Weis announced on Wednesday at his press conference to kick off spring practice that all the Notre Dame assistants would help with special teams. Polian and Bernie Parmalee will lead the charge but they won't be the only ones offering advice and personnel moves on the unit. Last year, the Irish averaged 21 yards per kick return and allowed opponents 20 in the same category and two touchdowns. On punt returns, Notre Dame averaged seven yards per return and did have Tom Zbikowski take one to the house. But opponents averaged 11 yards per return. It wasn't a special performance for the group. According to Weis, every single player at every position is a possibility to appear on special teams.
"I don't think, as the head coach, I'm putting enough emphasis on how important I think special teams are," Weis said. "Now, they're going to want to get their guys on special teams so it performs at a high level because I'm holding the whole defensive and offensive staffs responsible for special teams. I'm not just answering to one guy."
The kicking responsibilities will also change. Carl Gioia is gone. Last season, he went 8-of-13 in field goal attempts but his long was just 40 yards. Enter sophomore Ryan Burkhart, whose powerful leg was supposed to be on display last season. But Burkhart struggled with accuracy and whenever the coaches opened up the competition, Gioia won the race every time. With incoming freshman Brandon Walker setting foot on campus in the summer, now is the time for Burkhart to shine.
"In Ryan's case, he better win it this spring," Weis said. "If he doesn't, when competition arrives, he'll be playing from behind. He's done some things to get an edge."
***There were two moves over to the other side of the ball announced by Weis on Wednesday. Travis Thomas, after spending a season at linebacker in 2006, is returning to running back. The fifth-year senior totaled 35 tackles last year, including five for losses. But with the early departure of Darius Walker to the NFL Draft, it allowed Thomas to move back to the spot where he spent his first three seasons at Notre Dame.
Thomas did get some carries last year. He rushed the ball 13 times for 78 yards, good for an average of six yards per carry. Thomas's style differs a lot from Walker. Thomas is more of a north-south running back and loves to get physical. Walker was a shiftier runner with great hands out of the backfield. Thomas will now get a chance to be the No. 1 option carrying the football.
"Travis will be a leader wherever he is," Weis said. "He's a leader anytime he's on the field because he's that type of kid. We'll see how it goes. We know Travis will be on the field. If it's at running back getting a whole bunch of carries, so be it. But Travis Thomas will be on the field. He wants to be on the field. He's an unselfish kid, as he showed last year."
Thomas will have some competition on his hands for the top spot. Sophomores James Aldridge and Munir Prince are in the mix, as is early enrollee Armando Allen. The Opa Locka, FL native has excellent speed and a 5-10, 190-pound frame to absorb the punishment a running back receives. But if off-season workouts are any indication, the youngsters have a ways to go before catching Thomas and his stellar work ethic.
"When the other guys are looking for a garbage can to spit in, he hasn't even broken a sweat yet," Weis said of Thomas. "And that's what they're competing against. You come in as the stars and then realize how far you have to go to be able to compete at this new level."
The other move was Chris Stewart from offensive guard to nose tackle. In Corwin Brown's new defensive system, the nose tackle needs to take up a lot of space in the middle of the line. Stewart provides that big body with his 6-5, 340-pound frame. The other two nose tackles listed on the roster are senior Neil Kennedy at 5-11, 266-pounds and Pat Kuntz at 6-2, 272-pounds.
"Athletically, from what we've seen to this point, it's been very encouraging," Weis said of Stewart. "But if he looks like an offensive guard playing nose tackle, then he'll have to move back to offensive guard. If he looks like a nose tackle, then he'll stay at nose tackle."
***The wide receiver position will be one of the bigger battles during spring practice. Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight are gone. Also gone are their combined 27 touchdowns and over 1,900 yards of receiving from last season. The player with the most experience coming back is junior David Grimes. The 5-10, 174-pound native of Detroit, MI might not have the size of Samardzija or the numbers of McKnight but does have excellent hands, which has made him a favorite of Weis. Grimes caught 26 balls for 336 yards and two touchdowns in 2006 and after going through running drills right before spring break with ease, Weis expects those numbers to go up.
"From what I saw, I have very high expectations for him," Weis said. "Now, because he's the only receiver coming back with meaningful experience, I've talked to him about Troy Brown and (Deion) Branch and David Patton and Wayne Chrebet. I've talked to him about a bunch of guys I've coached in the past that weren't the biggest in stature but were very productive in lead roles."
***Weis said that Travis Thomas and tight end John Carlson, both fifth-year seniors, were the best in off-season drills and "were men amongst boys" and "it wasn't even close for second."
***The switch to the new defensive alignment has possibly not only helped Stewart find a home. It could be a boon for John Ryan. The 6-5, 244-pound sophomore saw action in 10 games in 2006, registering four tackles. His size made him a tweener in the 4-3 base defense. The move to a 34 personnel grouping might make Ryan a perfect fit.
"Not many people know a lot of John Ryan except that he was backing up Victor Abiamiri last year," Weis said. "Now he's an outside linebacker. At 6-4, 6-5, 240-pounds, he's your prototypical 34 outside linebacker. In a 4-3 defense, I don't know if he was prototypical either way."