Quick, name the only Irish defender on the pre-season Lott Trophy list...
The surprising answer is among the six members of the graduating class of 2009 awarded a 5th season of eligibility for the upcoming season.
Special teams gunner Mike Anello; left tackle Paul Duncan; special teams stalwart and backup safety Ray Herring; strong safety and returning team tackle leader Kyle McCarthy; former starting quarterback Evan Sharpley; and linebacker/special teams star Scott Smith will each ply their trade for an extra year in South Bend. Each has extensive game experience and each has a defined role this fall.
Kyle McCarthy (Strong Safety)Current Situation: McCarthy is the team's starting strong safety, a key member of the coverage units, and likely candidate for team captain. His transformation from career backup to Tom Zbikowski to one of the most reliable DB run defenders in the nation was an unforeseen and crucial development that solidified the 2008 (and 2009) Irish secondary.
Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Improvement: McCarthy is a rock-solid tackler and rarely out of position in the passing game. But he played a bit conservatively last season (often behind his man, allowing the catch and making the tackle). If McCarthy can make more plays on the ball this season the Irish 3rd down defense will improve and the 5th year senior's name will pop up in the conversation for post-season honors.
Eligibility Factor: McCarthy earned a fifth year after spending his freshman season (2005) as a member of the scout team. He excelled as a dual-threat quarterback in high school and parlayed that skill set into a scout team player of the week award (simulating Navy's option offense) that season.
Expectations for McCarthy in '09: McCarthy's apparent development between the 2007 and 2008 season was staggering. His effort against the run was as good as the Irish had seen from a safety since Zbikowski's sterling 2005 season, and K-Mac's overall play in the backfield last year exceeded that of his predecessor's in '06 and '07.
McCarthy, of course, did not (and probably cannot) match the gifted big play ability of Zbikowski, but creating turnovers could be the key element of the Irish defense that propels the unit from solid to dangerous this season. McCarthy will, at minimum, remain stout vs. the run and continue to serve as the Irish defender that mitigates the long run (as he did last season, saving six apparent touchdowns over the season's first seven weeks).
A repeat performance from McCarthy (110 tackles) would not be a good sign for the Irish defense. Doubling his number of plays on the ball (two interceptions; one forced fumble; four passes defended) would make late-November an interesting time in South Bend.
Mike Anello (Coverage Units)Current Situation: Ranks among the nation's best in terms of kick and punt coverage. Anello broke his leg in the regular season finale at USC last season but is expected to be ready and at full strength at the outset of fall camp. Anello was named to the pre-season 42-player watch list for the Lott Trophy – awarded to the nation's defender that has the biggest IMPACT (Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community, Tenacity) on his team on and off the field.
Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Immediate Improvement: Anello will have to adjust to life without his counterpart, graduated senior David Bruton, on the other side of both return teams. If there's a drop-off this season for Anello it could be in punt coverage as he's now likely to draw a double-team block at the outset of every snap.
Eligibility: Anello walked on to the squad in 2006, earned a scholarship in 2007, and emerged as one of the team's most important players in 2008. His absence from the squad in 2005 (as a student at the University) paved the way for his 5th year in 2009.
Expectations for Anello in '09: Anello is the rarest of college athletes: A consistent playmaker who stars almost exclusively on a team's coverage units. He finished with 23 tackles (including four solos vs. San Diego State in the season-opener), forced two fumbles; and recovered a fumble against Michigan (one of the most impressive full-speed recoveries I've seen in 30 years of football …click this link and fast forward to the 1:38 mark.) Anello also blocked the punt that led to Toryan Smith's touchdown vs. Navy…and a six-point victory. In just over four minutes of playing time from scrimmage, Anello, technically listed as a cornerback, broke up a pass (of course he did) when tested downfield.
Our 2009 expectations for Anello are as unrealistic as his 2008 final stat-line: An Encore.
Paul Duncan (Left Tackle)Current Situation: The starting left tackle ahead of junior Matt Romine. Duncan was one of April's biggest surprises, easily winning the left tackle job according to the Irish coaching staff.
Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Improvement: Footwork in pass protection. 2007 (his last on the field) was a nightmare season for Duncan and the rest of the Irish offensive line.
Eligibility: Duncan earned a fifth year after sitting out 2008 (his official senior season).
Expectations for Duncan in '09: Fairly simple: To be a completely different player than he was in 2007. Duncan alluded to (personal) regret in terms of his physical and mental effort over his Irish career (prior to this year's spring practices). But head coach Charlie Weis and new offensive line coach Frank Verducci singled out Duncan for his commitment and improvement in April. Paul Duncan has the rare opportunity to re-write his Irish football legacy with solid, consistent left tackle play four months this fall.
Scott Smith (Linebacker/Special Teams)Current Situation: Smith is listed as the team's starting strong side linebacker but sophomore Darius Fleming will likely win the role after being limited by injury in the Spring. Smith is a standout special teams player (more than 200 appearances last season) and should again challenge for playing time in the defense's goal line sets.
Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Improvement: Smith, even in a backup role, must show he can not only contend with opposing tight ends on the edge as a run defender but in coverage as well. As the strong side linebacker, Smith will heavily rely on his initial jam of the tight end at the line and must continue to improve when asked to turn and run with a position player that has traditionally haunted Irish defenses of he past.
Eligibility: Smith played eight games as a freshman in 2005, mainly on special teams, though he did show his promise defensively with a big play tackle at Michigan in his first collegiate action. He sat out 2006 (his sophomore season) which allowed him to return for a fifth year in '09.
Expectations for Smith in '09: Leadership. Goal line toughness. Outstanding special teams play. Smith will be a jack-of-all-trades this season and has a chance at the "fourth" linebacker role – the first LB off the bench at multiple positions due to his knowledge of his craft and reliability from play-to-play. He won't lead the team in tackles, big plays, or any other statistical category, but I'd be surprised if Smith doesn't make his presence felt on a handful of key plays this season.
Smith is an ideal 5th year senior – a player that not only knows his role, but imparts his knowledge to his younger teammates. More importantly, he'll hold up well in extended action if needed.
Ray Herring (Safety/Kick Coverage Units)Current Situation: Herring is a key member of Irish special teams (both coverage and return) and a backup strong safety behind fellow 5th year Kyle McCarthy and senior Sergio Brown. He also has experience at free safety and has made one start in three seasons (2006 vs. Stanford filling in for injured Tom Zbikowski).
Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Improvement: If Herring is called upon at safety this season (he played extensively late last year vs. Syracuse and in the Washington blowout) he'll need to break on the ball better than he has in previous seasons. Herring was actually lauded for his playmaking skills (he does have three career fumble recoveries) prior to the 2006 season.
Eligibility: Herring sat out the final eight games of his junior season (2007), which allowed him to apply for a medical redshirt and fifth season in '09.
Expectations for Herring in '09: Herring made more than 160 special teams appearances in 2008 and he lends 38 games of experience and stability to each of the units (Herring trails only Kyle McCarthy in terms of career appearances among current special teams members). He should remain an insurance policy in the defensive backfield and a crucial member of the punt and kick units.
Evan Sharpley (Quarterback)Current Situation: Sharpley recently (and unexpectedly) rejoined the team for the 2009 season. He'll likely serve as the team's third-string quarterback behind Jimmy Clausen and Dayne Crist.
Single Aspect of His Game in Need of Improvement: Sharpley had a tendency to hold the ball too often (in the pocket) during his extended playing time in 2007.
Eligibility: Sharpley earned a fifth season after sitting out as a freshman in 2005.
Expectations for Sharpley in '09: Sharpley is either a coach-in-waiting or major-league-baseball-player in training (he was drafted in Round 50 by the Seattle Mariners and remains the only athlete in school history to throw multiple touchdown passes and hit multiple home runs in the same season). Regardless, his knowledge, experience, and leadership are welcomed additions to the football program for a final season and he's likely the most experienced and reliable third-string quarterback in the nation for 2009.