Independents spring wrap-up: What we learned

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
1.Notre Dame should be better: There were flashes of Notre Dame's potential at times last season and it gave a glimmer of hope that this Fighting Irish team could be a contender again. It returns enough starters and made the right moves on the coaching staff to make that happen. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen -- if he can get out of his own way -- can put up big numbers against a soft schedule and lead the Irish back into the hunt for a major bowl.

2.Navy offense could surprise: Navy's backfield will be entirely new this season and that's a concern considering the backfield was the source of almost all of the Midshipmen's offense in 2008. But there are good players in place and new quarterback Ricky Dobbs proved last season that he's ready to take the reins of this team. He admits that he still needs to work on the option, but he also has the potential to make Navy a more diversified offense in 2009.

3.Army will be a work in progress: Don't expect a quick turnaround at Army. New head coach Rich Ellerson doesn't have the right players on the roster to make the Black Knights the next Navy or even the next Cal Poly. However, Army will be a team that works hard and battles in games. That might not translate into wins, but at least it will be progress from a year ago.

4.Notre Dame's running game will be better: Tony Alford was a great hire as the running backs coach. He brings in a workmanlike effort that was missing from the running backs corps the past two seasons. Armando Allen should have a breakout year and incoming freshman Cierre Wood will also be a vital part of the backfield. If the offense can become more balanced, it will take a lot of pressure off Clausen's shoulders.

5.Navy's defense is one of the best: Navy's defense was underrated last year and ended up being a strength for the team. With seven returners, including Ross Pospisil and Jabaree Tuani, the Midshipmen are poised to have not only the best defense among the independents, but perhaps one of the top defenses in the country. The question is in the secondary, especially with the loss of safety Emmett Merchant. But if it can come along this spring, Navy will be tough to beat.