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Football: Spring Beginnings

Chris Hine and Ken Fowler | Thursday, March 22, 2007

Tradition never graduates, but experience does.

A year after posting a banner that read, “9-3 is not good enough,” Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said Wednesday he picked a theme – “Tradition never graduates” – for spring practices that would eliminate any low expectations as the team replaces seven offensive and transitions to a new defensive scheme.

Weis’ comments came at the team’s news conference to usher in the start of spring ball. Notre Dame held the first of its 15 spring practices Wednesday at the Loftus Center.

The Irish enter the spring needing to fill the top of the depth charts on an offensive unit that led Notre Dame to a 10-3 record and a Sugar Bowl appearance last season.

“Our identity on offense is going to be more personnel- related than it is schematically because we changed people,” Weis said. “There’s been a great influx of new people coming in, so now, for example, let’s say your runner is a different type of runner than Darius [Walker]. Well, you know, that might change what you do offensively as far as the run game goes.”

With the Irish losing four-year starting quarterback Brady Quinn, two top receivers in Rhema McKnight and All-American Jeff Samardzija, three-year workhorse Darius Walker at running back and three offensive lineman, position battles for the top spot on the depth chart will shape the spring.

At signal-caller, the battle will feature three returning players – rising junior Evan Sharpley and rising sophomores Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones. But the most intriguing storyline is the arrival of high school star Jimmy Clausen, one of three early-enrolling freshmen.

Weis said he hopes to cut the competition for the starting job down to two by the end of spring practice, with the top candidates vying for the job once summer camp starts in August. He said he would focus his attention “heavily – almost exclusively” on the quarterback battle as Corwin Brown installs the new 3-4 personnel defense.

“I’ve set this up where everyone will get their fair chance to show that they can run the team,” Weis said.

Frazer said his strengths are in leadership and size – he’s the biggest of the group at 6-foot-4 and 226 pounds.

“Each of us is very different, but I think my skills and my talents definitely bring something to the table,” Frazer said. “The competition’s going to get tough but I’m working towards trying to get one of those two spots.”

Jones said the competition is open both in terms of information and candidates.

“Coming into spring we all know the expectations on the field as well as off the field,” he said. “There’s not any hidden secrets about the responsibility we’re going to have to take on, there’s not any secrets period.”

But then there’s the question of to whom who the new quarterback will be throwing.

Weis said rising junior David Grimes, the No. 3 wideout last fall, would be the top receiver to start the spring. Grimes, a 6-foot, 174-pound speedster, underwent an undisclosed surgery after the Sugar Bowl in January.

“A couple days before spring break, when I said, ‘If I don’t see him go full-speed, he’s not going on spring break,’ he ran around great,” Weis said with a laugh. “So from what I saw right before spring break, I have very high expectations.”

Weis said he talked to Grimes about successful wideouts in the NFL whose heights were shorter than the prototypical receiver frame, including former New York Jet Wayne Chrebet and current New England Patriot Troy Brown.

“I’ve talked to him about a bunch of guys that I’ve coached in the past that have not been the biggest in stature that have been very, very, very productive and productive as in the lead roles,” Weis said.

But after Grimes, even more questions remain.

Behind Grimes are rising junior D.J. Hord, who is fully healthy after missing all of 2006 with a torn Achilles tendon, rising sophomore George West, who enrolled early a year ago, and classmates Richard Jackson and Robby Parris, the tallest receivers on the Irish roster at 6-foot-3.

But all four are wet behind the ears. In fact, with Chase Anastasio deciding against applying for a fifth year, only two Irish wideouts, other than Grimes, have logged even a single catch in college. West caught two balls as a freshman, and Parris hauled in one. Hord returned seven kickoffs as a freshman but never saw the ball on offense.

In the backfield, early-enrollee Armando Allen will battle with rising sophomores James Aldridge and Munir Prince and multi-faceted fifth-year senior Travis Thomas.

Weis said Thomas, who played outside linebacker in 2006, likely would start at the beginning of the spring but could move back to defense. Thomas had 13 carries for 81 yards and two touchdowns on limited offensive action last season. Aldridge carried 37 times for 149 yards, while Prince had 34 yards on 15 attempts.

On the offensive line, Weis said rising sophomores Dan Wenger, Eric Olsen and Matt Carufel likely would battle for the two open spots at offensive guard, while rising sophomore Bartley Webb and rising juniors Mike Turkovich and Paul Duncan will fight for the open left tackle position.

On the other side of the ball, new defensive coordinator Corwin Brown will instill the 3-4 personnel – a scheme largely unfamiliar to the Irish.

“Defensively, although personnel comes into play, the changes are more schematic, and you’re going to put it in – in its due course – and you’re going to be very deliberate in how you put it in,” Weis said. “So everyone knows what they are doing and you are building a system rather than just throwing a system at them.”

Despite the changes, Weis refuses to allow excuses to lower his team’s expectations for the upcoming season.

“All you do give a scapegoat and say, ‘You only have three guys coming back on offense, you only have a few more coming back on defense,'” Weis said. “I don’t think that’s what good teams do.”

To accommodate the switch to a 3-4 from a 4-3, some Irish personnel will be switching positions. Rising sophomore Chris Stewart will join the defensive line this season after spending his freshman campaign at left guard, but Weis left open the possibility that Stewart could return to the offense.

Weis said overall the switch in defenses will benefit both the players he has now and any recruits looking to come to Notre Dame because the outside linebacker slots on the 3-4 accommodate players who are too small to be defensive lineman, but too slow to play linebacker in a 4-3 set.

“This gives you a lot more flexibility because now, both those guys, both the guys on the outside are capable of being either a defensive end or a linebacker on every play,” Weis said. “And this way the defense and the offense really never knows which one is which: Is this guy a linebacker in this play or is he a defensive end on this play? By natural view of that, it causes confusion.”