A few questions and a few more concerns were answered right away at head coach Charlie Weis's press conference the day camp began. Travis Thomas makes the move back to offense full time after a one-year stint at linebacker last season. Sam Young will not move to left tackle, but will remain at right tackle where he was a freshman starter last fall. Paul Duncan, who spelled Young during the season will get first crack at left tackle. Big Chris Stewart is indeed a nose tackle and David Grimes is way ahead of his fellow receivers.
Since then, things have started to sort themselves out as the Irish have completed nine-of-15 spring practices that will be capped off by the Blue-Gold Game on April 21. Players have held onto, emerged or reemerged at positions, and the defense is becoming familiar with new defensive coordinator Corwin Brown's 3-4 scheme.
Weis has been "encouraged," a word he has used several times this spring by many things he has seen as the Irish try and replace seven starters on offense and essentially six on defense if you count Thomas.
Asked how he felt the spring was going, Weis gave a two-part answer.
"One is, how is installation going? The putting in the defense and establishing the offense with a bunch of changeover players going through that, and I'm never happy but I am content with where we are at that point. I'm very often impatient when it comes to installation. I like to put in more, not less. But I made the decision in this off-season that I felt confident and comfortable that everyone knew what to do. So that meant to slow down the pace so that everyone knew what to do and that is what we are going to do. Secondly then, how are these guys going to compete because so many positions are sort of up for grabs? There's been very good competition out there. So on that end, I am more than content. I'd say I am pleased with the competition."
Some of the competitive position battles have become public knowledge of whom is ahead of whom, while a few have been kept classified. This article is based off the short viewing time during practice and comments from coaches and players during the spring.
***Quarterback: Weis and or Irish quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus have yet to say one guy is ahead of another at this position. While it appears that junior Evan Sharpley, sophomores Demetrius Jones and Zach Frazer, and freshman Jimmy Clausen are running even, there's no way that's true behind the scenes. The three returnees have had their chance to run with the first unit in practice. Clausen, an early enrollee who has now had time to absorb everything, will get his opportunity in the next week. We won't know anything about the signal-callers until the spring game. Weis has even hinted he won't publicly name the two finalists heading into the fall until after hitting the road for a month recruiting following the spring.
***Halfback: Based on his three years of game experience at the position, fifth-year senior and team captain Travis Thomas has been getting most of the first-team reps, but Weis has said that sophomore James Aldridge has looked really good and is pushing Thomas. Aldridge is finally healthy after suffering a knee injury that prohibited him from lifting weights with his legs throughout his freshman season. Freshman Armando Allen and his 4.3 speed give the Irish an offensive threat they haven't had in quite a long time, so you'd figure Weis will find a role for him. On top of Allen, there is senior Junior Jabbie who is trying to find his niche at probably the team's deepest and best position.
"When I said that I was very encouraged by the running back position, that didn't just talk about Travis and James, that included both Junior and Armando at the halfback position as well," Weis explained following a recent practice. "I've been very encouraged by what we have seen."
Expect him to be encouraged by what he sees from U.S. Army All-American Robert Hughes when he arrives on campus in the fall.
***Fullback: Junior Asaph Schwapp returns from injury to the post he has held down his first two seasons. The 6-foot 255-pounder has been a reliable blocker, short-yardage runner and practice-sled crusher. Schwapp's role is clearly defined, but sophomore Luke Schmidt adds versatility to the position. The 6-foot-4, 252-pounder looked like a tight end impressively beating linebackers and catching balls in the team's open practice on March 31. Another weapon Weis could add to the artillery.
***Receiver: Weis has said that sophomore George West has separated himself from the other guys, joining Grimes among the trustworthy. Nobody else has emerged from the crowded group, really leaving the door wide open for incoming freshmen Golden Tate and U.S. Army All-American Duval Kamara in the fall.
***Offensive line: The position on the team that rivals the running backs for the deepest and most talented, which is encouraging to steal a word from Weis's lingo, because you can expect the Irish to ram the football down the throats of their opponents this coming fall with a young quarterback and inexperienced receivers.
Fifth-year senior John Sullivan and sophomore Sam Young anchor things from their respective positions, and several guys are making it tough on position coach John Latina, offensive coordinator Michael Haywood and Weis on figuring out who the best guys are.
Sophomore Dan Wenger opened the spring at guard, but an injury has opened up a first-team spot for Matt Carufel. Junior Michael Turkovich has been running with the ones the whole time at the other guard spot, but both are getting stiff competition from sophomore Eric Olsen. Sophomore Bartley Webb is pushing Paul Duncan and Young at the tackle spots.
***Tight end: John Carlson might be the best in the country. Like the quarterbacks, no word on the competition between sophomores Konrad Reuland and Will Yeatman for the No. 2 spot. Speedy incoming freshman Mike Ragone will have his say on the position when he gets to South Bend.
***Defensive line: Two questions here for three spots. Senior Trevor Laws will be one defensive end. Junior Pat Kuntz has been lining up as the nose tackle, but appears very undersized at 6-foot-2, 272 pounds. The 6-foot-5, 340-pound Chris Stewart is physically better suited for the job, but has been spending his recent time on the bike instead of practicing at his new position. Dwight Stephenson Jr. applied for a fifth year because he came to Notre Dame to play. He may finally get his chance, as he has been seen running with the first team during the spring as the other defensive end. Senior Justin Brown, who has a lot more game experience than Stephenson Jr., but has missed some of the spring with a class-scheduling conflict will be at the final six practices. Sophomore Derrell Hand is also in the mix, and we haven't heard anything regarding classmate defensive end Paddy Mullen. Sophomore Kallen Wade remains a project with long-term upside.
"Well, we can't put everyone into Trevor Laws' category," Weis said. "That's one of the big mistakes that coaches can make. You want everyone to look like a fifth-year senior. I'm not going to go through analyzing player-by-player, but there are several guys who have shown encouraging signs and there are some guys who are coming along at a slower pace than what we would like to have happen. So are we starting to build some guys that we have confidence in, in the system? Yes, and now we need more of them. We need more guys because you are always looking to build some depth. Right now we just have to get more guys that we have confidence in that can play in our scheme at a higher level."
***Linebacker: Maurice Crum Jr. said he'll end up playing where the team needs him the most, and that mean's the versatile senior will probably be playing inside linebacker. It appears to be a two-horse race for the other inside linebacker spot between fifth-year senior Joe Brockington and sophomore Toryan Smith, with a early slight advantage to Brockington.
Weis appears to be very excited about sophomore John Ryan and his move from defensive end to outside linebacker. Seldom used senior Anthony Vernaglia and sophomore Morrice Richardson are also in the mix. As far as Steve Quinn, Kevin Washington, Nick Borseti and Scott Smith go, like Mullen, we haven't heard anything about them.
"First of all the inside linebacker situation is a lot more settled than the outside linebacker situation," Weis said. "We have a couple incumbents as you know and a couple young guys pressing behind them. That's pretty clear. You have guys that are running first and guys that are pushing them for playing time. And I've been encouraged with all of them. There aren't any of those inside linebackers that I can sit there and say he hasn't really looked very good. I've been encouraged by the whole group. Now where you have more inexperience, as far as playing time goes, is outside than inside. We are definitely going through a learning process. I'm encouraged with a lot of things that I am seeing."
***Secondary: So far, promising sophomores Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil haven't been able to beat out senior Terrail Lambert and fifth-year senior Ambrose Wooden at the cornerback spots. Promising freshman Gary Gray, a talented cover corner and U.S. Army All-American broke his arm and is out for rest of the spring. He will be a real contender come fall. Experienced senior Leo Ferrine has spent most of the spring with the third team with sophomore Munir Prince, who is making the transition from running back.
While the free safety spot next to Tom Zbikowski appears like its junior David Bruton's to lose, there is all kind of competition coming from Ray Herring, Kyle McCarthy Sergio Brown, Jashaad Gaines and Leonard Gordon. Harrison Smith joins the mix in the fall.
"It's probably the deepest we have ever been," Weis said of his short time at Notre Dame. "Even with Gary being out of there, and it was exciting to see him out there, but you are still dealing with seven scholarship safeties and six scholarship corners and one of those safeties being a cross-trainer, which is Leonard who can play safety or corner. We are in spring and you are out there three-deep plus, there's very, very good competition going on in the secondary."
***Fifth-year senior Geoff Price is the punter, and one of the nation's best. It appeared that sophomore Ryan Burkhart had the same stranglehold on the kicking duties, but his struggles and sophomore walk-on Nate Whitaker's successes have started a competition even before Brandon Walker has reported to campus.
Zbikowski is the punt returner still, and all kinds of guys are getting a look at kick returner including the explosive Allen.