THE IRISH DEFENSEIS IFFY. BUT WITH THE WAY THE OFFENSE CAN PUT UP POINTS, IFFY WILL BE GOODENOUGH
KEY RETURNEES WRJeff Samardzija (Sr.) Went from unknown to first-team All-America in '05, with77 receptions and 15 TDs LB Maurice Crum Jr. (Soph.) Defensive linchpin had 57tackles WR Rhema McKnight (Sr.) Coming back from right knee injury that forcedhim to miss the last 10 games, he had a team-high 42 catches for 610 yards in'04
BIG MAN ON CAMPUSCoach Charlie Weis has promised to use his "New Jersey rhetoric" tokeep star quarterback Brady Quinn from buying into the Heisman hype surroundinghim. But seriously, with the 6'4", 227-pound senior back for a secondseason under his offensive guru, how many mistakes will there be for Weis tocorrect? The answer: not many.
Robert Bell'sfirst mistake was taking the fight with Tom Zbikowski. His second was enteringthe ring at Madison Square Garden in an Ohio State football jersey. In June, inhis first pro bout, Zbikowski, the Fighting Irish strong safety, dismantledBell, a tomato can from Akron, knocking him out 49 seconds into the firstround.
That heavyweightsmackdown was, in a way, a role reversal for Notre Dame, which was humbled bythe Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl last January. In that 34-20 win, Ohio Stateamassed 617 yards of total offense. So with nine starters back on the Irishdefense its Fiesta performance raises the question: Is that a good thing?
Zbikowski says itis. Several of the Buckeyes' big plays were the result of "mentalbreakdowns," he says-miscues that were addressed during spring drills, whenthe defense "got back to basics." After the Fiesta Bowl loss, the partyline coming out of South Bend was: It's not that we're not fast; it's that wedidn't play fast.
Just in case theIrish aren't as fast as they think they are, there's a Plan B. Included in the2006 recruiting class are two of the nation's top corners, Raeshon McNeil andDarrin Walls. "I don't care if the guy playing is a freshman or asenior," says coach Charlie Weis. "I want the best guys outthere."
That samephilosophy led to Weis's most intriguing move of the off-season: switchingbackup tailback Travis Thomas to outside linebacker. Mindful of Thomas's superbtackling on special teams and the fact that he starred as a strong safety andoutside linebacker at Washington (Pa.) High, the coach popped the question lastspring. The 6-foot, 215-pound senior accepted.
The defense willhave to struggle mightily to allow more points than Brady Quinn and the offenseare going to score. Weis says Quinn merely "grasped" the offense in'05, but this year he's been able "to take it mentally to anotherlevel."
Where might thattake the Irish? While Weis refused to look past his team's opener at GeorgiaTech, Quinn was more forthright on the eve of fall practice. "Nationalchampionship," he said.
JOE ROBBINS/US PRESSWIRE (ZBIKOWSKI)