(UHND.com) – In 2007, junior safety David Bruton was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal year for the Irish. At the beginning of the season, Bruton was a junior with zero career starts. By the end of the season, he was the team leader in interceptions and third on the team with 85 tackles. With at least four new starts on defense in 2008, who on the current roster can have a similar emergence?
Ian Williams (6’2”, 300 lbs, Nose Tackle, So) – I’m not sure if Williams can be considered a breakout performer in 2008 because the way he closed his rookie season in 2007 could certainly be labeled as a “breakout.” Despite making just two starts, Williams was sixth on the team with 45 tackles – three more than starting nose tackle Pat Kuntz. With Kuntz not being enrolled at the University this semester, Williams will get the majority of the snaps at NT in the Spring and could cement himself as the starter for the 2008 season before Kuntz returns to campus.
Even before Kuntz’s departure this semester, it was wildly thought that Williams would start at NT in ’08 with Kuntz sliding over to Trevor Laws’ vacated starting DT position. Ian was named to multiple All-Freshmen teams after his impressive ’07 campaign and a year in the weight room with Rueben Mendoza should have him ready to assume a full time starting role in ’08.
Brian Smith (6’3”, 233 lbs, Outside Linebacker, So) – Like Williams, Smith played so much in 2007 that it would be hard to classify him as a breakout performer in 2008, but the combination of Jon Tenuta coaching the linebackers and a full off-season in the weight room could make Smith a household name by season’s end.
After starting 3 games as a frosh in 2007, Smith will likely be a full time starter in ’08 opposite fellow sophomore Kerry Neal. Smith’s interception returned for a touchdown against Boston College was one of the defensive plays of the year for Notre Dame and with the addition of Jon Tenuta to the Irish coaching staff, the sky is the limit for this talented youngster.
Kerry Neal (6’2”, 245 lbs, Outside Linebacker, So) – Neal is in the same boat as Smith in that he started 5 games as a freshman last year and won’t be sneaking up on anyone in ’08. Like Smith, he also has a chance to take the next step towards becoming a star defender during his sophomore campaign.
Neal was third on the team with 2.0 sacks in 2007. Tenuta is one of the best in the business at getting his linebackers to the quarterback and should be able to take Neal’s raw pass rushing ability and turn it into a terror of an outside linebacker.
Sergio Brown (6’2”, 196 lbs, Safety, Jr) – Brown is in a similar mold to Bruton in that he is a very gifted athlete whose made his mark on special teams up to this point. When asked who the most athletic player on the team is this past summer, most players answered Brown.
With the departure of four year starter Tom Zbikowski at strong safety, a starting spot is up for grabs and Brown might be the front runner heading into the spring even though Kyle McCarthy saw quite a bit more playing time than Brown in ’07. While McCarthy is a solid player, Brown brings a level of athleticism that most of the safeties on the current roster simply do not possess. If he can translate his special teams appearances into a solid spring, he could follow in Bruton’s footsteps as a special teams maven who has a breakout performance in ’08.
Harrison Smith (6’2”, 205 lbs, Safety, So) – Smith did not see any action as a frosh in 2007, but the talented safety could follow in Zbikowski’s footsteps by taking over his starting spot as a “redshirt” freshman next year just as Zibby did four years ago in 2004 (note: Notre Dame technically does not redshirt players, but eligibility wise, Smith will have four years left in 2008).
Smith was one of the most highly touted safety prospects coming out of high school at this time last year and drew comparisons to John Lynch from Tom Lemming. Smith played a lot of running back in high school and has great speed for a safety. Hmmm, a kid who played a lot of offense in high school who doesn’t play as a true freshman could take over as a starter in his second year. Where have I heard that one before?
Toryan Smith (6’1”, 245 lbs, Inside Linebacker, Jr) – Many people predicted a breakout season for Smith in 2007, but the Georgia native struggled in his sophomore season while Joe Brockington solidified himself as the starting inside linebacker next to Maurice Crum.
Pass coverage has been the knock on Smith for a while, but at 245 lbs, Smith is one of the only linebackers on the current roster who have the size to play inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. He’s got the attitude to be a good linebacker, but so far he has been unable to establish himself. With talented linebacker prospects Steve Filer, Anthony McDonald, and David Posluszny arriving in the summer, it could be now or never for Smith.
Kallen Wade (6’5”, 257, Defensive End, Jr) – When Wade signed his letter of intent in February of 2006, Weis praised Wade saying, “This guy reminds me a lot of a young Jason Taylor. He looks like him, he plays like him.” Well, so far he has not played like him in two years of very limited action.
Weight has been an issue for Wade as he constantly works towards filling out his huge frame and reaching more ideal size for a defensive end in a 3-4 defense. With Kuntz out this spring, there will be plenty of opportunity for Wade to challenge for playing time along with Paddy Mullen, Emeka Nwankwo, and freshman early enrollee Sean Cywnar opposite likely starter Justin Brown.
Morrice Richardson (6’2”, 244 lbs, Outside Linebacker, Jr) – Richardson might be the best pure pass rusher among the OLB, but it is going to take a lot of work in order for him to pass either Neal or Smith at OLB this year. It is more likely that Richardson will be used more as a situational pass rusher in 2008. Even as a situational player though, Richardson has a chance to make a nice impact for this defense because he can get to the quarterback.
Raeshon McNeil (6’0”, 187 lbs, Cornerback, Jr) – Last summer Darrin Walls passed 5th year senior Ambrose Wooden on the depth chart and started every game in 2007. Can McNeil do the same and pass Terrail Lambert to take over a starting role in 2008? It’s possible. It’s probably not too likely, but it is indeed possible.
McNeil’s got great cover skills and he started to see more action towards the end of 2007 culminating with his best performance to date in the season finale against Stanford. Against Stanford, McNeil recorded his first career sack on one of the best executed corner blitzes Notre Dame has run since Weis took over.
Gary Gray (5’11”, 180 lbs, Cornerback, So) – Gray enrolled early last year and then ended up missing most of the spring with a broken arm and then all of the season with a shoulder injury. When healthy, Gray was turning some heads with his cover skills and some feel that he might have the best pure cover skills on the team.
Gray and McNeil will push Lambert for playing time and battle each other for the nickel spot.