Questions for 2006

Looking forward to the upcoming season in South Bend you can't help but have a slew of questions float through your head as to what we can expect from this year's Irish squad. Coming off a 9-3 season with a trip to a BCS bowl gives you a certain feel of optimism, however, a humbling defeat at the hands of a talent-laden team in the Fiesta Bowl has to leave a bad taste in your mouth.

What should we expect from this year's squad? How will the team handle the pressure of being a Top 5 team? Can this team be even better then last year? Most importantly, will this finally be the year we win a darn bowl game?!

Counting Rhema McKnight, the Irish return nine starters on the offensive side of the ball and eight on the defensive side so the Irish will certainly have familiarity on their side.

Brady Quinn returns at quarterback for the Irish and is by most accounts the front runner for the Heisman trophy in his senior campaign. You can only be excited for the state of Notre Dame football when looking at a player like Quinn, not just because of his dramatic statistical improvement last year, but also because he has a very legitimate chance to give the Irish their first No. 1 overall pick in the NFL pick since the Buffalo Bills selected defensive end Walt Patulski 34 years ago with their top pick.

Quinn showed that he can handle an NFL playbook and NFL criticism last year under Charlie Weis, and I couldn't help but notice that those trademarks grimaces of the past turned into looks of confidence in times of adversity. Being of the firm belief that a team's strength starts at the quarterback position, I feel we'll have a lot to look forward to this season as Brady continues re-write the history books.

Maurice Stovall and Anthony Fasano changed zip codes in the off season, however, Weis will still have plenty of weapons at his disposal on the outside with Biletnikoff finalist Jeff Samardzija and former starter Rhema McKnight back in the fold.

Couple that with a promising spring from Travis Thomas, and the natural maturation of starter Darius Walker, and you've got the makings of another explosive offense in South Bend.

One question as I see would be the tight end position and John Carlson. While Carlson has shown flashes during his career at Notre Dame, he hasn't had the opportunity to carry the full load until now. He'll certainly need to step up and be a contributor in the passing game as the talent at tight end on this roster is very young and inexperienced.

The offensive line is the biggest cause for concern going into this season. Bob Morton will most likely step in for the departed Dan Stevenson. However, the right tackle position is still somewhat up in the air. While Mike Turkovich and Paul Duncan will be battling it out to replace Mark LeVoir, I also expect that incoming freshman Sam Young will get a hard look as well. While I don't expect Young to start the season, I do think that we could see him step in later if one of those two guys cannot solidify the spot.

One aspect of offensive line success that people frequently overlook is chemistry. The players need to form a cohesive unit, and they need to be able to trust each other. The right tackle needs to know that the right guard sees the same thing as him. The right guard needs to know if the right tackle struggles with his inside post leg against the pass rush. If these things are still being learned, a blitzer can come in untouched and get a free shot on the QB.

That trust can only come from practicing and playing together, and while it may seem trivial, it can make a big difference in your season. One shot on Brady Quinn could be the difference between a first down and a punt, or more drastically, between a disappointing record and a national championship. For something that hits closer to home for Irish fans, that lack of chemistry can lead to high blood pressure, gossipy neighbors, and wasted money on replacing destroyed remote controls.

For the next installment we'll focus on special teams and defense…


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