When you look at this class, one would see some very talented athletes who could potentially end up being great players for Notre Dame. Nobody at this point can say for sure which players will be impact players and which will not play a down for the Irish. The important question is which players could use a year to develop their bodies and their minds in the game of football. Let's look at some defensive guys first.
There are plenty of guys you could guess might play early on talent alone. Victor Abiamiri certainly has that kind of talent—Trevor Laws does as well. Many predict Greg Olsen will be the next great tight end at Notre Dame. All three have talented players playing in front of them so they might not get the opportunity to show what they can do in 2003.
Can we predict which players will see the field? Probably not but we can guess based on need and talent.
Freddie Parish has a great shot at playing early. He has the foot speed needed and he has played at a very high level of competition and been productive. He has the size (205) to play early as well. Will he be a strong safety or free safety? The best thing about Freddie is he has the size to play strong but the speed and instincts to play free. I think Freddie has the best chance to play early out of all the freshmen. Strong safety is still up for grabs and Parish will likely be in the mix for at least the backup role.
Linebacker depth will be thin this year and at least one linebacker should see some time this year. If Mike Goolsby cannot play this year, the Irish will have to do some reshuffling at linebacker. Goolsby plays the Mike or middle linebacker position. Corey Mays is the only other scholarship Mike linebacker on the depth chart. Mays hasn't played a lot so they might have to do some reshuffling of the linebackers.
Will the Irish move Butkus Candidate Courtney Watson inside? Brandon Hoyte has a lot of experience playing his Will position. Derek Curry could move inside opening up a slot for Jerome Collins to play the Sam position. Will Mays step up and become the true starter at Mike? The linebacker position will be interesting if Goolsby can't play.
Knowing this possibility, the Irish will need at least one guy who can play. Dwight Stephenson and Mitchell Thomas look to be the best bets. Many speculate that Stephenson will eventually move to a defensive end position and it might not be wise to waste a year of eligibility on a position he won't play in college. Thomas appears to be the most likely to play early. He is extremely athletic, cat-quick, shows good instincts and would be a weapon on special teams in kickoff and punt coverage. His special teams potential will likely get him on the field next season.
One very interesting possibility is Trevor Laws. No matter how good Laws appears to be when he reports, he won't see a lot of playing time because of Cedric Hilliard, Darrell Campbell and Greg Pauly. Still, he could be another guy to give these fine players a breather. Hardly a reason to waste a year but there are possibilities with Laws.
Laws played fullback in high school and played the position very well. He is one heck of a lead blocker and he can also move the pile. He is very light on his feet for a big man and has played the position before—something Rashon Powers-Neal and Nate Schiccatano have never done. He's also very strong in both upper and lower body and should report around 280.
The Irish struggled many times in 2002 getting that one yard needed for a first down. That one yard could be the difference between winning and losing a game with a struggling offense. Is it possible we could see Laws come in on third and short situations?
I doubt Laws plays but he could play if he can show that he can be a contributor along the defensive line this year. If he can do that, I would be very tempted to see what Laws can do hammering the middle of line for that extra yard that could be the difference in a game.
Victor Abiamiri certainly has all the talent needed to play early. He has excellent size (6-5, 250-pounds) and quickness. He also has quite a few players in front of him right now. Justin Tuck, Kyle Budinscak, Jason Sapp, Brian Beidatsch, Chris Frome, Travis Leitko and Dan Santucci are all in front of him. Santucci and Beidatsch could likely move inside but there are numbers at defensive end. Abiamiri will have to be a really special player to move in front of these veterans.
A number of others could see special teams play this year. Tom Zbikowski is obviously a great athlete with speed. I don't see him playing much this year at corner but he could surprise. He has never played corner before so there will be a learning curve. The same can be said of Isaiah Gardner. Both players have speed and could be special teams players but I think both will have to learn the position before they are ready to contribute.
LaBrose Hedgemon has played corner and seems to have a knack for finding the ball. I don't expect him to play in 2003 on defense but he could also be a member of the special teams unit.
Joe Brockington and Nick Borseti are talented players but I also think both will need a little seasoning before playing. Both could be special teams candidates however. Borseti loves to hit and Brockington has speed. I don't expect either to see playing time on defense.
Dwight Stephenson is an interesting prospect. He has the motor and physical body to contribute but it will be interesting to see where he is positioned once the season begins. Many speculate he will end up at defensive end. If this happens, I don't think he will be quite ready but he should be a big contributor in the future. I could see him playing some special teams however.
Irish fans usually can't wait to get a look at the freshmen. I think they will have to wait a bit before they will get a real good look at all of them. I do expect some to play but I don't expect many to play a lot of minutes in 2003. The good news is that the Irish have some very good players in front of them forcing a red-shirt for many of them.