Replacing starters Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays won't be an easy task for Rick Minter in 2006. Both players played almost all the minutes at Will and Mike linebacker in 2005. We've also heard that Maurice Crum won't be available for spring practice this spring, but hopefully he'll be ready to go in the fall.
Spring practices will certainly be wide open and a golden opportunity for many young Irish linebackers to stake a claim to a starting position.
Will linebacker Joe Brockington seems to be the most likely candidate to replace Brandon Hoyte at Will linebacker next season. Brockington has always been the next guy in when Hoyte gives way to the No. 2 slot, but with so many positions open, it's hard to really predict which player will land where. Brockington has impressed me in pass coverage in the little time that I've seen him play, but like Hoyte, he's somewhat undersized for a linebacker—listed at just 6-1, 212 pounds. Hoyte played the position close to 240 pounds this season, so Brockington has some work to do yet in the weight room.
Two players saw action at middle linebacker in 2005 behind Corey Mays. We expect at least three to compete for the starting spot in the fall.
Junior Nick Borseti saw most of his 9:51 minutes of action against Navy and Syracuse where the Saugus, Mass. native recorded four tackles and two quarterback hurries. With a 6-4, 238-pound frame, Borseti has plenty of size to play the position. Does he have the quickness to be an every down linebacker? The spring and fall will likely be Borseti's best chance and might be his final chance to earn a starting spot at linebacker. There are a number of younger linebackers on the roster he'll have to compete with in the spring and fall, and two more reporting in the fall.
Freshman Scott Smith played in seven games and recorded three tackles in 5:57 minutes of action at middle linebacker. Smith saw most of his action against Michigan, Michigan State, Washington and BYU this season. At 6-3, 235 pounds, Smith has the physical size to be an early contributor, and showed plenty of speed chasing down Michigan wide receiver Steve Breaston earlier in the season. Smith has a good chance to stake his claim on the Mike linebacker position if he can pick up the defense early in the spring.
Junior Mitchell Thomas also will likely compete for the Mike position. At 6-3, 240 pounds, he has the ideal size to play the position. Thomas also has shown very good quickness and was highly recruited out of high school. He hasn't been able to get on the field much at linebacker and has earned most of his minutes on special teams. Like Borseti, Thomas will have to show he's ready to step up this spring or fall or he will likely be passed by some younger players on the team. Corey Mays just needed an opportunity and grabbed in 2005, could this be the year for Thomas to reach his potential?
There are plenty of people stacked at the Apache position heading into spring. One player that gets lost in most Irish fan's minds is Abdel Banda. The Morristown, N.J. sophomore was injured for most of the 2005, but the 6-1, 220-pound Banda was impressive early in fall camp. Banda moves very well for his size and might be one of the most athletic linebackers on the roster. Banda has yet to play a down of football, but don't count out Abdel this spring.
Sophomore Anthony Vernaglia saw his first minutes of action this season. The Anaheim Hills, Calif. native switched to linebacker this spring after playing safety last season. Vernaglia saw action in five games at linebacker and logged 14:55 minutes of action with most coming in games against Navy and Syracuse, where he logged his first four tackles of his career. At 6-3, 220 pounds, Vernaglia has the frame to play any of the three linebacker positions, and as a former safety, he has plenty of athletic ability as well. Vernaglia was the second man in when Crum went out, so we expect him to make some noise this spring.
Freshman Steve Quinn also impressed early in his freshman season. Quinn was a mainstay on special teams this fall and did get to see limited game action this season recording his first three tackles of his career. The 6-2, 215-pound Cherry Hill, N.J. native surprised many when he was listed as a second-team Apache early in the season, but Vernaglia regained the spot and held it for the rest of the season. Quinn could play a number of positions and moves better than many expected on the field and could be tried at both Apache and Will spots this spring .
We haven't seen much of freshman Kevin Washington at this point. Washington didn't see action in 2005 and played on the scout team all season. At 6-1, 230 pounds, many expect him to push for time at the Will linebacker position, and as a former option high school quarterback and safety, he brings plenty of athleticism to the position. We don't know much about Washington yet, but we wouldn't be surprised to hear his name more often this spring.
For some older players spring practice will be very critical time. They'll have to make an impact in order to hold off the charge from some of the young and athletic linebackers waiting in the wings. This unit should be the most watched and contested unit of the spring.