Can 5th Years Fill Senior Class Void for Notre Dame in 2007?

( – Darius Walker’s decision to leave for the NFL cut Notre Dame’s senior class for 2007 down to a mere seven scholarship athletes. Nine different seniors from this past year, however, have applied for a fifth year of eligibility. Those nine seniors ability to help off-set a the lack of leadership a seven member senior class creates could very well determine how successful a season the Irish can have in Charlie Weis’s third year.

Even from the day the Class of 2007 signed, expectations weren’t high for the 17 recruit class that was ranked 30th by – one of the lowest rated classes since recruiting rankings have been kept for the Irish. Tyrone Willingham’s second full class contained just two offensive lineman (for the second year in a row) and was comprised mainly of three star recruits.

Willingham missed out on almost all of the big name recruits he targeted that year – Brian Brohm, Anthony Morelli, Jeff Schweiger, Dan Connor, Marcus Freeman (the linebacker), Jeff Byers, and Allen Smith just to name a few with the lone four star recruits being Terrail Lambert, Justin Hoskins, and Anthony Vernaglia.

The departures from class have been well documented over the last four years. Some of transferred, some quit football all together, and one has left for the NFL. For whatever the reasons, 10 members of what was already a disappointing class have come and gone leaving the Irish with a dangerously low supply of leadership from next year’s senior class.

Furthermore, the seven remaining members – Terrail Lambert, Justin Brown, Justin Vernaglia, Darrin Bragg, Maurice Crum, Junior Jabbie, Leo Ferine – figure to account for as few as two starting spots on next year’s depth chart.

Enter this year’s crop of fifth year seniors. Nine members from Willingham’s lone top 10 class have applied for an additional year of eligibility. Should Tom Zbikowski, John Sullivan, John Carlson, Trevor Laws, Dwight Stephenson, Ambrose Wooden, Travis Thomas, Geoff Price, and Joe Brockington all be granted their additional year of eligibility, they will be counted on to provide leadership for what figures to be an extremely young team.

From the leadership standpoint, none of the possible fifth year guys may mean more to the team than Tommy Zbikowski. Zibby has been much maligned as a safety over the past two seasons, but on most deep balls given up by the Irish defense this past year, his running mate at safety was the one who coming over late in coverage.

While Zbikowski was far from the All American level some post season publications gave him, he was the unequivocal leader of the defense. He also posses the kind of intensity that has been lacking from the Notre Dame defense over the past two seasons. Some have suggested that the Irish defense would be better off if Zibby didn’t return, but with a new defensive coordinator who developed the Jets’ Kerry Rhodes into a pro bowl caliber safety, his return would be a major plus.

While Zbikowski’s return will be important from a leadership standpoint, center John Sullivan’s potential return would be equally as important for the experience he will bring back to the offensive line. Had Sullivan opted for the NFL, Notre Dame would be facing the daunting task of replacing four new offensive linemen. As is, the Irish will return just Sullivan and sophomore to be Sam Young as starters along the line.

With Sullivan back, however, Notre Dame will return its starting center from the past three seasons who will help ease in a new starting quarterback. Sullivan will be the leader of a group of offensive linemen containing just three upperclassmen – Sullivan and juniors Paul Duncan and Michael Turkovich.

Counting this year’s current verbal commitments as well as last year’s freshmen, Notre Dame will have as many as eleven under classmen making up the rest of the depth along the offensive line. Even the upper classmen other than Sullivan who return have very little playing experience – neither Duncan or Turkovich has ever started.

On the other side of the ball things don’t look much brighter with only Trevor Laws potential return from last year’s starters. The Irish lose Derek Landri, Chris Frome, and Victor Abiamiri. Because of those losses, the return of Laws would be huge for Notre Dame next year. Laws started to really come on down the stretch last year and with another year to showcase his skills, hopefully he can become a dominant force up front for the Irish.

Laws would be a third year starter next year and will likely be facing double teams more often than not considering the lack of experience returning along the defensive line if his application for a 5th year is approved. Laws and Derek Landri formed a formidable tackle duo last year after playing along side each other for two seasons. Laws won’t have the luxury of playing along side established linemen next year though, and will need to become more of a team leader.

Sticking on the defensive side of the ball, Notre Dame will be replacing half of its starting secondary with Chinedum N’Dukwe and Mike Richardsn graduating. Ambrose Wooden began last season as a starter, but got injured early on and ended up losing his spot to Terrail Lambert. Lambert is one of the seven members remaining in next year’s senior class and should be penciled in as one of the starting corners. Fighting for the other spot will be Wooden and an extremely talented bunch of young corners.

Wooden will have a tough time fighting off Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil for the other starting corner spot, but even if he is relegated to nickel duty, Wooden figures to play a large role in guiding the younger guys. Notre Dame will have more young talent in the secondary next than they’ve had in years and Wooden is a guy who’s had a lot of ups and downs in his career.

Dwight Stephenson and Joe Brockington should also be back next year. Brockington worked his way into a starting role by season’s end this past year while Stephenson is still looking to make his mark with the Irish. Position changes and injuries have really limited Stephenson while at Notre Dame, but he is likely sticking around for another season and will get a long hard look at defensive end.

Switching gears back to offense, Travis Thomas will most likely return to running back and will be one of the leaders of the offense along with Sullivan. Thomas was the special teams captain in 2006 so his leadership abilities are certainly not lacking. He also displayed an unselfish attitude by accepting a switch to defense this past year. The experiment of Thomas at linebacker had its share of highs and lows, but his team first attitude will make him a leader again this year.

The last two seniors to apply for a fifth year both experienced breakout years in 2006. John Carlson came out of no where to be a Mackey Award Finalist and will be the odds on favorite to win it in 2007. Geoff Price, meanwhile, became a major weapon for the Irish defense because of his ability to change field possession with his booming punts.

Carlson is going to be a major safety valve for whoever wins the quarterback spot and will be looked upon to help develop Notre Dame’s young tight ends. Other than Carlson, all of the tight ends on the Irish roster in 2007 will be either freshmen or sophomores.

While it is certainly clear that the lack of a senior class is going to be a major hurdle for the 2007 Irish to overcome, the nine fifth year seniors who return will be more than capable of providing plenty of leadership for the younger guys. This year’s crop of potential fifth year seniors have a rather unique blend of talent, leadership, and heart that the younger players will be able to learn from.

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