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March 25, 2008
Notre Dame returns so many faces on offense that it can't help but do a better job of moving the ball this season. While the offense figures to get most of the attention in the wake of last year's struggles, the Irish also have major holes to fill on the defensive line. Here's a look at the Irish as they prepare for spring drills.
Quarterback Jimmy Clausen will look to break out as a sophomore.
Offense—6: QB Jimmy Clausen, T Paul Duncan, WR David Grimes, FB Asaph Schwapp, G Michael Turkovich, T Sam Young.
Defense—6: FS David Bruton, LB Maurice Crum, NT Pat Kuntz *, CB Terrail Lambert, OLB John Ryan, CB Darrin Walls.
Special teams—1: K Brandon Walker.
(NOTE: *–Kuntz isn't currently enrolled in school and his status for the fall is uncertain.)
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
Although the Irish lost two-time All-America safety Tom Zbikowski, they still appear to be in good shape in the secondary. Lambert and Walls return at cornerback, while Bruton looks like a star in the making at safety. James Aldridge, Armando Allen and Robert Hughes return at tailback after splitting time at the position last year and combining for 1,105 yards.
HELP IS NEEDED
Notre Dame fans will have to cross their fingers that there are no injuries on the defensive line. Notre Dame has such a serious lack of depth up front that opposing teams could run wild on the Irish. Notre Dame returns three starters on the offensive line, but that's not necessarily a good thing when you consider how poorly the Irish blocked last season. The departure of John Carlson leaves the Irish in dire need of a starting tight end.
KEEP AN EYE ON
CB Gary Gray: After enrolling early last year, Gray broke his right forearm in spring practice. Gray recovered in time to impress coaches and teammates on the scout team last fall. Don't be surprised if he earns plenty of playing time this year as the third cornerback.
TE Mike Ragone: A suspension to Will Yeatman leaves Ragone as the only scholarship tight end participating in spring practice. The former four-star prospect could use the opportunity to stake his claim as the Irish's starting tight end.
NG Ian Williams: He started two games as a true freshman last season and ranked sixth on the team with 45 tackles. Williams should emerge as Notre Dame's top defensive lineman this fall.
HIS TIME IS NOW
DE Justin Brown: It's unfair to call Brown an underachiever since he's a former two-star prospect who almost certainly will open the season in the starting lineup. But it would be accurate to call this fifth-year senior inconsistent. Brown has shown flashes of big-play ability, but he hasn't been able to put it all together. Brown had just one sack last season, but Notre Dame's lack of depth at defensive end virtually assures Brown will win a starting job. The Irish's chances of contending for a bowl bid could depend on how well he capitalizes on the opportunity.
The biggest concerns facing the Irish involve both sides of the line of scrimmage. If Notre Dame doesn't get any better on the offensive line, it's tough to imagine the Irish having a winning season - even against a less-challenging schedule. Notre Dame also needs someone to step up on the defensive line, or Irish fans could discover this fall just how much the departed Trevor Laws meant to last season's team. This spring also should provide the first clues as to what kind of role new Irish assistant and former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta will have while working alongside Notre Dame defensive coordinator Corwin Brown.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.