Fall Camp Revelations

The major questions for the Notre Dame football team will be answered later in the year. Can the Irish get past the first four games unscathed? Will the defense be good enough to be of a championship caliber? Can Notre Dame end a four-game losing streak to USC on Thanksgiving Day weekend? These will sort themselves out in due time.

However, there were a few revelations made during fall camp. Notre Dame just concluded their three-week fall camp and now enter game week for the opener against Georgia Tech. A few of the decisions made on the depth chart gave glimpses for Irish fans of what to expect in 2006.

*Travis Thomas is going to be everywhere. Get used to seeing number 26 a lot on defense, offense and special teams. The senior from Washington, PA successfully made the transition from running back to weak side linebacker. More importantly for Thomas, he goes from backup to starter. It's all part of head coach Charlie Weis's philosophy of having the best 22 players on the field.

Thomas did a solid job carrying the ball last season. He ran for 248 yards and scored five touchdowns in 2005. But still, Darius Walker got the majority of carries last season and that was going to be the case this year.

An opening at the weak side spot, vacated by the graduated Brandon Hoyte, allowed Thomas to bring his speed and athleticism over to the defensive side of the ball. He does have experience at linebacker. As a senior in high school, Thomas made 137 tackles at the outside position. Weis has often praised Thomas's toughness and that'll be put to good use this season.

There's more. Thomas is listed as the backup running back to Walker. Weis said this past week that the amount of carries his do-everything senior has in games will depend on how much energy he has left in the tank. If that wasn't enough, Thomas is the special teams captain. He won't play on every specialty unit but be involved enough to make the needed and necessary contributions. Number 26, come on down.

*The coaching staff thinks Sam Young can play. The freshman offensive lineman from Coral Gables, FL is slotted to start his first game in a Notre Dame uniform. On the road. At night in a hostile environment. No pressure at all.

Young, from all accounts, has the goods to handle it. He beat out sophomore Paul Duncan and fifth-year senior Brian Mattes for the starting spot at right tackle. Numerous times during fall camp, the players battling in the trenches with him noted how long his arms were. It's part of the 6-7, 292-pound frame that Young brings to the table.

He has the credentials. Young was a first-team USA Today All-American coming out of high school while not allowing a sack in his junior or senior seasons. The stakes have been upped a bit. The competition will be stiffer and one of his primary jobs is to protect Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Brady Quinn from blitzing defenders.

But Weis saw enough positives out of Young in fall camp to put him in this position. The head coach has said on numerous occasions that he plays the best players regardless of age or experience. Playing favorites or older veterans over more talented younger guys is the quickest way to get fired, according to Weis. Instead of the older Mattes or the slightly more experienced Duncan, he's going with Young right away.

*The defense will be faster than the 2005 version. This is not saying that the group will be drastically better than last season. But after some issues in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, Weis has said a few times this fall camp that Notre Dame will not lose a game because of speed. The addition of Thomas at linebacker is one bonus. The secondary, which returns the two-deep from last year, should appear faster because of better communication and understanding the assignments better in year two. Also, add freshmen cornerbacks Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil, linebacker Toryan Smith and defensive end John Ryan and possibly Morrice Richardson (on passing downs) to the mix and the goal of upping the speed might become a realization. Notre Dame should improve on their 75th ranking in total defense and 103rd against the pass in 2005. Will they be top-25, top-50? That remains to be seen. But it should be a faster bunch of guys flying to the ball.

*The kicking game remains one of the bigger question marks. After Carl Gioia's performance in the Blue-Gold game, everyone assumed that freshman Ryan Burkhart and his powerful leg would waltz right into fall camp and handle the kicking duties.

Wrong. Gioia, for the moment, has successfully held off Burkhart's challenge and is penciled in as the starting place kicker. Weis said that Gioia was the most accurate in fall camp. Even more surprising, senior Bobby Renkes is slotted to handle the kickoff duties. Renkes did kick off 23 times two seasons ago, totaling four touchbacks.

The reason for concern: Gioia has attempted just one kick in his Notre Dame career. It was a made 29-yarder against Stanford last year. Even if Burkhart had won the job, he's still a freshman and a lot to ask for a newcomer. Notre Dame's prolific offense should make the kicking game a moot point for most of the year. But if the pressure is on late in a contest with national title implications involved, how will the three handle it?

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