“After practicing and seeing how these guys play it wasn't (surprising),” Darius Fleming said of the inordinate number of true freshmen that got on the field for the Irish last fall. “We've got a lot of guys that could've played but didn't.”
But there were a lot who did.
Fleming is one of seven sophomores that saw action last year and are now looked upon to be among the top players in the program, regardless of how long they've been in South Bend.
“Some of the guys that did play are great playmakers and put in the work every day in practice,” Fleming said.
Fleming, who started three times in 2008, is listed as the backup at the “Sam” linebacker slot after playing on the weak side (or “Will” position) a year ago. The Chicago native displayed the athleticism to be flexed between the two positions, with the “Sam” needing the quickness to cover more ground.
Classmate Steve Filer also made an impact for Weis last year, appearing in 11 games and making 98 appearances on special-team units. He is slotted to also compete for playing time at the “Sam” spot this fall. Those two players will be keys to the defensive unit, but not more so than Robert Blanton and Ethan Johnson.
Blanton started four times last year and is currently battling for the top left cornerback position with senior Raeshon McNeil. The North Carolina native recorded 33 tackles and picked off a pair of passes, including one that he took back all of the way for a score against current Indianapolis Colt (and former Purdue) quarterback Curtis Painter.
Johnson will start at defensive tackle after improving almost daily throughout his first year on campus.
“We have a lot of sophomores playing and they are that guy (who's) going to be on the field,” Johnson said. “(The sophomores that are playing) have to take on leadership positions - at least at their positions.”
Johnson played in all 13 games last season, including four of which he started. He quickly became known among the Irish squad for his tenacity, and demonstrated that by getting 3 1/2 sacks.
This fall, those second-year stars will be joined by Kapron Lewis-Moore, who is projected to start at left defensive end. The 6-4, 265 pounder is still growing and is anxious to see game action for the first time in his collegiate career.
“We always talk (about making an impact as a class),” Lewis-Moore said. “But you can't really talk about it until you perform on the field. But I feel that we're a special class.”
This coming season, there are a number of other sophomores that are listed among the top two spots on the depth chart. Those players include: Braxston Cave (left guard), Dayne Crist (quarterback), Hafis Williams (defensive tackle), Brandon Newman (nose tackle), David Posluszny (“Mike” linebacker), Dan McCarthy (free safety), and Jamoris Slaughter (right cornerback).
“Anytime that you get on a college football field as a freshman, it should be a surprise to you,” Johnson said.
“Otherwise I think that you are thinking too highly of yourself. It's all about the opportunity that presents itself and you taking a hold of it.”Notre Dame kicker Brandon Walker was one of 30 players selected to the 2009 Lou Groza Award watch list, presented each year to college football's best place- kicker.
The first left-footed Irish kicker since Harry Oliver in 1981, Walker enters 2009 having converted 13 of his last 17 field-goal attempts and has made 20 of 36 field goals in his career and 61 of 62 extra points. He holds the fifth-best total in Notre Dame history with 58 straight PATs.
Also named to the honor list was Purdue sophomore Carson Wiggs.Wednesday's practice (the fifth of training camp) was the first that the Irish could wear full pads and make full contact. The NCAA mandates a period of acclimation for the football players. Today the team will practice twice - 9-11 a.m. and 5:30-8 p.m.