Seven starters return from a group that went from 81st in total offense in 2004 to 10th last year. Everything starts with Brady Quinn, the Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback who will look to further dent the Irish record book. The 32 touchdown, 3900-yard performance of last year could be tough to repeat but the sky is the limit with him.
In the off-season, he was burning up the phone lines with some of the best signal callers in the NFL. Quinn had discussions with Indianapolis's Peyton Manning, three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady and the gunslinger himself, Green Bay's Brett Favre, about the quarterback position and the pressure that comes with the territory. It appears that Quinn is ready for the onslaught of attention and maybe to handle a little bit more of the offense.
"Hopefully, he'll (Weis) give me more freedom when I'm out there and put more on me," Quinn said at Sunday's Media Day. "Maybe he'll allow me to do more things and change things up while I'm out there."
Make no mistake about it: Quinn is fully prepared for the verbal assault that Weis intends to heap upon his stud quarterback in fall camp.
"I'm looking forward to it," Quinn said. "He always comes up with some different things. I'll be looking for some of his best material in the two-a-days. It's my last time around and his last chance to get some of his best stuff in on me."
Evan Sharpley has the current advantage for the backup spot. The sophomore outperformed David Wolke in spring ball. Wolke has since transferred but hot on Sharpley's heels are two freshmen, Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones. Add Justin Gillett to the mix and the race is on.
"Those four guys will be extremely attentive in meetings," quarterbacks coach Peter Vaas said. "They'll work hard on and off the field. Hopefully from that, I really believe will have a (No. 2) quarterback position that will be a strong element to our team. What the individual's name will be is to be determined but that's what competition is all about."
With Travis Thomas moving over to linebacker, Darius Walker is further entrenched as the number one running back. Walker ran for 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore in 2005. Thomas contributed five scores and a tough running presence. Offensive coordinator/running backs coach Michael Haywood would like to see this forceful style among all his backs.
"I think from a running back standpoint, we have to become a little more physical and tough," Haywood said. "And that goes to the entire backfield. The more physically tough we are and the more YAC yards we have, the better."
Thomas will still see carries even if the move to linebacker works. But it still opens up more opportunities for other players to see the field. Junior Jabbie and freshmen Munir Prince and Luke Schmidt will be a few of the contenders to fill the gap. Youth will bear no factor in Weis's decision on who to play.
"You know I'm not afraid to play freshmen," Weis said. ‘I'm not going to go in and say, ‘What am I going to do if Darius goes down?' I need to have the bases covered."
"We're going to give each equal reps," Haywood said about this competition. "When you give them equal reps, you can see what they can do. One may motion out of the backfield better. One may step up and pass protect a little better. Whatever they do best, that's where we're going to put them at and then work on their weaknesses as camp and the season progresses."
The top two spots at wide receiver are etched into stone. Returning All-American Jeff Samardzija burst onto the scene last year with 15 touchdown receptions and 77 grabs, good for 1,249 yards. The senior's 6-5 frame and sure hands will make him Quinn's primary target. Rhema McKnight returns to the lineup after injuring his knee in the win over Michigan last season. The fifth-year senior led the team in catches in 2003 and 2004 and should pick up a lot of the slack for graduated Maurice Stovall. Weis has no doubts about McKnight's ability and potential.
"He's in a lot better shape now than in game two last year because he's on a mission, Weis said. "He's had a long time to get ready for this. He's in phenomenal shape and I don't think he'll have any hesitancy about getting hit. He wants to get hit. Because until you do, it's like a batter being hit by a pitch. Until you get back in the batter box, you're thinking about getting hit by the pitch. I think he needs to go out there and get battered around a little bit."
"I feel like everybody is a heck of a lot better than last year as far as conditioning and strength," McKnight said. "Everyone is working hard. It's a positive thing. I hope it pays off. It's going to be great to get out there. I can't wait to put the pads on and get after it."
Who will be the third wide receiver? Sophomore David Grimes should have the leg-up in his competition with the incoming freshmen. D.J. Hord would have pushed Grimes but he's out for the season with a torn left Achilles heal. Freshmen Richard Jackson, Barry Gallup, George West and Robby Parris will get plenty of chances to produce in Weis's pass friendly offense.
There is also a mix of old and young at tight end. Seniors John Carlson and Marcus Freeman have first crack at replacing Anthony Fasano, who left early for the NFL. Two freshmen, Konrad Reuland and Will Yeatman, have the size and ability that could get them on the field at some point in 2006.
The offensive line returns four experience veterans whose main job is to protect Quinn. Last season, they allowed 21 sacks but paved the way for Walker's 1,196-yard season and gave Quinn enough time to carve up opposing secondaries. The only concern is right tackle, where Mark LeVoir graduated to leave a vacant spot. Senior Brian Mattes, sophomores Paul Duncan and Michael Turkovich and freshman Sam Young could be potential candidates.
"We're going to mix and match a few guys and see which one of them goes," offensive line coach John Latina said. "In fall camp, you have a chance to look for guys and put them at position and see what they do."
The returning players will try to make it easy on whoever fills the void.
"That's what camp is for," offensive lineman Dan Santucci said. "Every day we'll have time, if it isn't in practice, after practice, helping that guy out getting ready to play. If he has any questions, helping him out, showing him the ropes a little bit. Everyone goes out there to get better every day and I think the right tackle spot will turn out fine."