Class of 2003

Recently we took at look at Brady Quinn's career while at Notre Dame. Quinn certainly is the headliner of the 2003 recruiting class, but he's hardly the only player from that special class who has contributed to Notre Dame's quick turnaround. In fact, the 2003 class can probably rival any recruiting class ever signed at Notre Dame.

Depending on how things pan out during fall camp, the class of 2003 could man as many as 14 starters out of the possible 24 positions on the football field.

That possible fact could either be bad news or good news.

The good news is how strong that class actually is considering how many have started multiple years and will likely end up doing the same in the NFL in the future.

The bad news is two-fold. One: that means the Irish likely have little depth. Two: most will be leaving after this season.

But this group does have a chance to do what they set out to do from the beginning….win the whole damn thing.

Quinn wasn't the only freshman thrust into duty early in 2003. Left tackle Ryan Harris will enter his fourth season as a starter—a stat usually unheard of in offensive linemen. In fact, Harris is only the third true freshmen to start along the offensive line in Notre Dame history. Harris enters this season with 31 consecutive starts. You can't place a value on how much Harris has meant to the Irish team these past three seasons. Expect him to garner some All-American honors in his final season for the Irish.

Another fact not widely known is Notre Dame had another starting freshman in 2003. Defensive end Victor Abiamiri actually started five games as a true freshman and never looked back. Abiamiri's 11 career sacks is not a number most envisioned when he signed in early 2003, but he has been a steady performer over the years. Abiamiri is primed for an outstanding 2006 season, and that likely could happen if he could get some help from the other defensive ends on the squad this season. 2006 will be Abiamiri's final season as well.

Safety Chinedum Ndukwe was actually one of the first freshmen from the 2003 class to see the field but it was at wide receiver. Ndukwe's offensive career consisted of just three receptions before switching to the defensive side of the ball. Ndukwe was "Johnny-on-the-spot" for the Irish last year at safety with two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. He also forced a fumble. Nduwke has had to learn safety after playing virtually zero defense in high school. We look for the Dublin, Ohio senior to make a similar jump in performance to what Irish fans saw in Mike Richardson last season. He'll likely end up a two-year starter for the Irish this season.

Valparaiso, Ind. receiver Jeff Samardzija also saw action as a true freshman logging seven receptions. It appeared we would hear a lot about Samardzija in the coming years, but the 6-5, 210-pound wide-out sat inexplicably on the sidelines. 2005 was a breakout season for the senior, and his 1,190 yards and 15 touchdowns were single-season records at Notre Dame. The 2005 All-American is a likely Belitnikoff finalist in 2006 and could shatter many more receiving records in his senior season. Samardzija, in his final year of eligibility, will also be a two-year starter for the class of 2003.

Buffalo Grove, Ill. native Tommie Zbikowski will be a three-year starter for the Irish when all is said and done. Zbikowski also pitched in two punt returns for touchdowns last season to go along with his two interceptions he returned for touchdowns as well. "Zibby" also had a team-leading five interceptions on the year and will likely earn some consideration for All-American honors this year.

Old Greenwich, Conn. offensive center John Sullivan has 19 career starts heading into 2006. Sullivan has been a steady performer all throughout his career at Notre Dame and should be considered a three-year starter when all is said and done. Sullivan, with an impressive season, could also see his name mentioned for post-season awards. He will have another year of eligibility after 2006, but we're not certain he'll be back if he has an impressive senior campaign.

Another wide receiver-turned-defensive back, Ambrose Wooden, will return for 2006 as a two-year starter. Like Ndukwe, Wooden also had to learn the corner position after playing sparingly on defense throughout his high school career. The 5-11, 195-pound field corner finished third on the team in tackles (67), and made a number of game-saving tackles in 2005. Like Richardson last year, we expect Wooden to make some marked improvement in 2006. Wooden does possess another year of eligibility beyond this season.

Another sure starter for 2006 is defensive tackle Trevor Laws. Laws started all 12 games last season and was involved in the first two sacks of his career last year. Laws will team up with fifth-year senior nose guard Derek Landri to form a quick one-two punch inside for the Irish. Hopefully Irish fans will see the same type of jump Landri made from his junior season to his senior campaign in Laws this season. Laws does have another year of eligibility after 2006.

Litchfield, Minn. native John Carlson will battle fifth-year senior Marcus Freeman for the starting tight end position this season. Carlson is credited with seven career starts but was widely considered the No. 2 tight end the previous two seasons behind starter Anthony Fasano. Regardless which player is considered No. 1, we expect Carlson to play considerable minutes in 2006. We also expect Carlson to improve on his 6.7 yard per catch career average. Carlson has all the physical tools to fill in nicely for Fasano but will need to improve his blocking to reach Fasano's level of a complete player. Carlson also has another year of eligibility remaining after this season.

Will it be linebacker or running back for Washington, Pa. native Travis Thomas? As mentioned before, we believe Thomas will get a look at linebacker in 2006, but regardless of position, we expect Thomas to have a significant impact on the Irish in 2006. He's already been named special teams captain by his teammates so we expect him to contribute heavily. Will he be a starter? The only place likely is at linebacker, and probably why head coach Charlie Weis approached Thomas about the possibility. What is that saying again? "Find a way to get your best players on the field." Yeah, that was it.

Two other members of the 2003 recruiting class will be fighting for starting positions in 2006. Joe Brockington was considered the front runner to replace 2005 starter Brandon Hoyte for the starting weakside linebacker position. Unfortunately for Brockington, he's been injured all year and I'm not certain he'll be 100 percent by the beginning of the season. If he is, look for Brockington to play often in 2006 and likely start.

Linebacker Mitchell Thomas has also been in the mix for a starting spot in 2006. Thomas has worked mainly at the middle linebacker position this spring but could possibly move to another spot this fall. Thomas appeared to hold of the charge of many throughout spring at the middle linebacker position. It's now or never for both Brockington and Thomas. Both will have another year of eligibility after this season.

Punter Geoff Price is in a similar position this season. Price, signed in 2003 to challenge for the starting punter spot, has never quite grasped the starting spot despite showing a big leg. Consistency is the problem and the Irish have to hope he's overcome his consistency problems as they don't have many other options at punter heading into 2006. Price could also earn another season at punter if he grabs the starting spot this year.

The class of 2003 also has a number of players who should contribute some this season. Wide receiver Chase Anastasio will try to hold off the charge of a number of underclassmen for a spot in the receiver rotation this fall.

Dwight Stephenson will try to find some minutes at his more natural position of defensive end this spring after playing defensive tackle last fall.

Ashley McConnell appears to be a solid No. 2 fullback for 2006. He'll likely have to unseat Asaph Schwapp (not likely) to earn another year beyond 2006.

Nick Borseti also is in a do-or-die situation this season. Borseti will likely have to land a starting spot this season to land a fifth-year of eligibility next season.

Four players have transferred out of Notre Dame from the class of 2003. Former five-star tight end prospect Greg Olsen has had a pretty solid career as the starting tight end at Miami.

Corner prospect Isaiah Gardner also looks to be in line for significant minutes at Maryland.

Also, defensive backs LaBrose Hedgemon and Freddie Parish transferred to Division IAA schools to have the opportunity to play right away.

The class of 2003 will fill at least nine starting positions in 2004 with up to 14 players that could man starting slots once the season kicks off in September.

It's quite clear this class has been the crux for which head coach Charlie Weis has built his Irish team, and we fully expect this class to do more considerable damage on Notre Dame's record books this season.

But will they be considered the best class ever signed at Notre Dame? This season will likely tell the story. Top Stories