or otherwise.

And while most of Gallup’s past playing time has come on special teams, the fact that Kelly’s spread offense employs several multi-wide receiver sets should give him a shot to find a niche in the passing game.

“They use a lot of wide receivers and [the offense] can use a lot of my strengths,” Gallup said. “We’ve got eight or nine guys that can bring something to the table, and everyone’s different and has their strengths. Practice is really competitive, and we’re going to find out who thrives in those situations.”

The competitive, fast-paced practices present a challenge for the Irish, but Wenger said it is one that will prepare them for Saturdays in the fall.

“These practices are tough. Everyone’s moving around fast with very little break. The legs are hurting, you’re breathing heavy,” he said. “You pay the sacrifice in practice, games are going to be a lot easier. That’s the way I’m looking at it.”