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September 1, 2009Notre Dame has experience on its side this season. That doesn't mean having it will be a pre-requisite for playing time on Saturday against Nevada.
In the final depth chart released by Charlie Weis before the opener, Notre Dame's head coach trusted some untested players in key roles. While depth charts can be as fluid as pre-season polls, they also reveal plenty about a program's state entering September.
In that case, Notre Dame has a new second-team tailback and fullback, an unconventional kickoff return pairing and some flexibility in who plays where at linebacker. Yet the most striking change came on the left side of the offensive line where one-time starting center Dan Wenger is listed as a co-starter with Chris Stewart at left guard. Paul Duncan and Matt Romine are listed as co-starters at left tackle.
Weis said Duncan and Stewart will start against Nevada, but Wenger and Romine will play. At a position where continuity can carry a game plan, a seven-man rotation can be considered both odd and beneficial.
"Usually when you put offensive linemen in they're going to stay in for the whole time but those two guys are two guys that we want to make sure we get involved in the game in the first half," Weis said. "We're not going to wait to the second half to get Romine and Wenger in the game."
The change in Armando Allen's backup isn't considered a surprise in part because Robert Hughes will be suspended for the first half of the opener following an altercation last year during the USC game that resulted in an ejection That opened the door for Jonas Gray, but the sophomore didn't burst through by default.
"(Gray) had a heck of a camp," Weis said. "Makes it a little easier to make that decision when you know you don't have the other guy available for play until the second half comes around."
Bobby Burger, a former walk-on tight end, is listed as the second-string fullback.
If experience did secure a position, it happened at wide receiver where Robby Parris held off Shaquelle Evans for the fourth receiver position. Weis credited Parris' hard work in tandem with the fact he stayed healthy. Parris had been injury prone for much of his first three seasons but stayed fit last spring while Michael Floyd, Golden Tate and Duval Kamara all went down.
Weis added that Notre Dame could play as many as seven receivers on Saturday, noting Evans, John Goodman and Deion Walker.
"And that doesn't mean we don't have those young receivers all waiting in the wings to get on the field and we won't play them," Weis said. "It just means going into this game right now I think that one of the most dependable guys we have other than Michael (Floyd) and Golden (Tate), Robbie is the most consistent player we have out there."
On special teams, Weis mixed old and young with James Aldridge and Theo Riddick on kickoff returns. Odds are Weis would have stuck Allen and Tate in those spots if fatigue wasn't an issue, but in an effort to save those starters he'll pair a senior with a freshman. Evans is listed as the third team returner.
"I think the last thing I want to do is put Shaq and Theo back there for the first kickoff return of the year," Weis said. "I don't think I would have felt too comfortable having those two guys as a decision-maker. But having James back there, it's kind of a settling influence.
"Theo is one of those guys who has kind of got everyone's attention from the first day he's gotten here athletically. And to be honest with you, on kickoff return we'd like to get the ball in his hands as much as we could, because we think when he touches the ball there's an opportunity for him taking it to the house."
There were no surprises on Notre Dame's defensive depth chart, where Weis made it clear that five-star linebacker Manti Te'o would see the field on Saturday. He's listed as the second team WILL linebacker, but Brian Smith is listed at WILL and MIKE, effectively opening the door for a shift that gets Te'o into the lineup. Toryan Smith is listed as the starting MIKE linebacker, ahead of Brian Smith.
"Manti will definitely be on the field," Weis said. "We won't start him, but I think you'll see him rotating in there, rotating in there at WILL linebacker with Brian or Toryan."