Aug. 19, 2009
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a five-part series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2009 Notre Dame fall sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the '08 Hawai'i Bowl champion Fighting Irish football team.
The most experienced University of Notre Dame football depth chart since Charlie Weis became Fighting Irish head coach -- combined with momentum from a record-setting Hawai'i Bowl victory -- give Irish fans hope for a 2009 return toward the elite level of the college football world.
Overall, 18 returning starters (including the Irish punter and placekicker) provide plenty of reason for optimism -- especially on offense where 10 regulars from 2008 are back, including the top Notre Dame passer (junior Jimmy Clausen), the six leading ground-gainers (paced by junior Armando Allen, junior Robert Hughes and senior James Aldridge), eight of the top nine receivers (led by junior Golden Tate, Allen, sophomore Michael Floyd and sophomore Kyle Rudolph) plus four of five first-teamers on the offensive line. Only left offensive tackle Mike Turkovich graduated from last year's starting unit -- and 16 players on the offensive roster have starting experience, including 11 players who have started at least 10 games in their Irish careers.
That group is complemented on defense with 14 returnees who have first-team experience, including eight players who have started nine or more games in an Irish uniform. Included in that number are three of the top five tacklers from '08 in senior safety Kyle McCarthy, junior safety Harrison Smith and junior inside linebacker Brian Smith.
The players with the two highest sack totals last year (Harrison Smith and sophomore Ethan Johnson) and the leader in tackles for loss (Harrison Smith) are back for `09. Brian Smith and Harrison Smith attempt to fill the void created by the departure of stalwarts Maurice Crum Jr. and David Bruton at linebacker and free safety, respectively, while sophomore Ian Williams and Johnson expect to man the defensive line slots vacated by Pat Kuntz and Justin Brown.
Altogether, 46 monogram winners (the most returning letterwinners from any season during the Weis era) from '08 return to the Notre Dame roster. Only nine teams in the nation feature more returning starters in '09 than Notre Dame (Indiana, Minnesota and Toledo have 20; UAB, Arkansas, Baylor, Central Michigan, Florida and Louisiana-Monroe have 19).
Notre Dame's 49-21 Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl victory over Hawai'i featured a scintillating 401-yard passing effort by Clausen, including five touchdown passes and a staggering 22-of-26 accuracy. The Irish defense, meanwhile, recorded eight sacks and held the Warriors to 32 rushing yards, helping snap a nine-game bowl losing streak.
Coming off an overall 7-6 record (including a 4-1 start) in `08, the challenge for Weis and his Irish in '09 will be to parlay their overall experience into consistent Saturday production that mirrors that Hawai'i Bowl effort. They'll attempt that against a 2009 schedule that features seven home games, a first-of-its-kind "off-site" home game against Washington State in San Antonio - and seven games against teams that played in the postseason in '08 (7-6 Nevada, 9-4 Michigan State, 12-1 USC, 9-5 Boston College, 8-5 Navy, 9-4 Pittsburgh and 8-5 Connecticut).
There are three new names on the Notre Dame coaching staff for 2009 - running back coach Tony Alford, offensive line coach/running game coordinator Frank Verducci and defensive line coach Randy Hart. That transition began in December when former offensive coordinator and running backs coach Mike Haywood became head coach at Miami of Ohio.
Weis already has announced he will serve as his own offensive coordinator and resume calling plays for the Irish offense (as he did from 2005-07) in `09, after delegating that assignment most of `08. He may do that from a press box location, as he did at the '08 Hawai'i Bowl due to his knee problems.
Alford came to the same post at Notre Dame after two seasons at Louisville (the Colorado State graduate previously coached running backs at Iowa State, Washington, Kent State and Mount Union). Verducci came from the NFL Cleveland Browns following two years as offensive assistant coach (the Seton Hall graduate previously coached with Buffalo, Dallas and Cincinnati in the NFL, and at Iowa, Northwestern, Northern Illinois and Colorado State in the college ranks). Hart came to South Bend after 21 seasons as defensive line coach at Washington (the Ohio State graduate previously coached at Ohio State, Purdue, Iowa State and Tampa).
Corwin Brown has been promoted to associate head coach and will serve as second in command to Weis, as well as coaching defensive backs and serving as co-defensive coordinator. Defensive play-calling duties have been shifted to the hands of Jon Tenuta this year. Tenuta continues to serve as assistant head coach for defense as well as the linebackers coach. Wide receivers coach Rob Ianello adds the title of assistant head coach for offense and remains the recruiting coordinator. New Irish graduate assistants are Brian White and Bryant Young, the latter a former Irish All-America defensive lineman who played 14 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
Here's a more detailed position-by-position breakdown of Irish personnel for 2009:
Only UAB returns more offensive starters than the Irish in '09 -- as 10 Notre Dame starters from the most-improved offense in the nation in 2008 are back. Notre Dame only opened two games in '08 with a fullback on the field and started the majority of contests with a three-receiver formation. The lone offensive starter the Irish need to replace is at left tackle -- and Paul Duncan, who sat out '08 with an injury but started all 12 games at left and right tackle in '07, is set to return for his fifth year and compete for that spot.
Notre Dame's '08 offense recorded the third-best passing numbers in school history, just behind the marks set by Weis' 2005 and 2006 teams. Directed by quarterback Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame averaged 245.4 passing yards per game to rank 34th nationally. That helped push the Irish offensive average to 355.1 yards per game, a 112.8-yard increase from '07 and the greatest improvement from the previous season of any team in the country.
The Irish return 99.4 percent of their passing yards from `08, 98.7 percent of their rushing yards and 89.3 percent of their receiving yards. All but 18 points from last year's team are back in '09 and 97.7 percent of all-purpose yards return to bolster the most experienced offensive attack yet in Weis' tenure.
Clausen is coming off the third-best passing season in school history and the most prolific passing season by a sophomore in school history. The California product completed 60.9 percent of his passes (268 of 440) for 3,172 yards with 25 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in `08. Clausen became just the second Irish quarterback to surpass 3,000 passing yards and 25 TDs in a season (Brady Quinn did it his junior and senior campaigns in '05 and '06). He already has started to climb the school's career passing charts -- ranking second in completion percentage, fourth in completions, fifth in attempts, fifth in passing TDs and sixth in passing yards.
A major improvement in Clausen's game from '07 to '08 was his ability to push the ball downfield. Much of that credit could be given to the offensive line that reduced its sacks-allowed total from 58 in '07 to 22 in '08 - plus Clausen and his receivers forged a much better chemistry. Clausen only completed six passes of 30 yards or more in '07 but more than quadrupled that total in '09, connecting on passes of at least 30 yards 25 times. He registered 43 passes of at least 20 yards as a sophomore, comparable to the total Quinn recorded as a senior when he tallied 45 passes of 20 yards or longer in 2006.
Ready to push Clausen and compete for the starting job is sophomore Dayne Crist. A childhood friend of Clausen, Crist did not play during his freshman year in '08 while watching and learning from Clausen. At 6-4 and 233 pounds, Crist possesses a powerful throwing arm and is surprisingly mobile for a player of his stature. A decorated high school quarterback in his own right, Crist spent his first year with the Irish learning the Weis playbook and making Notre Dame's first-team defense better by working as the scout team quarterback.
Despite not participating in spring drills, Evan Sharpley returns for his fifth year. The Marshall, Mich., native was a member of the Notre Dame baseball team and was drafted in the 50th round of the 2009 Major League Baseball draft by the Seattle Mariners. Sharpley started two contests in 2007 and provides the Irish with one of the most experienced number-three quarterbacks on any teams depth chart this season.
The three leading rushers from '07 again proved to be Notre Dame's top three running backs in '08 -- as James Aldridge, Armando Allen and Robert Hughes paced the Irish ground game. That trio increased its combined output from 1,105 rushing yards and four TDs in '07 to 1,324 yards and 10 TDs in `08. All three return in '09, and they'll have help from sophomore Jonas Gray who had a solid rookie season.
Aldridge appeared in 12 games during his junior season and rushed 91 times for 357 yards and scored the first three TDs of his career. His season totals decreased from '07, although his yards per carry average increased slightly -- as Aldridge averaged 3.9 yards per carry in '08. He gained a season-high 84 yards on 13 rushes at Washington and recorded his first multi-touchdown game of his career, tallying two TDs against the Huskies. Three weeks later Aldridge started versus Navy and averaged 5.0 yards per carry on 16 rushes, finishing with 80 yards. In spring practice, he moved to fullback and he opens training camp atop the depth chart at that position.
Allen ended up the leading Irish rusher in '08, gaining 585 yards on 134 attempts (4.4 yards per carry) with three rushing TDs. He also ranked second on the squad with 50 receptions and totaled 355 receiving yards with two TDs in his sophomore season. Allen's 50 receptions ranked as the second most in a season by an Irish running back (Darius Walker had 56 in '06) and his 74 career receptions rank second all-time at Notre Dame (Walker had 109). Allen started nine of the 13 games a year ago and eclipsed 100 rushing yards in a game for the first time in college versus Purdue, as he gained 134 yards on 17 carries with one TD. Against Navy, Allen tallied 60 yards rushing with one TD and 60 yards receiving. This fall he opens as the lead back on the depth chart.
Hughes more than doubled his workload in '08 compared to his freshman season, carrying 112 times for 382 yards and a team-best four rushing TDs. The bruising running back from Chicago also recorded 14 receptions for 93 yards and started three of the 12 games he played. Hughes was at his best at the beginning of the year and again at the end of the season as he registered season highs of 19 rushes for 79 yards and two TDs versus Michigan in the second game of the season. He capped off the year by gaining 55 rushing yards and one TD in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl, and also adding three receptions for 27 yards. Hughes starts training camp as the backup to Allen.
After Aldridge at fullback are junior Steve Paskorz and walk-on Bobby Burger. Paskorz appeared in 10 games as a reserve fullback in '08 while Burger, a part-time tight end, merits mentioning because of his solid play in certain packages during spring drills.
Two freshmen join Alford's running backs this season. A native of Manville, N.J., Theo Riddick was named to Superprep's All-America team following his senior season at Immaculata High School and he gained 4,042 rushing yards and 52 TDs in his high school career. Cierre Wood was a USA Today All-American from Oxnard, Calif., and rushed for 5,641 yards while scoring 71 TDs.
Arguably the deepest position on the team will have great position battles in training camp as the Irish lose just one player from their wide receiver group, '08 senior captain David Grimes. Established veterans will have to fend off challenges by younger players hoping to prove themselves this spring, as two sophomores who did not play last fall as freshmen look to break into the receiver rotation.
Floyd lived up to his advance billing in his first year at Notre Dame, establishing freshman school records with 48 receptions for 719 yards and seven TDs. The former USA Today high school All-American was named a second-team all-freshman performer by Sporting News, CollegeFootballNews.com, Phil Steele and Rivals.com. Floyd qualified as Notre Dame's go-to receiver for much of his freshman campaign as he started 10 of the 11 contests he played. He notched four 100-yard receiving games and combined with Tate to create one of the best wide receiver tandems in the nation, despite both players being in their freshman and sophomore years, respectively. Floyd opens his second season as the starter at the Z receiver.
Replacing Tate during the spring as the top X wide receiver was junior Duval Kamara. The biggest target of the Irish receiving corps at 6-5, Kamara has totaled 52 receptions for 563 yards and five TDs at Notre Dame. He looks to regain the form from his freshman year when he led all Irish receivers with 32 catches. Kamara started nine games last year as the third wide receiver and is one of 10 returning offensive starters. He starts the season backing up Tate at the X position and as one of the top options as the third receiver in certain formations.
Similar to Kamara, senior Robby Parris will be looking to revert back to the season he had in '07 when he led the Irish wideouts with 361 receiving yards. A sure-handed receiver, Parris has 39 career receptions for 418 yards and a TD and opens training camp behind Floyd at the Z position.
Two veterans who return after limited action in `08 are seniors George West Jr. and Barry Gallup Jr. West started seven games in '07 but only played in five contests in '08 because of a knee injury that sidelined him for much of the season. Gallup bounced around from halfback to wide receiver before an ankle injury ended his '08 season.
The Irish have two young players who did not see game action in their freshman years but were strong contributors to the scout team. John Goodman and Deion Walker both had solid springs and are expected to challenge the upperclassmen in training camp practices and make the position group that much better. Goodman opens spring behind Floyd and Parris at Z while Walker is the backup to Tate and Kamara at X.
Dubbed the best playmaker in the west by Sporting News, Shaquelle Evans of Inglewood, Calif., joins the mix this fall. The 6-1, 203-pounder caught 51 passes and scored 11 TDs as a senior. Roby Toma also joins the Irish on the heels of being named Hawaii's Co-Offensive Player of the Year by the Honolulu Advertiser. A teammate of classmate Manti Te'o, Toma led the state of Hawaii with 1,393 receiving yards and 15 TDs.
Uncertainty surrounded the Irish heading into the '08 season at tight end in terms of who would replace all-star John Carlson. Notre Dame's coaches knew they had a host of talented players vying to be the next player to continue the tradition started by Carlson and Anthony Fasano -- the question would be who would emerge.
It proved easy for the coaching staff to see during last year's training camp that Rudolph had the potential to be a special player and to make an immediate impact on the team. Rudolph won the job early in training camp and never looked back, making Irish history along the way. He became the first Notre Dame freshman to ever open the season as the starting tight end and started every game in his first year. Rudolph set freshman school records with 29 receptions for 340 yards and was named an all-freshman first-team player by Sporting News, Phil Steele and CollegeFootballNews.com.
Competing to back up Rudolph is junior Mike Ragone, who was the top tight end during '08 spring drills and seemed to emerge as the frontrunner to replace Carlson in '08. However, a knee injury during the summer months sidelined Ragone for the '08 season -- and now the former high school All-American is healthy and ready to challenge Rudolph for the starting job.
Walk-on Bobby Burger had an expanded role during spring drills as he split time as a tight end and fullback. He was primarily utilized as a move tight end or H-back during the spring.
New to Notre Dame are freshmen Tyler Eifert and Jake Golic. Eifert was an all-state Indiana performer at Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne and was a top target as a junior of wide receiver John Goodman (Goodman played QB as a senior in high school). Golic becomes the latest member of his family to play for the Fighting Irish, joining his brother Mike Jr. Jake Golic participated in the U.S. Army All-America game and was first-team all-state in Connecticut.
Notre Dame enters the season with four returning offensive line starters from '08 and six players with starting experience in their careers that total 100 career starts. The most experience-laden position unit on the team is led by seniors Sam Young, Eric Olsen, Dan Wenger and Chris Stewart, while fifth-year senior Paul Duncan is back after missing the '08 campaign with an injury. Young, Olsen, Wenger, Stewart and Duncan all have started at least 10 games in their Notre Dame careers. Sophomore Trevor Robinson started in his rookie season in '08 and now will challenge for a starting spot this fall.
Much maligned in '07 after allowing a school-record 58 sacks, the Irish offensive line made the largest improvement from '07 to '08 of any offensive line in the nation in that category, permitting only 22 sacks in `08. The improved pass protection proved key in Notre Dame's aerial assault, as the Irish posted their third-best passing season in school history. The improved offensive line also aided the growth of the rushing attack as Notre Dame increased its rushing-yards-per-game average by 45.8 percent. The Irish gained over 200 rushing yards three times in '08 (most since four times in `05) including two of the six best rushing performances under Weis (252 yards at Washington, then 230 yards vs. Navy).
Olsen emerged as a leader of the group during the '08 offseason and became a key contributor on the interior line last year. He started all 13 games at left guard in '08 and started the final six games of his sophomore season at right guard. His 19 consecutive games started streak is the second-longest active streak on the Irish, trailing Young's 38-game run. Olsen moves to center in '09 and opens training camp as the starter.
A high school teammate of Young, Wenger started every contest in '08 and has started 15 straight games at center. Wenger has forged a strong rapport with Clausen and has been equally as consistent on regular snaps as shotgun snaps. Wenger, who did not see any game action in his freshman season, started the first three games of his sophomore season in '07 at right guard between Young and current Minnesota Vikings center John Sullivan. Wenger's 18 career starts rank fourth on the roster but he opens the season behind Olsen at center.
A starter in 10 games in '08, Stewart took advantage of strong practices during '08 spring drills to win the right guard starting spot early in '08 training camp. The 6-5, 337-pounder did not play in his rookie campaign and saw action in just six games as a reserve in '07. His first year as a starter helped him as he heads into this season where he'll move to left guard and will start there this year.
Duncan missed the entire '08 season but started all 12 games in '07 and enters camp as the favorite for the vacant left tackle position. The fifth-year senior started the first two games of '07 at left tackle before moving to right tackle because of Young's wrist injury that season. Duncan hopes to replicate the one-year success Mike Turkovich had at left tackle in his final Notre Dame season.
A former high school All-American, Robinson enrolled early at Notre Dame and participated in '08 spring practices. The extra work proved beneficial, as he was competitive during training camp and saw action in 10 games during his rookie season, starting three games at right guard when Stewart was injured. Robinson was limited in spring this year but opens training camp as the starter at right guard.
Juniors Matt Romine, Taylor Dever and Andrew Nuss have seen limited playing time in their Irish careers due to the talented class ahead of them. Romine enters spring in competition for the starting left tackle position with Duncan. Dever has served as the backup to Young at right tackle the last two years but will be limited this spring while recovering from an injury. Nuss spent last season behind Olsen at left guard and is behind Robinson at right guard this year.
Braxston Cave, Mike Golic Jr. and Mike Hernandez add depth to the interior of the offensive line this year. Cave, a standout local product, was the short snapper in the opening game of the season but missed the remainder of '08 with an injury. He will open the season as the backup left guard. Golic played center in high school and also has experience long snapping but begins'09 behind Olsen and Wenger at center. Hernandez was a standout high school player in Los Angeles and walked on to the Irish roster in '08. He provides insurance at right guard behind Robinson and Nuss this fall.
Three freshman linemen get thrown into the mix this fall as Alex Bullard, Zach Martin and Chris Watt arrive at Notre Dame. Bullard was one of the top linemen in the south and was an all-state player in Tennessee as a senior. He opens his Irish career as a backup at left guard. Martin was a Superprep All-American and an all-state player in Indiana at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. He starts training camp as a backup at right tackle. Watt was selected to the USA Today and Parade All-America teams as a senior and was honored as the top high school player in the Midwest by the Detroit Free Press. He begins the season as a backup at right guard.
For the first time since 2002, Notre Dame's defense in 2008 ranked in the top 50 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. After the Irish improved in almost every statistical category, six starters return from last year's defensive unit.
The biggest improvement from '07 to '08 came with Notre Dame's rushing defense -- as the Irish ranked 45th in the country while allowing 134.2 yards per game, 61.2 yards better than in '07. Notre Dame's pass defense ranked second in '07, due in large part to the vulnerability of that year's rush defense, and again allowed less than 200 yards passing per game last fall as the '08 squad ranked 45th nationally (195.7 yards per game). Notre Dame ranked 39th in total defense for the second straight season but allowed 27.2 fewer yards per game than in '07. The Irish also were stingier in points allowed, as Notre Dame moved up 30 places to rank 42nd in the FBS while allowing 22.2 points per game. The 6.6-point decrease in points allowed was the 23rd-best improvement in the nation from '07 to '08.
The Irish are forced to replace several veteran starters and contributors in '09 as Justin Brown, Pat Kuntz, Maurice Crum Jr., Terrail Lambert and David Bruton - who combined to register 140 career starts - all exhausted their eligibility. Brown and Kuntz leave two gaping holes in the defensive line that Notre Dame must address in training camp, considering the Irish are switching to a four-man defensive front this year. Crum became a mainstay at linebacker for Notre Dame, starting 48 games in his Irish career. He was also a two-time captain and his leadership void will be tough to replace. Lambert started 31 games in his career at cornerback, while Bruton blossomed in his final two seasons, starting 24 of 25 contests.
With the Irish moving to a four-man front in '09, many players were shuffled around during spring practice, so this position group should be one of the most intriguing to watch in training camp. A host of young but talented players fill this position grouping that now features two defensive ends, a defensive tackle and nose tackle on the depth chart. The 13 players on the depth chart have 44 combined starts -- and no seniors are listed on the top line on the opening depth chart, making for interesting competition between the youthful players.
Sophomore Kerry Neal and senior John Ryan have bounced from defensive end to outside linebacker over the past two years and have combined to start 31 contests in their careers. Neal has started 16 games at Notre Dame, most of anyone on the defensive line. He tallied 25 tackles in '08 with two sacks and four tackles for loss and opens camp as the starter at right defensive end despite missing spring drills while recovering from a minor offseason injury. Ryan is one of four seniors in the group, and he opens camp behind Neal at one defensive end spot. Ryan's 50 tackles rank second among all returning defensive linemen, and he also added 2.5 sacks and six tackles for loss in `08. Senior Kallen Wade was limited in the spring and has yet to see the field at Notre Dame and opens '09 behind Neal and Ryan.
Upstart sophomore Kapron Lewis-Moore did not play as a freshman in '08 but was great during spring drills and is atop the initial '09 depth chart. Lewis-Moore is an intriguing prospect who wreaked havoc on the Irish offensive line during practices last fall. It took every ounce of strength for the coaches not to play him in '08 and potentially preserve a year of athletic eligibility. Senior Morrice Richardson opens training camp as the backup to Lewis-Moore, and the speedy defensive end has appeared in 29 games at Notre Dame, totaling 18 tackles with two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Junior Emeka Nwankwo has played both inside and outside for the Irish and begins '09 as a defensive end after appearing in seven games in '08 mostly in the interior on goal line formations.
On the interior, junior Ian Williams has recorded 85 tackles over the past two seasons and has started nine games, including seven contests in '08. He is one of just four players from his class to have played in every game of their Irish careers (Allen, Neal and Tate are the others) and opens the season as the top nose tackle. Sophomore Brandon Newman did not play in '08 but was a valuable member of the scout team. Freshman Tyler Stockton benefited from enrolling early and has a chance to compete for playing time in his first season. Senior Paddy Mullen missed spring practice but played in 12 games in '08 and rounds out the nose tackles.
At the other interior defensive line position, youth reigns supreme as Johnson leads a group of three sophomores into the season. The defensive tackle position, which will resemble more of a three-technique look in '09, has the talented sophomore from Oregon listed atop the depth chart. Johnson tied for the team lead with 3.5 sacks in his rookie season, and he recorded five tackles for loss, fourth most on the team. Hafis Williams had a solid spring that drew praise from the coaching staff. Williams did not play as a freshman last season but was a force on the scout team defensive line that should push Johnson this season. Sean Cwynar enrolled early in '08 and will be looking to get onto the field for the first time in a Notre Dame uniform. A high-motor player, Cwynar has a similar physical build to Kuntz.
Three Irish linebackers ranked among the top five players in tackles in '08, however Notre Dame will have to replace two of those standout players this spring. Only Brian Smith returns -- and it will be his responsibility to account for the leadership void created with Maurice Crum Jr.'s departure to the NFL. Harrison Smith, who ranked fourth in tackles on the team, has moved from an outside linebacker position to free safety this spring, providing opportunities for many young players.
Toryan Smith has played in 30 games during his three seasons at Notre Dame and enters his senior year with 41 career tackles. He enjoyed a great spring season and opens training camp as the starter at middle linebacker. Sophomore David Posluszny has been a tough, no-nonsense player since he arrived at Notre Dame last year and backs up Smith at the Mike position. Freshman Carlo Calabrese was the defensive player of the year for New Jersey in '08 and was named to MaxPreps' All-America second team.
A great competition is set to occur during training camp at strongside linebacker as three players open the season as the starter. Fifth-year senior Scott Smith is shared on the top line of the depth chart by Chicago sophomores Darius Fleming and Steve Filer. Smith is a highly-intelligent player who has played in 33 games over his career and tallied 32 tackles. Fleming played in every game as a freshman, used primarily as an edge rusher in passing situations, and was credited with 24 tackles including 2.5 sacks. He missed spring practice while recovering from an injury. Filer saw action in 11 contests, primarily on special teams, but was highly decorated coming out of high school.Freshman Dan Fox moves to linebacker after playing mostly safety in high school and helped St. Ignatius win Ohio's state championship in '08.
The most experienced group on the Irish defense, in terms of both career starts and number of seniors, is the secondary where the 14 players (seven of them seniors) have combined to start 51 career games. At least one senior can be found at both cornerback positions this spring, as well as each of the safety slots, but talented sophomores and juniors will be challenging for starting spots.
The leader of the secondary is fifth-year senior Kyle McCarthy who set a school record for most tackles in a season by a defensive back in '08. McCarthy's 110 tackles paced the team and ranked 54th nationally. Stout against the run and solid in pass coverage, he opens his final season as the top strong safety on the depth chart. Senior Sergio Brown became the nickel back in '08 despite having played safety at Notre Dame. Brown responded to the increased playing time by recording 28 tackles, six pass breakups, two tackles for loss, one sack and recovered one fumble. Freshman Zeke Motta enrolled early and participated in spring drills as a linebacker but moves to strong safety in training camp. Motta played safety in high school and adds youth to the position.
Senior Darrin Walls returns in '09 after missing '08 because of personal reasons. Walls was Notre Dame's top cornerback in '07 when he started 11 of 12 games and led the team with nine passes broken up. After competing in the spring with sophomore Robert Blanton at left cornerback, Walls opens training camp as the starter at right cornerback. Sophomore Jamoris Slaughter arguably had the strongest spring of any cornerback and is the backup to Walls. Slaughter did not see any action in his freshman season but was a solid contributor to the scout team. Mike Anello returns for his fifth season and the fan favorite should be ready this fall after recovering from a broken leg sustained in the '08 regular-season finale. Freshman E.J. Banks enrolled early but missed spring practice and could be slowed at the onset of training camp.
A tremendous training camp battle should occur at the left cornerback position as the two starters from last season, Blanton and senior Raeshon McNeil, are grouped together. Blanton had a solid freshman season when he ranked ninth on the team with 33 tackles and added two interceptions and three pass breakups. Blanton started four of the 12 games he played in '08. McNeil had a career-best season in '08 and ranked seventh on the team with 41 tackles, while adding two interceptions and a team-best 11 passes broken up. His 11 pass breakups tied him for third most by a Notre Dame player in a season. Junior Gary Gray returns to the team after missing the spring season and is behind Blanton and McNeil. Gray played in nine games as a sophomore and recorded 15 tackles to go with two interceptions and two pass breakups.
SPECIAL TEAMS PREVIEW
In `08, the Irish accomplished something they hadn't done since 1988 - they led the nation in a statistical category. For the first time in school history, Notre Dame finished tops in kickoff coverage, allowing only 16.5 yards per return. What made that even more impressive was the fact Notre Dame was able to accomplish the feat despite recording just one touchback. It was the best yards-per-return average since 1975 when that unit permitted 14.9 yards per kickoff return.
The Irish averaged 21.6 yards per kickoff return in `08, the best by a Notre Dame squad since 2002. The highlight of the season came in the Hawai'i Bowl as Armando Allen raced 96 yards for a touchdown, the first kick return for a TD since Vontez Duff versus Navy in 2002. The punt coverage team also was exceptional in '08 as it ranked 27th in the nation and allowed only 6.0 yards per return. The 6.0-yard average was the best by an Irish punt coverage unit since 2000 and the 38-yard return allowed versus Stanford was the only punt return in '08 longer than 20 yards against the Irish.
Over the last four seasons under coordinator Brian Polian, the Irish special teams have blocked or tipped 22 kicks, tallied seven TDs and registered six takeaways. Notre Dame has blocked or deflected 10 punts, 10 field goals and two PATs since 2005. The Irish have returned three punts and one kick for TDs as well as scored on returns of a blocked punt and blocked field goal and also on a fake field goal. Four times in the last four years Notre Dame's kickoff coverage team has forced a turnover, and the Irish have recovered two fumbles on punt coverage. That was no different in '08 as the Irish blocked or deflected five kicks, scored touchdowns on a blocked punt return and kickoff return and registered two takeaways.
Instrumental for the Irish has been the development of placekicker Brandon Walker in '08. Walker, who connected on six of 12 kicks in 2007 including just one of seven from outside 30 yards, missed six of his first seven kicks in '08. After spending countless hours on the practice field, Walker made 10 of his next 11 kicks, including seven straight at one point, and finished the year 14 of 24. He converted nine of 16 field-goal attempts between 30-49 yards and made all 39 PATs. Walker opens training camp as the co-starter with freshman Nick Tausch. Tausch was the only kicker selected to the Dallas Morning News Top 100 list for area players.
Replacing the punter who set the school record for best single-season punt average and who owned the second-best career punt average could have been a daunting task for some punters. But Eric Maust handled that pressure with ease in '08. The senior averaged 41.1 yards on 54 punts, with 16 punts landing inside the 20-yard line and only four touchbacks. Maust boomed eight punts at least 50 yards and helped the punt coverage team allow only 6.0 yards per punt return with his hang time and directional punting skills. Maust begins training camp as the co-starter along with freshman Ben Turk. Turk as an all-state kicker in Florida and ranked as the third-best punter in the nation by Scout.com.