The last couple of days has brought a lot of hype/buzz on Anthony Vernaglia. New Irish Defensive Coordinator Corwin Brown is apparently very familiar with Vernaglia, having worked very hard to recruit him while an assistant coach at the University of Virginia. The recent stories are very appropriate to Spring as the running theme is the "resurrection" of Anthony's disappointing career. Vernaglia came to Notre Dame in the Fall of 2004 as a very highly touted recruit out of Orange Lutheran High School in Orange, California (right here in Orange County). For each of the last two seasons (2005 and 2006) observers of the Notre Dame football program have waited expectantly for Vernaglia to have that breakout year and live up to the hype, only to be disappointed. Very disappointed. Being from Orange County, I have casually followed Vernaglia's career, which isn't easy since he has been nearly invisible as a player. In 26 minutes and 19 seconds of playing time last year over the course of eight games, Anthony logged one tackle. One lousy tackle. From my observations of the televised games last Fall, Anthony did not look like a linebacker. He seemed uncertain about where he was supposed to be on most plays, and was late to react as the plays developed. He also did not appear to me to be physical enough to be a linebacker. The result was that he was easily blocked and therefore late to the play, arriving at the pile well after the whistle. Having started the year as either #1 or #1A for the Apache linebacker spot, Anthony lost the competition and ended his season as #2 for the spot (at best).
Enter Corwin Brown and the new 3-4 defensive scheme. According to the latest stories, Coach Brown knows and likes Vernaglia, and has high expectations for him. The new 3-4 scheme is supposedly much better suited to Anthony's skill set, and he is very excited to have a new chance to prove himself as a linebacker, after having asked Coach Weis to try him out as a wide receiver this Spring. Apparently the position switch idea has been scrapped, and Vernaglia has been making a favorable impression on the coaches so far this Spring.
I am skeptical. As previously noted, Vernaglia just did not look like a linebacker to me last season. Coach Brown is preaching aggressiveness and "flying around the ball" as central themes of this defense, and those were two things that Anthony did not do when given the chance on the field last year. I will admit I have always been a little skeptical of Vernaglia. When he commited to Notre Dame coming out of high school, an acquaintance of mine who followed the Orange Lutheran program very closely expressed surprise that Notre Dame even recruited AV. My friend thought that Anthony had great athletic ability, but felt that he lacked the toughness and heart to be a great player in college. Others have chimed in with questions about Vernaglia's "make up." My friend thought at the time that Anthony got a lot more attention as a recruit than was warranted because his father had played football for Joe Paterno at Penn State, and because the family was pretty aggressive in marketing him as a player.
Vernaglia's season was cut short last year when he suffered a minor knee injury in the Navy game. Although the injury put Anthony into a day-to-day status, according to Coach Weis, he did not play the rest of the regular season.
There has been a lot written and said about how the new 3-4 scheme will be a better fit for Notre Dame's personnel. In my view, there may be no better test of this thesis than the development, or not, of Anthony Vernaglia this season. If Coach Brown can convert Vernaglia from an athletic disappointment into a productive linebacker, that will speak volumes about Coach Brown as an evaluator and developer of player talent. It will also say a lot about Coach Weis as an evaluator of coaching talent. I won't get into what it says about Rick Minter.