WR McKnight primed for impressive '06 season

After missing the majority of last season with a knee injury, Notre Dame WR Rhema McKnight is primed for a big year, writes Todd McShay.

Updated: August 20, 2006, 11:20 AM ET
By Todd McShay | Scouts Inc.
Editor's note: Notre Dame was the second stop of a four-campus college football preview being made by Todd McShay and Mobile ESPN. Next up is Florida State, followed by Miami (Fla.). To see exclusive videos from Todd's college football tour, go to ESPN Motion or get Mobile ESPN.

While All-American wide receiver Jeff Samardzija was off playing minor league baseball for the Cubs during the football offseason, Rhema McKnight was busy rebuilding his rapport with quarterback Brady Quinn. By all accounts, it was McKnight who was supposed to be Quinn's go-to guy in 2005, ahead of Samardzija and ahead of Maurice Stovall. However, McKnight notched five catches before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Game 2 (Michigan).

Rhema McKnight (5)
Gregory Shamus/WireImage.com Rhema McKnight's return will bolster Notre Dame's wide receiver corps.
It took several months of rehabilitation but McKnight is finally back at full strength and hungry to pick up where he left off. After watching the 6-foot-2, 207-pound senior during individual drills on Wednesday, it's evident that his outstanding quickness and fluidity were not affected by the injury. Stovall benefited from all the attention given to Samardzija last season, finishing with 1,149 yards and 11 touchdowns on 69 receptions. Expect McKnight to put up similar or better numbers in 2006.

On a side note, Quinn is in premier shape. His offseason conditioning schedule was intense and it shows in his muscle definition and stamina. Judging by his physical appearance and the praise he is receiving from coaches and teammates alike, Quinn has not been affected by the overwhelming attention he is receiving as the preseason favorite to win this year's Heisman Trophy.

One of the biggest stories in Notre Dame's summer camp, believe it or not, is uncertainty regarding the job of backing up Quinn. Currently there is a battle being waged among sophomore Evan Sharpley and freshmen Demetrius Jones and Zach Frazer. Head coach Charlie Weis indicates that each of the freshmen is good enough to eventually become the program's future starter, but right now it seems that Weis is more comfortable with Sharpley backing up Quinn simply because of his built-in advantage of experience. While the competition is fierce, the truth of the matter is that Notre Dame has one of the worst backup quarterback situations of any highly rated team in the nation right now. As a side note, the arrival of super-recruit Jimmy Clausen next year undoubtedly will present the Irish with one of the biggest quarterback controversies in the 2007 preseason.

Notre Dame's offensive line returns four starters from a year ago. While the starting lineup has yet to be finalized, it seems inevitable that freshman Sam Young will take over the only vacancy at right tackle. Young has a massive frame (6-foot-7, 302 pounds) and has shown good balance, strength and mobility in camp. He will need to add bulk and improve his technique in the future, but it's easy to see why the Irish coaches are so high on this youngster.

As for some other position battles, it seems that a rotation is inevitable at tight end and strongside linebacker. Despite speculation that freshmen would invade both positions, veterans have held their own thus far. Either way, the Irish will have a drop-off in terms of athleticism at the tight end position following the departure of Anthony Fasano. However, John Carlson and Marcus Freeman are both experienced players with good blocking skills and reliable hands underneath.

At linebacker, Maurice Crum, Jr. is the only returning starter from last year's group and he has experience at all three positions, which gives the Irish some flexibility. Crum is currently settled in as the starting middle linebacker and Travis Thomas, who converted from running back, has emerged as a difference maker on the weak side. The "SAM" linebacker job is still up for grabs, but Weis is making it clear that the team plans on playing both Anthony Vernaglia and Mitchell Thomas at the position. Vernaglia and Thomas are similar types with good size and strength but limited speed. To that end, using a rotation will help keep the two fresh late into games.

The Irish have to find new starters at both the punter and place-kicker positions after the departure of D.J. Fitzpatrick. The staff is pleased with the progress of PT Geoff Price, who has made significant strides after shortening his release from a year ago. The pursuit of a new kicker, however, has not been as fruitful. It looks as though incoming freshman Ryan Burkhart will take over but he has been erratic thus far. An adventure at that position could be costly considering Notre Dame's early schedule: at Georgia Tech, vs. Penn State, vs. Michigan and at Michigan State.

Todd McShay is director of college scouting for Scouts Inc. Numerous NFL teams have relied on his independent draft prospect evaluations since 1998. Listen to Todd break down the biggest games and give you all the scores on College GameDay on ESPN Radio every Saturday from noon to 7 p.m. ET. He is also a frequent contributor to ESPNU.

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