Replacing good players is never an easy task for any coach, but replacing leadership can also be a difficult task. Irish defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Rick Minter will have to replace both in 2006 with the departure of Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays.
Irish fans were hoping to find some answers this spring at linebacker but so far those answers don't appear to be clear. With the only returning starter at linebacker injured this spring, Maurice Crum, and incumbent Will linebacker Joe Brockington also sidelined with an injury, Irish fans didn't find out much about the linebacker situation this spring.
We did learn that Anthony Vernaglia appears to be the most likely starter at Apache, and Mitchell Thomas (Mike) and Steve Quinn (Will) are likely in the No. 2 position at their respective positions. But will Thomas make a solid push for the Mike spot? We've heard he's played pretty well this spring. Will that move Crum back to Apache? Will Brockington hold onto the Will spot?
Without all the players participating we can't really know how this unit will shape up. I personally don't think we know anything more about this unit than we did heading into spring. The key will be to find the right combination of players to put out on the field every game. Even once the names become clear to all, that doesn't mean they'll be a great or solid unit. This area of the team should be the biggest concern heading into fall camp.
Another important question largely overlooked by some fans is who will replace D.J. Fitzpatrick? Fitzpatrick was a very dependable contributor as both the kicker and punter for Notre Dame in 2005.
The good news is Weis singled out Price at punter as a guy he's been most pleased with in regards to special teams. Consistency has been the problem with Price, and Weis doesn't throw around compliments often. Price has a big leg, and if he can become consistent, Notre Dame might have a weapon at the punter position. If nothing else, the Irish appear to have a solid candidate to replace Fitzpatrick's punting.
Weis also stated Carl Gioia was clearly leading for the starting kicker spot, but he didn't seem as pleased with that position at this point. A couple of freshmen will also compete for the spot before we know for sure who will tee it up for the Irish on September 2. We get the feeling that Weis hasn't been pleased with the kickers at this point.
The right tackle position was another question heading into spring. Sophomores Paul Duncan, Mike Turkovich and senior Brian Mattes all appear to be competing for the spot. However, offensive line coach John Latina indicated that the guard position might be a better spot for Turkovich in the future. Weis has mentioned Duncan a few times this spring as the guy who's stood out for the position, but he was also careful to include that he's hoping some freshmen can come in and compete for the position. Again, I'm not sure we know much more about the right tackle position than we did heading into spring other than Duncan appears to be the leading candidate at this time.
The backup quarterback position is another area of concern. Will it be David Wolke, Evan Sharpley or a true freshman backing up starter Brady Quinn in 2006? We've heard Sharpley has made a strong move to take the No. 2 spot over Wolke, but Weis also wouldn't single out either player for their efforts this spring. Again, I'm not sure we know much more than Sharpley appears to be the leading candidate at this time.
While Irish fans didn't get many answers to the above questions, they did get some hints. I think it's obvious Weis and the Irish coaching staff do not want to single anyone out at this time to allow some true freshmen to come in and compete for these critical spots on the team.
How well Notre Dame fills these roles will likely play a large factor in how successful Notre Dame is in 2006. Hopefully Notre Dame can find the answers early in fall camp.