"When you first hear it, it's a blow," Vernaglia said following practice Friday. "It's like oh what'd I do? Then you realize everyone is getting the same amount of reps out there, it doesn't really matter. I'm getting my reps, I'm getting better. That's all I need, that's all I can do."
Vernaglia, who is competing with senior Mitchell Thomas, must be doing enough with his second team reps to make things difficult on the decision makers.
"I'd have to say it's a toss up," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "They are giving good effort, learning everyday. Remember, that's the one spot with Moe (Maurice Crum Jr.) having moved inside we are totally raw at, along with will. It's a battle. We are comfortable with who we have and how they're competing, and how they are trying hard and doing everything everyday."
Vernaglia finally feels comfortable at linebacker. The Anaheim Hills, Calif. product arrived at Notre Dame three years ago as a slightly oversized blue-chip safety. Maybe the highest touted player in his recruiting class, rumors swirled right away that Vernaglia would be moved to linebacker. The move didn't happen until Charlie Weis and his staff arrived last season.
A sophomore and now undersized, Vernaglia struggled trying to read running plays and was used in mop up duty after not seeing any action his freshman year. He played in five games recording just four tackles.
Vernaglia has come a long way in a short time. He has a better understanding of how to play the run. He has bulked up to "234" pounds, 12 pounds heavier than the listing in the media guide. Vernaglia also hopes to reverse the talk of him being soft.
"I feel I am definitely getting a lot better with my reads and my physicality," he said. "I feel like everybody is always knocking me for being a west coast wussy kid. I've been really focusing on stepping the physicality up in my game. I'm taking strides, I'm not there yet, but I'm working on it."
"The defensive line is always moving, and the offensive line is always moving, and dealing with lineman is something I never had to do at safety. Now that I've had a year under my belt to practice, I feel a lot more comfortable with it."
Vernaglia also studied really hard during the summer to get to this point.
"Coach Minter made a bunch of tapes, and I focused mainly on front tapes so I could get used to D-line movements," Vernaglia explained. "Because that was my biggest thing I felt sketchy about the spring, was keying in on the defensive line a lot and getting the run reads quick. And again being physical, I tell myself explosion, hit people, deliver the blow, keep you feet moving. Watch some Brian Urlacher stuff."
Vernaglia says that he never shied away from contact, he just wasn't always in the right place at the right time to make the hit.
"I think a lot of the perceived lack of physicality was from my initial not quite getting the defense, not getting position from that angle right away," he said. "So a little bit of hesitation took away a lot of clash.
"I think I've got that straightened out now, and as a result I think I'm a lot more physical this camp."
While he is battling Thomas for the starting strongside position, Vernaglia has earned a spot with the first team on punt return and kickoff coverage teams.
"I'm dying to get on the field," Vernaglia stated. "I've been here two years and haven't really gotten on the field at all, and that's two years too long in my mind. There is no one to blame but myself. All I can do is read my playbook and be on the field running around trying to make things happen."
The one easy transition Vernaglia was able to make in his change to linebacker was coverage.
"I'm guarding mostly tight ends now, which is a far cry from guarding slots and wide outs, which is nice. So any footwork, cover skills, watching hips and stuff, that helps."
Vernaglia got rid of the final indication that he used to play safety before fall camp. He dons the number 54, not four now.
"I definitely feel 100 percent linebacker now," he said. "I changed my number and everything, trying to get in the full persona of it. I feel a lot more comfortable."
Vernaglia Hoping to Win Starting Spot
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