But near, if not at the top of the list, would be the common response: "tackling."
Fast forward to early April 2010 and a quick post-practice gathering with new head coach Brian Kelly. The Irish had just finished what the head man felt was an integral scrimmage at the mid-point of the spring session when Kelly was asked what he saw from his defense.
"Well, we can tackle," Kelly observed. "I was very impressed with our corners and their ability to tackle. Gary Gray, in one instance, had a great one-on-one tackle vs. Robert Hughes; of course I wasn't happy with Hughes, he has to run through (Gray). I thought we tackled pretty good today."
What is this, 2002? Tackling? The Irish secondary?
With April startling revelation already in the books, what else did Kelly have to say about his squad after spring practice No. 7?
Mix, Match…and Decide"We wanted to get between 50 and 60 plays in, I think we did that. That's a long scrimmage but we needed to evaluate a lot of players," Kelly offered of Saturday's practice plan.
"In particular we wanted to see our running back situation...know where that order is (at present); and in particular on the offensive line, we've moved a lot of guys around in different positions: we've got (Trevor) Robinson out at tackle, we've got (Zach) Martin in at guard, we're moving a lot of people around so today was a big day for us to find out a little more about our offensive line."
The junior-to-be Robinson broke into the starting lineup at right guard near the end of 2008 and held the position last season, missing one game (Navy) with a severe ankle sprain while fighting through the final month due to the injury.
Martin was withheld from action last season as a true freshman and had originally been slotted at tackle by both the former and current regime.
"We're really just trying to find the best guys," Kelly continued of the position tweaks. "Today was a movement day for a number of guys relative to a number of positions (in which) we say, 'Okay, we can't move them again; here's (his position), he stays here or we move him back to another position.
"I think we'll be able to, with this scrimmage, really make some final decisions on some personnel."
IrishEyes speculated as early as last October that Robinson, the team's most talented and aggressive O-Lineman, would be tried at tackle this spring. The graduation of 50-game starter Sam Young serving as the impetus of the experiment.
"I think all of them (the position moves) are (under evaluation)." Kelly noted when asked if the team would continue to "experiment."
"‘Experimenting' I guess is one way of looking at it. We're not really sure what's going to best fit our football team, so I think we're still in that period. I think this scrimmage allows us to get away from the evaluation and say, ‘here's where we believe his strengths to be.'"
Kelly noted that his initial impression of practice could change after a quick visit to the video room.
"We have a lot of film to evaluate," Kelly stated. "I wanted a good lively scrimmage. We probably were pretty balanced in runs and throws today and we stayed in three formations. We have upwards of 35 different formation groups; today we had three because we wanted to be specific about what we were doing."
Regardless of the truth that remains to be told through practice film sessions, Kelly admitted he was pleased with his group's progress, especially relative to last Wednesday's oft-discussed practice prior to Easter Break.
"We said that we were going to evaluate this week (three practices from Wednesday, April 7 through Saturday, April 10) as to whether we were moving forward or we were moving back. Of course as you know last week we weren't very good. And I think I made that pretty clear.
"This week we wanted to evaluate three practices. And in all three practices, we started better, we finished better, and we made progress. We still have a long way to go, but I think our guys understand how to practice. Today was lively, no injuries, nobody was put in a compromising position; so they're learning how to practice which was really step one for us."
1/3 of the Game: Special Teams at the Midway PointIn his first meeting with the media this spring, Kelly noted that one of the best ways for a team to improve is through its overall special teams performance. With an admitted focus on the units, have the Irish begun to develop an identity in the kicking game?
"Quite frankly that's an area that we need to continue to evaluate. I don't think that's an area that will clear itself up (anytime soon)," Kelly offered of the team's punt return options, specifically. "We probably have a lot of ‘suspects' right now that we're going to continue to work through the entire summer. They're just going to have to catch balls off the Jugs (machine) the entire summer. I think we'll have a better sense of who those guys will be when we go into (August) camp."
Also still to be decided is the Irish kicking competition; with a familiar name resurfacing after a season absence.
"Well I think a lot of it was understanding what his medical conditions were more than anything else," Kelly noted of the return of Brandon Walker from career-threatening back injury. "Through communication, we clearly understand he has some limitations at what he can do during the week and I'm okay with that at his position. If he played another position he couldn't play here; he'd have to be at practice every day."
"He has some skills, and we want to make sure that we accommodate not only his medical condition (chronic back pain), but he has to be sharp enough that the kids trust him when we go out on the field; that he's not hanging out in the dorms for four days and that he shows up on Saturday, so there's a balance (needed). We can pull him back out of practice a little bit, but he has to be able to do some things as well. That's why he's still with us."
Walker is in heavy competition with early-2009 freshman phenom Nick Tausch, who after missing his initial offering in Ann Arbor, drilled 14 consecutive field goals (a program record) before scuffling in November.
"I would say right now he has a bit of an edge," Kelly said of Tausch. "He's done a nice job. I still think it's competitive, I'm not ready to turn it over to him, but I would say in answering your question truthfully that he probably has an edge."
Spread 101Kelly took a break from personnel matters to offer the casual football fan a quick background on his offensive philosophy, most notably, his adoption and adaptation of The Spread:
"I think at the end of the day you're trying to create space for your playmakers," he observed regarding the purpose of the spread attack. "You're trying to get a Michael Floyd or a Kyle (Rudolph) in space where he has the opportunity to show his skills. I thought we were able to spread the field a little bit today: run it; throw it…
"You can't be one-dimensional in any offense, whether it's an option offense or a passing game like the spread, you have to be balanced."
When asked why he turned ultimately turned to The Spread as his offense of choice, Kelly noted jokingly, "I don't get credit for creating it?
"I thought, as an ex-defensive coach, it created a lot of mismatch problems and issues and that's why, over the years, we saw a lot of situational substitution by the defense. (The Spread) creates matchup problems and that's why (he embraced it)," adding "it's pretty commonplace now."
One key aspect of the spread offense is the general presence of a slot receiver. While most passing offenses rely on the position in today's game, Kelly's spread requires the candidates to possess a varied skill set.
"It's early," Kelly noted of the continuing competition in the slot. "We're making some progress but I would not use words like ‘distinguish' or ‘starter' (yet). I think we're still in an evaluation process.
"They're starting to understand what's expected, Kelly stated, expanding to the rest of the position battles. "I'd rather leave the spring knowing how we're going to compete, and how we're going to go to work every day; because if I can get this football team to fight for four quarters…we can still have a great football team without those superlatives."
Expectations, Early Enrollees, and EthanIn addition to praising Gary Gray and his secondary teammates for surprising tackling prowess, Kelly also singled out a soon-to-be fan favorite for his play in the Saturday scrimmage.
"I thought we got better pressure than I expected," Kelly offered of the defensive line's effort. "I thought Ethan Johnson was hard to block for us today, so a couple of the areas where there were concerns: one, how do we develop a pass rush outside of our edge players? And second, can we tackle on the back end? And I thought those two things stood out to me (as positives)."
The New Guys: Wide receivers coach Tony Alford jokingly noted Friday that the team's quintet of "semester" freshman, aka, early enrollees, had friends looking to "pay someone to go to prom with them" while the first semester freshmen were attempting to learn the intricacies of the college game.
Tai-ler Jones (WR); Tommy Rees (QB); Lo Wood and Spencer Boyd (CBs) and Chris Badger (S) comprise the largest selection of early enrollees in the program's brief history with the practice (the first occurred in 2006).
Are the youngsters still wet behind the ears?
"Well we would hope that if we're worth our salt as coaches that we'd make some progress," Kelly stated bluntly. "And they're understanding a little (more) in terms of what we're doing offensively. That would be T.J. (Jones) and Tommy Rees.
"Those are kids that are starting to understand the concepts, but everybody is (improving): Shaq and Deion at the wide receiver position, they're learning (too)."
(Shaquelle Evans will be a sophomore in the fall. Evans burned a season of eligibility in 33:15 of playing time last season while Deion Walker (10:19) enters his redshirt junior season. Both have three years of eligibility remaining.)
"Defensively," Kelly continued of the early enrollees, "Lo Wood, Chris Badger, all of those young guys are starting to at least show up a little bit, because it's hard for them to show up when they're so hesitant (thinking rather than playing). We should (at this stage) be talking now about these mid-year guys that are starting to show at least a little bit (in terms of) their abilities."
Get Out of Jail Free Card: Kelly was queried about a reported team meeting that occurred early in the week. Its purpose was at least two-fold.
"I think a lot of the things we're going through (the struggles early in camp) is (due to) the different philosophy," he explained of the regime change and the difficulties therein. "Not better, not worse, but there's a bit of a learning curve. It's like anything else. Coach Weis' philosophy and our philosophy differ. One's not better than the other, they just differ.
"There's a learning curve and we were going through that (learning process last week) where we drew the line in the sand: ‘This is where we're going to be with this (football team) and if you don't want to jump on board it might be addition by subtraction."
Though team defections are the norm in the off-season, to date, every Irish player appears on board with the new staff and his old teammates. Kelly knows there's a bit of a balancing act; a give-and-take regarding how hard he can push his players in April.
"Sure there is," Kelly said of the possibility of a spring confidence boost. "If it's real. I'm not interested in blowing smoke at a guy.
"We'll pick our spots, but yeah, you can't bang a kid over the head every single day, there has to be light at the end of the tunnel. I think it's a fine balance. I think those are things that good coaches understand and can balance."