Living Up to Expectations:
The recruiting class of 2003 was a consensus top five class, and so far so good. Of the 20 players from this class on the roster, nine have started at least one game through the first two seasons of their careers. Eight of players from this class are expected to start this season, and at least 13 of the players should contribute significantly this season. That's meeting expectations. Yet starts and minutes played don't win ball games. These players will be counted on to step up their production. They will need to become leaders. This is the year these players are no longer considered young players. From this point forward, these are the players that will define the program in the near future.
Brady Quinn: Quinn is the undisputed leader of this team. When Notre Dame takes the field against Pitt, Brady will be making his 22nd start as the Irish quarterback; gone is the excuse of youth. Gone is an offensive system that would have made Joe Montana look ordinary. On September 3, a huge lump of pressure will arrive with a side order of expectations. Quinn will be operating under the guidance of a man who is perceived as a football genius by the majority of Irish fans. Weis has been successful developing quarterbacks, so the expectations for Quinn to improve on his past performances will be tremendously high.
Last season Quinn improved considerably from his freshman year, improving his completion percentage from 47 to 54 percent. He also improved his TD to INT ratio from .6 to 1.7. There is room for more improvement, however. There were occasions last season that Brady failed to look at several open receivers, and there were times he simply held the ball too long. In those cases it wasn't because Quinn was operating a poorly designed offense, instead he either failed to read the defense properly or he didn't have confidence to throw the route. Brady did show that he is capable of making the difficult intermediate throws and he did throw the deep ball well. Quinn's biggest struggle will be as a leader. He has to grab this team by the facemask and get them to believe in him. This season Quinn will be operating behind an offensive line that has averages 20 starts per man. They should provide Quinn with plenty of protection as well as strong running game. He has a strong tandem of running backs in Darius Walker and Travis Thomas, as well as senior Rashon Powers-Neal at fullback. His receiving corps consists of group of players that he has thrown to since he arrived on campus, so they should know each other very well. Bundle all that together and Brady Quinn has everything he needs to be successful. He looked great in the spring game, and I can only assume that he has continued to improve over the summer. I expect Quinn to impress early. I expect him to be in command of the offense. I expect him to be the leader of the offense, and I expect the offense to carry this team. Look for Quinn to start marking his name at the top of several Irish records, starting with the most touchdown passes in a season currently set by Ron Powlus (19) in 1994.
Travis Thomas: Thomas has ridden the roller coaster of expectations with Notre Dame fans. When he arrived as a freshman, many thought he was best suited for defense, and he wasn't mentioned as one of the top recruits in the class even though he was highly rated and played in the U.S. Army All-star game. After a strong freshman year on the scout team, his teammates continually mentioned him as a player on the rise. Thomas had a strong fall camp last season, and from there everything went downhill as he had difficulty holding onto the ball. With the 2004 season behind him, so are the high expectations. While most fans hold out hope that he will contribute, many doubt that he will push Darius Walker for carries. Heck, most of fans simply hope that he will be able to hold onto the football. Mark my words, Travis Thomas is a much better player than he showed last year; he will push Walker for carries as well as the starting tailback position. Thomas runs extremely hard between the tackles and has surprising speed. He makes quick decisions when he gets the ball and hits the hole hard. Thomas will not avoid defenders, but will run through them. He has very good feet, so he has the ability to stop and start quickly. He is a very good receiver and competent blocker. He's a workout warrior and he is in incredible shape. Notre Dame is a better team with Travis Thomas contributing. I expect Thomas to bounce back this year and team up with Walker to make an outstanding running tandem. He's too good of a player to keep down.
Ashley McConnell: Irish fans remember Ashley as the guy who took a bus 18 hours from his home in Georgia to South Bend just to visit for the spring game. From that point forward McConnell has been one of my favorite players. McConnell spent the 2005 fall semester away from the team, so it's difficult to tell where he stands at this point. He played in the spring game, but it was difficult to gauge his performance. Rashon Powers-Neal will get the bulk of the work at fullback, but the backup role is his for the taking, as his lone competition will come from incoming freshman Asaph Schwapp. I don't expect McConnell to get a bunch of playing time due to Powers-Neal, but he should see the field for the first time in his career this season. This season McConnell will lay the groundwork for the 2006 season when the fullback position will be up for grabs.
Jeff Samardzija: I'm a broken record when it comes to this kid, and I hope a change in offensive scheme and philosophy is what Samardzija needs to become the dominant player I think he can be. Irish fans got a glimpse of what Jeff is capable of during last season's Michigan State game, where it appeared that he was able to get open at will. That is what you see repetition after repetition during practice. He's a tall, rangy receiver with great hands and above average speed -- he's fast enough. He is silky smooth, runs very good routes, and he will make the acrobatic catch – great body control. With his size and strength it's very difficult for cornerbacks to jam him at the line of scrimmage. He is an outstanding blocker, even dominant. Last season Jeff had 17 catches for 274 yards. He is still looking for his first career touchdown -- expect him to tally that this season. On the depth chart he might not be listed as the starter, but he should be considered a returning starter due to the minutes he's played and his ability. I'm not going rank him among the other wide receivers, I'll leave that for others to do, but he is certainly one of the top four on the roster. If Brady Quinn and the offense click this season, I expect Samardzija to surpass the 30-reception mark.
Chase Anastasio: Anastasio will certainly be in the wide receiver rotation, but he will need to make a strong impression with the new offensive staff in order to really factor into the offense. I expect Rhema McKnight, Matt Shelton, Jeff Samardzija and Maurice Stovall to get the bulk of the receptions this season. After those four, he'll battle incoming freshmen D.J. Hord and David Grimes for playing time. Chase is a very good athlete, but for some reason he didn't look comfortable with the ball in his hands last season. Maybe it was because he was still relatively young; maybe it was confidence. Regardless, this is the year Chase needs to establish himself as reliable receiver and a playmaker. I expect Weis to use six wide receivers this season, and I expect Chase to be in that rotation. He'll likely see plenty of playing time on special teams.
John Carlson: When Carlson reported to campus his freshman year there wasn't much difference between him and classmate Jeff Samardzija. Now, two complete seasons in the Notre Dame football program, John has developed the body of a college tight end. He is a natural, rangy athlete with outstanding hands. He's a fluid runner with very good speed for his size. While he continues to work on his blocking, his strength is still probably as a receiver. Because of his agility, he is a tough match up for linebackers and his size makes it difficult for a safety to defend him. He's the type of tight end that can exploit a defense deep over the middle. Charlie Weis likes to use multiple tight end formations, so I expect Carlson's playing time to increase significantly over last season (29:55). Anthony Fasano and Marcus Freeman will likely be the first options, but expect Weis to keep the tight end rotation consistent by mixing all three players in equally. I expect the offense to click this season, and I expect Carlson to finish the season near 20 receptions.
These are the junior players that will grab the headlines; next we'll take a look at the juniors that will open the holes and battle in the trenches.