SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Raising expectations will be the theme when Notre Dame's spring football practices start Wednesday.
Coach Charlie Weis actually started the theme weeks ago, hanging a banner in the Notre Dame weight room that reads: ''9-3 is not good enough.''
''I think last year the team didn't know if they were going to be any good or not,'' Weis told reporters on Tuesday. ''I'm hoping that they're not satisfied with the season they had last year. I know I'm not satisfied with the season we had last year. I'm hoping this time around that raising the expectations should be a rather simple task.''
It might seem simple, but it hasn't been at Notre Dame in recent years.
The last time Notre Dame put back-to-back seasons of at least nine victories was in 1992 (10-1-1) and 1993 (11-1). Since then, Notre Dame's average record in years following nine-win seasons is 6-5.
Notre Dame, though, appears to be in good shape to improve on Weis' rookie season, which saw the Irish finish ranked ninth in the nation, their highest since 1993.
The Irish return nine starters on defense - losing linebackers Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays. Record-setting quarterback Brady Quinn will have most of his weapons back as the Irish lost four of last year's starters - tight end Anthony Fasano, wide receiver Maurice Stovall, guard Dan Stevenson and tackle Mark LeVoir.
The first concerns Weis talked about were on defense, where the Irish struggled against the pass last season. He said the biggest worries are finding replacements for Hoyte and Mays, improving the pass rush and communication in the secondary, where the Irish were repeatedly beaten for big plays.
''It's going to be an area there we're going to emphasize this spring,'' he said.
Weis said this spring practice should be easier than last year, when he spent much of his time coaching his new coaching staff.
''There were several times last year as we went through offensive installation where the offensive coaches might be a day or two ahead of the players,'' Weis said. ''It isn't until you've been through the system at least one time that you can progress and take it to the next level.''
That also should free up more time for Weis to spend more time with the defense and special teams. He said he hopes to play a more active role in evaluating the defense, although he doesn't expect to spend much more time coaching the defense.
''I think we have a veteran defensive staff. I'm not trying to coach the defensive staff,'' he said. ''I think what's going to happen this year is I'm going to get an opportunity to be able to evaluate special teams and evaluate defenders. It allows you to give more input.''
Weis also thinks this year the team heads into spring practice with everyone understanding that his way is the only way.
''Last year I felt it took me half the spring just to get them to turn to my way of thinking,'' he said. ''That doesn't mean that anybody else's way of thinking was wrong. It's just that I'm the head coach, so it's going to be my way of thinking.''
And Weis' way of thinking is that 9-3 is not good enough, so he's expecting better in 2006.
Notes: Weis announced eight players will return as fifth-year seniors: tight end Marcus Freeman, wide receiver Rhema McKnight, offensive linemen Brian Mattes, Bob Morton and Dan Santucci, defensive linemen Derek Landri and Chris Frome and cornerback Mike Richardson. ... Weis said tight end Will Yeatman has been given the scholarship freed up when tight end Joey Hiben announced in February he was quitting the football to focus on academics. Yeatman had originally planned to sign at Notre Dame as a lacrosse player and play football as well. ... Wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, who also pitches for the baseball team, will only take part in six of the football team's 15 spring practices. ''I'm trying to give him every opportunity to excel at both sports,'' Weis said. ... Weis will use former Irish players as coaches for the Blue-Gold game again. Rocket Ismail and Jerome Bettis will coach the offense, while brothers Bob and Mike Golic will coach the defense. Pete Duranko, a member of the 1966 national championship team, will be an honorary captain.