We must begin by saying we are not allowed to view the practices and scrimmages. We do not get to see the actual results on the field. We can only offer insight on comments made the by the coaching staff and players—and sometimes those comments are few and filled with very limited useful information. Let's take a look at some of the important questions that the Irish need to answer before 2004.
Has Brady Quinn made major improvement as a quarterback?
We think the answer to this question will be the key to the season on offense. The Irish offense will go as far as Quinn can take them we believe. Notre Dame will have serviceable, if not excellent, skill position players and an experienced offensive line. The real factor will be how much improvement Quinn makes between now and September.
Unfortunately this question will remain unanswered until September. With nobody pushing Quinn for the starting position, nobody can be sure how much progress Quinn has made.
We asked Diedrick early last week to name the one area he's seen improvement in Quinn and the one area he'd still like to see more improvement. "The one thing I've seen is a tremendous amount of improvement on his leadership," said Diedrick. "The one other area that I'm looking for and expecting is his decision-making process. Being a lot quicker, being a lot more consistent with good decisions and understanding of what needs to be done by down and distance—all the situations that he's going to face. That's the thing you look for all quarterbacks, but I think that's the one area of growth that I want to see him make this spring."
We're not sure what to make of that quote other than it doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement so far. We will also say that maybe Diedrick doesn't want to put too much pressure or praise upon Quinn because of what happened with Holiday last year.
Quinn will improve a great deal and probably already has. We do believe he could improve even more if he had some competition pushing him, and we don't mean to imply that he is being lazy. Competition is good for anyone and usually brings out the best in most people and Quinn is no different. We simply won't know the answer to this question until September. But, we know the character of Quinn and we doubt anyone wants to succeed more or will work harder than he will.
Have the Irish fixed their problems with special teams?
Another area of concern that is often overlooked is special teams. The Irish struggled some in special teams last year. Punting was a concern for most Irish fans heading into this spring as was coverage of kicks and punts.
We've tried to find answers on special teams by asking questions of the coaches, but so far we haven't found many. "We're just going to get back to the fundamentals," said special teams coach Buzz Preston when asked if the Irish were focusing more time on special teams this spring. "It's a combination of the guy kicking it and the guys covering it. We're going to get back to the fundamentals of coverage and protection aspect of it, and hopefully with the combination of our guys, we'll get to kicking it and be in good shape."
We also tried to find some answers for who might be starting at kicker or punter this season. "Not yet" was Willingham's response when asked if it were becoming clear which players might kick and punt for the Irish in 2004. "Hopefully we're putting them through tests every day to kind of evaluate that. Hopefully it will be a long-term process and not just in a week we know who should be doing those responsibilities."
Usually the coaches are comfortable in naming a starter if one clearly exists. As an example, we know Ryan Harris, Rhema McKnight, Mike Goolsby, Derek Curry, etc. are going to start and the coaches have no problem saying that. With the kicking and punting duties, the question appears to remain unanswered and will need to be answered this fall. Hopefully someone will step forward.
Where will everyone line up at offensive line?
So far our earlier predictions look to have become true. Bob Morton is splitting time at offensive center and left guard. John Sullivan has been working exclusively as offensive center. We think that move opens up the way for Sullivan to start at center if he continues to improve. Morton would then move to left guard. Ryan Harris lined up at left tackle from the first practice and has remained. Stevenson has been a mainstay at right guard and Mark LeVoir has stuck with right tackle when healthy. We'll try to get a better update on this later today, but this appears to be what the Irish are moving towards for 2004. If LeVoir can handle the speed of the outside, this should answer most of the questions along the offensive line. They will remain thin on depth, but the starting five should be solid.
Who will start in the secondary?
New defensive backs Coach Steve Wilks has recently said that Dwight Ellick and Carlos Campbell have established themselves as the starters at corner right now. We don't believe either is set in stone at this point. Freddie Parish and Lionel Bolen appear to be in a battle for the starting strong safety spot. Last we saw, Parish was running with the first team. Tom Zbikowski is the beneficiary of an injury to Quentin Burrell at free safety. We're not sure Zbikowski can challenge Burrell at free safety, but we are sure that Zbikowski is gaining valuable experience and knowledge and is probably becoming a lot more comfortable at free safety.
Could we see a battle at free safety as well? Wilks says that Zbikowski has been impressive so far. "Zbikowski has definitely caught my eye and I think he is doing a great job of picking up the defense," said Wilks. "He works hard every day; he's a guy that goes full speed. Occasionally he gets his eyes caught in the backfield, peeking a little too much but for the most part he's definitely stepped up and making things happen."
Who will start at fullback?
Once again, Coach Buzz Preston was evasive in naming a starter which tells us he doesn't have one at this point. "It's the same as the halfback position," said Preston. "Everyone's just working hard and we'll see at the spring who will step out and be the starter. You're always going to use more than one guy at both positions because of the wear and tear of the season."
The Irish appear to have answered a few of the questions so far this season, but many still remain. We will be looking for more answers this week like finding the names of the third and fourth receiver in the rotation, and which players would be considered the depth at offensive line. Hopefully we can find more answers in the future.