Meat and Potatoes:
These players seem so familiar that it seems like they have been at Notre Dame for four years. Fortunately all of them have at least two years of eligibility, and a couple of key players in this group have three years remaining. Some of these players have established themselves; a couple more are on the verge of becoming stars, while a few others are still prospects. This group of eight doesn't get the attention from the mainstream fans, but the people reading this article know these players very well. If Irish are going to return to glory, it will be this group of players that is going to carry the team on their back. This group contains the muscle of the junior class. Here is a look at the players from the junior class that do the dirty work up front -- plus the guys that scrape and fill the holes.
Ryan Harris: October 11, 2003 seems like such a distant memory. So many things have happened with Notre Dame football – the ups and the downs. Notre Dame's record has only been 11-10 since that game against Pitt, but Ryan Harris has been a consistent bright spot along the offensive line. Because Harris has been such a consistent performer for the Irish, it's hard to grasp the idea that he still has two years of eligibility remaining. Harris has started every game since the Pitt game (20), and last season he played the third-most minutes on the team with 362:45. Coming out of high school Harris was Scout.com's No.7 offensive linemen; he was a USA Today All-American and he played in the U.S. Army All-Star game. Thus far he's lived up to the hype.
He goes about his business and gets the job done. It's a rare occasion that you see a breakdown along the Notre Dame line and end up pointing the finger at Ryan, so when he does miss an assignment, the memory doesn't stay with you. Ryan isn't a typical offensive tackle in that he doesn't have great size, but what he does have is superior athleticism and solid technique. He has very good balance and rarely is thrown off by a defender, because he is technically sound. With that said, I doubt Harris would be a first round NFL draft pick if he entered the draft, so he has room to elevate his game in order to become a dominant lineman. He is a superior blocker in pass protection. He recognizes defensive line stunts and twists very well and consistently bottles up the defenders. I do feel that Ryan needs to become a more dominant run blocker. He needs to finish his blocks and play until the whistle. I'd like to see him have a little more attitude and aggression. Most college offensive linemen haven't played a down at this point in their careers, so Ryan is still relatively young. I'm anxious to see Harris' development in a new weight program and with a new offensive line coach. Harris and his fellow offensive lineman should dominate all of their opponents this season. There is no reason this group should have averaged a dismal 127 yards rushing per game and given up 25 sacks in 2004 – too much talent.
John Sullivan: Coming out of high school, everyone wanted John. He was Scout.com's No.8 offensive lineman; he was a Parade All-American, USA Today 2nd team All-American and participant in the U.S. Army All-Star game. Last season in his first year as a starter he played more minutes than any player on the team (367.24). John is thick; he has wide body with a low center of gravity. He's strong, and as former nationally-ranked wrestler, he has great balance and uses his leverage extremely well. Sullivan moves his feet very well, has good mobility and comes out of the snap quickly. Sullivan did miss a few assignments last season, but considering he was playing for the first time, his overall performance would receive very high marks. When I think of an offensive lineman that fits coach Latina and coach Weis's style, I think of Sullivan. Expect the coaches to gush about this player. He's a beast and he seems to have a perfect mentality for an offensive lineman. I fully expect him to dominate people this season. He could end up as good as former Irish great Jeff Faine.
Victor Abiamiri: Victor was Scout.com's No. 8 defensive end, a USA Today All-American and U.S. Army All-Star participant. Outside of Brady Quinn, Victor is probably the most recognized player from this class. He has played in every game while at Notre Dame and he has started six games. In the previous two seasons he was playing behind Kyle Budinscak, but with Kyle finishing his career last season, Victor will take ownership of the strong-side defensive end position. While Victor's statistics weren't off the charts last season (15 total tackles 2 sacks), the overall results of the defense were outstanding, particularly against the run. Victor was asked to play a role within a unit and he played the role well, as opponents were held to a paltry 88.2 rushing yards per game and 2.7 yards per rushing attempt. Rick Minter's defense isn't the read-and-react defense that the Irish have played in the past. Minters defense is predicated on speed and disrupting the offense at the point of attack. At 6-4, 265 pounds Victor has the size and ability to control the right side of the offensive line, and this season he'll be relied on to make big plays. Victor is outstanding against run and will control the player blocking him, even demanding a double team from the tight end. What I haven't seen from Victor is the ability to put consistent pressure on the passer; specifically on downs where he knows the offense is going to throw the ball. Last season that could have been due to the defensive philosophy, or it could have been due to the porous pass defense. Regardless, this is the year the potential should be met and Irish fans should see Victor become a dominant player. In order to do so, he must increase his aggressiveness and his intensity. While the experts point to the losses along the defensive line for the Irish, I believe the combination of Frome, Laws, Landri and Abiamiri will be as good or better than last year's line.
Dwight Stephenson Jr.: When Dwight showed up on campus in August 2003, no one knew for sure which position he'd ultimately play while at Notre Dame. Due to need, Dwight initially started out at middle linebacker and then was moved to weak-side defensive end during the spring of his freshman season. After missing last fall, this spring he was shifted to defensive tackle by the new staff. At 6-2, 260 pounds Dwight is undersized for a defensive tackle and will need to add at least 15 pounds in order to play week in and week out along the defensive line. I only saw Dwight briefly during the spring game, but I liked his potential. He is very quick off the snap and he stays low. An experienced offensive line did muscle him around, but he was very active and he was able to create penetration. He appeared to tire as the spring game wore on, so I don't think he can play extended minutes during the season, but he could be effective in limited time. The Irish are extremely thin at defensive tackle with only Brian Beidatsch, Derek Landri and Trevor Laws with playing experience, so it's likely that Dwight will be counted on to contribute some valuable minutes this season. This is a player with great energy and very good instincts. He likes to get after it.
Trevor Laws: Scout.com's No. 12 defensive tackle, USA Today All-American, U.S. Army All-Star invitee, and a three-time high school wrestling All-American. He was ranked the No.1 heavyweight wrestler in the nation for much of his high school career. Laws is another phenomenal athlete in this class with worlds of potential. Laws was outstanding in his first season of action; he registered 17 tackles and helped the Irish defense to a No. 5 national ranking against the run as the Irish defense held their opponents to 88.2 yards per game. In addition, the Irish defense only allowed six rushing touchdowns on the year. Trevor isn't very tall, but he is very thick. He's a solid mass and he has been able to maintain his quickness as he has added size. He is tenacious and refuses to stay blocked. Trevor has great technique, cat-like quickness, and he uses his leverage extremely well. He is able to apply pressure to the quarterback which is a bonus coming from an interior linemen. He did appear to wear down a bit toward the end of last year, and but another year in the program will help boost his strength and stamina. Laws will team with Derek Landri to make an outstanding duo on the interior of the Irish defensive line. It's unbelievable to think that the Irish might have this player along the defensive front for another three years. You just don't find his combination of physical skills very often in a big man. He has All-American potential.
Nick Borseti: Borseti has played a couple downs at middle linebacker, but the majority of his playing time has come on the kick return team. He is a very aggressive middle linebacker and he will deliver a blow when he arrives at the ball carrier. He's strong against the run and he's a sure tackler. Borseti is much more agile than one would expect, and he plays well in traffic. There are moments where he shows that he could be a force at middle linebacker and then he'll struggle to make plays. This is an important year for Borseti to establish himself as a player. Unfortunately for Nick, since he has been at Notre Dame, the Irish have had an experienced Mike backer in front of him (Courtney Watson, Mike Goolsby). This season I expect fifth-year senior Corey Mays to earn the starting spot at middle linebacker, but after that there is an open competition for the back up role. The individual who earns that spot will have a leg up on the starting spot in 2006. Others competing for playing time at the middle linebacker position are classmate Mitchell Thomas, senior Nate Schiccatano and freshman Scott Smith.
Mitchell Thomas: This Alabama native has all the athletic ability on the world. He's a tall, rangy linebacker prospect with a good frame. When you see him on the field, he screams athlete. Thomas was tabbed to take over the strong-side linebacker (SAM) position vacated by the graduating Derek Curry, but with coach Minter opting for the smaller, faster apache linebacker on the strong side of the defense, the coaches moved Thomas to middle linebacker. He has the size for the Mike backer and his speed could be a big asset in the middle of the Irish defense. He runs exceptionally well and can lay the wood when he gets to the ball carrier. He has very good instincts and works well in traffic. I'd like Thomas to play with more intensity and develop a more aggressive attitude. I really haven't had a chance to see Thomas in his new role, so it's impossible to comment on his progress. I was excited about Thomas' potential when he committed to the Irish a couple years ago, and I'm looking forward to seeing him work out at his new position. Thomas needs to make his presence felt this season. As I mentioned above, I expect Corey Mays to get the call at Mike, and after that the back up role is there for the taking.
Joe Brockington: Brockington has patiently waited behind Brandon Hoyte at weak-side backer (Will) for two seasons. He'll likely need to wait another season as Hoyte is expected to get almost every snap at Will again this season. He's showed good agility and speed in practice. He definitely made measured improvement from his freshman year, as he was more active. Last season Joe played extensively on special teams and did play a couple downs on the defensive side of the ball, but he needs more game experience. I'd like to see him get a couple snaps every game so he has some quality playing experience before he has the opportunity to take over in 2006. He's received looks at Mike backer as well, so if the coaches don't find what they are looking for in the group of players mentioned above, Joe could be pulled into the mix. Joe will certainly play on special teams this season, but he'll have a limited role on defense. He's a good player, but I'd like to see him play with more emotion and more intensity. His time will eventually come, but he'll likely use this season to learn and sharpen his skills.
This is a very solid group of football players and a group that will play a major role in the 2005 season. In the third part of the junior preview we'll look at the defensive backs.