This year is a little different. Nine starters return from a unit that was 75th in the nation in total defense in 2005. In year two of the Weis era, there's a familiarity in everything that they're doing in fall camp leading up to the opener against Georgia Tech.
"Continuity leads itself towards success," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "We have continuity in our staff and in our players. We have a number of kids back who have played quiet a bit. You have to realize we go over to O'Neill Hall for training camp. Last year was the first time a team's ever done that. We didn't even know where the restrooms were. We didn't know where the meeting rooms were. Just a lot of unfamiliarity. This year, everything is familiar. Not to the 28 newcomers but to us. All of that continuity lends itself to us being more comfortable than last year.
"I think we're deeper overall this year. We're young at linebacker, we're quality at the defensive line and we're more quality and depth in the secondary. How deep that goes, it's hard to say what that number is. But I can tell you when we put our first team out there and put our second team out there, we're competitive. We go head to head with the one's and the one's and the two's and the two's. We hold our own. We're a bit further along."
The major story of fall camp on defense has been Travis Thomas. The senior moved from running back to weak side linebacker before practice started and the experiment seems to be on the right track. Weis has stated he loves the athletic ability and speed that Thomas brings to the group, saying this season Notre Dame won't get beat by being slower than the opposing offense. Minter can see the day-to-day improvement.
"In camp, obviously the learning curve is up," Minter said. "That's beginning to level off. He's got a burst of quickness and things in a player you like to see. He's learning a lot of stuff at once since August 7th. We're pleased with his progress.
"There's an element of playing linebacker that doesn't guarantee you to be automatic. He's just coming over form running back but he's doing the things I've been telling him. I'm pleased with his progress."
"He's been real patient with me initially and up to this point," Thomas said about Minter. "He's really broken it down for me as clear as possible the things that I need to do and kind of relate those things back to the offensive side of the ball to make it easier for me to remember.
"The more reps anyone gets, the more comfortable they feel and the better grasp they retain of the defense. That's something I've noticed in myself. I'll take it day-by-day."
At the same position, there's another hot topic of debate. Junior Maurice Crum, Jr. has moved from the strong side spot to middle backer, replacing the graduated Corey Mays. Crum received one of the highest compliments from Weis last season when the head coach called him a true "football player." Minter has seen nothing but positives out of his junior linebacker in fall camp.
"Once you're a solid football player, you remain a solid football player, no matter what position you play," Minter said. "He's just moved around a little bit. He's the same old guy, other than the two older voices are missing. He's had to step up with the leadership roles and he's done a nice job.
"He doesn't say much. He's a quiet guy by nature. But when he needs to be assertive, he can be assertive in leadership roles."
"It's going well for me," Crum said. "I see myself growing as a leader and as a player. I've taken more responsibility as a leader on this team. For the most part, we all communicate. Communication is so key to a defense and part of our fundamentals. We make sure we're clear on everything that we do. It has to be throughout everyone. It can't be just one person."
The last piece of Minter's linebacking core is the strong side position. Weis said earlier this week that senior Mitchell Thomas and junior Anthony Vernaglia would both see snaps in the Georgia Tech opener. Thomas especially has gone through his Notre Dame career with not much to show so far. He didn't play as a freshman and has totaled three tackles in the past two seasons. It kind of reminds Minter of another linebacker who played and starred in 2005.
"This time a year ago, you guys said the same thing about Corey Mays," Minter said about the questions on Thomas. "And he stepped up and played pretty good for us. The light always comes on and when the kids come to Notre Dame, they can make their dreams come true. They get to put on the gold helmets and represent themselves well. Maybe this is more about opportunity than ability levels."