On Monday we took a look at a group of freshman who could make an immediate impact for Notre Dame in 2011. Today we’ll move over to the sophomore class to identify some second year players who could be ready for increase roles and playing time.
Notre Dame received a lot of contributions from freshman in 2010 and some of those frosh from a year ago are poised to make bigger contributions in 2011. Here’s a look at a few.
Prince Shembo - Only Darius Fleming and Ethan Johnson registered more sacks in 2010 than Shembo did during his rookie campaign with Notre Dame and despite having 1.5 fewer sacks than Fleming (4.5 compared to Fleming’s 6), Shembo’s sacks accounted for just a single yard less of lost yardage (39 yards to 40). Shembo wasn’t ready to be an every down player last year, but he certainly showed the kind of pass rush skills the Notre Dame defense has been largely missing for years. With one outside linebacker position up for grabs thanks to the graduation of Kerry Neal and Brian Smith, Shembo could be ready for a starting role in 2011. At a minimum, Shembo will be a pass rush specialist who is only going to get better.
Tommy Rees – I personally still think Dayne Crist will lock up the starting quarterback position in fall camp, but after watching Rees lead the Irish to 4 wins to end the season he certainly can’t be dismissed. Even with those 4 wins though, Rees was more game manager than game changer last year and in order to lock down the starting gig in 2011 he will have to show the ability to take over a game and cut down on his turnovers. Rees’ turnovers against USC are often overlooked because of Robert Hughes late game heroics, but without Rees giveaways Notre Dame wouldn’t have needed Hughes’ tough running or Ronald Johnson’s case of the dropsies. Both Rees and Crist showed that they still have work to do in the Blue Gold game – Crist was still indecisive and relucant to pull the trigger on downfield throws and Rees still struggled with the vertical passing game and turned the ball over.
TJ Jones – Jones emerged in the spring last year and got his career off to a hot start with touchdowns in both of his first two games. After the Michigan game, however, Jones scored just one more touchdown and eclipsed the 50 yard mark just once – both against Navy. Notre Dame needs some of its young wide receivers to step up this year in order for the offense to see the kind of improvement we saw on the defensive side of the ball and Jones will get every opportunity to make his mark.
Kona Schwenke – Of all the freshman to contribute in 2010, the most surprising might have been Kona Schwenke. The Hawaiian native came to Notre Dame undersized for the defensive end position, but worked his way into the playing rotation by the end of the year and then bulked up this off-season to the point where he is ready for an increased role. Schwenke will have plenty of competition for playing time – especially from freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt – but with a full season and spring
Alex Welch – With the early departure of Kyle Rudolph to the NFL there will be plenty of opportunity for playing time at the backup tight end position behind Tyler Eifert. Mike Ragone will be back for a 5th year and could have the inside track for the #2 tight end spot, but his injury history and limited production thus far in his career makes him anything but a lock for the job. Welch received a lot of praise throughout the season from Brian Kelly despite redshirting as a freshman in 2010. Eifert only played in one game as a true frosh before breaking out last year. Welch could very well follow in his footsteps in 2011. Let’s just hope Welch isn’t pressed into action because of injuries like Eifert was a year ago.
Lo Wood – Out of necessity, Wood needs to be ready to shine in 2011 in order for the Irish secondary to have some semblance of depth. Robert Blanton and Gary Gray give Notre Dame a pair of potential lock down corners, but outside of them, Notre Dame is very short on experience at corner. Wood looked good in the Blue Gold game with an interception of Tommy Rees. He’ll need to build off of that because he’ll be counted on to provide depth behind the starters and could fill the nickel position.
Danny Spond – No other sophomore may have helped himself out as much this spring as Spond who really started to emerge at outside linebacker. By the end of spring practice, it was Shembo and Spond who were the leaders in the clubhouse for the starting outside backer position opposite Fleming over veterans Steve Filer and Dan Fox. Spond didn’t have the impact Shembo did on defense last year, but the Colorado native was a standout on special teams. Between Spond and Shembo, at least one should see a lot of playing time in 2011.
Louis Nix – Nix will get as much playing time as his conditioning will allow for this season. He showed glimpses of being the absolute force in the middle of the Irish defensive line that fans envisioned he would be when he committed to Tony Alford while Notre Dame was without a head coach in between the firing of Charlie Weis and hiring of Brian Kelly. As Kelly and the rest of the defensive coaches have cautioned throughout the spring though, Nix still has a lot of work to do in the weight room before he’s ready to be that disruptive force for a high volume of plays over the course of a game. If Nix shows up to fall camp in shape and ready to play though, he will make his presence known when he’s on the field.
There are other sophomores who will be contributors in 2011. Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth for instance both figure to be special teams standouts again for Notre Dame this season, but with both making position switches, it’s a little early to tell if either will be ready for much more of a role outside of special teams. Kendall Moore is another sophomore to watch out for this year. He was the scout team defensive player of the year in 2010, but he might still be a year a way from making a major contribution on the field. Then there’s Andrew Hendrix. Hendrix certainly looked capable of running the Irish offense in the Blue Gold game, but most feel he’s currently third behind Rees and Crist heading into fall camp.
Now that we’ve looked at the sophomore and freshman classes, we’ll take a look at some upper classmen ready to breakout and some others who are facing a make or break fall camp later this week.