Team preview: Notre Dame

Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2006 college football season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: July 31, 2006, 1:28 PM ET
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(All information as of July 1, 2006)

COACH AND PROGRAM

It took him less than a calendar year, but offensive guru Charlie Weis has made Notre Dame football relevant again -- winning nine games, scoring a program-record 440 points last season and transforming quarterback Brady Quinn into the odds-on favorite to win the 2006 Heisman Trophy.

In each of the last two seasons, teams with star quarterbacks (USC with Matt Leinart, Texas with Vince Young) have won the national title. With both of them gone, Quinn, Blue Ribbon's choice as the national preseason offensive player of the year, is now the best quarterback in the college game.

And he should get even better under the tutelage of Weis, who transformed Tom Brady from a second-day NFL draft pick into a surefire Hall of Famer. And now he's working his magic with another Brady. Last season, Quinn set school records for career completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns, as well as single-season marks for completions, yards and touchdowns.

Quinn will probably battle Oklahoma tailback Adrian Peterson all season long for two coveted prizes: 1) the Heisman Trophy (Quinn was fourth in the voting last season and all three of the guys who finished ahead of him -- Young, Leinart and last year's winner Reggie Bush are now in the pros); and 2) to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft, quite an accomplishment considering Notre Dame hasn't produced a first-round draft choice in 12 years -- no, that's not a typo.

While such accolades and distinctions are nice, Notre Dame fans have another prize in mind, a national title. The Fighting Irish faithful sure seem to believe in Weis. A school-record 41,279 fans showed up at Notre Dame's annual spring game.

So is it possible to win a national title in just year two under Weis? Certainly. In the last decade alone, Bob Stoops won a national championship in his second season at Oklahoma and Jim Tressel pulled off the same trick at Ohio State.

It could happen again, folks. Weis has the quarterback and offensive weapons to win it all. He has a manageable schedule, one that's not as tough as Notre Dame faithful will have you believe, but not as easy as Notre Dame bashers will tell you.

The question marks are on defense, particularly whether the secondary has the foot speed to stop say, Ohio State's Ted Ginn, in a bowl game, and whether Weis can fill the two vacant linebacker spots.

If he can answer those questions and the Fighting Irish can exit September without a blemish on their record, then a national title could be in the cards.

QUARTERBACKS

Senior quarterback Brady Quinn (6-4, 231) was one of the most improved players in the country last season, throwing for 3,919 yards, 32 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Quinn credits Weis with bringing his game to another level.

"He's a great teacher. He's taught me so many things about how to run an offense and be a leader," Quinn said. "A lot of things he learned in the NFL, he's brought to Notre Dame to teach me."

Quinn looked a lot like another Weis student, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, most of last season and surprised many by not declaring for the 2006 NFL draft. When asked why he decided to return to South Bend rather than play on Sundays this fall, Quinn cited the chance to learn further from Weis, the chance to win the national championship, and the chance to win a Heisman Trophy as reasons.

The old-school Weis thinks the individual awards go hand in hand with team success.

"If he wins the Heisman Trophy, then that probably means that we'll be playing for the national championship,'' Weis said.

With Quinn at the controls and much more comfortable in his second season of running Weis' system, Notre Dame will have one of the nation's most feared offenses. In 2005, Quinn set single-season Notre Dame records in attempts (450), completions (292), passing yards (3.919), passing yards per game (326.6), touchdown passes (32) and completion percentage (64.5 percent).

"One of the biggest things about our offense is that it plays to your strengths," said Quinn. "Coach Weis isn't going to ask us to do things outside of ourselves."

Weis has made no secret that he expects Quinn to be the unquestioned leader for the Irish, just as he expected that of Brady, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, in New England. "You don't have very many quarterbacks that fall into that category that are 'all-day tough,'" Weis said. "Well, [Quinn] obviously is one of them. Once you take that ingredient, then you have to find out what the key components are that he does as a quarterback. Is he intelligent? Yes. Does he have arm strength? Yes. Does he have touch? Yes. …

"But the most important element of a quarterback, without a doubt, is his leadership ability. And the fact that the team voted for him as a junior and a senior to be the offensive captain, it obviously tells me what the team thinks of his leadership ability."

In what is anything but a new phenomenon in South Bend, Notre Dame heads into the 2006 season with the backup quarterback position up for grabs among four guys: junior David Wolke (6-2, 196), sophomore Evan Sharpley (6-2, 207), and incoming freshmen Demetrius Jones (6-4, 202) and Zack Frazer (6-4, 215). The 1997 season was the last time Notre Dame had an established backup quarterback in place.

If Quinn were to get dinged up, expect Weis to call Wolke out of the bullpen. Wolke is the only one of the Irish backups to see any field time in his college career, and it isn't much.

This year's backups will probably remain career backups -- or some will transfer out of South Bend in the not-too-distant future -- with stud high school recruit Jimmy Clausen from California committing to the Irish. Clausen, whose two brothers Casey and Rick played for Tennessee, is the top quarterback prospect in the land. He committed to Notre Dame in the spring and will enroll in school next January. If he's as good as advertised, then Clausen will be a four-year starter for the Fighting Irish, just like Quinn has been.

RUNNING BACKS

Junior tailback Darius Walker (5-10, 208) is a true rarity -- an honest to goodness underrated Notre Dame skill player.

Walker rushed for 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns and caught a school single-season record 43 passes for 351 more yards and two touchdowns after a solid freshman year when he rushed for 786 yards. He had seven 100-yard plus rushing efforts last season and his season rushing total was sixth best in the school's storied history.

With all the ink Quinn and Weis get, Walker sometimes often gets overlooked -- but not by his head coach, who credits Irish running backs coach Mike Haywood with helping Walker improve his overall play.

"He has become better at blitz pickup, pre-snap reads and reading fronts," Weis said. "Sometimes as a running back, as I have told both coach Haywood and Darius, if you know what the play call is and are looking at the defensive front, you should be able, before the ball is even snapped, to know where the ball should go. Then you just have to react if something happens differently as the play comes.

"That is something that has to be taught. It is not inherent. Too many times people just run on natural ability alone. [Walker] can catch, he can run and he has a better understanding of the game right now. His blitz pickup, in particular, has improved dramatically from this time last year."

Football success is in Walker's genes. His dad Jimmy was a standout defensive lineman in the mid-1970s. He went on to play professionally in Canada, starring on Grey Cup-winning teams, before moving on to the United States Football League and finishing his career with the Vikings. Like his dad, Darius Walker has pro ball in his future.

Senior Travis Thomas (6-0, 215) will once again serve as a dependable backup to Walker at tailback. Last season, Thomas rushed for 248 yards and five scores. The Pittsburgh native is a guy Weis won't hesitate to put into the game, if Walker needs a breather.

Junior Justin Hoskins (6-0, 200) returns and joins a pair of much ballyhooed freshmen, James Aldridge (6-1, 215) from Crown Point, Ind., and Munir Prince (5-10, 175) from Florrisant, Mo., to provide even more depth at tailback. Of this threesome, Aldridge bears watching. Everybody's prep All-American last fall after he rushed for 1,433 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior at Merrillville (Ind.) High School, Aldridge enrolled at Notre Dame in January, which allowed him to participate in spring practice. Aldridge is a power runner unlike anyone else on the roster and he could line up some at fullback from time to time.

Speaking of fullbacks, sophomore Asaph Schwapp (6-0, 250), who started from the midway point of last season through the Fiesta Bowl game loss to Ohio State, is back and will once again be the primary lead blocker.

Backing up Schwapp will be senior Ashley McConnell (6-0, 247), who saw only 9:25 of game action last season. Because McConnell isn't very game-tested, either Aldridge (if Weis wants a power running threat) or fellow incoming freshman Luke Schmidt (6-3, 230) from Japser, Ind., the 2005 Gatorade Player of the Year in Indiana, could see snaps right away as a backup fullback to Schwapp.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

The losses of tight end Anthony Fasano (47 receptions, 576 yards, two touchdowns in 2005) and big, physical wide-out Maurice Stovall (69 receptions, 1,149 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2005) to the NFL will smart a bit, but Notre Dame will still throw the ball all over the lot.

That's because the Fighting Irish return a first-team All-America receiver in senior Jeff Samardzija (6-5, 216). Nicknamed "Shark" by Notre Dame baseball teammate Chris Niesel, Samardzija exploded on the football field last fall in Weis' pass-happy attack, setting school single-season records for receptions (77), yards (1,249) and touchdown catches (15) last year.

"The world is Jeff's for the taking, because he can either be a professional baseball player or a professional football player," Weis said. "On the football field, he and Brady Quinn have great chemistry. Samardzija is one of the best receivers in the college game, because he can cause mismatches with his size and because he's much faster than most defenders think he is, particularly out of his breaks."

In early June, Samardzija was taken by the Chicago Cubs in the fifth round of the Major League Baseball draft. Samardzija later signed a five-year contract ESPN.com reported was worth $7.5 million. The deal allowed Samardzija, a pitcher with a 94 mph fastball, to play baseball until August, when he reports back to Notre Dame.

Samardzija, who was considered to have first-round talent in baseball, was 8-4 with a 4.33 ERA in 15 starts for the Irish in 2006.

Teaming up with Samardzija at receiver will be fifth-year senior Rhema McKnight (6-2, 207), who missed the final 10 games of the 2005 season after suffering a knee injury in the Michigan game last September. He was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA and will look to regain his old form, when he was Notre Dame's top receiver in both 2003 and '04.

For his career, McKnight has 103 receptions for 1,370 yards and seven scores. If he's healthy, McKnight gives the Irish a proven deep threat and will team with Samardzija in quite a 1-2 receiving punch.

Senior Chase Anastasio (6-1, 202) and sophomores David Grimes (6-0, 170) and D.J. Hord (6-1, 198) -- the latter with 4.4 speed -- will get ample opportunities to make more significant contributions at wide receiver in 2006. The trio has just three career catches, but Grimes looked like he was ready to be the team's No. 3 wide-out with his work late in spring drills.

Freshman George West (5-8, 172), who enrolled at Notre Dame in January, could be a youngster worth watching. West has great speed and was an all-state performer at Northeast (Okla.) Academy as a defensive back and a wide receiver in 2005.

Notre Dame must replace a fine tight end in Fasano, a 2006 second-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys. Senior John Carlson (6-6, 254) and fifth-year senior Marcus Freeman (6-3, 245) have been through the wars and will be asked to replace Fasano, although neither is viewed as the pass-catcher Fasano was.

True freshman Konrad Reuland (6-6, 239), a highly-touted prospect from Mission Viejo, Calif., might be able to work his way into the tight end mix, if he's able to process Weis' complex offense quickly.

OFFENSIVE LINE

This is the only question mark in a stacked offensive deckand even the o-line isn't a giant question mark, thanks to the presence of two All-America candidates in senior center John Sullivan (6-4, 298) and senior left tackle Ryan Harris (6-6, 288).

Sullivan has started 20 games the last two seasons and is on the watch list for the Dave Rimington Trophy, awarded annually to the most outstanding center in college football. Sullivan started the last seven games at center in 2005, while making appearances in all 12 games. He blocked for the Irish offense in a record-setting season that saw an average of 38.2 points and 489.1 yards per game. Sullivan led the offensive line in paving the way for running back Walker to eclipse 100 yards in seven games, as well as not allowing a sack in games against Purdue and Navy.

Harris (32 career starters entering 2006) is a special player, a guy who started for four years and who opened up holes for Julius Jones, now a star with the Dallas Cowboys, and then for Darius Walker.

Off the field, Harris is an interesting story -- he's a Muslim who attends the nation's best-known Roman Catholic university. It might seem odd at first glance, but going to Notre Dame just seemed natural to him. Harris had attended a Catholic high school in St. Paul, Minn., and Notre Dame let him know the university had a Muslim student association. Harris is a surefire pro, if he stays healthy this season.

Guard Dan Stevenson (35 career starts) is gone, making the transition from playing for Weis' current team to his former employer (the New England Patriots, who drafted him in the sixth round in April).

To fill that void, Weis has a pair of guards with tons of experience in seniors Bob Morton (6-4, 292) and Dan Santucci (6-4, 290). The pair has made a combined 39 starts and will form a solid, all-senior interior of the O-line, along with Sullivan. Morton is versatile too, having started games as both center and guard.

Replacing departed right tackle Matt LeVoir, who started 36 games over three seasons, is another concern for Weis and his staff. Prized freshman recruit Sam Young (6-7, 292), a Parade and USA Today All-American out of Coral Springs, Fla., is probably the long-term answer there, but it's hard to imagine Weis throwing him to the Yellow Jackets, Nittany Lions and Wolverines right away, so look for either senior Brian Mattes (6-6, 285), a career backup, or sophomore Paul Duncan (6-7, 292) to be the opening day starter. The question is: Can either hold off Young, and if so, how long?

As always, Notre Dame has other reliable, beefy linemen. Sophomore Michael Turkovich (6-6, 290), who is also getting a look at right tackle, can play left tackle too, while mammoth freshman Chris Stewart (6-5, 340) from Spring, Texas, enrolled at Notre Dame in January and will see some snaps at guard this year.

KICKERS

With the departure of jack-of-all-kicking-trades D.J. Fitzpatrick, Weis will be forced to break in a new punter and place-kicker this fall. Incoming freshman Ryan Burkhart (5-11, 185), a 2005 all-stater for Northwood (Ind.) High School, is expected to take over the field goal and extra point duties. Burkhart made 12 of his 22 field goal tries as a high school senior, including a 53-yarder.

If Burkhart can't handle the job, senior Carl Gioia (5-11, 179), who was 2-of-2 on extra points and made his only field goal try in 2005 as Fitzpatrick's understudy, might get a crack it, although he was spotty, at best, during spring drills.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Notre Dame's entire starting front four is back. Defensive coordinator Rick Minter hopes these familiar faces will generate a more consistent pass rush in 2006. Notre Dame's pass rush let the team down at crucial times last season -- such as against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl loss and during large stretches of the Fighting Irish's gut-wrenching regular season loss to USC.

The man most likely to terrorize opposing quarterbacks is senior Victor Abiamiri (6-4, 260), who notched 48 tackles, eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss in 2005. Abiamiri started last season slowly, in large part because he got kicked in the right shin early in spring ball before the 2005 season. The bruise was so severe Abiamiri didn't feel right until mid-October.

Once he was OK, opposing quarterbacks and running backs suddenly didn't feel so hot. Twenty-five of Abiamiri's 48 tackles, 9.5 of his 15 tackles for loss and 5.5 of his eight sacks came in the final five games of the season.

"He's got pass rush ability," said Weis, who had Abiamiri watch films of New York Giants great Michael Strahan this off-season. "He was kind of in that walking cast for a while and you can't train the same when you're coming off an injury like that. But, Victor's play from the beginning of the year to the end of last year just continued to improve, as his health continued to improve. I'm confident that his best is yet to come in 2006."

While Abiamiri is an all-star candidate at the left-end spot, the other starting end spot is up for grabs. It looks like it will be a three-way battle to start among junior Ronald Talley (6-4, 261), junior Justin Brown (6-3, 247) and fifth-year senior Chris Frome (6-5, 268). All three will undoubtedly play as Notre Dame will rotate fresh ends in all the time in hopes of generating more pressure, but who will start?

The best guess is that it will be Talley (23 tackles, one sack in 2005) winning the job over Brown (12 tackles). But don't count out Frome, if he can get his wounded knee healthy again. Frome (one sack in 2005) was starting to play pretty well until suffering a season-ending knee injury in the USC loss.

Senior Dwight Stephenson, Jr. (6-2, 252), the son of the former Miami Dolphins' Hall of Fame center, will see time as a backup to Abiamiri at left end. Stephenson started his Notre Dame career as a linebacker, then was moved to the d-line and is a valuable sub.

There's plenty of experience in the interior of Notre Dame's line, led by fifth-year senior nose guard Derek Landri (6-2, 263). Landri (43 tackles, eight tackles for loss, three sacks in 2005) will be starting for a third straight year. He's smallish, but he does possess a quick first step that allows him to disrupt enemy running games.

Rejoining Landri in the middle of the line will be junior Trevor Laws (6-1, 293), who recorded 33 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season. Laws has both excellent balance and quickness -- two attributes that helped him as a former state champion super-heavyweight wrestler back at Apple Valley (Minn.) Senior High.

Redshirt freshman Derrell Hand (6-3, 301) and sophomore Pat Kuntz (6-2, 267) will be the primary backups at the tackle spots, unless aptly named Notre Dame lineman Paddy Mullen (6-5, 265), a freshman from St. Louis, really wows the coaches this summer. Hand, a tough Philly kid, red-shirted last season, while Kuntz appeared in nine games and made four tackles in 2005. Mullen excelled as both a tight end and d-lineman at DeSmet Jesuit High School in St. Louis.

LINEBACKERS

This is one layer of the defense that will keep Minter awake on fall nights. The Irish lost Brandon Hoyte (92 tackles, six sacks last season) and Corey Mays (80 tackles, five sacks) from last year's active unit. Therefore, they have one returning starter at linebacker in junior Maurice Crum, Jr. (6-0, 220), the son of former Miami Hurricane and Tampa Bay Buccaneer linebacker Maurice Crum, Sr.

The good news is that Crum (57 tackles in 2005) is a proven commodity when he's healthy. The bad news is that Crum, who can play inside or outside linebacker, was limited during spring drills as he recovered from a back injury.

The status of Crum's back could be the least of Minter's worries. Notre Dame's defensive boss must decide whether he wants to throw career backups like Joe Brockington (6-1, 212) and senior Mitchell Thomas (6-3, 240) into the fray or whether he wants to start younger guys such as sophomores Anthony Vernaglia (6-3, 221), Steve Quinn (6-2, 215), Scott Smith (6-3, 234), and Kevin Washington (6-1, 231) to start instead.

Or if Minter is really feeling like a gambler, perhaps gifted, but green true freshmen Morrice Richardson (6-2, 228), the 2005 Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Georgia, and Toryan Smith (6-0, 230), yet another Georgia prep product, could get starting nods.

The best guess is that Crum, who started at strong-side linebacker last year, will move over to middle linebacker and will be the quarterback of the defense. The weak-side linebacker will probably be Steve Quinn (four tackles in 2005), unless one of the freshmen come in and earns a job.

Replacing Crum on the strong side will probably be Vernaglia, a top-100 national recruit in the High School Class of 2004 out of California who chose Notre Dame over USC. Pushing him for that spot will be Washington, who did not see any game action in 2005.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Notre Dame's much-maligned secondary returns intact this fall. But that's not all bad, as strong safety Tom Zbikowski (5-11, 203) is an All-America candidate. Zbikowski, who made his pro boxing debut at Madison Square Garden in the offseason, has a bright NFL future because of his nose for the ball (71 tackles, five interceptions in 2005) and his innate ability to find the end zone (two interception returns for scores and two punt returns for touchdowns in 2005).

"Tommy is just a great athlete, leader and football player," Weis said. "He's just so competitive, whether he's returning punts with nine or 10 guys running at him or sparring for a boxing match like he did this past spring."

Senior Chinedum Ndukwe (6-2, 219), who started his college career as a wide receiver, will once again man the free safety spot. Adept in run support, Ndukwe had 52 tackles last season.

Backing up Zbiwkoski and Ndukwe will be a pair of promising, but young safeties in Ray Herring (6-0, 200) and David Bruton (6-2, 187).

The starting corners will once again be senior Michael Richardson (5-11, 193) on the left side and junior Ambrose Wooden (5-11, 197) on the right side. Both were busy last year as the Fighting Irish's inconsistent pass rush was often left in coverage way to long, such as against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl loss. Both Richardson (66 tackles, two interceptions in 2005) and Wooden (77 tackles) are sure tacklers, but there are lingering questions about whether they have the foot speed necessary to slow down receivers from elite programs.

Junior Terrail Lambert (5-11, 188), one of the fastest, if not the fastest player in the Notre Dame program, emerged as the team's nickel back over fellow junior Leo Ferrine (6-0, 196), who saw lots of time last season.

Incoming freshmen Darrin Walls (6-1, 175) out of Pittsburgh and Raeshon McNeil (6-0, 175) from Cooleemee, N.C., are two cornerback prospects who can really motor.

PUNTERS

D.J. Fitzpatrick (40.3 avg.) has graduated, but Weis seemed more than happy with the work senior Geoff Price (6-3, 186) did during spring drills.

If Price isn't right, strong-legged freshman Ryan Burkhart, Notre Dame's likely No. 1 kicker, could add punting to his to-do list.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Zbikowksi is fast and fearless, making him one of the best punt returners in the college game. He averaged 14 yards per return and scored two touchdowns on his 27 punt returns, including a memorable one in the classic battle with USC last season. He just has a knack for winding his way through traffic and somehow finding a seam.

Backup wideouts David Grimes and D.J. Hord returned kickoffs last season and might do so again in 2006, but keep an eye on incoming freshmen such as George West as possibilities.

Long snapper J.J. Hansen (6-3, 242), a junior, took over the snapping duties on punts and extra points midway though the 2005 campaign and handled the job flawlessly. He figures to handle the snaps again.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

This team will score points -- tons of them, because Weis has a terrific group of skill players to work with in quarterback Brady Quinn, tailback Darius Walker and wide receivers Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight.

Nine starters are back for the Irish defense, including All-America candidates in safety Tom Zbikowski and defensive end Victor Abiamiri.

However, even with Abiamiri, Notre Dame's pass rush dried up at crucial times last season -- such as against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl loss and in stretches of a heartbreaking loss to USC. There are also questions about whether Notre Dame's secondary has the foot speed to deal with elite teams that can spread the field against it.

However, there are only a handful of teams on Notre Dame's schedule that can take advantage of the Irish secondary.

As a result, Notre Dame will be a top-5 fixture all season and will play in a BCS bowl game come January. In fact, if the Irish can get out of September unscathed versus Georgia Tech, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, then a national title game berth is possible.

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2006 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).


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