Independents spring preview: Army hits field first

The 2011 season ended Jan. 9, with Alabama beating LSU for the national title. Believe it or not, the 2012 season begins Monday.

Well, sort of.

Army becomes the first FBS team to open spring practice when it hits the field Monday at West Point. And Army also is the first team to finish spring drills; the Black Knights conclude practice March 9, before a majority of the teams even start.

One cool aspect of Army’s spring game: It will be played at Fort Benning, Ga., to give the troops there an up close and personal look at the team.

The other three independent programs begin their spring drills in March. Only one of the four is coming off a satisfactory season; that would be BYU, which went 10-3 in its first season as an independent. Notre Dame finished a disappointing 8-5, and Army and Navy both were bowl-less after finishing 2010 in a postseason game.

Here’s a look at the four independents as they prepare for spring practice.

Army
Spring practice opens: Monday
Spring game: March 9, at Fort Benning, Ga.
Buzz: Army led the nation in rushing offense last season, but the Black Knights still finished 3-9 because they were horrible against the run and also turned it over 26 times. The offense has potential to be better in 2012, but the defense needs vast improvement. Lack of size was a huge problem last season, and Army couldn’t overcome it because it also lacked speed in the front seven. Replacing LB Steven Erzinger, who was the leading tackler, is going to be tough. Still, at least of modicum of defensive improvement should be expected because nine starters are back on that side of the ball.
BYU
Spring practice opens: March 5
Spring game: March 30
Buzz: Defense led the way for the Cougars in 2011, and that side of the ball should be solid again. Two starters departed in the secondary - one at corner, one at safety – so that area bears watching in the spring. BYU looks to be in better shape at corner than at safety. The offense is more problematic. BYU has to rebuild the left side of its line, find a new starter at fullback and at tailback and replace a starting wide receiver. The Cougars are looking for new starters at left tackle, left guard and center, and the drop-off to the new starters bears watching. BYU’s backup linemen were extremely young last season, and their progress this spring will go a long way toward determining how potent the Cougars are this fall. Junior TB Michael Alisa was productive in the second half of the season, and he will get ample opportunities this spring. Despite the loss of WR McKay Jacobson, BYU looks fine at that position.
Navy
Spring practice opens: March 19
Spring game: April 14
Buzz: The defense was horrible all around last season, and getting better on that side of the ball is vital this spring. Navy’s eight-year bowl streak was snapped. Navy uses a 3-4 set on defense, and the back eight should be OK. But a rebuilt line could be a problem, especially trying to replace E Jabaree Tuani. Starting QB Kriss Proctor also is gone, as is FB Alexander Teich and RB Aaron Santiago; Proctor and Teich were the Midshipmen’s top two rushers. Junior Trey Miller should be the new quarterback, but finding a new fullback could be more difficult. Three starting linemen also have to be replaced, and two of those guys were backed up by seniors. In short, the lines on both sides of the ball are going to get a lot of attention this spring.
Notre Dame
Spring practice opens: March 21
Spring game: April 21
Buzz: This is going to be an important spring for third-year coach Brian Kelly. His offense lacked consistency last season, mainly because quarterback play often was spotty. WR Michael Floyd, the most productive wideout in school history is gone, but TE Tyler Eifert returns along with most of the other wide receivers. Finding a go-to receiver to take Floyd’s place will be important. It also will be important to find new starters at right tackle and right guard. But the most important goal this spring needs to be improving the quarterback play. Junior Tommy Rees, sophomores Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson and true freshman Gunner Kiel, who enrolled early, will be battling for the job. Rees generally was steady last season, but at times, he took too many risks and ended up throwing 14 picks. Hendrix is a good athlete who adds a running threat, and Kiel was one of the most celebrated prep quarterbacks in the nation last fall and has a nice arm. The front seven on defense should be excellent, and LB Manti Te’o has All-American potential. But three starters are gone in the secondary, and there especially is a concern at cornerback. Early enrollee Tee Shepard, who was the No. 4 high school corner in the nation, will be given every opportunity to win a starting job. Indeed, he needs to prove that, at the least, he can be a nickel or dime back this fall. Depth is a huge concern at corner.

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