What you need to know ...
There's plenty of returning experience with nine starters
coming back from a defense that struggled way too much last season. The
biggest improvement has to come in the secondary with the corners
needing to be as strong as the safeties. There were way too many
breakdowns on big plays last season, but those should slow down with all
four starters returning. The line will be fine if the coaching staff has
figured out how to generate more pressure from the ends. Tackles Trevor
Laws and Derek Landri should be in for huge seasons. Linebacker will be
an issue over the first half of the season with almost no returning
experience outside of Maurice Crum, Jr.
Ambrose Wooden, 74
Victor Abiamiri, 8
Interceptions: Tom Zbikowski, 5
Star of the defense: Senior FS Tom Zbikowski
Player that has to step up and become a star: Sophomore
LB Steve Quinn
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Derrell Hand
Best pro prospect: Senior DE Victor Abiamiri
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Zbikowski, 2)
Abiamiri, 3) DT Derek Landri
Strength of the defense: Safety, tackle
Weakness of the defense:
Outside linebacker experience
The coaching staff made it a point this off-season to get
more pass rushing production from the front four which means the
pressure is on for Victor Abiamiri, Ronaldy Talley, Chris Frome, and the
rest of the marginally talented ends. The real stars are in the middle
where seniors Trevor Laws and Derek Landri form one of the better
tandems. The concern is developed depth where promising sophomores
Derrell Hand and Pat Kuntz have to come out pushing for time.
The key to the unit: Generate a pass rush against everyone and
not just Stanford and develop more options for the inside.
Defensive Line Rating: 7
- DE Victor Abiamiri, Sr. - 48 tackles, 8 sacks, 15 TFL, 7
Abiamiri did a great job of taking over for Justin Tuck turning into the
team's best pass rusher. Now he has to be more consistent and use his
experience to be a game-in-and-game-out dominator once he returns from a
knee surgery that limited him at times this spring. He was decent all
season with his stats pumped up by a ten tackle, four sack performance
against Stanford, and now he appears on the verge of exploding after
being the focus of the coaching staff all off-season. 15 sacks won't be
out of the question.
- DT Trevor Laws, Sr. - 33 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3 TFL
A reliable 293-pound run stuffer, Laws is a strong mauler of a defender
with the quickness to be expected to do more as a pass rusher. He's a
great talent who has the potential to be the team's breakout defensive
star with most teams sure to focus on stopping more heralded playmakers
like Victor Abiamiri and Derek Landri.
- DT Derek Landri, Sr. - 43 tackles, 3 sacks, 8 TFL, 7
While undersized at 6-3 and 263 pounds, he's a top pass rusher with the
lateral quickness to make plays anywhere on the line against the run. He
has been a steady starter over the last two years while improving his
closing ability when he gets into the backfield.
- DE Ronald Talley, Jr. - 23 tackles, 1 sack, 1.5 TFL
A spot starter last season, the 261-pound junior will get the first look
at right end where he needs to be more of a pass rusher. He started to
come on over the second half of last year with good back-to-back games
against USC and BYU before struggling a bit the rest of the way..
- DE Justin Brown, Jr. - 12 tackles, 1 TFL
Still raw and still needing a little more time to develop, the 6-3,
247-pound junior has the potential to explode and become the team's best
pass rusher ... in time. He has only played football for three seasons
but has the skills and athleticism to be tremendous behind Ronald Talley
on the right side.
- DT Derrell Hand, Soph.
The 301-pound sophomore is the biggest player up front and has to grow
into a presence as a run stopper. He's a strong presence who should see
time right away behind Trevor Laws at right tackle.
- DE Chris Frome, Sr. - 6 tackles, 1 sack
He has the size at 6-5 and 271 pounds and has the experience having
played in 18 games with six starts last season , but he has to come back
healthy after getting knocked out for the year with a knee injury
against USC. He also has to prove he can make plays with only 15 career
tackles and one sack.
- DE Dwight Stephenson Jr., Sr. - 9 tackles
The son of the legendary Alabama and Miami Dolphin center will
look to finally make an impact after moving around from linebacker to
tackle to end. He'll start out behind Victor Abiamiri on the left side.
This will be the team's biggest question mark going into the
fall. Maurice Crum is a rock-solid force moving from the outside in
forcing a major battle late this summer to sort out the outside spots
with several talented, inexperienced prospects looking to shine after an
average spring. Joe Brockington, one of the team's only experienced
linebackers, has to come back healthy to push for playing time with
Steve Quinn, Anthony Vernaglia, Mitchell Thomas and Scott Smith. All
will bet equal chances to replace Crum and leading tackler Brandon Hoyte.
The key to the unit: A good rotation has to develop
right away around Maurice Crum. There might not be sure-thing stars out
of the gate, so all the prospects on the outside need a chance to show
what they can do when the lights are on.
Linebacker Rating: 6.5
- Steve Quinn, Soph. - 4 tackles
A special teamer last season, the 215-pound sophomore will get the start
on the weakside where he'll try to replace leading tackler Brandon Hoyte.
He's physical enough to play on the strongside with more than enough
speed to be a disruptive force on the weakside. He's not going to be the
hitter Hoyte was, at least he won't be right away.
- Maurice Crum Jr., Jr. - 57 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 3 quarterback
The team's only linebacker with any appreciable experience will move
from the outside to the middle after finishing sixth on the team in
tackles as one of the team's most consistent defenders. He should be a
terror using his speed, experience, and skills to be a
sideline-to-sideline force and one of the team's top three tacklers.
- Anthony Vernaglia, Jr. - 4 tackles
The former safety saw a little time at linebacker last year and now
looks to be a consistent threat at the strongside Apache position. He
has the the speed and athleticism to be one of the team's top tacklers
once he figures out what he's doing.
- Mitchell Thomas, Sr. - 1 tackle
The 240-pound career special teamer is a far bigger option on the
weakside than starter Steve Quinn. He has the size and the sprinter's
speed to make an impact, and now he has to put it all together and be
good enough to get on the field. If his performances late in spring ball
were any indication, he's ready for a big year.
- Kevin Washington, Soph.
A speedy sophomore who's built for the Notre Dame Apache position on the
outside, Washington bulked up to 231 pounds and should be able to do a
little of everything well as he pushes Anthony Vernaglia for time.
- Joe Brockington, Sr. - 9 tackles
One of the only returning linebackers with any appreciable experience,
Brockington has to get healthy after having problems with his back. He's
mostly a special teamer with 22 games of experience and will be in the
hunt for a starting spot on the outside this fall.
- Scott Smith, Soph. - 3 tackles
Smith was a top recruit last season and grew into an excellent special
teams performer. He's not going to move Maurice Crum out of a starting
job in the middle, but he's a talented enough prospect to see plenty of
time and possible be move to the outside here and there just to get him
on the field.
This group got flat-out torched all year and
didn't all of a sudden get faster this off-season. All four starters
return to a group that gave up 265 yards per game and 18 touchdown
passes even with games against the challenged air attacks of Navy and
Syracuse to make things look better. The strength is at safety where Tom
Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe are good enough to challenge any tandem in
the nation, but corner is an issue where Mike Richardson and Ambrose
Wooden are fantastic tacklers and mediocre covermen. Don't be shocked if
incoming freshmen Raeshon McNeil and Darrin Walls end up starting sooner
The key to the unit: Prevent the big play. Opponents
averaged a whopping 14.6 yards per catch last season.
Secondary Rating: 7
- CB Ambrose Wooden, Sr. - 74 tackles, 2 interceptions, 5
broken up passes
The former receiver grew into a fantastic open field tackler leading the
team with 61 solo stops and is the team's leading returning tackler. Now
he needs to become a more consistent coverman and has to pick off more
passes and has to be better against deep passes. He'll continue to have
problems with the speed receivers, but he should be physical enough to
handle the slower ones.
- SS Chinedum Ndukwe, Sr. - 52 tackles, 2 interceptions, 5 broken
Ndukwe took over the starting role early last year after getting his
feet wet in 2004 after moving over from wide receiver. He's a huge 6-2,
219-pound hitter with a nose for the football and an uncanny knack for
forcing turnovers. He won't receive the national acclaim of Tom
Zbikowski, but he'll be just as effective.
- FS Tom Zbikowski, Sr. - 71 tackles, 5 interceptions, 4 broken
up passes, 1 sack
Easily one of the toughest players in America, the part-time boxer and
full-time leader of the Irish defense has grown into a whale of a
playmaker with 134 tackles over the last two years with six
interceptions. He's also an elite punt returner averaging 14 yards per
attempt with two touchdowns last season. He brings the attitude to the
- CB Mike Richardson, Sr. - 66 tackles, 3 interceptions, 5 broken
up passes, 3 sacks
The senior hits like a corner, but he also covers like one. He has 115
career tackles and turned into a good blitzer, and now he has to be more
consistent when the ball is in the air. He'll make big plays here and
there and has a knack for getting to the ball, but he'll also give up
several big plays.
- CB Terrail Lambert, Jr. - 8 tackles, 1 broken up
When you hear complaints about the lack of speed in the Notre Dame
secondary, those don't apply to Lambert. One of the team's fastest
players, Lambert will see more time this season behind Mike Richardson
after mostly being used on special teams and in dime packages.
- CB Leo Ferrine, Jr. - 22 tackles, 1 interception, 2 TFL
The team's top nickel back will start out behind Ambrose Wooden and
could start if needed. He's at his best on special teams and making
tackles in the open field. With his experience he should start making
more big plays.
- SS David Bruton, Soph. -14 tackles, 1 broken up pass
Mostly a special teamer in his fist season, Bruton flies to the ball and
will be groomed to be a star starter next season. He has good range and
doesn't miss tackles.
- FS Ray Herring, Soph. - 6 tackles
Able to play cornerback or safety, Herring will use his speed at free
safety where he'll see a few plays here and there behind Tom Zbikowski.
He has been a great scout teamer and a standout on special teams.
The kicking game won't be all that bad even with the
uncertainty at placekicker. Carl Gioia and freshman Ryan Burkhart will
battle for the starting job, while new punter Geoff Price appears to be
a keeper. Tom Zbikowski is one of the nation's better punt returners,
while David Grimes is a solid kickoff returner averaging 22.5 yards per
try. The coverage units should once again be decent.
The key to the unit: Reliable, consistent
placekicking in place of D.J. Fitzpatrick.
Special Teams Rating: 7
- PK Carl Gioia, Sr.. 1-1 FGs
Don't get comfortable with the idea of Carl Gioia being the main man for
a full season after a shaky spring. D.J. Fitzpatrick wasn't the
steadiest placekicker, but he wasn't a liability. If Gioia struggles
early on, expect freshman Ryan Burkhart to quickly take over.
- P Geoff Price, Sr.
D.J. Fitzpatrick averaged 40.3 yards per kick
and put 12 inside the 20; Price is good enough to equal those numbers.
He's a big kicker with a big leg and should put more boom on the ball
than Fitzpatrick. Consistency will be his main issue early on.