Questions at Linebacker

Nine returning starters on defense should improve a unit that ranked 103rd in total defense last season. Experience is everyone on this side of the ball. One place where it's not? The linebacker position.

Gone from the 2005 group are Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays. Hoyte, the weak side backer, was co-captain of the team, along with returning starting quarterback Brady Quinn. He was also the team's leading tackler with 92 tackles, including 16.5 for losses and six sacks. The Irish coaching staff raved about his leadership skills and intensity. Notre Dame's second leading tackler was Corey Mays, the intense and fiery middle backer. After toiling through most of his Irish career appearing on special teams, Mays exploded in 2005 with big and emotional hits to cap his time in South Bend on a high note.

The only returning starter is Maurice Crum, a 6-0, 220 pound athletic wonder who hails from Riverview, FL. Last year, the junior played the Apache position in Rick Minter's defensive scheme and was the team's sixth leading tackler with 57 stops. Head coach Charlie Weis repeatedly praised the instincts and athletic ability of Crum and his experience will be greatly needed in 2006. After the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, Crum underwent back surgery, which limited him extensively in spring practice (Crum did not play in the Blue-Gold game). But despite not participating much, Crum learned the nuances of all three linebacker positions in the spring to see where his game best fit. It's a possibility that he'll return to his Apache spot or give middle backer a try.

After Crum, the experience drops precipitously. He logged 262 minutes of playing time in 2005. The next best? Junior Anthony Vernaglia's 14 minutes. The gap has fueled speculation that senior running back Travis Thomas might test the defensive waters at linebacker. It's expected that Thomas will start out fall camp at weak side back for the first few weeks and see where it goes from there. Weis said often last year about the defensive mentality that Thomas plays with and is one of the reasons he's the captain of the special teams for 2006.

The third member of the core could be Mitchell Thomas, a 6-3, 240-pound senior from Opelika, AL. Thomas has seen the field sparingly during his time at Notre Dame, registering just three tackles in two years of action. In the spring time though, Mitchell saw a golden opportunity for playing time and made the most of it. He was the Gold team's leading tackler in the spring game and might find a home at middle linebacker.

Another possibility for a lot of playing time is Joe Brockington. The senior from Palmyra, FL saw 11 minutes of game action in 2005 as a reserve linebacker and on special teams. Unfortunately, with two spots open, Brockington had back surgery after the Fiesta Bowl and did not get a chance to compete in the spring. A fit for him might be at the weak side spot if the Travis Thomas experiment does not work out. It's unknown how healthy Brockington is and his situation will be closely monitored once fall camp opens.

There are more linebackers who will try to contribute for Notre Dame this season. Vernaglia backed up Crum at the Apache spot in 2005 and registered two tackles in just under 15 minutes of action. The junior from Anaheim Hills, California might be in the same situation in 2006. Sophomore Steve Quinn could be in the mix. A native of Cherry Hills, NJ, Quinn was primarily a special teams performer in 2005. Senior Nick Borseti and sophomore Scott Smith might vie for the backup spot at middle linebacker. Junior Abdel Banda has not seen the field in two years at Notre Dame. He was redshirted in 2004 and sustained a season-ending injury last year in fall camp. Banda should be back ready to go but his position is anyone's guess. The best bet for a freshman seeing action is Toryan Smith, a 6-0, 230-pound linebacker from Rome, GA.

Experience will be the buzzword when talking about the linebackers. Crum has more than everyone else combined but the talented sophomore still only has one year under his belt. Will Travis Thomas be able to make the move? Can Mitchell Thomas or Joe Brockington step up and contribute? Are there any darkhorses that will come out of nowhere to pleasantly surprise the Irish faithful? Maybe more importantly, will off-season back surgery slow down Crum at all? So many questions but few answers. This group will be viewed with piercing eyes as the September 2nd opener against Georgia Tech approaches.


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