Heading into spring practice many Irish fans were concerned with the progress of the starting offensive line. Weis gave his thoughts on the development of the front five thus far this spring.
“I feel a heck of a lot better than any time last year, that I can tell you,” Weis said. “I think as you look right down the line, they’ve settled in nicely at their positions. They’re bigger, they’re stronger, they’re more confident.
“They’re not looking around waiting for something to happen, they’re looking for someone to hit. I think more than any other quality, I think they’ve become much more cohesive. Instead of five guys out there just worrying about doing their jobs, now you’ve got five guys that are pulling for each other. I think that any offensive line that even has a chance, it’s all about the group.”
“It all starts with this is a prideful group that was embarrassed by how we played last year,” Weis said when asked why he felt the O-line has made advancements this spring. “If you’re not embarrassed, then you’re not going to get any better. First of all you have to identify that you’re part of the problem. Then you have to decide what you’re going to do to go about fixing it.”
“I have to say it started with them with (strength coach) Reuben (Mendoza),” Weis said when asked when the improvement began from last year. “It started long before we got on the practice field. The attitude was one of accountability. It wasn’t me putting it on them. It was them putting it on them. They’ve heard it from everybody. It’s a very prideful group. I think it actually started in December when they started working out in December.”
Quarterback play was also a concern heading into spring and Weis said he’s been pleased thus far with the progress of sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen.
“He’s made significant progress, significant,” he said.
“Everything---mentally, leadership, physically, you name it, every category the arrow has been pointing up,” said Weis when asked where specifically Clausen has improved this spring.
Leadership was also an area for concern for Irish fans this past fall. Weis said it’s up to the team to provide the type of leadership they’ll need to turn things around this coming fall.
“You need the players to take over the team,” Weis explained. “If you’re ever going to be a championship level team, you need the players to take over the team. You need positive leadership to take over the team, so that the coach’s main job should be about Xs and Os, not about coaching leadership. You can’t fake leadership. Either have it or you don’t have it. If you’re ever really going to be good, a leader’s got to rise.”
Weis had mentioned that he planned to name the Irish team leaders at the end of spring practice, but he wasn’t able to name them just yet.
“We’re going to address this issue Friday in our meetings,” Weis said when asked when he’d announce the team leaders. “I’ll probably let them know on Saturday. I still have a special teams practice today, and I’d like one of the captains to be a special teams captain, and I don’t think we can pick a special teams captain until we’ve had the whole special teams practice.
“I think on offense and defense, they could go ahead and make their votes now, but I think on special teams, I think they need to have the opportunity to have today’s second half. Second half of today’s practice is all special teams. I want to make sure I’ve already had that practice and watched the tape before we make that call.”
One player whose name continues to pop up recently is sophomore safety Harrison Smith. Smith has been seen recently playing with the linebackers and in the defensive backfield. Weis explained why Smith has been bouncing around this spring from position to position.
“We have two base defensive calls—personnel groupings,” Weis explained. “One is called ‘base’ for four (line)backers. One is called ‘regular’ for three safeties. We run the exact same calls though because we don’t want to confuse all the rest of the players. So if we want to get the most athletic guys out there, and you’re not worried as much size as you are speed, then you put regular out there. So that means he has to be cross-trained, even though he’s a safety, he has to be cross-trained between playing in the deep secondary and playing closer to the line of scrimmage.
“The same thing is true eventually in nickel, because in nickel, not that we’ve gotten to it yet, but what we have is a big nickel and a little nickel. A little nickel is really when you play with corners and speed guys inside and you’re playing more for the pass. Whereas big nickel is when teams try to expose you on early downs by putting in three wide receivers, but they really want to run the ball. So you want to put a nickel defense in, but you want to put in more physical guys so that you can stop the run as well as defend the pass.
“Really, what you’ve been seeing is a combination of us going back and forth between base and regular, with base having four backers in there, and regular, us having three safeties in there, but in both the defenses we play the exact same stuff.”
Running back is one area that nobody is concerned about with three excellent candidates battling for playing time in James Aldridge, Robert Hughes and Armando Allen.
“It’s been such a great competition,” Weis said of the battle at running back. “It’s made each one of them better because they know there’s somebody breathing down their neck every time they’re out there. That’s been a very, very healthy thing. I don’t think we have to worry about it at this point right now. I just know that we can put any of those three guys out there, and I think we can put somebody out there that we can win with.”
Finally, Weis said he had a few goals for this spring, and one of them was his team playing with more confidence. Weis said he’s not sure he can emphatically say they’ve accomplished that this spring at this point.
“I think the jury is still out on that question,” he said. “I think right now I would say the arrow is pointing up, but you have to see when August 7th and August 8th roll around. You’ve got to see how much carry over there is. If it stays level and continues to grow from there, then you’ve got something special. If you start to see a leveling out or a drop off in performance, then you wasted a lot of time and you’re starting over again.”
Weis did say some changes from the original pre-spring depth chart have been made, but it wasn’t clear from his comments if they’re permanent moves at this time.
“Barry (Gallup) is moving to halfback. (Steve) Paskorz is moving to fullback. Duval will probably start at X (receiver),” Weis said.
The Irish practice again today outside, and will hold another practice on Friday that will be closed to the media. Saturday will be the annual Blue-Gold game. We’ll have more on the Blue-Gold game later in the week.