In an era when fans constantly search for and embrace an impact freshman, it should be noted that several of the program's best players over the last 20 seasons first had to endure a delayed, often prudent immersion to the college game.
In 1988, a sophomore that saw no game action in 1987 won a starting nose tackle job and served as the unlikely anchor in the team's National Championship defense.
As a freshman in 1990, this former Irish DL logged more minutes playing for the Irish basketball team (13) than he did for his recruited and future sport (8:30). By the end of his sophomore season he emerged as a starter and, three years later, a fourth-round NFL Draft Pick.
In 2002, a sophomore with no game experienced grew into a full-time contributor at defensive end (and spot-starter) for the 13th ranked defense in the nation.
And last season, an erstwhile Safety turned strong side linebacker emerged from a freshman season on the scout team to lead the Irish in tackles-for-loss (8.5) and tie for the lead in sacks (3.5) while finishing second in passes defended (7).
Chris Zorich, Oliver Gibson, Justin Tuck, and Harrison Smith might be extreme examples of redshirt freshmen-turned sophomore stars in Irish lore, but their commitment to improvement and subsequent ascension to a key role is nonetheless the standard to which all future freshman scout team contributors should aspire.
Below is our first look at players that either sat out or saw limited action from scrimmage in '08. Each is expected to play a key role on Saturdays this fall.
Kapron Lewis-Moore (Defensive End)There were moments last season in which the Irish coaching flirted with the idea of adding the undersized defensive end to the D-Line rotation. The freshman's quickness might have produced the single game-changing play needed vs. UNC, Pittsburgh, or Syracuse. But Lewis-Moore's fourth year of eligibility was preserved by his absence on the field last season – a decision that usually pleases the fan base as those of us outside the program's walls tend to live in the future rather than try to understand the demands of the present that coaches face each week.
The decision appears prudent as the final jewel of the 2008 recruiting class won't have to wait long to make his presence felt this fall. Lewis-Moore won a starting spot in the spring and in August he'll have to hold off senior pass-rushing threat Morrice Richardson, though both will likely receive ample opportunities. The bulked up (265-pound) Lewis-Moore can cement his place in the rotation if he can lend a consistent run-stuffing presence on the edge as well as provide an extra pass-rushing punch from the interior of the defense's nickel packages.
Hafis Williams (Defensive Tackle)There's a buzz around the program that Williams could now challenge for a starting role on the Irish interior next to NT Ian Williams (a move which would allow Ethan Johnson to play more DE than DT). While that would signify a huge leap for the redshirt freshman the official role of "starter" might not matter – Williams will play and play a key role on the 2009 defense. If not, the team and run defense will struggle for a third consecutive season.
Williams brings not only bulk, but a reported aggressiveness to the position (often referred to as the interior lineman that the offense universally struggled to block this spring). For a more in-depth preview of Williams, please refer to his Pre-Camp Assessment.
Joseph Fauria (Tight End)Fauria is a true sophomore as a result of minimal late-season playing time last season (by necessity), but 2009 represents his first chance at an impact on Saturdays. Fauria will (realistically) finish with fewer than 10 receptions as a sophomore, a total that would likely rank him third among the team's tight ends (behind starter Kyle Rudolph and talented pass-catcher Mike Ragone, who sat out '08 due to a knee injury) but his statistics might not illustrate his impact in Coach Weis' two-tight end sets.
The Irish running game needs a physical compliment at the position (to Rudolph who is often split off the line) and the 6'8" 245-pound-and-still-growing Fauria will look to improve the team's consistency and blocking prowess at both at the point of attack in true tight end sets, and as the motion (swing) tight end on "wham" and backside seal blocks.
Steve Filer (Linebacker)Filer was a key special teams player for the Irish as a true freshman last year (nearly 100 appearances), so this could be stretching the rules of the column a bit but the talented sophomore from Mount Carmel HS logged just under three minutes of action from scrimmage as a freshman in '08.
Filer has two disparate scenarios in which he can surprise and win an early starting role this season.
- 1.) Beat out senior run-stuffer Toryan Smith for the starting MLB role. Since this represents a "may the best man win" scenario, its one that would be embraced by both the Irish fans and coaching staff (regardless of the winner).
- 2.) Cross-train at weak side linebacker behind Brian Smith. Filer would have a chance to play in space and slide into the WLB role if (Brian) Smith is forced to return to man the middle linebacker role this season.
Option No. 1 would be much more beneficial to the team (than sliding into a role by default) as Filer has mentioned he's more comfortable playing inside linebacker. He, along with a host of other young LBs will have a chance to compete in August for a key role (thus, my opinion as a result of limited exposure to his efforts there – only high school film – and my conclusion that he's more of a play-making weak side linebacker is probably irrelevant).
Regardless of his destination for '09, it's essential that Filer shines in August in order to impress in front of 80,000-plus in September.
Brandon Newman (Nose Tackle)Newman is officially listed as the backup (to junior Ian Williams) nose tackle entering fall camp. If you consider Williams, Ethan Johnson, and Hafis Williams as the standard three-man rotation inside, Newman consequently should serve in a comfortable role in '09: a true backup nose tackle that spells the starter when necessary.
But college football seasons rarely unfold as planned – you can expect to see Newman playing a key role on a key play during one of his first (ever) field appearances in September: A short-yardage play when (either) Williams needs a rest; a goal line series when one of the four down lineman struggles to the sideline with a minor injury – these are the scenarios that plague teams lacking defensive line depth. Newman, who will play the entire season as a 19-year old in the heart of the defense, now represents that depth. His development in August and the season's first five weeks will likely determine the final destination for hybrid DE/DT Ethan Johnson this fall (if Newman can become a reliable third interior defender along with Ian and Hafis Williams, Johnson can play significantly more snaps at DE).
Regardless of his overall playing time in '09 you can expect to see Brandon Newman coming soon to a goal line and short-yardage defense near you.
Later Today: Part II of Delayed Gratification