"We've had a big transition in personnel due to graduation, so now it presents a whole different set of challenges," Weis said. "And I'm really looking forward to this season."
For Weis and any other fierce competitor, challenges are never taken lightly. They are met head on with full force. That appears to be the mindset of this Notre Dame team and the man that leads them into the season. It's a year that has the Irish on the road four of the first six games and facing four teams in the preseason top-25 poll. A third straight trip to a BCS Bowl appears to be a fantasy to most.
Notre Dame must do it without the likes of Brady Quinn, Darius Walker, Ryan Harris, Jeff Samardzija, Rhema McKnight, Victor Abiamiri and Derek Landri to name a few. Because of these graduation losses and inexperience on both sides of the ball, many pundits have pegged the Irish to fall off a bit in 2007. That's fine with the coach in Weis, who is happily embracing the challenge.
"The first year I got here, the expectations were so low," Weis said. "They had come off a couple of mediocre seasons and everyone figured they weren't going to do well. Coming in was easy because they had only had moderate success in their careers. Last year, it was the opposite with high expectations and I think we lost a little bit of that chip on your shoulder that you have when no one expects you to be any good. Now, we've had a big transition and it presents a whole bunch of new challenges. I'm really looking forward to this one."
Weis has the belief that 2007 can be a successful season. In addition to preparing the players for the season, the Irish head coach has to inject that confidence into the team, which may not be such a tough chore if one listens to the preseason predictions.
"My expectations are always high," Weis said. "The problem is to have everyone buy into it. It's easier to do that when everyone says you're not going to be worth a darn. Football players want to be respected. But respect isn't handed out. It's earned. It easier when the public perceives you as middle of the pack."
The last time this Notre Dame program took the field, it was at the Allstate Sugar Bowl down in New Orleans. While the Irish stayed with LSU in the first half, the Tigers strutted their superiority with a second-half whipping en route to a 41-14 victory. It was another bowl defeat for Notre Dame, who hasn't won one since the 1994 Cotton Bowl. The Sugar Bowl loss was also the third in 2006 by 20 points or more. Granted, all three teams, LSU, Michigan and USC, were elite. But it showed that the Irish still have heavy lifting to do to reach this high level.
Since the Sugar Bowl loss, Notre Dame has been on a roll. The Irish have hauled in 19 commitments so far for the 2008 class. A few recruiting rankings currently have Notre Dame's haul No. 1 in the nation. Couple this with the young talent currently on the roster and the future looks bright for the Irish. Weis could play the younger players, giving them valuable experience for 2008 and 2009. But rebuilding isn't part of the Notre Dame head coach's lexicon.
"I'll never use that word," Weis said of rebuilding. "May God strike me dead if I use that word. I have nine fifth-year seniors who came back for another year. Don't you think I owe it to them to win this year? I have an ethical responsibility to those nine guys. They didn't have to come back. They all graduated. They all came back to win this year. I owe it to those nine guys. It would be easy to throw in the towel and play the younger guys and take the pressure off of me. But that's garbage."
Besides the questions on the expectations game for 2007, there was an obvious discussion that everyone wanted to find the answer to: who is going to start the season at quarterback? Weis cut the contenders from four to three after spring ball, leading to Zach Frazer, the odd man out, transferring to Connecticut. Along with Frazer, junior Evan Sharpley, sophomore Demetrius Jones and freshman Jimmy Clausen were all given a fair shake to earn the starting job. Now, time is a factor as the September 1st opener against Georgia Tech is quickly approaching.
"This spring, I spent so much time in due diligence trying to be completely fair to all four guys," Weis said. "Well, now democracy has now come to an end. Now it's time to get ready to go and I think we're at the stage now where now we have to start getting the team ready to play."
At the latest, Weis would like to have an idea of who'll start by the end of the second week of fall camp. One of those contenders, Clausen, has been the biggest story line of the three. ESPN reported months ago that the hyped freshman underwent a medical procedure on his elbow. Notre Dame responded that Clausen would be ready for the first day of practice. On Monday, the Irish were right as No. 7 was taking the snaps, although in the first 20 minutes that the media attended, none of the signal callers threw a pass.
The guessing game continues. Whether it be Clausen, Sharpley, Jones or some combination, Weis will let predictions continue without any definitive answers.
"I'm not in the business of passing out free information," Weis said, clearly not wanting to let the Yellow Jackets know in advance about who'll be taking the snaps on September 1st.
Weis let it be known for the second time that he wouldn't be against using two quarterbacks in the same contest. After the Blue-Gold game, the Notre Dame head coach made the assertion for the first time. Weis admitted the competition was close and if it wasn't, there would be a clear starter at top of the depth chart. It may take the Irish head coach a few practices to see if one of the three starts to separate themselves from the group.
"I'm a long ways away because if three guys are still in the running, then I'm not comfortable with who the one guy is," Weis said. "I wouldn't be sitting at three if I was comfortable. I'd be sitting at one with a backup. I'm not anywhere near there yet. I'm not uncomfortable with their ability. I just haven't been able to establish the identity of our offense because it's based around the quarterback."
There are races at other positions than quarterback. A battle for the second wide receiver spot is up in air with George West getting the first crack. At inside linebacker, fifth-year senior Joe Brockington will try to fend off a challenge from sophomore Toryan Smith. At right guard, classmates Matt Carufel and Dan Wenger will fight for the right to start. Competition is good for a team, especially one with a whole host of talented, younger players and nine fifth-year seniors. Weis believes Notre Dame football is in the right direction.
"I think we have a stable program," Weis said. "When I got here, I thought the program was a bit unstable. We have stability in the program. We're starting to get the numbers right for classes. We were real low on scholarships the first two years. That number is getting closer to the limit. Academically, I'm pleased with the direction of the program. Now, what we need to do, with that stability, is win some football games."