Yesterday, we began our look at the graduating class of 2010 with a focus on the group's most seasoned players: Sam Young, Eric Olsen, Darrin Walls, Raeshon McNeil, Dan Wenger, and James Aldridge, (click here for Part I). Today, we examine six seniors that look to play a key role for the Irish though each must either hold off a talented challenger or fight to secure a spot in the ND lineup this fall.
Chris Stewart (Right Guard)Current Situation: Stewart should make his 11th career start at right guard in the 2009 season opener. He's backed up by highly touted (and experienced) sophomore Trevor Robinson – considered the team's "sixth" OL starter.
Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Footwork. Stewart's been vulnerable to inside counter moves and has struggled to finish blocks (after engaging and initially driving his defender backwards). Inconsistent footwork has been a key factor regarding both issues.
Eligibility: Stewart, an early enrollee in January 2006 has already graduated from the University (in 3 ½ years). He started 10 games in 2008 (missing three due to injury) and appeared in six games as both a guard and tackle in 2007. He sat out his freshman season and will thus be allowed to apply for a 5th year of eligibility in 2010.
Expectations for Stewart in '09: With the team's most talented (young) lineman directly behind him on the depth chart, Stewart must first prove he is an unquestioned starting guard. He should provide a key element to what must be a much-improved short-yardage rushing attack this season.
Sergio Brown (Strong Safety/Nickel Back)Current Situation: The team's backup strong safety and top nickel back. Brown can be considered a starter for the season-opener vs. Nevada's "Pistol" offense and in at least five more contests throughout the season. A team's nickel back is basically a starter vs. today's passing games and spread offenses.
Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Brown has struggled a bit when asked to turn and run with receivers/tight ends downfield.
Eligibility: Brown will have exhausted his eligibility at season's end after appearing in 11 games (mainly on special teams) as a freshman; nine as a sophomore, and 13 last season.
Expectations for Brown in '09: To become a consistent playmaker (as he was vs. San Diego State, Stanford, and Hawaii last season) near the line of scrimmage and to shore up any inconsistencies when required to cover tight ends down the seam, or quicker slot receivers. The Irish have a host of nickel back options, including senior CB Raeshon McNeil who flashed the ability to play over the slot prior to his ascension to the starting lineup last season. Brown is one of the top playmakers on the Irish defense and he'll have a major role this season but coverage mistakes downfield won't be tolerated in '09 with two reliable backup cornerbacks (including Gary Gary) waiting in the wings and capable of filling the nickel role, especially on 2nd and more-than-10-yards or 3rd-and-long.
Toryan Smith (Middle Linebacker)Current Situation: Smith emerged from Spring Practice as the team's starter at middle linebacker. He'll receive a huge challenge in fall camp from younger, faster athletes but the Irish need Smith's ballast at the point of attack, if not in a starting role, than certainly in short-yardage and goal line situations and against physical running teams such as Michigan State, Boston College, Navy, and most likely Stanford.
Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Lateral movement. Smith will never be on the field in a nickel defense, but that doesn't prohibit teams from attacking the senior's coverage skills from base sets.
Eligibility: This is Smith's final season in an Irish uniform after appearing in nine games as a freshman; 11 as a sophomore; and 10 last year (including starts vs. Syracuse and USC).
Expectations for Smith in '09: To become a run-stuffing linebacker. It's a role that suits Smith but he'll face a stiff test in August if Steve Filer, Manti Te'o, or David Posluszny can show the staff the ability to hold up vs. the run (almost) as well as Smith, as any of the trio would likely fair better vs. opponents in space.
Morrice Richardson (Defensive End)Current Situation: Listed as the backup LDE behind redshirt freshman Kapron Lewis-Moore. Richardson could emerge this season but will have to fight LB Steve Filer, SLB Darius Fleming and RDE Kerry Neal for the edge rushing role in the team's nickel defense.
Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Production. Richardson has often looked the part but has just 1.5 sacks in more than two seasons as a pass-rusher.
Eligibility: Richardson will graduate with his class and barring injury, this will be his last season with the squad after appearing in nine games in both of his first two seasons and in 11 contests in '08.
Expectations for Richardson in '09: To get to the quarterback. The best pass-rushers will be on the field in passing situations. Period. Richardson won't be an every down player this season but if he can put more pressure on the quarterback than Lewis-Moore (who will likely move inside for obvious passing downs), Filer, Neal, Fleming, et al, he'll hold down a job in the Tenuta/Brown defense.
Robby Parris (Wide Receiver)Current Situation: The team's fourth receiver and (technically) backup to Michael Floyd with sophomore John Goodman nipping at his heels.
Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: This might not qualify as a glaring "weakness" for Parris but it's the aspect of his game of which he has the most control: He needs to catch everything this season. There are talented athletes behind him (and in front of him) in the Irish receiving corps and Parris' best hope for 13 games of playing time is to catch everything he should and a few he shouldn't in August and throughout the season.
Eligibility: Parris totaled 12 minutes in six games as a freshman in 2006. He appeared in all 12 games in '07 (started four) and played in seven contests last season including the Hawaii Bowl. This will be his last season with the Irish.
Expectations for Parris in '09: Fans expect Parris to be replaced. Luckily for Parris, the coaching staff has seen him succeed (especially in '07) on the field and luckily for the coaching staff, Parris won't cede his role in the offense without a fight. The key for Parris will be to stay in good health early in the season as any injury will further open the door for Goodman, Deion Walker, or freshman Shaquelle Evans to take essential practice reps in his absence. There's room for a veteran receiving presence in this offense. But there's also room for an additional young game-breaker. Parris will receive (at least) an equal shot at winning the (valued) fourth receiver role.
John Ryan (Defensive End)Current Situation: Listed as the starter at defensive end over junior Emeka Nwankwo though the Irish depth chart will change when healthy bodies return in August (namely Kerry Neal) as a few front seven members saw limited action in Spring Practice. Ryan has started 15 games for the Irish defense over the last two seasons.
Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Physicality and aggressiveness. Ryan has not fared well disengaging from the initial block.
Eligibility: He appeared in 10 games as a backup freshman DE and in 24 contests over the last two seasons. This will be his final season with the Irish.
Expectations for Ryan in '09: To find a way to stay on the field. Ryan faces challengers from all sides but he can win a spot in the (deep) rotation with a solid showing in fall camp and by making a big play or two early in the season. However, he'll have to rise to the occasion and match the aggressiveness of Fleming, Neal, Filer, and Richardson in order to retain his spot.