The Boys are Now Men: Part II
When I discuss the players that I'm most looking forward to seeing this fall, I really get excited when I get a chance to talk about the sophomore class. The obvious reason is that these kids go through such dramatic changes after being in a college football program for an entire year. It's always interesting to see these kids develop and gain confidence. Additionally, I'm intrigued to see the sophomore class because nearly to a man, they were better players last season than I had expected them to be, and I'm anxious to see if my expanded expectations are warranted.
Justin Brown: Brown came to Notre Dame as a lean 220-pound athlete; when he reports back to Notre Dame in a couple weeks, he will be a solid 245 pounds. Ideally Brown will inch his way to 255 pounds, but he can be an effective player at his current weight. For comparison Justin Tuck was around 240 pounds his junior year. Brown will battle senior Chris Frome for playing time at weak-side defense end, or rush end. Frome has playing experience and is a solid player, but he hasn't shown that he can replace Justin Tuck just yet. That should provide plenty of opportunities for Brown if he can show the coaches that he has the ability to get to the passer. Brown is a very good athlete with very good quickness, but I think he's still a year away from contributing when the game is on the line. Justin is disruptive and difficult to block because he moves so well, but he finds himself out of position too often. Like a number of players in this class, Justin didn't get a ton of accolades coming out of high school, but I really like this player, and also like others in this class, I think he is much better than advertised. Brown will be a big contributor before he leaves South Bend, but I think he is still a year away.
Ronald Talley: It has been a foregone conclusion for many fans that Talley will eventually move inside to defensive tackle. With the move of Dwight Stephenson Jr. to the inside during the spring, I believe that indicates that Talley will stay at strong-side defensive end for the time being. Talley did miss the entire spring so it is difficult to know for sure where he will settle, so we will keep a close eye on this situation. Talley is an aggressive player with a very good motor. He's extremely tenacious and battles beyond the whistle. He's got a Chris Zorich attitude. Shortly after committing to Notre Dame, Ronald became a fan favorite by letting it be known that he was counting the days until he lined up against his home-state Wolverines. With Victor Abiamiri returning at strong-side end, Ronald will likely need to get his licks in on special teams, because unless something dramatic happens to Abiamiri, he will rarely come off the field. I think Talley is a player who really benefited from a year in the program, and he's a guy that I have been looking forward to seeing this fall. I'll keep a close eye on Talley once practice begins.
Brandon Nicolas: Nicolas is another player fans have speculated would change positions. Many had Brandon moving to the offensive line, but it appears he will get another year at defensive tackle. He is in the mold of Greg Pauly. He's technically sound and works hard. If he doesn't get something right, he goes right back at it to improve. Like nearly all freshman linemen, it was very difficult to gauge Brandon's improvement over the course of the year because he simply needed to gain weight and add strength in order to compete on equal footing with the players that have been in the program. Generally the biggest gains for players is during the summer months, and I have been told that Brandon has made considerable strides. Notre Dame is precariously thin along the defensive line with only Brian Beidatsch, Derek Landri and Trevor Laws having playing experience. Brandon will battle junior Dwight Stephenson Jr. for the fourth spot in the defensive line rotation, but if there is an injury to any of the top three players, Nicolas will certainly see playing time this year. Ideally he will use this year to add additional size and learn.
Maurice Crum Jr.: If you've read what I have written on this young man over the course of a year, you'll know that I think his potential is limitless. Simply put, this kid is a player – a difference maker. I can recall seeing him run through drills on his first day of practice and thinking of how effortless he looked moving back and forth and hurling bodies and blocking dummies as if they weren't even there. That day convinced me that Crum would eventually become a star player at Notre Dame. Darius Walker is obviously a very good player, but I believe Crum will end up being the best player in this class. He has tremendous quickness, and spring in his legs, but it's his balance and vision that separate him from other players. He has great instincts, so he reads a play quickly and then flows to the point of attack. He plays in traffic better than any player I have ever seen, so he is ideally suited for Rick Minter's apache linebacker. With Minter's defensive philosophy, he is willing to sacrifice size for speed. Instead of having a large strong-side linebacker, Minter uses a smaller quicker player that is the apache. Last season the 6-4, 245-pound Derek Curry played this position, this year it could be the 6-0, 220-pound Crum. Crum will be put into position to make plays, and he certainly has the tools to be a disruptive force. I will predict Maurice will become an All-American at Notre Dame.
Abdel Banda: Banda worked out at mostly strong-side backer last season, but the new staff has taken at look at him at both the Apache and weak-side backer position. To be perfectly honest, after watching Banda through the first several weeks of practice last year, I just didn't see a player that I though would ever play at Notre Dame. But after seeing him in spring ball, I was completely surprised. Gone was the tentative player that was two or three steps behind. Instead Banda was attacking and flowing to the ball. He looked comfortable playing in traffic, and he had a very solid spring game. Banda was recruited because the old staff saw a raw athlete with a tremendous upside. This spring I saw what they had seen on film. I am anxious to see Banda up close this fall. I'm anxious to see if my impression in the spring has carried into the fall. Most players need a full year in the program before you see improvement, but with Banda, the improvement came after a half year. Unfortunately for Banda, there appears to be a logjam at the linebacker positions, and he'll have to distinguish himself this year to have a shot at any playing time in the future.
Anthony Vernaglia: Anthony played safety last fall and throughout all of the spring, but I expect that he will move to the apache linebacker position. I didn't get to see him early last season because he was sidelined with an injury, but I did like what I saw of him during the spring. He looked good at safety, although I think he may be better suited for linebacker. He played around the line of scrimmage in high school and I think the combination of his size and speed make him a very attractive linebacker prospect, although I have not seen him play in traffic. Vernaglia will likely compete with Maurice Crum for playing at the apache backer position. I haven't seen enough of Vernaglia to say with complete certainty that he won't earn the starting apache position, but I do believe that I have seen enough of Crum to feel he'll have an uphill battle to unseat Crum for the position, if for no other reason that he's had a lot more reps at the position while Vernaglia is just moving to the position this fall. Vernaglia is a very versatile athlete and he could play several positions. He's too good of a football player and athlete not to have him on the field, but I don't expect him to play a lot of snaps on the defensive side of the ball. I think it may take another year for him to find his position, but I do think he'll contribute on special teams in 2005.
Terrail Lambert: Lambert was one of the highest rated players (Scout's No. 8 cornerback) this class. Last season was his first year playing cornerback, and I thought he struggled early. He may have difficult adjustment from high school linebacker to college corner, but as the year rolled on, the reports from the coaches got better and better. I thought he tended to coast too frequently because he felt he could close a gap with his speed. Too often that got him into trouble. Nonetheless, that is something coaching and experience can correct. He has great speed, and should be in the mix to earn one of the open cornerback spots. I do not think he will be one of the top two corners coming out of fall camp, but he will be one of the top candidates for the nickel corner. I do expect Terrail will contribute on a number of special teams.
Junior Jabbie: Like several of his classmates, Jabbie didn't come in with much fanfare, but I believe he will end up surprising a lot of people. In fact, when Jabbie signed with Notre Dame, I picked him to be the sleeper of the class, and thus far he hasn't disappointed. From the first day of practice, he has shown his potential at cornerback. At 5-10 and a solid 190 pounds, he is a bigger corner. He has nice quickness and good instincts. He appears to adjust to the ball well and makes plays. He is not afraid to deliver a hit, and he is solid in run support. I didn't get to see much of him during the spring, but I heard he did very well. He's another player that I am anxious to see this fall. I don't think he'll be one of the top two corners coming out of fall camp, but he could garner playing time as the nickel back. I do expect him to contribute heavily on special teams.
Leo Ferrine: When Ferrine signed with the Irish I didn't hold out much hope that he would push anyone for a starting position, let alone at cornerback, and certainly not in his second year. Nonetheless I'm willing to admit when I am wrong, and I admit I totally underestimated Leo Ferrine. He was such a pleasant surprise that his performance alone raised the overall ranking of this class in my eyes. He was more athletic than I expected, and he showed the ability to cover at corner. If he doesn't earn playing time at corner he has the size to play free safety. He could develop into the perfect nickel back. I'm not saying Ferrine is an All-American, but I do feel that he will get reps in the defensive backfield this year – something I would never have imagined one year ago. He is another player that will likely play special teams.
While Hoskins and Walker have received most of the attention, and rightfully so, the backbone of this class is the defensive players. I am anxious to see this group in a couple weeks, but at this time I believe this class is much better than many of us had originally thought. Darius Walker and Maurice Crum will likely start in their second year. Justin Hoskins will play a vital role on offense, and possibly most important, instead of Terrail Lambert being the only hope at cornerback, Junior Jabbie and Leo Ferrine are viable options as well. The linemen will likely need an additional year to grow, but that isn't unusual.
This class did lose three players, however (Tregg Duerson, Chris Vaughn and John Kadous), and the staff will have to make up for their absence in this recruiting class with players that have the potential to play early to offset these losses.