Notre Dame, Ind (UHND.com) — Improving a sometimes invisible pass rush and developing depth at linebacker and the offensive line headlined head coach Charlie Weis’ concerns as he and his coaching addressed the media Tuesday on the eve of Spring Practice.
“I think defensively starting off with Victor Abiamiri we have a veteran defensive line but we are going to have to do a better job of getting to the passer,” said Weis as he started to list the areas of emphasis for this years Spring practice.
The Irish defensive line generated just 15.5 sacks as a unit in 2005 with the majority of Notre Dame’s sacks coming from departed seniors Brandon Hoyte (6) and Corey Mays (5). Victor Abimiri led the Irish with 8, but his fellow defensive linemen generated just 7.5, a number the Irish will have to improve on in 2006 in order to improve on a defense that got exposed towards the end of the season.
Just how does Weis and his defensive coaches plan on fixing that problem? “I’m not telling. We have been spending a lot of time on that, though,” said the ever cautious Weis. Getting Chris Frome back from injury and potentially getting Travis Lietko back in the summer is a starting point however.
Developing the young talent along the defensive line is going to be key for the Irish to improve the pass rush. Guys like Patrick Kuntz, Ronald Talley, and Justin Brown all played last year for the first times and got some baptisms by fire. Derrell Hand will be in the mix as well despite not playing as a true freshman. “He’s a young kid who really didn’t know what he was getting into and had a total body transformation. He might have lost 30 to 40 pounds,” defensive line coach Jappy Oliver said of the sophomore to be.
The defensive line won’t be the only focus of the spring however. Depth concerns at both offensive line where we knew numbers would be a factor and at linebacker were injuries have caused some problems.
“I think the biggest area of concern is our offensive line depth chart until the reinforcements come in here in June,” said Weis of his offensive line heading into the Spring. The Irish were thin along the line in 2005 thanks to ineffective recruiting at the position under the previous staff and while the Irish only lose two lineman — Mark LeVoir and Dan Stevenson, depth is still a major concern with just seven with returning start John Sullivan out for most after having off-season shoulder surgery.
The Irish return four players who saw extensive time last year with Bob Morton and Dan Santucci coming back for fifth years along with seniors Ryan Harris and Sullivan leaving a fifth spot wide, right tackle, up for grabs. With numbers down however look for youngsters like early enrollee Chris Stewart and sophomores to be Paul Duncan and Michael Turkovich to get some extensive work throughout the spring.
Linebacker is another position where depth will be an issue this spring with Maurice Crum and Joe Brockington limited after off-season back surgeries and junior Abdel Banda out for the Spring “with a knee.” Weis put a little positive spin on the situation though saying, “I think that it’s going to give a number of players an opportunity to make a statement for whether or not they are going to get into the mix.”
Notre Dame loses two starters with Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays exhausted their eligibility this season. Crum will be tried at all three positions till the staff decides where they like him best according to Weis with two other spots up for grabs. In the mix should be senior Mitchell Thomas who was highly recruited but has yet to see much action at linebacker, senior Nick Borsetti, potentially junior Anthony Vernaglia who could play an apache role should the staff like Crum at a different linebacker position, and sophomore Scott Smith who cracked the two deep depth chart last season as a true freshman.
Offensively Weis also discussed the tight end position where Will Yeatman will now be on scholarship after it was originally thought he would be a lacrosse scholarship. The off-season departure of Joey Hiben opened up a scholarship at the position and Weis awarded it to Yeatman so he could start off on the football team from day one. Weis also spoke highly of fifth year senior tight end Marcus Freeman stating that he, “definitely going through this off-season was easily, by far, the most improved player we had going through the spring.”
Weis also talked about the wide receiver position where the Irish lose star receiver Maurice Stovall but get Rhema McKnight back healthy. Of his potential star receiver, Weis stated, “He looks as good as he did at any time before his injury last year; which I think will greatly minimize the loss that we’re going to have of Maurice (Stovall) going into the NFL.”
Developing reliable options after McKnight and consensus All American Jeff Samardzija will be another focus of the Spring however. Sophomore DJ Hord will miss most, if not all of Spring practice after abdominal surgery leaving David Grimes, Chase Anastacio, Darrin Bragg and early enrollee George West as the only scholarship receivers behind McKnight and Samardzija until freshman report in the summer. Grimes should some good potential last year in limited duty looking lightning quick with the ball in his hands and having a full Spring practice seeing a lot of reps will speed up West’s learning curve.
The last area of concern Weis talked about was replacing punter/kicker DJ Fitzpatrick. Weis didn’t single any one potential replacement out simply saying, “Obviously having a guy doing both tasks for quite sometime raises some areas of concern on exactly how it’s going to play out.” Senior Geoffrey Price might be the early favorite however.
We’ll have more up on what Weis and staff said Tuesday including some more info on fifth year seniors, the early enrollees, Jeff Samardzija, and more so check back soon.