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Aug. 30, 2006
By Bryan Graham
Bryan is a basketball editor for CSTV.com and contributes on a regular weekly basis.
In Year Two under Charlie Weis, the Irish have emerged as a trendy pick to play in
Quarterback Brady Quinn is the straw that stirs the drink for Notre Dame. A prohibitive favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, the senior signal-caller has gained a superior command of the offense Weis brought from the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, setting four single-season program passing records as a junior. Already the school's all-time leader in pass completions (640), attempts (1,135), yards (8,336), yards per game (231.6) and touchdown passes (58), Quinn is poised to close his career at the hallowed program on a memorable note.
Two-sport star Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight afford Quinn with a pair of excellent senior receiving threats. The All-American Samardzija, who starred for the baseball team in the spring, but turned pro in that sport this summer in the Chicago Cubs organization, established single-school program records for yards receiving (1,249) and TD catches (15) in 2005, while McKnight returns for a fifth season after a knee injury suffered against Michigan kept him sidelined for all but two games last season. The junior tandem of Travis Thomas and Darius Walker in the backfield provides Weis with an ample ground attack to complement the pass.
Though the Irish return just one starter at linebacker, and depth at the defensive line is questionable, there is uncommon strength in the secondary with the return of All-American safety Tom Zbikowski along with cornerbacks Mike Richardson and Ambrose Wooden.
Notre Dame might not have a conference affiliation, but that doesn't make its road to
In four seasons at the Naval Academy, Paul Johnson has done his part to right the ship. Under his leadership, the Middies have gone 28-21 -- including seven of eight victories over rival service academies Army and Air Force -- and made bowl appearances during the last three years.
Though the quarterback position is a glaring question mark, with do-everything option threat Lamar Owens having completed his eligibility, Johnson returns 17 starters on the two sides of the ball -- eight on offense and nine on defense. Owens produced 17 touchdowns for the run-heavy offense in 2005 -- seven rushing and 11 passing -- while galloping for 880 yards. Brian Hampton is expected to be behind center when the Middies open their season on Sept. 2 against East Carolina, though understudy Jarrod Bryant is waiting in the wings. Four returning offensive linemen will help first-year running back Trey Hines learn the ropes.
Johnson's three returning starters at linebacker comprise the strength of this team. Classmates Rob Caldwell, David Mahoney and Tyler Tidwell provide senior leadership that will anchor the defense.
Though road dates with Stanford (Sept. 16) and Air Force (Oct. 7) will prove challenging, all signs indicate that Johnson's squad should make a bowl for the fourth straight season.
Army continues to enjoy modest progress entering its third season under Bobby Ross.
Though the former NFL coach returns 16 starters -- eight a piece on offense and defense -- skill positions like quarterback and running back are among those that needed to be filled during the summer. Junior signal-caller David Pevuto gets his chance behind center, assuming the reins from Zac Dahman. Coverted linebacker Michael Herndon and 6-foot-4 senior Ricky Lay are among the top candidates to assume prime ball-carrying responsibilities, but don't be surprised to see Tony Dace or Jamal Robinson throw their hats into the ring. All should benefit from an offensive line which retained all five starters from a year ago.
While questions linger in the secondary of a unit that surrendered 38 points on four different occasions in 2005, look for the defense to make positive strides as Army attempts to make its first bowl game since 1996. Senior Barrett Scruggs, whose 80 tackles as a junior ranked second on the team, returns to anchor the linebacking corps, while Cameron Craig and Brandon Thompson have shown significant promise at defensive end.
A near-universal pick to finish in the sub-basement of Division I, the Owls -- who have won a single game since the 2003 season -- have nowhere to go but up. The longtime cellar-dwellers of the Big East have a new conference (the Mid-American) and a new coach (former Virginia assistant Al Golden) who looks to instill a new culture to the woebegone Philly football program.
Expect all 23 freshmen to see significant playing time on this squad. Five starters return on offense, but the quarterback position remains a significant question mark. Joe DeSanzo should start the opener at
On defense, the Owls have cleaned house. However, Golden admitted during Media day that a complete overhaul given last season's porous unit might be a blessing in disguise. Keith Holt, a
This is no quick fix. But even the most moderate progress would be a boon for a program that hasn't had a winning season since 1990 or made a bowl game since 1979.