"'Tis easy enough to be pleasant when life flows like a song. But the man worthwhile is the one who will smile when everything goes dead wrong." - Ella Wheeler Wilcox
You can bet when these players signed their letter of intent to play football for the University of Notre Dame that they dreamed of playing for a national championship. They dreamed of being heroes on Saturday and then All-Pros on Sunday. Of course they expected to play in a bowl every year. They certainly didn't anticipate their four-year record to be 26-22.
They didn't expect to close their playing careers answering to a third coaching staff. As difficult as it has been for the Irish faithful to see their team struggle, for a moment, I ask you to walk in their shoes. Of course there is a point where players must step up and make plays, but they also need to be put into position to be successful. Each of these players has been written off, and they have been maligned by the fans. For the players that remain from this class, I hope their efforts are rewarded.
Rashon Powers-Neal: Rashon's highest profile season came in 2002 when he was a backup tailback. That year he carried the ball 77 times for 333 yards and two touchdowns. When Julius Jones returned to the team in 2003, Rashon was moved to fullback. Powers-Neal didn't have your classic fullback body, so he needed to develop one. While he was able to add the girth and muscle, he just never seemed to become comfortable with his size and he looked very mechanical. It did take time for him to adjust to his new position, and with the struggles the Irish offense was experiencing, his mistakes were magnified. Last season he was much more effective. He took on defenders with more authority and he appeared to be much more comfortable with the position.
He played a career high 119 minutes, but he only carried the ball 13 times and he was limited to 10 receptions. In his final season, he can expect to see his touches increase, as Charlie Weis likes to keep his fullback involved in the game. Last season with the Patriots, the fullback averaged 3.5 touches per game. I expect that number to be even higher for a player with Powers-Neal's skill set. I expect Weis to use him in several different formations, including the one back set. Plus, Weis rarely singles out players in interviews, but Powers-Neal has been given high praise by Weis.
I still think Rashon needs come to the point of attack with more authority and create more space when he is the lead blocker. I think Weis will demand this of him. If he can't do it, I doubt Weis will ask him to do it.
Matt Shelton: What can you say about this kid? He might be he most underappreciated player that I can remember at Notre Dame. I'll admit I have been as guilty as the next guy of leaving his name out of the group receivers over the years. I remember seeing him up close for the first time two years ago during the 2003 fall camp. In one practice he made two spectacular catches. On one of them he was double covered on a route deep down the sideline. The ball was thrown up for grabs, and he went up between two defenders and came down with the ball. That was the first time I realized that he was a player.
Fact is, when this guy is given the opportunity to get on the field, all he does is make plays. Last season he set a Notre Dame record for yards per catch and his 25.5 yard per catch career average is just staggering. He's known as one of the fastest wide receivers, but he does everything well. He has good hands, runs good routes, and he comes back for the ball. He can block, and goes after the ball aggressively. On top of that, he can go over the middle or stretch the defense. At 5-11, he's bigger than most fans think and plays even bigger. With a new offense and the improvement of Brady Quinn, expect Shelton to continue to put up big numbers in his final year if he's 100 percent healthy after rehabbing a knee injury. Don't toss this guy in as an afterthought. He's an outstanding player and he's a difference maker.
Mark LeVoir: Mark was a Parade All-American and a USA Today All-American. Mark started his career at Notre Dame as an offensive tackle, and then he was moved to guard for the 2003 season. While he's a dominant run blocker, I really think he was out of position at guard. At the start of the 2004 season he was moved back to tackle and he's looked much better since then.
The biggest question mark last season was whether LeVoir could handle the right tackle position. As it turned out, Mark might have been one the best and most consistent players along the offensive line. He did struggle a few times during the year, but overall I thought he had an outstanding season. He is a massive right tackle and if he gets into a defender, it's over, as he simply engulfs and collapses his man. If he sets up properly in pass protection, and if he moves his feet, he's nearly impossible to get around.
LeVoir has played more minutes than any other player on the team, and he'll be part of one of the most experienced offensive lines that the Irish have had in recent memory, as they average 22 starts per man. I think LeVoir was just getting comfortable last season at right tackle. I expect coach Latina to work closely with Mark and I expect LeVoir to have an outstanding season. I really like this kid. I think he's going to be a heck of a player as he's starting to come into his own. If you have a chance to tape a game this season, take he time to watch LeVoir. Rewind the plays and watch them again and again. I think most fans will come away impressed.
Dan Stevenson: Dan was a Parade All-American. He initially committed to Nebraska, but eventually signed with the Irish. With nearly 640 minutes of playing time and 23 starts under his belt, Dan is one of the most experienced players on the team. Dan seems to go about his business quietly, but that needs change. Dan needs to be a leader on the offensive line. He has as much playing experience as anyone on the team, and it's his turn to step up. I'd like to see Dan come to the field with more fight and more attitude.
He's known to be a feisty player, but he needs to instill that attitude in the rest of his teammates. The fact that this offensive line averaged 127 yards rushing per game last season is unacceptable. Dan wasn't solely responsible, but the running game starts with the guards and center. The offensive line was able to generate nearly 200 yards rushing against USC last season. With the additional experience, an improved passing game, and a more experience backfield, this offensive line should generate 175 rushing yards per contest. The question is whether coach Latina can motivate Stevenson and the rest of his line-mates to become more dominant. If he can, this group should lead the way to a very successful season.
In our last player preview, we'll take a look at the fifth-year defensive players.