Commentary

Weis using doubters as motivation for Irish

Updated: August 6, 2007, 8:43 PM ET
By Adam Rittenberg | Special to ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- By the time media day ended, most Notre Dame players and coaches exited the Loftus Center with sweat dripping down their foreheads.

Poor ventilation in the indoor practice facility was the likely culprit. Or, perhaps, Charlie Weis' plan had already started to take effect.

The third-year Fighting Irish coach has wasted no time turning up the heat on his transitioning program.

After the Irish failed to meet elevated expectations last season, Weis told the players just how far they had fallen, at least in the public view, when they reconvened Sunday night. Calmly and matter-of-factly, Weis outlined the gloomy forecast for a group that returns only nine starters, must replace its quarterback and confronts a schedule featuring USC, Michigan, Penn State and UCLA.

"Fellas, people perceive you a certain way, and you're going have to be the ones to change that perception," Weis recounted what he told the team Sunday. "Let's be very practical here. We had a large changeover in personnel, a lot of front-line players that moved onto the NFL. Why shouldn't they have their doubts or reservations?"

In a smaller meeting with the team's leadership committee, Weis got into specifics.

"He just basically [talked] about the 1-7 comment," safety Tom Zbikowski said, referring to the prediction ESPN analyst Mark May made for the Irish, who begin with four of six on the road. "It's kind of hard for the older guys because we've been hearing it for three years now ... but it still rubs us the wrong way."

Weis' approach was hardly avant-garde, but he believes in its value, particularly for a team that didn't respond well to the hype a year ago.

"We've got a little bit of edge back," said fifth-year senior Travis Thomas, who enters preseason camp as the No. 1 running back after starting 10 games at linebacker in 2006. "We had so much potential last year. I really don't think we achieved everything that we could.

"Looking back at it now, with the talent we had, there's no telling where we could have went. But that's over."

Last summer, Thomas and Zbikowski, along with quarterback Brady Quinn, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Notre Dame entered the season ranked No. 2 in the preseason Associated Press poll.

The Irish had the Heisman Trophy frontrunner in Quinn as well as "cult heroes" Jeff Samardzija and Zbikowski, whose respective forays into minor-league baseball and boxing kept Notre Dame in the headlines.

"You've got Samardzija, who you know is going to make the big-time catch," Thomas said. "You've got a three-time, four-time starter in Brady. Now, they're saying that everyone's young with no experience.

"You have to prove all the disbelievers wrong."

Notre Dame must identify its quarterback from a three-man candidate pool (Evan Sharpley, Demetrius Jones and Jimmy Clausen) that has combined for two collegiate pass attempts. There are questions at outside linebacker, wide receiver and along the defensive line, where the only returning starter, Trevor Laws, is moving from tackle to left end.

The defense is adjusting to the 3-4 alignment implemented by new coordinator Corwin Brown.

"We'll find out who's going to be playing where," Zbikowski noted. "There is more competition than just the quarterback position."

Still, the spotlight will be under center, where Weis expects to see some separation soon, possibly by early next week.

Weis reiterated Monday that Clausen, despite rumors of lingering elbow problems, is completely healthy and could start immediately if necessary. A quarterback platoon isn't unthinkable, but unlikely.

"I have a pretty good idea of the direction of an 'either or' type of situation, or if there's a 1A and 1B," Weis said. "When I'm ready to make a couple decisions, I'll cut it quick."

He was razor-sharp when asked about the possibility of rebuilding this fall, asking for divine intervention.

"May God strike me dead if I use that word," he said.

Weis remains focused on a different R-word.

"It's easier to get your team to buy into it when you can sit there and say, 'Look, no one thinks you're worth a darn,'" he said. "Players want respect, and I think that they understand that respect is something that you just don't hand out.

"It's something you have to earn."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.