Charlie Weis' first full recruiting effort yielded a 28-man class in February 2006. That number has been whittled to 18 due to transfers (7); career-ending injuries (2) and personal reasons (1).
Over their first three seasons, the graduating class of 2010 has produced a good season; a poor season; and an average season (relative to the national landscape). Our first of three looks at this senior class focuses on its most accomplished members as the group attempts to finish a four-year stay on campus in style.
Sam Young (Right Tackle)Current Situation: Young is the established right tackle and likely team captain. He's started every game (38 total) since first appearing as a true freshman right tackle in the season-opener at Georgia Tech in 2006. Young has played the bulk of his Irish career at right tackle save for an in-season switch to the left side in 2007.
Aspects of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Young has struggled vs. opposing speed rusher's counter moves throughout his Irish career. As well, he's inconsistently finished blocks in space which too often has resulted in his defender's contribution to limiting the damage of what (at the outset) was a successful play.
Eligibility: Barring early injury this will be Young's final season with the Irish.
Expectations for Young in '09: To emerge as a candidate for post-season honors after respectable but hardly dominant first 38 games protecting Irish quarterbacks. Young is on the short-list to be a senior captain this season but his play on the field is much more of a question mark than his ability to lead his teammates. He has 13 games remaining to show he can impose his will and lead the Irish O-Line against collegiate competition.
Eric Olsen (Left Guard)Current Situation: Olsen will, in all likelihood, make his 20th consecutive (and 20th career) start on September 5 vs. Nevada. The senior has appeared in 33 of a possible 38 games for the Irish.
Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Execution in the screen game. Olsen is far too talented a player to fair so poorly or show such lack of awareness when blocking opposing defenders on screen plays.
Eligibility: Olsen appeared in eight games as a freshman in 2006 and barring injury, this will be his last season at ND.
Expectations for Olsen in '09: To establish a level of consistency worthy of a guard who'll finish his career with more than 40 starts at the position. Olsen can finish a block at the point of attack with the best of them but he's rarely recovered over the last two seasons when initially beaten by a defender. Likewise, Olsen (along with Young) has shown a penchant for losing his defender in space after (successful) initial contact. That lack of consistency is (among others) a culprit for the team's dearth of big plays from the screen and rushing attack.
Darrin Walls (Cornerback)Current Situation: Listed as the team's third cornerback behind sophomore Robert Blanton and classmate Raeshon McNeil.
Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Walls is a well-rounded CB entering his third season as a college player but the fact remains he's still recorded just one interception (which he returned 73 yards for a score) in 14 starts and 20 career games. Another playmaking presence is crucial for the 2009 secondary.
Eligibility: Walls can apply for a 5th year at the school after sitting out the 2008 season due to personal (University-involved) reasons. Though each situation is unique, former Irish running back Julius Jones received a fifth year after being dismissed from the school for academic reasons in 2002 (returning for a 5th year in 2003).
Expectations for Walls in '09: To emerge as the best cornerback in the program and complete the secondary's six-season transformation from one of the nation's most vulnerable (2003) and worst (2004, and 2005) to one of the nation's best in 2009.
Raeshon McNeil (Cornerback)Current Situation: One of two starters along with sophomore Robert Blanton. McNeil, Blanton, and Darrin Walls should all see ample playing time this fall.
Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: When beaten, McNeil has shown the propensity to allow the situation to fester as the game continues, resulting in softer (more conservative) coverage and a few rough games. To his credit, he's always bounced back the next week but this is the first season there's a quality CB waiting in the wings.
Eligibility: McNeil played 11 games in both 2006 and 2007 and all 13 games last year. Barring injury, this will be his last season in an Irish uniform.
Expectations for McNeil in '09: From a personal standpoint, McNeil should expect to hold down a starting spot for the entire season and emerge as the team's most reliable CB. Realistically, McNeil simply needs to play at a high level for 13 games as four Irish cornerbacks should each see plenty of defensive snaps in '09.
Dan Wenger (Center)Current Situation: Wenger is the team's starting center and was recently named to a 44-man watch list for the Rimington Trophy awarded to the nation's top center at season's end. He's started 15 consecutive games at center and boasts three additional starts (at right guard in 2007). He has appeared in 19 games for the Irish over the last two seasons.
Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Consistency at the second level. He's shown the ability to get to the middle linebacker and execute his block in space on draw plays, but struggles with the same assignment in the power game.
Eligibility: Wenger will have the opportunity to apply for a 5th year of eligibility at season's end as he was held out of game action as a freshman in 2006.
Expectations for Wenger in '09: Emerge as a consistent leader and demand better communication among his line mates, especially following Clausen's audibles and check-offs (of which there are many). The Irish O-Line still looked confused vs. stunts and even (multiple) opponents' three-man rush looks in November of last season – an unacceptable weakness for a unit with so much familiarity.
James Aldridge (Fullback)Current Situation: Aldridge has moved into the starting lineup as the squad's fullback for 2009 after serving as a tailback from 2006-2008.
Aspects of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: With his switch of positions the first answer is likely to develop as a consistent lead blocker, but that's speculation at this point. Aldridge will need to establish a lower running base to succeed as a short-yardage fullback (rather than tailback with the benefit of a lead blocker in front of him).
Eligibility: Aldridge will have exhausted his eligibility after the season after appearing in seven games as a freshman; 11 as a sophomore; and 12 games last season.
Expectations for Aldridge in '09: Emerge as the team's best threat at the fullback position since Rashon Powers-Neal in the first half of the 2005 season. If Aldridge can keep defenses honest with his presence in the backfield, hold his own as a blocker, and become a reliable outlet receiver the Irish offense will have a skill set it has lacked for most of this decade.