Commentary

Breaking down the independents

Originally Published: May 12, 2008
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

Notre Dame returns plenty of starters on offense, but will the Irish be able to protect Jimmy Clausen? What is Army's new offense going to look like? How will Navy fare with a new coach? And how will Western Kentucky address its kicking situation? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.

Army Black Knights

2008 Schedule

Aug. 29 Temple
Sept. 6 New Hampshire
Sept. 20 Akron
Sept. 27 @ Texas A&M
Oct. 4 @ Tulane
Oct. 11 Eastern Michigan
Oct. 18 @ Buffalo
Oct. 25 Louisiana Tech
Nov. 1 Air Force
Nov. 08 @ Rice
Nov. 22 @ Rutgers
Dec. 6 Navy


2007 overall record:
3-9

Returning starters
Offense: 4, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Carson Williams, RB Tony Dace, T Mike Lemming, LB Frank Scappaticci, LB John Plumstead, DT Ted Bentler
Key losses
WR Jeremy Trimble, FB Mike Viti, TE Justin Larson, SS Caleb Campbell, FS Jordan Murray, LB Brian Chmura, K/P Owen Tolson
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Tony Dace* (330 yds)
Passing: Carson Williams* (1,770 yds)
Receiving: Jeremy Trimble (912 yds)
Tackles: Jordan Murray (103)
Sacks: Ted Bentler* (3)
Interceptions: Frank Scappaticci* and Josh Mitchell* (2)

Spring answers

1. Under wraps: Coach Stan Brock didn't publicly reveal his new offense, but players spent all of spring ball working with the system. Don't expect Army to line up in the wishbone, as a recent report speculated, but the option likely will play a greater role in the offense. Any change seems like a good thing for an offense that ranked 116th nationally in yards last season.

2. Middle man: A much-needed move went smoothly this spring as Frank Scappaticci shifted from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker. As the team's top returning tackler with 89 stops last fall, Scappaticci was a clear choice to become the leader of a defense that lost standout safety Caleb Campbell. "I picked it up pretty fast," Scappaticci said. "When I came in, I was excited for the challenge because I never played middle linebacker before. I did the best I could, and I feel pretty good about it."

3. Well received: Army had to be pleased when a wide receiver -- junior Damion Hunter -- was named the most improved offensive player of the spring. The team must replace Jeremy Trimble, who finished his career with school records for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Hunter, who has battled injuries the past two seasons, looked primed for a solid season. Army also needs production from Mike Wright and a core of younger receivers.

Fall questions

1. Blurry backfield: Quarterback Carson Williams appeared to maintain his starting job this spring, but the scheme changes could result in more shuffling before the season. Chip Bowden shared reps this spring with Williams, and heralded freshman Paul McIntosh arrives this summer. "We are happy with where those guys are," Brock told the Times Herald Record of Middletown, N.Y. "Carson is doing things well, and the passing game looks strong."

2. Shaky secondary: The defensive backs will be spotlighted this summer as Army tries to replace safeties Campbell, a seventh-round NFL draft pick, and Jordan Murray. There's some experience at cornerback with interceptions leader Josh Mitchell and promising sophomore Jordan Trimble, but preseason camp should feature plenty of competition. "They're going to get attacked," Brock said. "Hopefully, the pressure package that we've put together will take some of that pressure away."

3. Shaping the line: Injuries caused Army to use seven different starting lineups with its offensive line last season. The good news is that five players with starting experience return, including tackle Mike Lemming. After getting a taste of the new offensive scheme in spring ball, the linemen must continue to absorb the system and form chemistry in preseason camp. There's decent depth, but a clear group of first-team players must emerge.

Navy Midshipmen

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Towson
Sept. 5 @ Ball State
Sept. 13 @ Duke
Sept. 20 Rutgers
Sept. 27 @ Wake Forest
Oct. 4 @ Air Force
Oct. 18 Pittsburgh
Oct. 25 Southern Methodist
Nov. 1 Temple
Nov. 15 Notre Dame
Nov. 25 @ Northern Illinois
Dec. 6 @ Army


2007 overall record:
8-5

Returning starters
Offense: 4, defense: 8, kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, FB Eric Kettani, SB Jarod Bryant, SB Shun White, DE Michael Walsh, FS Wyatt Middleton, CB Ketric Buffin
Key losses
FB Adam Ballard, SB Reggie Campbell, C Antron Harper, LT Josh Meek, LB Irv Spencer, LB Matt Wimsatt, DE Chris Kuhar-Pitters
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Eric Kettani* (880 yds)
Passing: Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada* (952 yds)
Receiving: Zerbin Singleton (263 yds)
Tackles: Irv Spencer (95)
Sacks: Matt Wimsatt and Michael Walsh* (3)
Interceptions: Ketric Buffin* (4)

Spring answers

1. Front and center: Needing to replace standout center Antron Harper, the Mids moved two players -- tackle Ricky Moore and nose tackle Andy Lark -- this spring and got positive results. Moore finished the spring on the inside track to a starting position, but Lark will continue to push him in training camp.

2. Moving day: First-year coach Ken Niumatalolo quickly determined that Jarod Bryant was far too valuable to be buried behind quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada on the depth chart. With Kaheaku-Enhada entrenched as the starter, Bryant practiced at slotback this spring and had strong results. Bryant, who was named a team captain at the end of the spring, remains Kaheaku-Enhada's backup but will spend time at both slotback and punt returner.

3. Schaefer surges: After losing its top two linebackers in leading tackler Irv Spencer and Matt Wimsatt, Navy needed new players to step up this spring. Craig Schaefer answered the call and slid into the starting outside linebacker spot vacated by Wimsatt. Primarily a special-teams performer last season, Schaefer impressed the coaches with his playmaking ability.

Fall questions

1. Passing problem: The passing game isn't a major part of Navy's offense, but a lack of wide receiver depth causes some concern heading into the summer. Top wideout O.J. Washington is gone, and projected successor Greg Sudderth was denied a fifth year of eligibility by the NCAA. The Mids need some reliable receivers to emerge from a group that includes seniors Curtis Sharp, T.J. Thiel and Tyree Barnes.

2. Slot machines: Veteran Shun White slides into one of the vacant starting slotback spots, but Navy still needs another replacement after losing versatile star Reggie Campbell. Senior Greg Shinego takes a slight lead into the summer but will be pushed by Andre Byrd, Bobby Doyle and Cory Finnerty. Bryant also should get his share of carries after auditioning at slotback this spring.

3. Special delivery: Special teams fills Niumatalolo's to-do list heading into preseason camp. He loses Campbell, an outstanding kickoff and punt returner who took two kicks back for touchdowns last season. The Mids also need replacements at both kicker and punter, and Kyle Delahooke has emerged from spring ball as the top punting candidate.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

2008 Schedule

Sept. 6 San Diego State
Sept. 13 Michigan
Sept. 20 @ Michigan State
Sept. 27 Purdue
Oct. 4 Stanford
Oct. 11 @ North Carolina
Oct. 25 @ Washington
Nov. 1 Pittsburgh
Nov. 8 @ Boston College
Nov. 15 @ Navy
Nov. 22 Syracuse
Nov. 29 @ USC


2007 overall record:
3-9

Returning starters
Offense: 9, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Jimmy Clausen, RT Sam Young, WR Duval Kamara, RB Robert Hughes, S David Bruton, LB Maurice Crum, LB Kerry Neal, DT Ian Williams
Key losses
TE John Carlson, C John Sullivan, DE Trevor Laws, S Tom Zbikowski, LB Joe Brockington, P Geoff Price
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: James Aldridge* (463 yds)
Passing: Jimmy Clausen* (1,254 yds)
Receiving: John Carlson (372 yds)
Tackles: Trevor Laws (112)
Sacks: Trevor Laws (4)
Interceptions: David Bruton* (3)

Spring answers

1. Stability at quarterback: Jimmy Clausen practiced at full strength for the first time in his college career this spring as he took control of an offense that ranked last nationally in 2007. Though accuracy is still a concern, Clausen showed better command of the offense and should put up strong numbers this fall with improved pass protection. With backup Evan Sharpley playing baseball, Clausen took all the reps in practice and tossed the winning touchdown pass to Duval Kamara in the Blue-Gold game. "I've been very, very pleased with his progress, as well as his throwing," coach Charlie Weis said.

2. Safety first: After reducing his body fat in the offseason, David Bruton continued his evolution as arguably Notre Dame's best defender. The safety and standout special teams-gunner anchors a secondary that could be the team's best unit this fall. Elected a team captain, Bruton hopes to build off a junior season in which he ranked third on the squad in tackles (85). "When they talk about [NFL] prospects to play past here, he's the number one guy that they all talk about," Weis said.

3. Hughes emerges: The running back competition continues in preseason camp, but Robert Hughes inched ahead with his performance this spring. Hughes, who had 246 rushing yards in the final two games last season, won offensive MVP honors in the spring game with 100 yards on 22 carries. Though Armando Allen and James Aldridge remain in the mix and all three likely will play this fall, Hughes boasts a strong combination of size (238 pounds) and speed.

Fall questions

1. Forming lines: Both the offensive and defensive lines will be in the spotlight this summer, but for different reasons. The offensive front was obliterated last fall, allowing 58 sacks. Though four starters return, there's still much work left to be done. Nose tackle Pat Kuntz is expected back after withdrawing from school this spring for personal reasons. How the Irish use Kuntz and fellow tackle Ian Williams will be crucial. The undersized defensive front also must replace standout end Trevor Laws, the team's best player last season.

2. Targets needed: Clausen will need more reliable receivers to emerge in the preseason. Golden Tate spent part of the spring playing baseball but returned to haul in a 57-yard pass from Clausen in the spring game. Tate's development along with continued progress from Kamara, team captain David Grimes and tight end Mike Ragone is essential. Heralded freshman Michael Floyd arrives this summer and could provide the extra big-play threat Notre Dame needs.

3. Coaching adjustments: Most of the big news at Notre Dame occurred within the coaching staff, as Weis yielded offensive play-calling duties to coordinator Mike Haywood and hired defensive guru Jon Tenuta to assist coordinator Corwin Brown. After 15 spring practices to acclimate, the coaches can continue tweaking and polishing, as Notre Dame tries to bounce back from quite possibly the worst season in team history.

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Indiana
Sept. 6 @ Eastern Kentucky
Sept. 13 @ Alabama
Sept. 20 Murray State
Sept. 27 @ Kentucky
Oct. 4 @ Virginia Tech
Oct. 11 Ball State
Oct. 18 Florida Atlantic
Nov. 1 North Texas
Nov. 8 @ Troy
Nov. 15 Middle Tennessee
Dec. 6 @ Florida International


2007 overall record:
7-5

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB K.J. Black, RB Tyrell Hayden, T Greg Ryan, LB Blake Boyd, CB Marcus Minor, DE Dan Cline
Key losses
WR Curtis Hamilton, LT Zach Thuney, RT Terrance Houston, LB Andre Lewis, LB Dusty Bear, SS Bo Smith
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Tyrell Hayden* (1,134 yds)
Passing: K.J. Black* (1,007 yds)
Receiving: Curtis Hamilton (873 yds)
Tackles: Andre Lewis (103)
Sacks: Dusty Bear (4.5)
Interceptions: Bo Smith (5)

Spring answers

1. Bet on Black: After splitting time with David Wolke last fall, sophomore quarterback K.J. Black surged ahead this spring. Black made a strong case for the starting job throughout practice, making better decisions in the passing game and leading an offense that consistently outperformed the defense. Wolke was injured for most of the spring but will rejoin the competition this summer.

2. Cooper sizzles: The search for a top passing option might have ended this spring. Quinterrance Cooper made a push to become Western Kentucky's No. 1 receiver after the departure of Curtis Hamilton. Cooper had six catches for 178 yards in the spring game to go along with a 53-yard reception in an earlier scrimmage. After tallying 22 receptions last fall, Cooper figures to claim a bigger role this fall.

3. Smith provides depth: The Hilltoppers hope to settle on one quarterback this summer, and sophomore Brandon Smith put himself into the discussion with a strong spring. After watching Wolke and Black split snaps last season, Smith made his mark throughout the spring. He had a 79-yard touchdown scamper in a scrimmage and took home the award for most improved offensive back.

Fall questions

1. Health watch: Injuries decimated the defense during spring ball, as projected starters such as end Dan Cline (foot), linebacker Blake Boyd (knee) and linebacker Alonzo Higgins (groin) sat out. The Hilltoppers also must replace standouts like Dusty Bear, Andre Lewis and Bo Smith. Getting healthy is critical for training camp, which will feature competition at several spots.

2. Getting their kicks: The Hilltoppers are still looking to replace kicker Chris James, who converted 10 of 12 field-goal attempts from inside 40 yards last season. Zac Minturn hit a 35-yard field goal in the spring game and could claim the job, but competition will continue this summer. "Still a little concerned about our kicking game, but we worked on it and we've got some great film and great things to teach from over the summertime," coach David Elson told the Bowling Green Daily News.

3. Tackle toss-up: Western Kentucky must shore up the ends of its offensive line after losing starting tackles Zach Thuney and Terrance Houston. Sophomores Jacob McLaurin and Preston King served as backups last season and could move into the starting roles, but several other players will be in the mix. Elson was pleased with the line's performance this spring and hopes for continued progress in camp.

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

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