A Saving Grace

Another season of not playing much, still trying to find his niche within the Notre Dame defense, Anthony Vernaglia was beginning to get the uncomfortable feeling that his college football career was going to end unfulfilled. Then defensive coordinator Rick Minter wasn't retained. Rumors about Corwin Brown and the 3-4 defense began to swirl. Vernaglia's negative thoughts began to change.

"My Dad actually called me and said I hear they're going to hire the Jets guy," Vernaglia said. "I heard rumors of a 3-4, and I was like oooh, this could be good."

It's starting to look like it will be.

One of the top recruits in the Irish's 2004 class, Vernaglia came to Notre Dame as a tweener. Too big for the secondary, too small for the linebacker position he played at Lutheran High in Orange County, Calif. Vernaglia started out at safety, but at 220 pounds, he was quickly moved to linebacker.

Vernaglia couldn't get comfortable at linebacker on the college level. He was a finesse player forced to play in a physical environment. He couldn't crack the starting lineup, and was relegated to special teams and mop-up time the last two seasons, after red-shirting his freshman year.

"I was feeling like I was losing a little bit of my chance, and then coach (Brown) coming was kind of like a saving grace.

"I feel like the 3-4 suit's the skills that I have as best as any defense can," Vernaglia said. "I feel like the position they have me slated at is just a good chance for me to make a difference and make plays. I'm not really an inside type of guy."

The 6-foot-3, 233-pound Vernaglia moves from the strongside linebacker position he played last season, to an outside linebacker position that allows him to use his speed as a blitzer off the edge or a guy that drops back in coverage.

"My responsibilities changed a little bit, but it's more a comfort thing," Vernaglia said. "I am finally comfortable. It's not as much up inside taking on guards and centers, it's more tackles, tight ends, fullbacks, pass drops, coverage. Things I have potential to do real well at. It gives me the opportunity to do real well."

That's what Brown expects from Vernaglia. An assistant on Al Groh's staff at Virginia, Brown recruited Vernaglia to come play for the Cavaliers.

When Brown took the job at Notre Dame, one of the few guys he recognized on Notre Dame's roster was Vernaglia. Regardless of the fact that Vernaglia hadn't played much in his three years at Notre Dame, the new defensive coordinator expected him to be a contributor in the new system.

"Coming in, there were things I just expected from him and when I got here, I told him my expectations for you are here," Brown said, holding his hand flat above his head. "There were just certain things, his bar, whether that's fair or not was probably pretty high. The one thing he has done, he has not let me down one bit with his effort. He's really tried to do the things we've asked him to do. Some things he does a lot better than other things, but that is the nature of the beast when it's a new system and a new scheme and he is trying to figure things out. But I like A.V., and I'm kind of fired up about him."

Vernaglia is also fired up. Excited about an opportunity he thought may have passed him by.

But Vernaglia remembers he was excited about his future at this time last season. He was running with the first team all spring. Then he shows up for fall camp and finds himself with the twos on the depth chart.

"I just want to make sure I don't do what I did last year, and that is play spring ball and not play in the season as much as I would like," Vernaglia said. "I'm just going out learning my schemes and doing everything I can on the field."

And it's not just the new scheme that has Vernaglia rearing to go.

"I think I'm actually becoming a linebacker now, as far as making contact and locking out, and not just relying on finesse all the time," Vernaglia said. "I feel like I am developing the physical aspects of my game as well as the mental aspect."

Now Vernaglia just hopes it leads to a starting spot and the starring role he envisioned when signing his letter-of-intent to Notre Dame.

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