The Irish held their first practice of the spring in the Loftus Center and it looked like all the players were glad to be back on the field after a long winter of conditioning."Everyone came back in really good shape," said Irish halfback Darius Walker. "Coach Mendoza did a great job of working us out during the off-season in the weight room; training, running, and conditioning, and picked it up to another level. It's good. I really think it is about time we get out there and sort of stretch the pads and get the helmets back on. We had a chance to relax and stuff over the break and get our feet and bodies some rest, and now it is time to get back to work. So naturally getting out there and playing, we will feel a lot better."
The chemistry among players and coaches is important and was a big factor in the success of the 2005 team and Walker believes the same feeling exists with this year's squad."Naturally, when you play this game and have the kind of players we have and all the guys coming back and stuff, the camaraderie within the team just gets better," Walker said. "And I think we kind of saw that today, that we had some of the same feeling we had last season and things just progress and grow as the year goes on."
Last year at this time, expectations for the team varied considerably due to the coaching change and the previous season's record. This year the expectations are high, and this is fine with the veteran running back."If you want to be a really good team, you want the expectations to be high," he said. "I know we have high expectations for ourselves. It is a little different coming in this season than last year, but I think we are definitely up to the challenge."
The Irish were a little rusty on the first day according to the Lawrenceville, Ga. native."We kind of went out there and went hard from the jump, which was a real good sign to see that. Although we had to get our kinks out the first day, we weren't too sluggish and had a lot of energy out there practicing," the veteran said. "We feel a lot more comfortable as a lot of the guys are back and we are seeing the same faces in the huddle. I think we have a lot more respect for each other and know each other's game a lot better. So this gives a higher confidence level coming out at the beginning of the season, more so than what we had last year."
Most Irish fans considered the 9-3 season a success, but this is not the case with the players and coaches as they have raised the bar for 2006.
"I think we as a team understand that last year's season 9-3 - that's our motto 9-3 - was just not good enough, and it isn't good enough," said Walker. "We strive for excellence and I think that is something the coaches do a great job with; and keeping us motivated to do better and want to do better. This spring we want to get more physical and being in shape will help us out through the season. Understanding the plays even more will help us relax and be more comfortable out there on the field."
Walker also knows the running back position will be a strength for the 2006 season and he feels his unit will be up to the challenge."I think we, as a running back unit, always want to be successful in whatever we are doing. The running back position is a position where you can hit every play. You have to think a lot while you're out there, and you have to know what you're doing and what everyone else is doing. You have to run, you have to block, and you have to catch. You kind of have to do all facets of the game. So we as running backs know our job is very important and one that is very difficult, that takes a lot of hard work and preparation to do well."
Entering his third Irish season, Walker sees his role as a leader expanding and he's looking forward to becoming a better leader on the team. "I think I will have a big leadership role. I'm going to be one of the guys out there playing so you have to lead by example. Being a leader is understanding what each player is like and how they respond to different things, and knowing your personnel in and out. So that's something I'm trying to develop now and I'm up to the challenge, and it should be exciting for me."