Is Notre Dame ready for a run at the national title? Can coach Paul Johnson and Navy keep posting wins? Will Army reach a bowl game? Can new coach Al Golden turn around Temple? Take a look at what questions were answered by the independents this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.
2005 overall record:
Offense: 8, Defense: 8, Kicker/punter: 2
2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Carlton Jones (1,024 yds)
Passing: Zac Dahman (1,864 yds)
Receiving: Jeremy Trimble* (535 yds)
Tackles: Caleb Campbell* (97)
Sacks: Cameron Craig* (5)
Interceptions: Campbell* (5)
Spring answers: At this juncture, the new starting quarterback at Army is unquestionably David Pevoto. The junior impressed coach Bobby Ross with his strong arm and surprising running ability. Pevoto also displayed an ability to lead, which never hurts anyone's chances at West Point. However, keep an eye on how quickly freshman Carson Williams progresses upon arrival. Most take a while to adjust to life at the Academy, but if the highly touted Alabama native makes a smooth transition, he'll have a shot at the starting job. Williams turned down offers from Vandy, Arkansas and NC State. He's no joke. Before a season-ending knee injury in the Iowa State game, LB Charlie Rockwood was well on his way to becoming one of the team's best defenders. Well, surgery was successful and he was back at full strength this spring. It looks like Rockwood is back on track. Even though he didn't play in a single game last season, FS Jordan Murray made the most of his opportunity this spring with starter Randy Chasten recovering from knee surgery. Murray loves to make contact and always seemed to be around the ball during scrimmages. It'll be interesting to see what happens when Chasten returns. Although depth is still an issue, the Black Knights are comfortable with their secondary, even with the loss of both starting cornerbacks. Sophomore Darren Newson was probably the team's best cover corner last year anyway, and boundary corner Sean Grevious showed rapid improvement this spring. The defensive backs performed well against the pass last year (10th nationally) and we don't see any reason for a dropoff this time around.
Fall questions: OK, so the spring game was played in sloppy conditions. Yeah, the defense is always further along than the offense in these types of things. But a 3-0 final score? In double overtime? For an offense that ranked just 101st last season in total yards, should one not be at least a little troubled by that score? The stagnant running game is probably the biggest worry spot. The Black Knights started to regress on the ground last year, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. So with Carlton Jones and the next two top rushers gone, a host of inexperienced players competed this spring in what could only be described as a sometimes-serviceable, sometimes-awful affair. Although 5-foot-8 sophomore Jamal Robinson emerged late as the favorite, the group as a whole was simply not consistent enough to ease the worries of the staff. Tackle seems to be a hot spot for competition at the moment, on both sides of the ball. At left tackle on the O-line, sophomore Brandon Cox is running neck-and-neck with incumbent starter Ray Zelenak. Over on the defensive side, junior Tony Fusco has one tackle spot secure, but the other is still up for grabs among the trio of Travis Prikryl, Peter Harrington and Bob Landeg. While a season that ends with a loss to Navy is never a complete success at West Point, real progress was made here last year. Progress like breaking an 11-game losing streak by winning four straight for the first time in a decade, including a pair of victories against bowl teams. So with 18 starters back, shouldn't the upward trend continue? This year's schedule, while not easy, is not brutal. If the Black Knights find a ground game, the six wins needed for bowl eligibility are attainable.
2005 overall record: 8-4
Offense: 8, Defense: 9, Kicker/punter: 1
Rushing: Lamar Owens (880 yds)
Passing: Owens (1,299 yds)
Receiving: Jason Tomlinson* (445 yds)
Tackles: Rob Caldwell* (140)
Sacks: Tyler Tidwell* (10)
Interceptions: Keenan Little*, Greg Thrasher* and Greg Sudderth* (2)
Spring answers: QB Brian Hampton was anointed the starter before the spring and only strengthened his hold on the job during the spring. While not as quick as his predecessor, Lamar Owens, the senior is strong and hard to bring down. Keep in mind, this isn't completely new stuff to Hampton. He's been groomed for this moment for the last three years. In 2005 he threw a TD pass at Notre Dame, came in during a key situation against Maryland and led a fourth-quarter scoring drive in a tight contest with Stanford. The Middies aren't worried about the quarterback position. The injury bug bit throughout the four-week camp. Although nearly all were non-major injuries, there were still a whopping 22 players knocked out of the spring game alone. So it was tough to gather many answers on the competitive front, but there was depth-chart movement on the defensive side. At nose guard, senior David Wright grabbed the position away from Larry Cylc. At left end, senior Tye Adams survived an early injury and then made a late push to topple Andrew Tattersall. And at inside linebacker, sophomore Clint Sovie beat out senior Joe Cylc with his speed and aggressiveness. Sovie will occupy the spot vacated by Jake Biles, in what should continue to be a tremendous linebacking corps. Under the guidance of continually underrated coach Paul Johnson, Navy lost 17 starters last year and still went to -- and won -- a bowl game. The team loses just six starters this time around. We're not into predictions, but this one doesn't seem too hard to figure out.
Fall questions: Not a lot of starters are missing, so there aren't a lot of overriding questions. There is, however, a tight -- and important -- competition going on for the No. 2 spot at QB. Johnson doesn't mind throwing in the backup to occasionally mix things up. Right now, it's a spirited duel between junior Troy Goss and freshman Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, an intriguing prospect with 4.4 speed. It's been whispered the Hawaiian might be utilized some at wide receiver. Another competition to watch is the one at right tackle, where sophomore Andrew McGinn emerged from camp as the starter over senior Joe Person, who sat out the spring recovering from surgery. Once healthy, Person will be back on equal footing. While neither took part in spring drills, everything seems to be progressing well with the recoveries of slot back Karlos Whittaker and FB Matt Hall. But you just never know how a player responds to an ACL tear until you see him in game action. No doubt, Navy is eagerly awaiting that day. If those two are back in the fold and showing no ill effects, there's no reason the Midshipmen can't finish in the nation's top 3 in rushing for the fifth straight year. Remember Adam Ballard in Hall's absence? All he did was rush for a school-record 488 yards in a three-game span. Remember Whittaker before he went down late in the season? He was the freshman sensation who was an honest-to-goodness threat to score just about every time he touched the ball, including on kickoffs. It's been many, many years since the Middies boasted a player like that. One of the few places that isn't set is punter, where Eric Shuey left a vacancy. Greg Veteto might be a slight favorite, but it's fairly wide open.
2005 overall record: 9-3
Offense: 7, Defense: 9, Kicker/punter: 0
2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Darius Walker* (1,196 yds)
Passing: Brady Quinn* (3,919 yds)
Receiving: Jeff Samardzija* (1,249 yds)
Tackles: Brandon Hoyte (92)
Sacks: Victor Abiamiri* (8)
Interceptions: Tom Zbikowski* (5)
Spring answers: The biggest answer came in the form of a healthy Rhema McKnight, whose gruesome knee injury in the second game against Michigan last year cost the wide receiver the rest of the season. How quickly we all forget that McKnight was ahead of Jeff Samardzija in Brady Quinn's pecking order before the injury. One could certainly argue those absurdly good numbers put up by Semardjiza in '05 could've easily been the stat line for a healthy McKnight instead. All of that is irrelevant at this point, though. The only thing that matters is that Quinn still has a 1-2 receiving punch, even after the graduation of Maurice Stovall. And don't think Quinn isn't getting better by the day. It's hard to imagine that Quinn could make the same kind of jump he did from his sophomore to junior year. But he and QB guru extraordinaire Charlie Weis are giving it the old college try. The pair is on the same wavelength, constantly playing mental games and sitting down and going over every little detail on ways to get better. Much like Tom Brady did at New England, Quinn soaks in every last bit of Weis' advice and is humble enough to know there's always more to learn. If you don't think there's something special developing here, make sure to tune in to next year's NFL draft. Speaking of special, the magic is officially back in South Bend. If that wasn't obvious last fall, a record crowd of more than 41,000 attended this year's spring game. And unlike last spring, when everything was still so unknown and expectations were relatively reasonable, this reenergized fan base can't stop talking about a run at the national title. The difference between this and many other fired-up fan bases? The head coach is basically leading the charge. Not only does Weis not try to deflate skyward expectations, he fully embraces them. In the weight room, he recently hung up a huge banner that reads, "9-3 is not good enough." Enough said.
Fall questions: Notice how there wasn't much talk much about actual football in the above section? It's because, quite frankly, we couldn't find many adequate answers to the questions we had for the Irish coming into spring ball. Start with the offense. The job at backup quarterback wasn't claimed by either Evan Sharpley or David Wolke. So if Quinn goes down, it might be up to one of the incoming freshmen, Zach Frazer or Demetrius Jones. No one claimed right tackle outright, either. Will it be an inexperienced soph like Paul Duncan or Michael Turkovich? Maybe even Sam Young or one of the other freshmen? Weis isn't ruling it out. And what about the depth at receiver? Do you realize McKnight is Notre Dame's second-leading returnee at wide receiver? With five catches? The loss of Matt Shelton as a No. 3 is nothing to scoff at, especially since the Irish can't rely on the dependable hands of TE Anthony Fasano anymore. Only late in the spring did David Grimes emerge as the likely third option. He'll bring two career catches into the fall. Then there's the defense. If you don't think it's crucial the Irish find a consistent pass rush in the big games, give Ohio State QB Troy Smith another 15 seconds and he'll be able to deliver you an answer. All those third-and-long conversions in the Fiesta Bowl were nothing new. Sure, the Irish could pile up a bunch of sacks all at once, usually against inferior opponents, but too often an already-shaky secondary was left out to dry while the opposing quarterback was given a free pass to pick it apart at his own leisurely pace. Weis challenged the D-line all spring long, even having DE Victor Abiamiri watch film of the New York Giants' Michael Strahan. Some of the linemen started to pick up on the concept late, especially in the spring game. But what happens in the spring game stays in the spring game. Most prefer to see what goes on in the fall. So the pressure is on -- or at least it better be. The only two losses on D were at linebacker (Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays). Although LB Maurice Crum Jr. was recovering from back surgery and limited a bit, he played all three linebacker spots so the Irish would be able to just pick the next two best to start, regardless of position. Problem is, no one went nuts and really took over even one of those spots. Will it be senior Mitchell Thomas, whose career has mostly involved special teams? Maybe sophomores Anthony Vernaglia and/or Joe Brockington, both talented but with a combined 26 minutes of playing time between them? Or is this the place for a freshman like Toryan Smith? Finally, is the Irish secondary still vulnerable to the deep ball? Even with occasional pressure in the spring game, the DBs were still burned too many times. These guys can't do anything about their lack of speed. They can do something about those mental lapses. On special teams, Notre Dame suffered a double whammy with the loss of K/P D.J. Fitzpatrick. Weis is pleased with new punter Geoff Price, but when asked about senior kicker Carl Gioia, he responded with, "Sign me up, I'm concerned." Sounds like freshman Ryan Burkhart will get every shot at this position.
2005 overall record: 0-11
Offense: 5, Defense: 3, Kicker/punter: 0
2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Umar Ferguson (701 yds)
Passing: Mike McGann (1,469 yds)
Receiving: Bruce Gordon (601 yds)
Tackles: Manual Tapia (100)
Sacks: Mike Mendenhall (7)
Interceptions: Ray Lamb (2)
Spring answers: We know it's still Temple and we know the same clichés are used to describe every new coach around the country, but it really does feel like Al Golden is changing the culture around college football's most downtrodden program. Unlike the previous regime, the 36-year-old Golden and nearly his entire staff are young and energetic. Not only that, but the accountability is already better, in the classroom and otherwise. Nine players, including six starters, were deemed academically ineligible before the season opener last year. But Golden, a former player and recruiting coordinator for Joe Paterno at Penn State and more recently the defensive coordinator at Virginia, has complete control over this team and the harness is on tight. A few of those academic casualties were back this spring and are committed to playing again. Among the most prominent are WR Mike Holley, CB David Reese and TB Tim Brown, who was named most improved offensive player and looks like the leader in the clubhouse in the backfield. A running back last year, sophomore Georg Coleman moved to cornerback this spring and played well enough to earn a starting spot. He was one of 10 players who changed positions this offseason. Among the starters: Neil Dickson (DL to OG), Leyon Azubuike (TE to OLB), Keith Holt (S to ILB) and Chris Page (CB to S). Plenty of changes have been made to the Temple playbook. Offensive coordinator George DeLeone, who directed Syracuse to some of the best offenses in school history during 1987-96, will quite often utilize the one-back, two-tight end sets. On defense, Mark D'Onofrio will run the 3-4 with multiple fronts and coverages, which he feels will give the Owls more flexibility than they've had in the past.
Fall questions: All the new vibes are great, but what about that whole playing football thing? In a winless 2005 season, Temple never scored more than 17 points, gave up less than 34 just once and stayed within 20 points just once. Out of the 14 major statistical categories the NCAA tracks among its 119 Division I-A teams, the Owls ranked 100th or worse in every single one, including dead-last in total offense (247.5 ypg), scoring offense (9.7 ppg) and scoring defense (45.3 ppg). Welcome to Philly, Mr. Golden! Heading into August, only a handful of starting spots are fairly secure. Chief among the vacancies is quarterback. Among the four contenders, Joe DeSanzo had the most playing experience, but he decided to transfer in mid-spring when the coaches suggested he should try out linebacker. So that left it to Colin Clancy and Shane Kelly, both sophomores, and Jarrett Dunston, a mobile, mid-year transfer signee. Nothing was decided heading into the summer and things will only get more muddled when freshman Vaughn Charlton arrives in August. On a defense with basically one entrenched starter (OLB Ryan Gore), the line is particularly up in the air. Sure, it's been reduced in size with the new 3-4 formation, but four starters were still lost and depth is a definite issue. With major questions on both offense and defense, it would be nice if Temple could at least count on a reliable special teams. Alas, the special teams unit might be the most unstable of the lot. On the current roster, no one has long-snapped in a college game, no one has played the role of holder and no one has ever punted. The most experience is at placekicker, where Danny Murphy attempted one field goal two years ago -- and missed it. Folks, this could get really ugly.
Brett Edgerton is a researcher for ESPN. He can be reached at Brett.M.Edgerton.-ND@espn.com.