With the addition on a linebacker spot this year with the installation of the 3-4 defense, linebacker has been another hot topic this spring. Notre Dame returns starters Joe Brockington and Maurice Crum from a year ago, but lost Travis Thomas to the offensive side of the ball leaving at least two open spots. With a new defense, however, only the only sure fire starter at this point is Crum, one of Notre Dame’s defensive captains.
According to practice reports the first group of linebackers so far has been John Ryan and Anthony Vernaglia on the outside and Brockington and Crum on the inside. Crum will be entering his third year as a starter and has the speed and attacking mentality to play well in Corwin Brown’s defense. I still think he might be a bit undersized although he is listed five pounds heavier on the official spring roster than he was final 2006 roster up to 225 from 220.
Joe Brockington is listed at 235 pounds on the spring roster, up 15 pounds from the 220 he was listed at on last year’s roster and was one of the more pleasant surprises on defense during the second half of last season. After filling in for Travis Thomas when Thomas went down with an injury, he didn’t leave the starting lineup and was the most physical linebacker for the Irish. That physical play is something Notre Dame will be in great need of at the inside linebacker spot.
The only other inside linebacker that is really challenging for a starting spot right now would be Toryan Smith. Not much has been said about Smith this spring, but the sophomore to be is listed at 244 pounds and has the best size amongst the current Notre Dame linebackers to play on the inside. Inside linebackers have to take on guards in a 3-4 defense and Smith might be the best suited to do that on the Notre Dame roster. Smith might not win a starting job by the end of spring, but I still think he ends up as a starter coming opening weekend.
At the outside linebacker spot, it also is looking like there are three guys challenging for the two starting spots – John Ryan, Morrice Richardson, and Anthony Vernaglia. Ryan received some high praise from Weis during his first press conference of the spring as being someone who has the perfect body type for an outside linebacker in this defense. Right now, it doesn’t look like anyone will challenge Ryan at the strong side outside linebacker spot and based on the coaches comments this spring, they seem to be think very highly of him.
Vernaglia has said this spring he thought about a switch to offense before Corwin Brown arrived as the new defensive coordinator and has been running with the first team defense. The problem for Vernaglia since he has been at Notre Dame has been his toughness as evidenced last year when he got run over on running plays, but Brown has spoken very highly of “AV” this spring and has mentioned he is excited about his potential.
The third guy in the mix right now would be Morrice Richardson. Richardson is another prototypical outside linebacker for a 3-4 defense. He is an excellent pass rusher and showed a really nice burst off the line last year in spot duty at defensive end. Putting Richardson on the weakside where he can rush the passer could make for some big plays, but like Smith, he is really going to have to take the starting spot away from Vernaglia.
What really excites me about Richardson is that he is exactly the kind of linebacker Notre Dame has been lacking – a big, fast, attacking style backer who can really get after the quarterback. His skill set just seems perfect for the weakside linebacker spot.
The rest of the second group of linebackers has been made up of Steve Quinn and Scott Smith. Both saw action as true freshmen in 2005, but didn’t see much time last year. Both should, however, be able to provide some good depth.