Notre Dame Linebacker Battle Wide Open in 2006

Notre Dame, Ind ( — With the Irish losing two starting linebackers and the next two linebackers limited by injuries this spring, the competition is wide open and could rage on into the fall.

Brandon Hoyte was a three year starter for the Irish while Corey Mays started just last season for the Irish, but the loss of the two leading tacklers from a season ago leaves two holes in the linebacking corps with the only incumbent starter, Maurice Crum who has been hampered by injuries, back in 2006.

Complicating matters more is the injury status of Joe Brockington who was the first reserve for the Irish in 2005. Like Crum, Brockington is being held out of contact drills and has not been scrimmaging this spring.

With Crum, the starter at apache in 2005, and Brockington sidelined for this past weekend’s scrimmage, the first team linebackers were junior Anthony Vernaglia at apache, senior Mitchell Thomas in the middle, and sophomore Steve Quinn at the weakside. It is still very early and that lineup is far from set in stone.

Weis has said that Crum can be used at any of the three positions and won’t necessarily be at the apache position in 2006. There’s been a lot of speculation that Crum could move into the middle with Vernaglia at apache and Brockington playing the weakside giving the Irish a very fast and very undersized linebacking corps.

Crum, listed at 220 lbs, lacks ideal size for a middle linebacker who will be taking on offensive linemen. Having the most experienced linebacker in the middle of the defense wouldn’t be a bad thing, but Crum hasn’t showed he has the ability to take on offensive line just yet. If anything, I think we might see Crum at the weakside if Vernaglia continues to improve as practice reports have suggested.

The middle linebacker spot however could be up for grabs until freshman Toryan Smith gets on campus for fall practice. At 235 lbs, Smith has the size to be able to play early and he had stated during his recruitment that he was told he would be brought in to compete for the starting spot as a true freshman.

For now however, it looks like Mitchell Thomas could end the spring as the #1 middle linebacker heading into the fall. Thomas came to Notre Dame as a highly recruited linebacker out of Alabama. Thomas however has recorded just three career tackles.

Vernaglia meanwhile seems on pace to crack the starting lineup after a season of adjusting to the linebacker position. Vernaglia started his Notre Dame career in the defensive backfield as a safety but moved to the apache position last Spring. A year of adjusting to the more physical position and in the weight room appears to be paying off for the talent junior though.

Reports out of Spring practice have Vernaglia starting to really settle into the position and impressing the staff. Vernaglia is a naturally gifted athlete who would add a lot of speed and quickness to the position.

The other players in this race this spring include seniors Nick Borsetti, Scott Smith, Kevin Washington, and Steve Quinn. Senior Abdel Banda would have been in the mix too, but will miss all of Spring practice due to injury.

Quinn, a sophomore from outside of Philadelphia, cracked the two deep depth chart last year as a true freshman and was running with the first team linebackers in last weekend’s scrimmage. Quinn was listed as Crum’s backup at apache most of the year, but has been playing the other outside linebacker position this spring due to the injuries on the team.

Senior Nick Borsetti will challenge Thomas in the middle this Spring and was playing the middle with the second string last weekend. Borsetti has only seen limited action other than on special teams and brings just 12 career tackles into the season.

Sophomores Scott Smith and Kevin Washington rounded out the 2nd string linebackers last weekend with Washington at apache and Smith on the weakside. Smith, like Quinn, cracked the 2 deep last year as a true freshman and saw some time against Michigan when he made a big stop on a Steve Breaston reverse. Smith backed up Corey Mays at middle linebacker last year, but played the weakside this past weekend more out of necessity. At 6’3”, 235, the sophomore is built more for the middle. Washington however did not see the field last year as a true freshman.

All of this adds up to a bit of uncertainty for the Irish at linebacker. Even after the Blue-Gold game officially ends Spring practice, the position will still be questionable due to the injuries the linebackers have sustained.

If the Irish decide to put the best three linebackers on the field no matter of position, Brockington, Crum, and Vernaglia would seem like the likely starters at this point. That lineup however could leave the Irish susceptible against power rushing teams due to the relative lack of size that particular group would possess.

Right now any number of things could happen. Thomas could emerge as the starter in the middle with Brockington and Crum as the outside linebackers. Smith could end up back in the middle and challenge for a starting job as well beings as he was the backup behind Corey Mays most of last year. Or one of the talented freshman can come in and wow the coaches.

There are a lot of different possible lineups the Irish can go with and with Crum, Brockington, and Banda limited or out of practice for the Spring we really won’t have a good idea of who will be starting on September 2nd in Atlanta. I for one would not be surprised however if we saw Crum, Vernaglia, and Smith lining up against ‘Tech week one however. I also won’t be surprised if we saw Crum, Vergnaglia, and Brockington. Or Crum, Vernaglia, and Thomas. Or…

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