March 22, 2005

Notre Dame, Ind. – The start of 2005 spring football practice marks the dawn of a new era in Notre Dame Football as new head coach Charlie Weis takes over the Irish program. A Notre Dame graduate (Class of 1978), Weis brings a reputation as one of football’s brightest tacticians with him to the Irish.

After a 6-6 season, it’s Weis’s charge to (in his own words) “raise the expectations” of the football program and bring the Irish back to their previously accustomed spot among the elite. While he makes no promises of an immediate return to dominance, Weis fully expects to field a tough, smart team that will be fully prepared each Saturday.

Weis inherits an experienced team that returns 36 lettermen, 13 position starters and three starters in the kicking game. The Irish are particularly well-stocked with experience on the offensive side of the ball. Ten starters and 20 lettermen are back on offense while the defense returns three starters and 14 lettermen. The kicking game welcomes back kicker/punter D.J. Fitzpatrick.

Based on the returning experience, the offense would seem primed to be the standard bearer for the Irish in `05. While toughness and consistency in the running game will be focal points of spring preparation, a passing game that averaged 281 yards per game in `04 will only benefit from Weis’s offensive expertise.

There’s plenty of experience returning at every offensive position including tailback, where Darius Walker returns after splitting starting duties with Ryan Grant (the lone lost starter from `04).

Four of the five skill position starters return led by receivers Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight, tight end Anthony Fasano and fullback Rashon Powers-Neal.

The success of the offense will largely depend on the prowess of an experienced offensive line. All five starters from `04 return: LT Ryan Harris, LG Bob Morton, C John Sullivan, RG Dan Stevenson and RT Mark LeVoir.

How experienced is this offensive line? In terms of games started, this group has started 101 games in their careers, including 24 by LeVoir. A year ago the group had a total of only 42, led by LeVoir’s 12.

Special teams will be a point of emphasis for the new coaching staff, particularly the return game. But the kicking end is well-stocked with experience. Fitzpatrick, who handled both the placement and punting duties in ’04, returns for his final season. The Irish employed separate snappers for punts and kicks in with Scott Raridon (placements) the lone returnee.

Defensively, the Irish have to deal with huge graduation losses. Only three regular starters return from the `04 unit that ranked fourth nationally against the rush (88.2 yards allowed per game) but was 116th in passing yards allowed. But there is experienced help on board, particularly along the front line.

Highlighting those defensive losses was the departure of defensive end Justin Tuck (the `04 Irish most valuable player and ND’s career sacks leader). Also missing will be end Kyle Budinscak (played in 44 games), tackle Greg Pauly (17 starts and 36 games played), linebacker Mike Goolsby (leading tackler in `04 who started 25 games) and linebacker Derek Curry (three-year starter who made 167 career tackles).

Returning for the Irish in `05 are three of the top 10 tacklers from last season in linebacker Brandon Hoyte, nose guard Derek Landri and safety Tom Zbikowski.

Notre Dame showed potential to compete with the nation’s best in ’04, defeating two teams ranked in the top 10 at gametime (Michigan and Tennessee) and owned victories over three temas that played in bowl games (Michigan, Tennessee and Navy).

Seven `05 Irish opponents played in bowl games a year ago (three of the seven were winners), highlighted by BCS participants Michigan (Rose Bowl), USC (won Orange Bowl), Pittsburgh (Fiesta Bowl) and Tennessee (won Cotton Bowl). Add to that list Purdue (Sun Bowl), Navy (won Emerald Bowl) and Syracuse (Champs Sports Bowl). Notre Dame’s `05 opponents combined for a 78-53 mark (.595) in ’04 – and five won eight or more games. Ten of 11 scheduled opponents for `05 were on the `04 slate.

As spring football dawns in South Bend, the Weis Era starts here for Notre Dame as the Irish look to build a bright future.

Here’s a position-by-position look at Notre Dame fortunes for the coming season:

QUARTERBACK: Junior Brady Quinn (191 of 353 for 2,586 yards, 17 TDs, 10 interceptions) has posted impressive numbers in nearly two full seasons as the Irish starter. He showed improvement across the board in `04, including his touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio (going from 9-to-15 in `03 to 17-to-10 in `04). Among his credits from ’04 included a career-high 432-yard effort against Purdue and an Irish record-tying four TD passes versus Washington. He also finished as Notre Dame’s second-leading single-season passer (only Jarious Jackson passed for more with 2,753 yards in 1999). Experience behind Quinn was tough to come by last year. Sophomores Darrin Bragg (did not play in `04) and David Wolke (played 2:00 in `04) will be looking for playing experience.

RUNNING BACK: Sophomore Darius Walker (185 for 786, 7 TDs) made a memorable debut in ’04, splitting time with veteran starter Ryan Grant and posting the finest freshman rushing season in Notre Dame history. A deceptively fast runner with great vision and quick feet, Walker returns as the probable starter after posting two 100-yard efforts in ’04, one of those a 115-yard effort against Michigan in his debut for the Irish. Three veterans return led by junior Travis Thomas, who will be complemented by senior Jeff Jenkins and sophomore Justin Hoskins.

FULLBACK: Experience is not a problem here, thanks to the return of fifth-year senior starter Rashon Powers-Neal (two receiving TDs in `04). The departure of veteran Josh Schmidt (played in 24 games, including 10 in `04) deprives the team of any veteran depth. Powers-Neal provides a nice combination of elusiveness, power and blocking ability. And his prowess as a receiver out of the backfield has been a crucial component to the offense in recent years. Also in the mix is senior Nate Schiccitano (played 4:26 in ’04), who was the primary backup to Powers-Neal through much of last season.

WIDE RECEIVER: The Irish return the top four wideouts from a year ago, led by seniors Rhema McKnight (42 for 610, 3 TDs in `04) and Maurice Stovall (21 for 313, 1 TD in `04). It will be interesting to see how Weis’s new offense implements the talents of this deep, veteran group of pass catchers. McKnight has led the Irish in receptions and yards the last two seasons, but he has yet to become the consistent big-play threat many envisioned when he arrived on the scene. Stovall (21 for 313, 1 TD in `04) has battled injuries and inconsistency, but has shown glimpses of great potential the last three seasons. The primary big-play threat for the Irish in `04 came from senior Matt Shelton (20 for 515, 6 TDs in `04) who set a new Irish record for yards per catch in a season (25.8 ypc) last season. Shelton will miss the spring while recovering from knee surgery, but is expected back in the fall. Jeff Samardzija (17 for 274 in `04) also returns. The lanky junior had a breakout game in the Insight Bowl versus Oregon State, making five grabs for 89 yards. Other returnees include sophomore Chris Vaughn (1 for 7 in `04) and junior Chase Anastasio (1 for 15 in `04).

TIGHT END: The Irish figure to continue to expand the use of tight ends in the passing game in Weis’s new offense and the chief beneficiary in `05 figures to be returning starter Anthony Fasano (27 for 367, 4 TDs in `04). The senior was second on the team in catches last season, including a 155-yard, two-TD effort against Purdue that earned him Mackey Award Tight End of the Week honors. There’s experience and talent behind Fasano led by senior Marcus Freeman (five for 50 in `04) and junior John Carlson (six for 31 in `04). Freeman played in eight games (starting four times) last season while Carlson played every game (starting twice) and was a special teams standout.

CENTER: The return of junior starter John Sullivan (12 starts in `04 playing a team-leading 367:24) provides the Irish with a strong foundation up front. Sullivan matured in his first season of action as the full-time starter last year. His continued development will be a key to the success of the offense this season. Guard Bob Morton could slide over to help. Morton, the starter at left guard in `04, started 11 games at center for the Irish in `03.

OFFENSIVE GUARD: The Irish have enough experience and depth at the guard spots to have four players who can contribute. Both starters return in fifth-year senior RG Dan Stevenson (12 starts in `04, 23 career starts) and senior LG Bob Morton (11 starts in `04, 22 career starts on the OL). Both Stevenson and Morton have all-star potential. Stevenson settled in at guard in `04 after starting six games their in `03 while Morton successfully transitioned from center to start the entire regular season in `04. Senior Dan Santucci (11 games, 1 start in `04) started at LG in the Insight Bowl and could challenge for the starting job this fall after impressive work as a reserve and in the starting role in the bowl game.

OFFENSIVE TACKLE: Both starters return at tackle as LT Ryan Harris and RT Mark LeVoir bring a combined 44 career starts between them. Senior LeVoir (24 career starts over last two seasons) provides the most experience with 32 career games played and more than 700 minutes logged the last two seasons. A freshman All-American in `03, junior Harris (20 career starts, 24 games played) continued to develop into a dominant college lineman in his second season and figures to emerge as a star this season. A quartet of players appear likely to contribute at tackle led by sophomores John Kadous (did not play in `04) and Chauncey Incarnato (did not play in `04). Seniors Brian Mattes (10 games in `04) and Scott Raridon (11 games in `04) also figure to be in the mix.

DEFENSIVE END: Gone from Notre Dame’s defensive end ranks is veteran Justin Tuck (22 career starts, 47 tackles in ’04), who set the Irish career quarterback sacks record (24.5) in only three years of action, and Kyle Budinscak (34 career starts, 25 tackles and 5 sacks in `04). But there is experience returning in junior Victor Abiamiri and senior Chris Frome. Abiamiri (played in 12 games, 15 tackles and 2 sacks in `04) has been a consistent pass rushing threat in a reserve role the last two seasons. Frome (played in 7 games, 7 tackles in ’04) figures to get a major look during the spring. Senior Travis Leitko (11 games, 5 tackles and a fumble recovery in `04) has been a special teams stalwart and could get a serious look at end this spring. There are three sophomores – Justin Brown, Brandon Nicolas and Ronald Talley – who will contend for playing time after watching all of their rookie seasons from the sidelines.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE/NOSE GUARD: Notre Dame should be solid up the middle on defense in ’05, thanks to the return of three experienced veterans – senior nose guard starter Derek Landri (40 tackles, 7 TFL, 4 PBU in ’04), talented junior nose guard Trevor Laws (17 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFL in `04), plus senior tackle Brian Beidatsch (8 games, 3 tackles in `04). Landri may have been the team’s most improved player in `04 when he emerged as a force, starting all 12 games and providing a push in the middle of the line. Laws has undeniable talent and ability. He will be looked to for a starting role at either tackle or nose guard after an inconsistent debut season in `04. Beidatsch is the veteran of the group, a fifth-year player and three-time monogram winner who is a former end. His experience and versatility gives the team some much-needed depth in the middle.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: The Irish lose veteran three-year starter Derek Curry from the outside linebacker spot, opening up possibilities for several youngsters to shine. Junior Mitchell Thomas (11 games, 2 tackles, 1 TFL in `04) rose to backup status behind Curry last year. Fifth-year senior Brandon Hoyte (74 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 sacks in `04) was second on the team in tackles last season and will be the unit’s veteran leader this fall. Hoyte (20 career starts) could compete for national honors this season after emerging as one of the nation’s hardest hitters last year. Sophomore Joe Brockington (11 games, 3 tackles in `04) was the primary backup to Hoyte last year and could vie for a starting role opposite him in `05, or provide experienced help as a reserve. Senior Anthony Salvador adds depth after playing extensively on special teams. Two sophomores – Abdel Banda and Maurice Crum, Jr. – will be looking to make their mark after not seeing action as freshmen in `04.

MIDDLE LINEBACKER: The departure of veteran Mike Goolsby forces the Irish to replace their leading tackler from `04, as well as the defense’s emotional leader. There are several candidates to replace Goolsby led by fifth-year senior Corey Mays (33 career games, 15 tackles, 1 sack in `04), a special teams stalwart to this point in his career. Mays has the skills and experience to handle the job and figures to play a prominent role this season. Joining Mays in the middle will be veteran reserve Nick Borseti (9 games, 7 tackles in `04). Borseti was a special teams standout last season before a knee injury sidelined him. His return for the spring remains in question, but he figures to have a say in the middle before the `05 season is in the books.

CORNERBACK: The graduation of `04 starters Dwight Ellick and Preston Jackson leaves both starting jobs at cornerback open. One player (Mike Richardson) who has earned a monogram returns, along with another who played sparingly in `04 (Ambrose Wooden). Richardson (12 games, 5 starts, 33 tackels in `04) started as a nickel back last season. He showed a nose for the ball with three forced fumbles and an interception last season. Other candidates for a prominent role included junior Wooden (9 games, 5 tackles in `04) and a quartet of second-year men who didn’t play as freshmen in `04 – Tregg Duerson, Leo Ferrine, Junior Jabbie and the speedy Terrail Lambert.

SAFETY: The Irish lose one safety in the graduated Quentin Burrell (72 tackles, 3 PBU, 1 fumble recovery in ’04) but return a potential star in junior Tom Zbikowski (70 tackles, 1 INT, 1 fumble recovery, 2 forced fumbles in `04). Zbikowski ranked fourth on the Irish roster in total tackles while developing a reputation as a ballhawk in the secondary. There are several candidates for a prominent role at safety – junior Chinedum Ndukwe (9 games, 7 tackles in `04), junior Freddie Parish IV (12 games, 18 tackles in `04) figure to be the main contenders from the ranks of the veterans. Second-year man Anthony Vernaglia will get a look this spring after not playing as a rookie in `04.

KICKER/PUNTER: Notre Dame returns plenty of experience at both punter and placekicker, spots that were manned primarily by D.J. Fitzpatrick in `04 who returns this season. Fitzpatrick was drastically improved as a punter last season, averaging 41.8 yards per attempt while placing 29 of 76 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. He also was a consistent placekicker, making 11 of 15 attempts (73.3 percent)in his second season as the starter. Fitzpatrick already ranks eighth in Notre Dame history for field goals made with 23 (in 32 attempts). Geoff Price (44.5 avg. on 2 punts in `04) is a strong-legged veteran who could compete for the punting job. Carl Gioia and Bobby Renkes shared kickoff duties with Fitzpatrick in `04 while Craig Cardillo could step in, if needed. Punt return specialist Carlyle Holiday graduated, leaving that job open for the `05 season. Junior Chase Anastasio (18.6-yard average in `04) handled most of the kickoff returns last year. Sophomore Justin Hoskins (9 return, 19.3-yard avg. in `04), senior Maurice Stovall and senior Matt Shelton have experience. Long Snapper Casey Dunn must be replaced in the punting game, but Scott Raridon returns to handle the snaps for field goals and conversion kicks after 50 flawless snaps at that position last season.