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Irish battles play out in practice

Coaches keeping an eye on lesser known players

Published: Sunday, April 02, 2006 -- The Truth, B1

Last updated: 4/1/2006 11:56:17 PM

By Ben Ford

Truth Staff



Spring fling

Notre Dame players listen to instructions from a coach during spring practice Saturday.

Photo: Jennifer Shephard / The Truth


NOTRE DAME -- The mystery of what happens after the first 20 minutes of a Notre Dame football practice -- that intriguing period after an airhorn sounds and the media are escorted off the field -- was finally solved Saturday.


It turns out there's not much mystery to it at all. It was just what you'd expect: Plenty of repetitive drills, lots of sprints and yes, even a little insight that couldn't be gleaned from that first 20 minutes.


Due to injuries and graduation, inexperienced players are being given a chance to impress the coaching staff. But that window of opportunity won't be open long, though, with more seasoned players eventually to return from injury and "the cavalry" -- coach Charlie Weis' term for the highly touted freshman class -- arriving in the fall.


Still, if Saturday's open practice is any indication, it might be a good idea to shell out for a program at Notre Dame's Blue-Gold scrimmage later this month.


Here are some other observations from the two-hour workout at Notre Dame Stadium, which the media were permitted to view from the press box (Irish players and coaches were not available for comment afterward):


Competition at the linebacker spot is fierce, with Maurice Crum, a starter last season, and Joe Brockington, a leading candidate to inherit Brandon Hoyte's spot, being held out with injuries. Junior-to-be Anthony Vernaglia, who moved from safety to linebacker during spring practice last season, worked with the first team Saturday alongside senior Mitchell Thomas and sophomore Steve Quinn. Vernaglia was the most active of the three, bouncing around behind the line and becoming almost a fifth down lineman in some situations.


Most of the other first-team defenders were holdovers from last season. Victor Abiamiri, Trevor Laws, Derek Landri and Ronald Talley were the linemen and Mike Richardson and Ambrose Wooden the cornerbacks. Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe were the safeties.


Running back Darius Walker broke free for a 30-yard carry down the left sideline against this group before being pushed out of bounds by Zbikowski. Fullback Asaph Schwapp had carries for 7 and 8 yards, but the defense bottled up most of the other runs (there was no tackling; officials blew plays dead).


On the offensive side, center/guard John Sullivan was held out of practice because of a shoulder injury. Senior Brian Mattes played a number of snaps at right guard and sophomore Paul Duncan was the right tackle. Sophomore Michael Turkovich, another sophomore, backed up Mattes and Duncan. John Carlson and Marcus Freeman were the tight ends and Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight the wide receivers.


When the Irish put their second-team defense on the field, the linemen were Dwight Stephenson Jr., sophomore Derrell Hand, sophomore Pat Kuntz and junior Justin Brown. Brown was the only one of those players to see any significant playing time last season. The linebackers were sophomore Kevin Washington, senior Nick Borseti and sophomore Scott Smith. In the defensive backfield, juniors Leo Ferrine and Terrail Lambert were the cornerbacks and sophomores Ray Herring and David Bruton the safeties.


Walker had a relatively easy 40-yard run against the second team and Tim Gritzman, a walk-on tight end, dropped a pass from Brady Quinn. Washington had an interception slip through his hands.


Few of the drills involving the offense and defense were run at full speed.


Notre Dame also spent more than a half-hour on special teams and showed plenty of room for improvement. The punters, Geoff Price and Carl Gioia, were inconsistent, and one snap sailed over Gioia's head. There were also two punts blocked.


Zbikowski and freshman George West, one of three first-year players already enrolled at Notre Dame, returned punts. West muffed and then recovered one kick and fumbled away another, though he made good moves on his other runbacks.


West was one of three players -- with Lambert and Ferrine -- who rotated into the deep spots when Notre Dame switched to kick returns. Freshman Chris Stewart, a 6-foot-5, 340-pound offensive lineman, helped form the wedge on returns. The kicks, by Gioia and walk-on Pablo Nava, were mostly kicked to the 5-yard line or deeper.


Gioia made field goals from 30, 32, 35 and 38 yards and missed from 36 and 43. Nava and fellow walk-on Bobby Renkes each missed two kicks. A spectator in a red high school letter jacket -- presumably incoming freshman kicker Ryan Burkhart from NorthWood -- watched the special teams workouts with interest.

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