Position Battles Rage in Spring

There aren't many holes to fill on the Notre Dame football team. But where spots are open, position battles continue to dominate the discussion for the Irish in spring ball. Head coach Charlie Weis met with the media on Wednesday before his team was set to practice later in the afternoon.

It was the first time the press was allowed to speak to Weis since viewing the two-hour session on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium in cold, rainy conditions. The biggest hole might be at the linebacker spots, where the Irish lost captain Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays to graduation. Add this to the fact that returning starter Maurice Crum, Jr. is limited during spring practice because of back surgery. At the Saturday session, the first set of linebackers consisted of Anthony Vernaglia at Apache, Mitchell Thomas at middle and Steve Quinn at weak side. Weis said people shouldn't be finalizing the depth chart for next season based on this initial impression.

"It's too early to make the call on that," Weis said. "Just because the first group is out there and the second group is out there, nothing is etched in stone. There are some guys who are making significant progress but it's too early to tell halfway through spring, too early to tell who is going to step up when you're going full speed."

Weis said that full speed look will come in the next few weeks in scrimmages. Another pitfall is the situation of Joe Brockington, who is also recovering from back surgery and is limited in spring ball. Weis mentioned that last season, Brockington was the fourth guy in the rotation but was never used extensively because of the healthy seasons of Hoyte, Mays and Crum. As for Mitchell, he's a 6'3", 225-pound senior who has logged only 1:54 seconds of game time in his career. So far, he's been the guy at the middle spot but there is still a long way to go before the September 2nd opener against Georgia Tech.

"It would be a bit premature to make any rash judgments like Mitchell Thomas is our starting middle linebacker," Weis said. "The reason he was first is because at this point, he's been running the best. That's why you put them out there first. You don't put them out there first because you're patting them on the back."

Another glaring hole is the right tackle spot on the offensive line. The departure of Mark LeVoir to graduation leaves this side susceptible and priority number one of this team is to keep quarterback Brady Quinn injury-free. Senior Brian Mattes has been dealing with a foot injury while sophomores Paul Duncan and Michael Turkovich are also in the mix. Neither of these three have logged more than 38 minutes of playing time. Weis said Duncan has been getting the most reps but don't by any stretch anoint him the starter.

"If Brian Mattes wouldn't have been banged up at the start of spring, by seniority we would have given him the first shot at right tackle," Weis said. "But because he missed some stuff at full speed early on, it gave both Paul Duncan and Mike Turkovich an opportunity to both play that position. When it's all said and done, we'll evaluate it at the end of spring. When the freshmen come in, we'll slot them in there and see who the best man is."

Special teams have been a priority during spring ball. The loss of D.J. Fitzpatrick leaves the kicker spot wide open. Carl Gioia might get the first crack but he was shaky at best in field goal kicking on Saturday. As for the return game, Weis said it's a priority to improve field position on kickoffs. Last season, the average starting field position for the Irish was their own 30. George West and Terrail Lambert have been getting looks but West struggled to catch the ball during last Saturday's open practice. The weather conditions that morning might have been a shock for these special teamers.

"It was a rude awakening for the kickers and the returners to all of a sudden be outside on Saturday," Weis said. "Everything has been in perfect conditions, we've been inside the bubble, the weather is nice, there's no wind and no height which you can come into. Now all of a sudden, you have a cold, rainy day. There's some wind blowing. That might be more realistic to how games might be played. Certainly, it wasn't an ideal way to come out of the box on special teams. I don't jump to any rash decisions as to who the specialists are."

A few defensive members of the Notre Dame team have elevated their play to earn praise from Weis. David Bruton, a long, lanky athletic sophomore, and Ray Herring, a 5'11", 190 pound native of Melbourne, Florida, have caught the eye of the Notre Dame coaching staff at the safety position. Together, these two have combined to make just 18 total tackles. Currently, they would be backing up returning starters Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe but a pass defense that was ranked 103rd in the nation last season has to look at the options. Apparently, Bruton and Herring are ratcheting up the competition level in the secondary.

"We've been pleased, almost surprisingly pleased, with the play of both Ray Herring and David Bruton," Weis said. "The jury is still out because very seldom are we taking them to the ground. I'm not trying to lose people all the time. But we've been pleased with their progress."


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