The Backbone

The expected improvement of an impressive sophomore class will determine Notre Dame's bowl fortunes and the program's future.

The casual fan knows at least four of them: Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, Ethan Johnson, and Robert Blanton. Four freshmen that eventually won (and held) starting jobs in 2008. Any subscriber to an Irish football website could certainly recognize the names of three more: right guard Trevor Robinson (three starts in '08); strongside linebacker Darius Fleming (three starts at defensive end last year); and the toast of the spring, defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore (who was withheld from game action as a freshman and will start in the season-opener on September 5).

They're 2009 Notre Dame Sophomores, and the full impact of the 22-player freshmen class of '08 won't likely hit the program until the group enters its junior season in 2010. Players such as linebackers David Posluszny and Anthony McDonald; defensive backs Jamoris Slaughter and Danny McCarthy; defensive linemen Brandon Newman and Sean Cwynar; offensive linemen Braxston Cave, Mike Golic, Jr., and Lane Clelland; and wide receivers Deion Walker and John Goodman will all challenge for a starting role in the spring of 2010 (if not sooner). Backup quarterback Dayne Crist will likely wait until 2011 (after sitting out last season, Crist will have two seasons remaining to lead the Irish offense).

Three remaining sophomores: defensive tackle Hafis Williams; halfback Jonas Gray; and linebacker/pass-rusher/special teams maven Steve Filer will, or reportedly will, play key roles this season (Williams could contend for a starting spot by season's end and at the least will rank as a key rotational player along the Irish interior).

In June, in the first segment of a 30-Prediction Series, I named Filer as my choice to be the team's most improved player from Sept. 5 through season's end. On Monday (August 24), Weis answered a direct question pertaining to Filer with a quick byte of coach-speak "the arrow's pointing up with Steven" and then followed with a whopper, projecting the possibility that if the sophomore continues to compete at his current pace and subsequently wins a role in the team's nickel package (as well as continues to impress at SAM linebacker) that Filer could end up playing nearly "75 percent" of the defensive snaps (at some point in the season).

And to lend further credence to the class's impact, don't be surprised if Gray (quick prediction for August 27) is listed at No. 2 on the team's halfback depth chart for Nevada and beyond.

Though at least 12 seniors, 15 juniors, and a handful of freshmen will serve in key roles for the Notre Dame offense, defense, and special teams, there are but four essential truths regarding the 2009 Irish:

  • The passing offense will be very good
  • The running game will remain an unanswered question until at least Sunday, September 20
  • The team's secondary can (finally) compete with any opponent
  • The sophomore class must develop as expected for the Irish to reach (and win) the BCS

Standard Progression Expected and Required

Not all freshmen improve exponentially as sophomores. The group of six listed below should, and aside from Floyd, must, if the 2009 Irish are to accomplish their goals:

  • Michael Floyd – Any analysis at this point would be nit-picking after a standout freshman season. Barring injury, Floyd will improve and post a standout sophomore season.
  • Kyle Rudolph – Caught everything as a true freshman, but blocked, well, "poorly" would be accurate. That's not unexpected from an 18-year-old true freshman forced to play more than 3/4 of the season as the team's only tight end. Rudolph could (easily) rank as one of the top five all-around tight ends in the nation at season's end and is a sure bet to top the list entering 2010.
  • Ethan Johnson – The Upside: Notre Dame's best combo defensive line prospect since first-round NFL Draft pick Anthony Weaver (1998-2001). Remember, Justin Tuck and Trevor Laws developed far beyond expectations while Victor Abiamiri performed ever-so-slightly below. Devil's Advocate: I doubt it, but we could be anointing him one-year too early, a scenario that suggests doom for the Irish front four in '09.
  • Robert Blanton – Like Johnson, Blanton will be a far better overall player in 2010. BAnd like Johnson, he was one of about five Irish players that looked like he belonged on the same football field as the Trojans in last year's season-ending embarrassment at The Coliseum. Robert Blanton is a football player – other than the standard bumps in the road for most young cornerbacks, he should meet or exceed reasonable expectations as a sophomore.
  • Trevor Robinson – The Upside: Robinson could develop into the most consistent 3+ year contributor on the offensive line since Aaron Taylor (1990-93) or Ryan Harris (2003-2006). Devil's Advocate: Though many recent Irish offensive linemen reside on NFL rosters (and starting lineups) the Weis-era group has ranked as no better than a collective crapshoot in terms of appreciable improvement through their four to five seasons at the school:

    Dan Stevenson, Mark LeVoir, and Mike Turkovich developed as upperclassmen while players (and stars) such as Ryan Harris (NFL starter), John Sullivan (NFL starter), and Bob Morton were at least as effective (if not more) in the years prior to their collective final season with the program.

  • Darius Fleming – The Upside: Not since Kory Minor ('98) has a Notre Dame team boasted such a versatile outside linebacker/pass rusher. Devil's Advocate: A reel of Fleming's greatest hits have come against the likes of Stanford, Hawaii, and his teammates. Total won/loss record of that trio last season: 19-20. Though his position move has reportedly been seamless, Fleming will undoubtedly be a much more technically sound linebacker in 2010-11.
  • The Newbies

    Analysis of starting defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, key backup defensive tackle Hafis Williams, and rotational defensive linemen Sean Cwynar and Brandon Newman would be speculative at this point (none have participated in a college snap).

    Nevertheless, a contribution from each is essential if the Irish are to improve as a run defense (878 rushing yards allowed in five November games, a span in which the Irish limped to a 1-4 finish) and hold up vs. peer teams that outplayed the Irish on both sides of the line of scrimmage last season (Michigan State and Boston College and to a lesser extent, Stanford, North Carolina, and Pittsburgh).

    Ready from the Jump: Kapron Lewis-Moore and Hafis Williams

    Lewis-Moore (along with LT Paul Duncan) ranks as the new starter to watch for September 5. Our only exposure to the rising sophomore is spring practice, August camp, and the comments of the coaching staff. If Lewis-Moore isn't up to snuff the Irish have only senior pass-rusher Morrice Richardson, untested junior Emeka Nwanko, or a full-time position move from Ethan Johnson, as a fallback plan.

    Equally important is the play of DT Hafis Williams. Technically Johnson's backup, a program outsider could view Williams as a luxury in '09. In reality, Williams' progression from scout-team star in '08 to contributor in '09 ranks as a key development for the Irish interior. Consistent contributions from Williams at DT would allow Johnson to occasionally shift to DE (giving the Irish a more formidable "point" on the edge vs. run-heavy offenses) not to mention the obvious need for quality backups at such a taxing defensive position.

    Speaking of quality backups…

    Graduation…Two Years Early

    Backup interior linemen Sean Cwynar and Brandon Newman have just over one week remaining to bask in the glow of speculation that surrounds untested players. As of now, the pair has no warts; no visible defect as players on game film; and both rank as "future stars" in the wonderful world of internet sports speculation.

    September 5 – one or both will be tested. Likely in the second quarter when Johnson, Williams, or junior Ian Williams needs a rest after a long Nevada drive into Irish territory.

    By Labor Day both Cwynar and Newman will likely join their teammates as promising but no longer perfect players.

    True Depth vs. Quality Depth

    Linebackers David Posluszny and Anthony McDonald have become popular talking points this August. Both will contribute heavily on special teams according to their head coach and both provide insurance if a starter were to go down. But there are five linebackers (Brian Smith, Toryan Smith, Darius Fleming, Scott Smith, and Manti Te'o) ahead of the duo. Neither, barring a string of injuries, is expected to play a major role from scrimmage in either the season's first home or first road test.

    The same slow-immersion scenario applies to backup safety Danny McCarthy, a sure special teams contributor who Weis expects to make an impact from scrimmage later in the season, and offensive linemen Mike Golic, Jr. and Lane Clelland, who aren't expected to crack the early weeks' two-deep depth chart at guard and tackle respectively.

    On the other hand, four sophomores continue to jockey for position on either the two-deep or simply as part of their given unit's game day rotation for playing time.

    Backup left guard Braxston Cave, the team's short-snapper for field goals and PAT, is technically "one-play away" from contributing, though Weis singled out junior right guard Andrew Nuss as the team's first replacement should a starting guard succumb to injury. Regardless, Cave should see up to three series over the season's first three weeks.

    Cornerback Jamoris Slaughter, another player withheld from action as a freshman, seems a natural addition to the Irish coverage teams. More importantly, Slaughter continues to challenge for the squad's No. 4 CB spot – a role that Co-Defensive Coordinator Corwin Brown has utilized extensively in the past and likely will again in '09 with five quality cornerbacks (including returning junior Gary Gray) on the roster.

    Finally, wide receivers Deion Walker and John Goodman are both challenging for a spot in the game day rotation (one that would predictably include six receivers - five of which would earn ample playing time each week). Though Goodman received more off-season press, Walker appeared to work his way into the unit's second receiver group (with senior Robby Parris) at Tuesday's practice.

    If forced to predict playing time for this group prior to the release of the depth chart next Tuesday, I think you'll see Walker as the team's No. 4 receiver vs. Nevada and Gray to edge Slaughter as the fourth cornerback (with Slaughter nonetheless receiving action from scrimmage on game day).

    20 September Sophomores?

    The presence of Floyd, Rudolph, Blanton, Robinson, Johnson, Lewis-Moore, Fleming, H. Williams, J. Gray, Filer, and Cave is assured – either from scrimmage, as part of the Irish special teams, or both.

    A varied level of contributions from McDonald, Posluszny, Cwynar, D. McCarthy, Slaughter, Walker, Goodman, and Newman is likely, while the non-injury debut of backup quarterback Dayne Crist, at some point over the season's first four games, is at least a 50/50 proposition.

    If Golic and Clelland can win a role on the Irish special teams, the entire graduating class of 2012 could take the field for Notre Dame in the season's first month.

    Patience is defined as "the ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay." Of course, most Irish fans hold the virtue in short supply after back-to-back disappointing seasons and a less-than-satisfying 2006 campaign.

    Notre Dame fans understandably demand excellence – a quality not consistently present in the football program since the end of the 1993 season. The 2009 team's talent base suggests better days await, both in 2010 when current junior leaders Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Armando Allen, Brian Smith, and Ian Williams should reach their collegiate peak, and in 2011 when the current sophomore class populates both sides of the line of scrimmage.

    The team's 2009 slate of opponents; its off-season changes at perceived weak spots; its collective hunger and approach to the upcoming months; and the previous, lingering boast that "9-3 isn't good enough" all point to the reality that Notre Dame has to start winning outside of the classroom and on the recruiting trail.

    The development of the sophomores discussed above will determine whether the Irish play in prime time this January; earn the honor of a major matchup on New Year's Day; or find their way to a consolation bowl and likely end of an era over the Christmas season. Top Stories