Spots Still Up for Grabs

Notre Dame football nation can barely contain their glee for next weekend's Blue-Gold game. Fans can get a glimpse of Brady Quinn throwing to wide receivers Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight one last time before the team breaks for the summer. Head coach Charlie Weis, though, is already thinking about the days after the annual scrimmage contest.

"I always challenge myself to work harder than the year before," Weis said. "Last year, I wasn't ready to go out after spring ball. I needed a week to regroup. Well, now I'm ready. We play on Saturday. On Monday at 7 a.m., I'll be walking into my first school. I'd walk in earlier if they were available.

"Most people would slack off and pat themselves on the back. I challenge myself to work harder. If I'm going to make them work harder and I'm not working harder myself, then that would be hypocritical."

First the head coach has some unfinished business. The Irish, counting today, have three more spring practices before the Blue-Gold game on April 22nd at Notre Dame Stadium. Weis announced on Wednesday the captains for the upcoming season. The players voted on the honor. One was a no-brainer. Quinn will lead the offense for a second straight year and obviously did a solid enough job as a junior to get re-elected as a senior.

"I think he did a great job of being captain last year, especially being an underclassman," Weis said. "I was really proud of the way he handled himself on and off the field. The team really looks to Brady for leadership, which he provides. He's exactly what you're looking for when someone has to represent one side of the ball. He's a great representative."

Tom Zbikowski was named the defensive captain for 2006. The senior strong safety was a third-team All-American by the Associated Press and will lead a unit that ranked 75th in total defense but 103rd against the pass. A change from last year: there will be a full-time special teams captain and it's Travis Thomas. The senior running back logged 132 appearances on special teams in 2005, making seven tackles.

Speaking of special teams, Weis said that kicker Carl Gioia is the clear number one choice but that incoming freshman Ryan Burkhart will get every opportunity to unseat the upperclassman. They will be replacing D.J. Fitzpatrick, who also handled the punting duties. This leaves two holes in the kicking game but Weis has been pleased in spring ball by the punting of Geoff Price.

"With the exception of a couple of bad kicks on the scrimmage day, he's averaging 43 yards a punt and his hang time has been good," Weis said. "A few times, he's outkicked the coverage. The jury is still out on this one because it's not live rush and 80,000 people aren't there and we're not playing in Atlanta under the lights on September 2nd."

On offense, there is still little to report on the backup quarterback situation. Sophomore Evan Sharpley and junior David Wolke are battling to backup Quinn in case of the injury no one wants to even think about. Judging by Weis's comments, incoming freshman quarterbacks Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones could have wide smiles on their faces knowing they might have the opportunity to earn this spot.

"I'd still have to call it uncertain," Weis said about the backup quarterback position battle in spring. "I can't say that either/any of these guys have really separated from the pack. Usually, my philosophy when it comes down to quarterbacks is when you have two guys for one spot, you don't have one. Neither one has done enough at the point to tell you he's number two."

McKnight and Samardzija are set for the top two wide receiver spots. The third spot is David Grimes to lose, who Weis called "a step ahead" of the others. As for the right tackle position, it's still anyone's guess as to who Weis will eventually go with.

"Going off of one practice, the guy who stepped up in that practice was (Paul) Duncan," Weis said. "That position is going to be wide open. Someone is going to have to take that position, whether it's Duncan, (Brian) Mattes, (Michael) Turkovich or if that player isn't here yet. That player might be coming in the door. I'm not going to be afraid of playing a guy walking in the door."

On the defensive side of the ball, a major area of concern is the pass rush. All Irish fans have to do is go back to the Fiesta Bowl tape and watch Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith have all day picking apart the Notre Dame secondary. According to Weis, left end Victor Abiamiri is watching tapes of New York Giants sack master Michael Strahan to learn some pointers from an All-Pro. At right end, the battle continues between Ronald Talley, Justin Brown, Dwight Stephenson, Jr. and Chris Frome when he returns in the fall from a knee injury. Weis still has not seen the player who can consistently get to the quarterback.

"I still would like for someone to step up and be a dynamic pass rusher," Weis said. "I think we have a lot of good pass rushers. I just don't know if we have a great pass rusher yet. I want someone to step forward where opposing teams say this guy is a pain in the butt and we need to take him out of the game."


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