Weis Sets Tone for Spring

The Notre Dame football team lost a bevy of talent to graduation from last year's 10-3 squad that went to the school's second straight BCS bowl game. The Irish have a lot of holes to fill, especially at the quarterback position with Brady Quinn gone to the NFL Draft. A lot of people expect this to be a rebuilding year of sorts. Don't tell that to head coach Charlie Weis.

In his third go-around, Weis will lead Notre Dame into spring practice, which starts on Wednesday afternoon. The Irish have 15 practices, starting on March 21st and concluding with the Blue-Gold game on April 21st. It'll give time for Weis and the coaching staff to replace the likes of Quinn, defensive end Victor Abiamiri, running back Darius Walker, offensive tackle Ryan Harris and others. For Weis, it's all part of the process in college football: replace and move on.

"That's what players do," Weis said on Wednesday at his opening press conference of spring ball. "They graduate and move on. As has been our theme since the season ended, tradition is something that never graduates. Tradition never graduates is the theme we're emphasizing to our players this spring because with several key players gone because of graduation, there is a competition and venue for those who've been waiting in the wings or are new to the program."

With so much gone from last season's team, the expectations might slip a little bit in Weis's third year. In 2006, the goal was a national championship but an early blowout loss to Michigan, followed by drubbings at the hands of USC and LSU in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the season, showed Notre Dame still has some heavy lifting to do before it can once again reach the elite of college football. But the Irish head coach doesn't want to fall back and rebuild. He wants to reload and continue to keep the expectations at a high level.

"No excuses," Weis bluntly stated. "No excuses. All you're doing is giving them a scapegoat if you say, ‘We only have three guys coming back on offense and a few more than that on defense. I guess we should just throw in the towel.' That's not what good teams do. On good teams, people graduate and other people come in and play, just like in the pros and free agency."

There will be a dizzying amount of position battles this spring. To beef up the competition, Weis made it known Wednesday that Travis Thomas would be moving back to running back to start off. The fifth-year senior played linebacker last season but will return to a position where he's scored seven touchdowns the past two years. Also, Chris Stewart, the big 6-5, 340-pound sophomore, will move from offensive guard to nose tackle at the beginning of spring ball to help make a push for the starting spot in the new 3-4 personnel defense.

These two depth chart matters asides, all eyes are on the quarterback position this spring. Quinn leaves behind numerous broken school records and a legacy that should last a lifetime in the Notre Dame football program as one of the best signal callers in Irish history. The replacement will come from a young group of four and Weis hopes by the end of spring that the four contenders will be narrowed to two.

Evan Sharpley has the most experience but that's not saying much. The junior appeared in eight games last year and threw two passes with one of them being completed. There are two sophomores in the mix that each bring something different to the table. Demetrius Jones, 6-4, 210-pound native of Chicago, has the most athletic ability of the four. Zach Frazer, a 6-5, 225-pound native of Mechanicsburg, PA, is more of a pocket passer and was highly recruited coming out of high school. But not more so than Jimmy Clausen, who is one of the biggest recruits in recent Notre Dame history. Clausen enrolled early to get a head start on the playbook and the competition. It should be a spirited battle during the next month at the quarterback position.

"They way I've set this up, everyone will get their fair share to run the team and I hope by the end of spring to narrow it from four to two," Weis said. "Even in training camp where there's a lot more reps, there should be a pecking order where some guys start to rise above the others. That's what I'm hoping comes to fruitition this spring."

Weis, whose recent track record with quarterbacks includes three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady and soon-to-be top-10 NFL Draft pick Brady Quinn, will dedicate most of his time in the spring to the battle.

"I'm going to be heavily and almost exclusively involved with the quarterback position," Weis said. "That's why I hired Corwin (Brown). I'm not going to be spending a lot of time on the field with the defense until we go against the defense. That's when I'll watch the two. But one of the biggest jobs I have, along with working with the offensive staff to establish an identity based on personality, is to get the quarterback ready to play on September 1st. And he'll be ready."

Speaking of Brown, this will be his first time in charge of the defensive players on the field. The new defensive coordinator, who replaces Rick Minter, takes over a group that was 65th in total defense and 90th in passing efficiency defense. The Notre Dame defense, since Weis arrived two years ago, has given up big plays and Big points in the biggest games. It's one of the reasons Brown was brought in from the New York Jets, where he was the defensive backs coach last season.

Brown also brings in a new defensive scheme. Last year, the Irish played a base 4-3 defense. This season, the team will go with 34 personnel that allows them to switch back and forth between the 4-3 and 3-4. Fifth-year Trevor Laws, a defensive tackle last season, is now listed as a defensive end. Sophomore John Ryan, who backed up Victor Abiamiri at defensive end in 2006, is listed as outside linebacker.

"You have more position flexibility," Weis said about the defensive switch. "That's why its become en vogue in the NFL and more and more teams are going to it. I'll give you an example that incorporates recruiting into it as well. When you're trying to recruit players for an identity, a lot of times you come across those guys that are tweener players. Are they a defensive end or linebacker? Now there is a different type of tweener player when you're coaching a 4-3. Are they a safety or an outside linebacker? When you're coaching 34 personnel, those guys are pass rushers and those guys are outside linebackers. They're either too small to play defensive end or too slow to play outside linebacker.

"This gives you a lot more flexibility. Now, both guys on the outside are capable of being a defensive end or an outside linebacker on a play. This way, the offense never knows which. By natural view, it causes confusion."

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