"Significantly better," said Irish offensive coordinator Mike Haywood at Tuesday's media day. Haywood expects it, and he'll work his unit until he gets it.
"We have to be better at the play-action pass, we have to be better in our screen game, and there are certain runs that we need to improve on," Haywood said when asked where he'd like to see his unit improve this spring.
The Irish lose four starters from the 2005 offense, but both Bob Morton and Dan Santucci played a lot of guard last season and should be considered starters. That leaves only three spots to be won this spring…not so said Haywood.
"It will be great competition," said Haywood, who also doubles as the Irish running backs coach. "There will be some guys that are pushed. You can enter spring as the starter, but that doesn't mean you're going to exit the spring as a starter. Some guys are going to get better."
One position clearly locked down at this point is at quarterback where the Irish return Heisman Trophy candidate Brady Quinn. Haywood admitted it would be a hard sell to say Quinn's job is up for grabs this spring.
"You'd like to give everybody an opportunity to compete for a job," he said. "There are certain areas of the team that certain players are significantly better than others. The ones that are not at that level yet, there's an opportunity for them to get more reps, to improve their fundamentals and techniques, so they can be solid backups and hopefully starters in the future."
One job wide open at this point is the right tackle position. Haywood, like the rest of the Irish coaching staff, said the job could be won by any of the Irish offensive linemen at this point.
"We're going to give everybody an opportunity to win that job," Haywood said. "Last year we had a four-man rotation (inside). We're going to give some of the young guys the opportunity to win the job, and some of the veterans who don't have starting positions are returning. Our main goal is to give everyone an equal opportunity because the numbers are so slim at offensive line this spring."
Haywood will also have three new faces on offense this spring with three freshmen already enrolled at Notre Dame. The second-year Irish offensive coordinator says he feels the practices running back James Aldridge, wide receiver George West and offensive lineman Chris Stewart experience this will be a big advantage for them in the future.
"I think it's extremely important for these guys to get in and have an opportunity to come in and learn our offense," he said. "It basically puts them 15 practices ahead of some of the younger guys coming in this fall. At the same time, the speed of the game changes, the conditioning changes. One player in particular has lost over 34 pounds. Now he's put himself into position to have some success."
Haywood wouldn't confirm it, but that player is likely Chris Stewart. Stewart is a big man, listed at 6-5, 340, but we hear he's north of the 340 at this point. Stewart clearly has the size to play early, but where will he end up along the offensive line?
"We aren't sure where he's going to play, but looking at his body type, we think he's more of an interior guy, but he'll have an opportunity to play," Haywood said.
Specials Not Special Yet.
The Irish special teams improved quite a bit from the 2004 season under the tutelage of special teams coach Brian Polian, but the second-year special teams coach says he's far from content with their 2005 performance.
"We're not even close to being satisfied," Polian said. "The thing that makes my job the easiest is coach Weis explains to our team, and stresses it, the importance of the kicking game. And it's not just talk, either. When you look at the amount of time we put towards it, and the personnel that we use, that's how he shows our team how important it is. He sets the tempo. A lot of credit goes to the kids. They bought into what we're doing there. We got better. Are we there yet? We're not even close."
Polian will have to replace both his punter and kicker this season as last year's starter D.J. Fitzpatrick exhausted his eligibility. The Irish did nab a few kickers in this past recruiting class, but surprisingly, they didn't pursue a punter. Polian feels strongly they already have their punter on campus.
"We have faith that there are guys in this program that will step up and win that job, I really believe that," he said. "In terms of our kicking game this spring, I think it's pivotal that we get two or three specialists to step up and really take the bull by the horns and take one of those jobs. I feel that way in the return game as well. We have to identify more personnel that we can trust to put out there. Having to replace D.J., yeah, that's not an ideal situation to have one guy doing both, and now he's gone, but we feel confident that there are guys within the program right now that will be able to step up and win one of those jobs."
Polian also said he's still looking for the right return men at this point, and true freshman George West will certainly get a look there this spring as well.
"Yeah, definitely. Let's put it this way; Anybody who's got interest in doing anything in (special) teams is going to get a look in the spring. George is a guy, among many others, that we plan to put back there and take a look at them as a returner."