Notre Dame only graduated two starters on offense this past season in Michael Turkovich and Asaph Schwapp, but with some talented up and coming under-classmen and a few players coming off of injuries, there should be some interesting battles for playing time on the offensive side of the ball this spring.
A few positions are pretty much locked up. Jimmy Clausen will be pushed by Dayne Crist, but it would be a shock to anyone if Clausen wasn’t the starting quarterback against Nevada. At wide receiver, Golden Tate and Michael Floyd will be the starters and could be one of the better receiving duos in the country. Along the offensive line, Sam Young and Dan Wenger are pretty much locks to be starters.
Aside from replacing left tackle Michael Turkovich and fullback Asaph Schwapp though, a few positions such as tight end, running back, and the guard spots will likely be up for grabs with some younger players and players coming off injuries pushing the incumbents.
Tight End – With the emergence of freshman All American Kyle Rudolph in 2008, one of the forgotten men on the Notre Dame roster in 2009 is former high school All American Mike Ragone. Ragone was slated to be the starting tight end in 2008 before injuring his knee in August. When healthy, he has better speed than Rudolph and could be a very dangerous weapon in the passing game for Notre Dame. Despite Rudolph’s impressive freshman season, I don’t think we’ll see Ragone go down without a fight for the #1 tight end spot. This spring will be very important for Ragone’s development because this is the second major knee injury he’s had in the last three years.
Weis likes using two tight end sets so look for both to get plenty of playing time this year, and expect both to raise the level of play for the other. Ruduolph ended up being the unquestioned starter last year after Will Yeatman’s suspension; having someone with Ragone’s talent pushing him will only make him better. Rudolph figures to improve quite a bit this spring as well since this will be his first spring practice. Most people might not classify this as a position battle, but it will be very interesting to watch these two pushing each other this spring and into fall camp.
Left Tackle – Michael Turkovich was one of the pleasant surprises of 2008 at left tackle, and his graduation leaves a void to fill at the ever pivotal position. Through his first three years at Notre Dame, Sam Young has been tried at left tackle off and on, but he has yet to be able to lock down the position and has even struggled at times at right tackle. Entering his final year of eligibility, Young will have one last try at locking down the coveted left tackle spot this spring.
Battling with Sam Young for the left tackle job will be 5th year senior Paul Duncan, juniors Matt Romine and Taylor Dever, and sophomore Lane Clelland. Duncan spent most of the 2007 starting at both tackle spots, but struggled mightily in his first stint as a starting tackle. In 2008 he was moved to guard and ended up redshirting after getting injured early in the season. He will be back for a 5th year and will be looking to make his mark in 2009. Romine has had trouble staying healthy during his first two seasons, but has a lot of potential if he can stay on the field. Dever saw some early playing time as a true freshman, but up until now he hasn’t really pushed for playing time. Clelland is a very athletic tackle prospect and has left tackle ability, but probably needs some more time in the weight room before he’s ready to seriously challenge for a starting role.
All of these tackles will be working with new offensive line coach Frank Verducci who was hired to replace John Latina after the 2008 season. Latina’s offensive lines, especially the past two seasons, failed to live up to expectations and offensive linemen such as Young have not appeared to improve much over the past few years so Verducci will have his work cut out for him.
With a new OL coach in Verducci, the offensive linemen will in essence be starting over so it will be difficult to predict how this will play out before the spring. That said, if Romine stays healthy all spring and fall, I think he’ll end up as the opening day left tackle. Entering his third year in the program, he’s had plenty of time in the weight room and has the edge over Young in terms of athleticism which is a coveted skill for a left tackle.
Running Back – For all intents and purposes, Armando Allen was the starting running back in 2008, but with all of the talent in the backfield this year Allen will still have plenty of competition for the top spot heading into the season. Senior James Aldridge, junior Robert Hughes, and sophomore Jonas Gray will all be competing for carries at running back with Allen this spring and into the fall. With incoming freshmen Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, all of the backs on the roster for the spring will need to lock down their positions on the depth because both of the incoming frosh will come in ready to challenge for playing time.
Allen is the most versatile back so he will most likely end up a top the depth chart at the end of spring, but there will be a real battle for playing time at the position. Between Hughes, Aldridge, and Gray new running backs coach Tony Aflord will have to fine a compliment back to compliment Allen. All three bring different skills to the table and all three are more than capable of taking Allen’s job if he were to slip up this spring.
3rd Wide Receiver – Duval Kamara started the 2008 season as a starting wide receiver for Notre Dame, but ended it as the 4th option behind Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, and David Grimes. With Grimes gone, Kamara will start the spring in the driver’s seat for the third wide receiver spot over sophomores John Goodman and Deion Walker and seniors Robby Parris and George West.
Kamara came into 2008 with high expectations after breaking Notre Dame freshman receiving records in 2007, but struggled with consistency in terms of hands and effort as a sophomore. The San Diego State game was a prime example. Kamara could have likely prevented a few interceptions with a little more effort. His career thus far has almost mirrored that of former Notre Dame wide receiver Maurice Stovall. Built very similarly, both wide receivers struggled early in their careers with consistency and learning to use their size to their advantage. It took until Stovall’s senior season for the light to turn on for him. Unfortunately for Kamara, he won’t have the luxury because of the depth and talent behind him.
West and Parris have been solid contributors throughout their careers for Notre Dame, but with talented sophomores Deion Walker and John Goodman, their window of opportunity for serious playing time might be closing this spring. Walker and Goodman had their growing pains as freshmen learning the offense. A full spring in the program though should have both up to speed and ready to challenge for playing time in the third wide receiver spot for 2009.
For Kamara, the time is now. Walker and Goodman will be hot on his tail throughout the spring and incoming freshman Shaquelle Evans could challenge for playing time from day one as well.
Guard – Notre Dame returns both starting guards in 2009 in Chris Stewart and Eric Olsen, but sophomore Trevor Robinson, who started three games in 2008, will push for a full time starting role this year. Olsen didn’t look 100% down the stretch last year, but there wasn’t a whole lot of depth behind him. Stewart has played well as a starter, but Robinson brings a lot of talent to the table and physically didn’t look like a freshman last year.
Robinson will push for a starting job in 2009 and will likely end up with one because he’s too good to keep out of the starting lineup. Other than Robinson, the only other guard for spring practice is Andrew Nuss, but the junior to be probably won’t be challenging for a starting role yet. One other option for Verducci could be to test Robinson out at tackle in an effort to get the five best offensive linemen on the field if Romine, Dever, Duncan, or Clelland are unable to lock up one of the starting tackle spots.
Fullback – This probably won’t be much of a competition because there is technically only one fullback on the roster for 2009 – converted linebacker Steve Paskorz. If there was ever a time for the staff to try out Robert Hughes at fullback, it would this spring. There is a lot of talent at running back with virtually no depth at fullback after Luke Schmidt’s career was cut short because of concussions and Asaph Schwapp decided not to come back for a 5th year. If Allen retains his spot as the top running back, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hughes at least get a look at fullback this spring.
Tomorrow we’ll profile the position battles on defense as we gear up for the start of spring practice.