Spring offers promise of Notre Dame recovery, BYU breakthrough

After quite possibly the worst season in team history, Notre Dame can't wait for spring ball to start. Coach Charlie Weis bolstered his defensive coaching staff with respected assistant Jon Tenuta, and shocked many by announcing he no longer would call plays on offense. As the Irish try to restore respect, BYU has a loftier goal, reaching a BCS bowl. The Cougars have won 16 consecutive Mountain West games but need upgrades at several defensive spots.

Hawaii comes off the best season in team history but must start over with a new coach (Greg McMackin) and a new quarterback. The Warriors aren't alone, as teams like SMU (June Jones), Southern Miss (Larry Fedora), Navy (Ken Niumatalolo) and Colorado State (Steve Fairchild) welcome new leading men.

Here's a look at the independents and non-BCS programs as spring practice begins:

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Spring practice starts: March 26
Spring game: April 19
What to watch
• Offensive coordinator Michael Haywood takes on a greater role after Weis surprisingly turned over the play-calling duties. How Haywood and Weis coexist will be fascinating as they try to resurrect the nation's worst offense. Weis said his offensive assistants "won't have to worry about the head coach breathing down their neck," but time will tell whether the "very domineering presence" can actually stay away.

• Change has also come to the defensive coaching staff with the arrival of Tenuta as assistant head coach. Corwin Brown remains the coordinator, but this no doubt will be a collaborative effort, given Tenuta's experience as a respected playcaller.

• Eyes will be on both lines, but particularly the defensive front, which lost star end Trevor Laws to graduation and tackle Derrell Hand to a career-ending injury. Starting nose tackle Pat Kuntz is not enrolled in school, though Weis hopes he can return for the season. Players like Ian Williams, Justin Brown and Paddy Mullen step into the spotlight.


What to watch
• Ken Niumatalolo is a familiar face for Navy players, but he steps into a new position as head coach. Niumatalolo will keep the triple-option offense, which he knows inside and out, but it's important to put his stamp on the team this spring. The Mids look to replace four of their five starting offensive linemen.

Carson Williams returns at quarterback for Army, but he needs a fresh set of targets after losing his top three receivers (Jeremy Trimble, Corey Anderson and Justin Larson). Only four starters return on an offense that ranked 116th nationally, making the spring critical for evaluation. Coach Stan Brock plans to tweak the system, so plenty of position competitions could begin.

• Offensive tackle becomes a key spot for Western Kentucky, which must replace starters Terrance Houston and Zach Thuney. The Hilltoppers allowed only 16 sacks last season.

Conference USA

What to watch
• June Jones wanted a new challenge and got one at SMU, which has never recovered since coming off the death penalty in 1989. Jones brings a dynamic offense to Dallas, but quarterback Justin Willis, who should blend in well with the new system, is suspended from spring practice for an undisclosed violation of team rules.

• Southern Miss drew criticism for dumping longtime coach Jeff Bower, but Larry Fedora is looking like a solid replacement. Fedora recruited extremely well in a short time frame, signing standout wide receiver DeAndre Brown and replenishing both lines. Now he gets to the business on the field as the Golden Eagles try to return to the top of the league.

Kevin Smith reversed field after saying he'd stay at Central Florida, and his departure leaves a major production hole in the offensive backfield. The search for Smith's replacement kicks off as Phillip Smith tries to cement the starting job before freshman Brandon Davis joins the mix.

Mid-American Conference

What to watch
• Quarterback competition is the flavor in the MAC East as Ohio, Kent State, Akron and Bowling Green -- which signed a juco signal caller (Andrew Beam) to push Tyler Sheehan -- search for clarity under center. Julian Edelman and Giorgio Morgan will contend at Kent State, while four juniors are in the mix at Ohio. The MAC West will feature spring quarterback battles at Eastern Michigan and possibly Northern Illinois.

• A new chapter at Northern Illinois begins as Jerry Kill takes over for longtime coach Joe Novak. Kill first must assess player availability after a wave of major injuries depleted the squad last season. He then needs to install new schemes for a team that had stagnated, particularly on offense, toward the end of Novak's run.

• Led by quarterback Dan LeFevour, the offensive nucleus returns to Central Michigan, allowing the spotlight to shift to defense this spring. The Chippewas must find replacements for linebackers Red Keith and Ike Brown and build depth around Nick Bellore.

Mountain West Conference

What to watch
• BYU should enter the season ranked in the top 20 and carry the label as this season's non-BCS darling, but there's still work to be done this spring. Coach Bronco Mendenhall gave up defensive coordinator duties to Jamie Hill. Though Mendenhall will continue to call plays, he and Hill must evaluate a unit that needs new bodies in the secondary and at linebacker.

• It wasn't the end Colorado State had hoped for longtime coach Sonny Lubick, but the program now turns to one of its own to rebuild. Steve Fairchild's first priority will be a passing attack that loses wide receivers Johnny Walker, Damon Morton, Luke Roberts and George Hill. Quarterback is also a concern because Billy Farris didn't play much last season before injuring his elbow.

• Several quarterback competitions kick off, none more intriguing than the one at Air Force, which loses longtime starter Shaun Carney. Shea Smith backed up Carney last season and will go up against Eric Herbort. The Falcons also must replace superstar Chad Hall, one of several ball carriers lost to graduation.

Sun Belt Conference

What to watch
• Offense will be the focus for Troy after losing two-time Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Omar Haugabook and coordinator Tony Franklin, who took the same position at Auburn. Tanner Jones and Jamie Hampton both took snaps last season and will compete for the starting job with Jonathan Chandler and Levi Brown.

• Gary DeLoach returns to North Texas for his second stint as defensive coordinator. He takes over a unit that ranked last in the Sun Belt and 113th nationally in yards allowed (486.4 per game). A chief concern is the defensive line, which loses standout Jeremiah Chapman and fellow end Montey Stevenson, who combined for 26.5 tackles for loss last season.

• Louisiana-Monroe owned the Sun Belt's second-ranked rushing offense last season but lost standout back Calvin Dawson, the league's leading rusher, along with three starting linemen. Josh Andrews will get a shot at left tackle, but center could be a trouble spot. The Warhawks are also dealing with the departures of four assistant coaches, most recently co-offensive coordinator Nate Kaczor.

Western Athletic Conference

What to watch
• Greg McMackin's first assignment as Hawaii coach is clear-cut: identify a starting quarterback after the loss of Colt Brennan. Tyler Graunke, who performed well in place of Brennan last season at Nevada, was suspended for violating team rules but expects to return for spring practice. He will compete with Inoke Funaki, who appeared in five games last season.

• Quarterback also is a priority at Boise State, which breaks in a new starter for the second straight season. Bush Hamdan has held the top spot before, but fell to fourth on the depth chart last season. He will compete with Nick Lomax and Mike Coughlin this spring.

• Fresno State loses arguably its two top defenders in linebacker Marcus Riley and defensive end Tyler Clutts. Coach Pat Hill will be looking for playmakers at both spots. The offense returns its nucleus, but will be working under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier.

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.