From the Ashes - Part II

The Irish 101 Series continues its look at the graduating class of 2011 with an examination of six crucial contributors that will help define the 2009 season.

While much is demanded of the six juniors listed in Part I of the class review, the six players listed below remain a mystery to those outside the program. Their ascension from potential star to reliable weekly football player will determine the difference between a solid, bowl-eligible but ultimately unsatisfying 2009 and a BCS berth.

Call them the season's swing players - six former future stars that must begin to fulfill their potential.

Duval Kamara (Wide Receiver)

Current Situation: Kamara is the established third receiver behind classmate Golden Tate and sophomore Michael Floyd, but he'll receive a camp challenge from senior Robby Parris, sophomores Deion Walker and John Goodman, and freshman Shaquelle Evans for what is basically a starting role (the third WR) in the Irish offense.

Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Concentration. Kamara showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman and sophomore but he was wildly inconsistent from game to game. That pendulum action suggests a lack of daily concentration from practice through game day.

Eligibility: Through next season.

Expectations for Kamara in '09: To become the player fans, media, and the coaching staff expected in 2008. Kamara, like running back Robert Hughes, is (basically) a year behind where most thought he'd be entering his third season in the system, and there will be an ample supply of hungry wide-outs behind him fighting to take his role beginning on the first day of fall camp. The Irish offense will operate at its peak if Kamara can win the third receiver role with relative ease (due to his growth as a player).

Kerry Neal (Defensive End)

Current Situation: Neal is officially listed as a third-team defensive end as he was limited by injury during Spring Practice. He's expected to win the starting RDE job in fall camp over classmate Emeka Nwankwo and senior John Ryan.

Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Strength at the point of attack. Running away from Neal could prove costly for opposing offenses due to his speed and playmaking ability…running at the 245-pound defensive end will likely be viewed as an early season means to establish a ground game vs. the Irish defense.

Eligibility: Through next season.

Expectations for Neal in '09: Become the pass-rusher and disruptive force Irish fans hoped for after his debut vs. Michigan State as a freshman in 2007.

Ian Williams (Nose Tackle)

Current Situation: Williams is the team's starting nose tackle and crucial veteran leader along the defensive front. His overall play reached a plateau last season after a very strong second half of 2007 (his freshman year).

Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Adding a pass-rushing punch. It's reasonable to assume Williams will be a solid (and more consistent) presence vs. the run this season. If he can help collapse the pocket vs. opposing passers the Irish pass rush will be tough to handle.

Eligibility: Through next season.

Expectations for Williams in '09: Become the anchor of a vastly improved Notre Dame run defense and act as a mentor for redshirt freshmen Hafis Williams, Brandon Newman, and Sean Cwynar, and true freshman Tyler Stockton.

Gary Gray (Cornerback)

Current Situation: He'll rejoin the second unit in the fall after missing the spring semester due to an academic issue. Gray will have a fight on his hands vs. three quality CB options: Darrin Walls, Raeshon McNeil, and Robert Blanton, though all four will receive quality playing time in nickel and dime defenses.

Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Staying on the field. It appeared that GARY GRAY: AS ADVERTISED had joined the Irish during the Michigan win last season. From that point forward Gray was sporadic as a tackler and coverman. Twelve games of solid play as a junior will set up Gray for a fine finish to his college career (see below).

Eligibility: Through the 2011 season. Gray sat out his freshman season (2007) due to a broken arm and shoulder injury.

Expectations for Gray in '09: There are three: 1.) Work his way back into the CB rotation by beating out sophomore Jamoris Slaughter (possibly a future Safety) and challenging for the nickel role. 2.) Play consistent football in September, proving to the coaching staff there is little to no drop-off between Gray and the starters (Walls/Blanton/McNeil). 3.) Develop into the nation's top No. 4 CB – a move that would transform the Irish secondary from good to great by season's end. Qualifying as the "No. 4" CB might not sound like a lofty goal, but this is the deepest Irish secondary since 1993 and Gray can be an X-factor in the team's potentially devastating dime defense.

Brandon Walker (Kicker)

Current Situation: Walker will again handle field goal and extra point duties for the Irish. He'll receive a challenge from incoming freshman Nicholas Tausch in fall camp. Senior K Ryan Burkhart will likely retain kickoff duties.

Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Consistency. Walker can't have another stretch of futility as he did last September. A kicker capable of knocking down 13 of his final 17 field goal attempts should continue at that pace in his third season as a starter.

Eligibility: Through next season.

Expectations for Walker in '09: Become automatic from anything inside 40 yards and a viable (believable) threat from 41-49. Drilling a game-winner would go a long way toward putting his first two seasons behind him.

Mike Ragone (Tight End)

Current Situation: Ragone is in a dogfight with sophomore tight end Joseph Fauria for the crucial role of second tight end. Like the third receiver and nickel back, the second tight end is a de facto starter for the 2009 Irish.

Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Ragone has had limited opportunity to show his wares – appearing in 11 games as a freshman but catching just one pass for seven yards – so this is nit-picking, but he needs to regain his rare speed (prior to last season's ACL tear) to ensure a role in the '09 offense. Ragone looked both capable and nowhere near as fast (pre-injury) during the Blue-Gold game, although it's important to remember that scrimmage took place less than nine months after knee surgery. Ragone remains at a disadvantage entering the season one year removed from an ACL tear but the talented tight end must at least begin to make a mark on the field.

Eligibility: Through the 2011 season. Ragone sat out 2008 with a torn ACL (suffered in fall camp).

Expectations for Ragone in '09: Add a handful of big plays and another set of reliable third-down hands to the Irish offense. Sophomore Kyle Rudolph is untouchable as a starter this fall (and likely in the future). But both Ragone and Joseph Fauria should set their sights on chipping away at Rudolph's stranglehold on the position in 2010 – a year that should boast the best tight end trio at the University since 1991 (Derek Brown, Irv Smith, and Oscar McBride).

Tomorrow: Part III of the series with reviews of juniors Taylor Dever, Andrew Nuss, Emeka Nwankwo, Steve Paskorz, and Matt Romine. Top Stories