Players Who Could Breakout in ‘06

( — Every season players who have not been big contributors emerge as playmakers. Last year’s group was headlined by Jeff Samardzija’s consensus All American breakout season and if the Irish are to seriously challenge for the National Title in 2006, Notre Dame will need a couple more similar breakout performances. Here’s a look at some players who have not been significant contributors so far but could break out in 2006.

Mitchell Thomas
Thomas was highly recruited linebacker out of Alabama who posses a ton of athleticism but has yet to see any significant time other than special teams. The Irish defense is in need of a new starting middle linebacker and Thomas is currently running with the first team in Spring practice. Thomas has great athleticism for a middle linebacker and practice reports last spring and in the fall seemed very positive for the now senior linebacker. Last season however freshman Scott Smith was listed as the backup middle linebacker behind Corey Mays most of the season.

If Thomas can put it all together and use the opportunity he is having this Spring to his advantage, he could be the answer in the middle for the Irish. Everyone thought that Thomas was going to be a play maker on defense when he was recruited in 2003, and this season he could become one.

Joe Brockington
Last year, Brockington was Notre Dame’s first reserve at outside linebacker, but with Brandon Hoyte and Maurice Crum making it through the season injury free, the senior to be linebacker saw very little action and comes into 2006 with just 12 career tackles. Still, Brockington is an athletic linebacker who has drawn praise from Weis and the defensive coaches over the past year.

Injuries having limited Brockington to non contact drills this Spring, but when he is fully recovered for fall practice, it is likely that he will start off as the starter at the weakside linebacker spot unless someone really establishes themselves this Spring at either the weakside or at apache which would move Maurice Crum over to the weakside.

Anthony Vernaglia
Speaking of someone establishing themselves at the apache position, junior Anthony Vernaglia has had some promising reports coming out of Spring practice. Vernaglia was one of the few highly rated recruits in Willingham’s second full class which now contains just 10 recruits after the transfer of Justin Hoskins.

He came to Notre Dame as a safety prospect but was switched to apache last year and took some time to adjust to the position. A year later however, the switch seems to be paying off however. His experience as a safety gives him valueable pass coverage skills, something Crum was good, but not great at last season. He’s got more speed than Crum and could secure the apache spot heading into the fall very soon.

David Grimes
Grimes, just a sophomore, saw some limited action in 2005 with two receptions for 19 yards and 15 kick returns as a true freshman. In 2006 however, Grimes could become a much bigger factor in the passing game as the Irish look to find a 3rd receiver behind Samardzija and Rhema McKnight. Grimes is lightning quick and possess enough speed to be able to stretch defenses.

Weis inserted Grimes in some important situations throughout the year so we know that Weis has a lot of faith in the talented receiver. He could be a very dangerous receiver with the ball in his hands in the short passing game. Grimes still figures to be a factor in the return game as well this year as he showed a lot potential as a kick returner.

Derrell Hand
The sophomore defensive tackle was one of just a few true freshman to not see the field in 2005, but a year under strength and conditioning coach Ruben Mendonza’s program has brought about some big changes for the Philadelphia native. “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,” said defensive line coach Jappy Oliver on the first day of Spring.

Notre Dame has very little depth behind starters Trevor Laws and Derek Landri with Hand and fellow sophomore Patrick Kuntz the next two tackles listed on the depth chart. The past year in the weight room could lead to some very meaningful playing time for Hand.

Marcus Freeman
Freeman came to Notre Dame in the same recruiting class as Anthony Fasano. Fasano got an early jump on Freeman and never looked back while going on to have a 90+ catch, 1100+ yard career. Freeman meanwhile has just five career receptions for 50 yards, all in 2004. Weis had some rave reviews about Freeman at the start of Spring however stating he was the most improved player physically from a season ago.

With one chance left to make his mark at Notre Dame, the fifth year senior will be in a battle with John Carlson for the starting tight end spot. Both tight ends will be used, but if Freeman wrestles the staring job from Carlson, it’s safe to say his career totals could before September 2nd is over.

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