Breaking down the independents

Will Army improve under new coach Stan Brock? Was Navy able to find replacements on its offensive and defensive lines? How did Notre Dame's Tom Zbikowski look in spring practice? And what can we expect from Western Kentucky's first year in Division I-A? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.

2006 overall record:

Returning starters
Offense: 6, Defense: 6, Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
SS Caleb Campbell, WR Jeremy Trimble, LB Charlie Rockwood, CB John Laird, QB Carson Williams, RB Wesley McMahand, C Trey Miranne
Key losses

OT Jonathan Connon, LB Barrett Scruggs, LB Cason Shrode, G Pete Bier, G Matt Weisner, G Dan Evans, DE Cameron Craig, TE Tim Dunn, WR Walter Hill

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Wesley McMahand* (654 yds)
Passing: David Pevoto (1,012 yds)
Receiving: Jeremy Trimble (534 yds)
Tackles: Cason Shrode (104)
Sacks: Cameron Craig (3.5)
Interceptions: Caleb Campbell*, Jordan Murray*, John Laird*, Lowell Garthwaite (1)

Spring answers: 1. Brock's smooth transition: It didn't take new coach Stan Brock long to take charge of the Army program. He was named the Black Knights' new coach in late January after Bobby Ross retired after three unspectacular seasons. Brock understands the difficulties of coaching at a service academy. His background on offense might give Army the jolt it desperately needs. Brock kept nine of Ross' assistants on board, including defensive coordinator John Mumford. Former Portland State coach Tim Walsh was hired as offensive coordinator.

2. Two experienced quarterbacks: Brock has yet to name a starting quarterback, but all signs point to sophomore Carson Williams winning the job this fall. Williams and senior David Pevoto both struggled last season, combining for 24 interceptions and only 10 touchdowns. Army ranked 116th in Division I-A in passing and had only 133.4 yards per game. Williams is a big quarterback with a strong arm. If he makes better decisions, Williams might be the future of Army's football program.

3. There are playmakers: If Army can get steady play for its quarterback, the Black Knights have enough talented skill players to score points. Tailbacks Wesley McMahand and Tony Moore were banged up in spring practice, but each proved he can find the end zone last season. Receiver Jeremy Trimble has great hands and finds ways to get open. He also is an explosive punt returner. Sophomore Damion Hunter might be the big-play threat the Black Knights need on the perimeter.

Fall questions: 1. Rebuilt offensive line: It's a good thing much of Brock's experience came on the offensive line. A 16-year lineman in the NFL, Brock will need that expertise this fall. The Black Knights lost starting tackle Jonathan Connon and three players who started at guard (Pete Bier, Matt Weisner and Dan Evans). Senior center Trey Miranne is a good anchor, and senior Ray Zelenak is an experienced tackle. Junior Brandon Cox takes over at left guard after missing 2006 with a broken foot. Tackle Mike Lemming and guard Connor Wicklund occupy the right side.

2. More pass rush: Army generated only 11 sacks last season, which is why opponents were often able to pick its secondary apart. Victor Ugenyi and Brandon Thompson, who was plagued by a shoulder injury last season, are the anticipated starters at end. But Iowa transfer Ted Bentler, who wreaked havoc in practice while sitting out last season, might be a major force in the interior line. Seniors Tony Fusco and John Wright, who moved inside from end, also return.

3. Generate more turnovers: The Black Knights emphasized creating more turnovers, especially from their secondary. Army had only four interceptions last season, which was second fewest among 119 Division I-A teams. Strong safety Caleb Campbell, who missed the last three games of 2006 because of a knee injury, returns and should lead the secondary.

2006 overall record:

Returning starters
Offense: 7, Defense: 2, Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, FB Adam Ballard, RB Reggie Campbell, WR Tyree Barnes, C Antron Harper, LB Clint Sovie, CB Rashawn King, RB Zerbin Singleton, RB Shun White
Key losses

LB Rob Caldwell, LB Tyler Tidwell, LB David Mahoney, CB Keenan Little, FS Jeremy McGown, QB Brian Hampton, WR Jason Tomlinson, C James Rossi, G Zach Gallion

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Adam Ballard* (792 yds)
Passing: Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada* (384 yds)
Receiving: Reggie Campbell* (244 yds)
Tackles: Rob Caldwell (109)
Sacks: David Mahoney, John Chan (7)
Interceptions: Jeremy McGown (3)

Spring answers: 1. Quarterback options: Midshipmen coach Paul Johnson has few concerns about plugging a first-year quarterback into his spread option offense. In each of the last four seasons, Navy has played in a bowl game with a first-year quarterback under center. Junior Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, who started the final six games of 2006 after quarterback Brian Hampton was injured, returns for his second season under center. But he missed the spring game with a shoulder injury and was pushed during spring drills by junior Jarod Bryant, who has a more accurate arm. Johnson won't decide a starter until fall practice.

2. Plenty of players in the slot: In the spread option offense, the slotbacks are counted on to provide big plays. Navy has a plethora of options returning there, with seniors Reggie Campbell, Zerbin Singleton and junior Shun White, each of whom is shorter than 5-foot-10. Campbell is one of the most explosive players in college football, scoring 16 touchdowns the last two seasons combined. White ran for 578 yards and five touchdowns last season, and Singleton had 197 yards and one score in limited action.

3. Inside linebackers: Replacing nine starters on defense is Navy's top priority, but at least Clint Sovie and Irv Spencer return as anchors at inside linebacker. Sovie had 61 tackles and two interceptions, and Spencer played well inside after moving from outside linebacker. They'll be counted on heavily to provide leadership.

Fall questions: 1. Rebuild the offensive line: Three starters must be replaced on the offensive line, where Navy is seemingly always outmanned by opponents. Right guard Antron Harper, the team's best blocker, moves to center. Right tackle Andrew McGinn also has starting experience, but he weighs only 255 pounds. He was still being pushed by junior Ricky Moore in spring practice. Senior Ben Gabbard, the team's heaviest lineman at 297 pounds, should start at right guard. Left guard Anthony Gaskins weighs 281 pounds, and seniors Josh Meek and Paul Bridgers were battling at left tackle.

2. Defensive line: Nose guard Nate Frazier is a future star player for the Midshipmen, but there are serious concerns about replacing ends Tye Adams and John Chan, who combined for 11 sacks in 2006. Senior Chris Kuhar-Pitters will start in Adams' spot, and junior Michael Walsh got the nod over senior Casey Hebert at Chan's spot on the right side. Look for that battle to continue during fall camp.

3. Holes in the secondary: Navy should have one half of the secondary covered with juniors Rashawn King and Ketric Buffin, who were battling for the starting left cornerback job. King had 50 tackles and four pass breakups in 2006 and looks like a solid cover man. He missed the spring game with a shoulder injury. Senior Greg Thrasher, only 5-foot-8, moves into the right cornerback spot. Sophomores Blake Carter and Jesse Iwuji were battling at strong safety, and senior Jeff Deliz will replace free safety Jeremy McGown, the team's third-leading tackler in 2006.

2006 overall record:

Returning starters
Offense: 3, Defense: 5, Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
S Tom Zbikowski, CB Ambrose Wooden, CB Terrail Lambert, TE John Carlson, ILB Maurice Crum Jr., P Geoff Price, DE Trevor Laws, C John Sullivan, OT Sam Young
Key losses

QB Brady Quinn, WR Jeff Samardzija, WR Rhema McKnight, RB Darius Walker, OT Ryan Harris, DE Victor Abiamiri, S Chinedum Ndukwe, DT Derek Landri, CB Mike Richardson, G Dan Santucci

Top newcomer: QB Jimmy ClausenInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Darius Walker (1,267 yds)
Passing: Brady Quinn (3,426 yds)
Receiving: Jeff Samardzija (1,017 yds)
Tackles: Maurice Crum Jr.* (100)
Sacks: Victor Abiamiri (10.5)
Interceptions: Mike Richardson (4)

Spring answers: 1. New direction on defense: Coach Charlie Weis replaced defensive coordinator Rick Minter with Corwin Brown, a highly regarded secondary coach with the New York Jets. Brown installed a 3-4 scheme that he learned while working and playing for the likes of Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells and Al Groh. The Irish are still looking for more speed on defense -- tailback Munir Prince was moved to cornerback -- but at least they've got a plan in place to improve defensively.

2. Experienced cornerbacks: Bill Lewis remains the secondary coach, but Brown also has had an impact on the defensive backs. Cornerbacks Ambrose Wooden and Terrail Lambert return. Sophomores Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil are talented, and freshman Gary Gray, who missed the spring after breaking his arm, might have an impact in the fall.

3. Slimmer, faster Zbikowski: Safety Tom Zbikowski endured a shoulder injury and was admittedly overweight last season. He gave up his amateur boxing career to focus on football and the commitment was evident during spring practice. Zbikowski was slimmer and faster and just as explosive on punt returns. Much-improved junior David Bruton teams with Zbikowski to give the Fighting Irish a solid last line of defense.

4. Unexpected star at linebacker: The 3-4 alignment puts more emphasis on playmaking linebackers. Inside linebacker Maurice Crum Jr. returns after totaling 100 tackles in 2006 and will lead the linebacker corps. Sophomore Toryan Smith wasn't on the radar at the beginning of spring drills, but left as the other starting inside linebacker. He had nine tackles in the spring game. The starting outside linebackers aren't as solidified. Sophomore John Ryan will probably start at left outside linebacker, but the right spot remains a battle between junior Scott Smith, senior Anthony Vernaglia and sophomore Morrice Richardson. Freshmen Brian Smith and Kerry Neal join the competition this fall.

5. New emphasis on running game: The loss of record-setting quarterback Brady Quinn and receivers Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight will put greater importance on the running game. Senior Travis Thomas, who moved to outside linebacker last season, is back at tailback. He ran for 36 yards on nine attempts in the spring game. And while Junior Jabbie was the spring game star with 87 rushing yards on 13 carries, Thomas and sophomore James Aldridge seem to be the top two tailbacks. Freshman Armando Allen might be a home run threat off the bench. Fullback Asaph Schwapp, who missed all but three games in 2006 because of a knee injury, is a bruising blocker and seems fully healthy.

Fall questions: 1. Starting quarterback: Weis played the four-man quarterback battle close to the vest and gave little indication of who the starter will be this fall. None of the four -- junior Evan Sharpley, sophomores Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones or highly regarded freshman Jimmy Clausen -- played exceptionally well during the spring game. Weis plans to trim the competition to two players at the end of May. Clausen figures to be one of the finalists.

2. Pass rush: Senior Trevor Laws made a smooth transition from defensive tackle to end in the 3-4 scheme. But the rest of the defensive front remains unsettled. Senior Dwight Stephenson Jr., who did little in his first three seasons, is the leader at the other end spot. Sophomore Derrell Hand was coming on strong during the spring. Pat Kuntz, a 272-pound junior, left spring as the No. 1 nose guard, but he might be too undersized. Converted guard Chris Stewart struggled with injuries and wasn't particularly productive at nose guard. Freshman Ian Williams might get a chance to play there this fall.

3. Rebuilt offensive line: The Fighting Irish lost tackle Ryan Harris and guard Dan Santucci, who were selected in the NFL draft. Center John Sullivan returns to anchor the line, and Sam Young is back after playing all 13 games at right tackle as a freshman. Many believed Young would flip to the left side to protect the quarterback's blind side, but the Irish elected to leave him at right tackle. Junior Paul Duncan is the No. 1 left tackle, and sophomores Dan Wenger and Matt Carufel were battling at right guard. Junior Mike Turkovich should be fine at left guard.

4. Wide receivers: Samardzija and McKnight were two of the most prolific receivers in Notre Dame history. Replacing them will be an arduous task. Junior David Grimes, who caught 26 passes for 336 yards and two touchdowns as the No. 3 receiver in 2006, moves into the starring role. Sophomore George West, only 5-foot-8, was perhaps the most productive receiver in spring drills. Junior D.J. Hord, who missed all of 2006 with an Achilles tendon injury, also made strides in the spring. The Irish are counting on highly regarded freshmen Duval Kamara and Golden Tate to provide depth this fall.

5. New kicker: Departed kicker Carl Gioia wasn't exceptional last season; he missed five of 13 field goal tries and was 49-for-54 on extra points. But the Irish are still searching for a new kicker. Sophomore Nate Whitaker seemed to have the edge in spring drills, ahead of sophomore Ryan Burkhart. Punter Geoff Price, who averaged 45.4 yards per punt in 2006, returns to the team.

2006 overall record:
6-5 (Div. I-AA)

Returning starters
Offense: 3, Defense: 4, Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
RB Andrew McCloud, RB Tyrell Hayden, G Cody Hughes, WR Jessie Quinn, WR Jake Gaebler, CB Travis Watters, LB Andre Lewis, LB Blake Boyd

Key losses

QB Justin Haddix, RB Lerron Moore, CB Dennis Mitchell, C Chris Sullivan, OT Joe Dolchan, LB Jon Hedges, LB Sam Sexton

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Lerron Moore (891 yds)
Passing: Justin Haddix (2,186 yds)
Receiving: Curtis Hamilton* (841 yds)
Tackles: Marion Rumph* (87)
Sacks: Dusty Bear* (3.5)
Interceptions: Travis Watters* (3)

Spring answers: 1. It's about the future: With the Hilltoppers making their transition from Division I-AA to provisional I-A status this season, coach David Elson has made it perfectly clear that he's committed to the future, rather than the present. Before spring practice, Elson took the unusual step of asking eight seniors to redshirt this season. Each of the players started last season: receiver Curtis Hamilton, guard Greg Ryan, tackle Zach Thuney, free safety Marion Rumph, safety Brandon Mason, defensive end Dusty Bear, strong safety Bo Smith and punter/kicker Tanner Siewert. Each of the players will practice on the scout team this coming season, as Elson hopes to improve competition and depth.

2. Quarterbacks: Even after losing quarterback Justin Haddix, who started 47 consecutive games the last four seasons, Western Kentucky has a couple of options at quarterback. Notre Dame transfer David Wolke and redshirt freshman K.J. Black took most of the snaps during spring practice and go into fall camp neck and neck for the starting job. Wolke, who is coming back from shoulder surgery, seemed to have a better handle on the option aspects of new coordinator Kevin Wright's spread offense. He completed 10 of 18 passes for 71 yards and ran 11 times for 34 yards in the spring game. Black, who was more accurate throwing in the spring, completed 14 of 20 passes for 144 yards and ran 17 times for 85 yards in the spring game. Sophomore Brandon Smith, who was Haddix's backup last season, broke his leg on the first day of spring practice.

3. Tailbacks: Lerron Moore, the school's all-time leading rusher, is gone. Sophomores Andrew McCloud and Tyrell Hayden both played extensively last season, so the Hilltoppers should be OK. McCloud, who ran for 443 yards and four touchdowns in 2006, separated his shoulder during spring practice. So Hayden, who ran for 315 yards and two touchdowns last season, was the primary back in the spring.

Fall questions: 1. From three to one up front: With Thuney and Ryan taking a redshirt season, the Hilltoppers now must replace four starters on the offensive line. Right guard Cody Hughes is the only starter returning to play this season. JUCO transfer Zack Ray will help, but the other three positions were being manned by players who were true freshmen a year ago (Derrick Elder, Jacob McLaurin and Lloyd Pressley).

2. Secondary holes: Western Kentucky figured to be pretty experienced and talented in the secondary this season, even after losing three-year starting cornerback Dennis Mitchell. But then starters Mason, Rumph and Smith were taken out of the equation. Starting cornerback Travis Watters still returns, but he'll need a lot of help from JUCO transfers Marcus Minor and Jihad Morris.

3. Linebackers: Two of four starting linebackers must be replaced, but several position changes might shore up the unit. Evan Brewer moved from defensive line to linebacker before spring practice and had eight tackles in the spring game, including three tackles for loss and two sacks. Andre Lewis (76 tackles in 2006) and Blake Boyd (70 tackles) also return. JUCO transfer Alonzo Higgins might provide some help.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.