Fall might be football season, but spring is when it starts.

After a long winter of weight training, the sons of Eli returned to the practice field last Monday to begin preparations for the 2011 season. Spring practice — which will culminate with an intrasquad game on April 23 — is the team’s first chance to take the field since it lost to Harvard last November.

“We saw our potential last year,” wide receiver and kick return specialist Chris Smith ’13 said. “We saw how close we came to winning in our two Ivy League losses. It feels great to be back out there. Everyone looks fast and everyone looks big. I can’t wait to play again.”

Spring practices have an element of urgency because of the departure of this year’s class of graduating seniors, many of whom held vital roles on last year’s 7–3 squad. The team’s 12 April practices will play a large part in determining who fills holes like the ones left by strong safety Adam Money ’11 and wide receiver Jordan Forney ’11, head coach Tom Williams said.

Though the Elis have lost some key starters from last season, much of the team that finished second in the Ivy League will return to the Yale Bowl next fall. Eight starters return on the Blue defense, and quarterback Patrick Witt ’12 will lead the offense for the third consecutive year.

“Whether you’re playing pee-wee or in the NFL, it’s huge to have a returning quarterback,” Williams said. “[Witt] has complete knowledge of what we’re doing offensively and of his rhythm with receivers and tight ends. He has a better comfort level and trust in the offensive line. It gives you confidence.”

Witt will receive help on offense from a group of returning wide receivers who made contributions to the team last year. Smith led the team in catches, while underclassmen Allen Harris ’13, Deon Randall ’14 and Cameron Sandquist ’14 all made their presence felt. And though he is on leave this term and cannot join the team for practice, Gio Christodoulou ’12 can be expected to return with the same speed and agility that carried him to the team lead in receiving yards last fall.

“Our skill on the perimeter is now at the point where we can throw the ball down the field and have guys make explosive plays,” Williams said. “And we feel like our offensive line has matured to the point that we can protect the quarterback enough to give him the chance to throw the ball downfield.”

Witt will have the chance to space out those long passes, as last year’s entire corps of running backs will return to the Yale Bowl next year.

Though thoughts about September’s season opener against Georgetown abound, many of the Elis say they are just happy to be back on the field.

“It’s fun to get out there and knock heads a little bit,” cornerback Colin Bibb ’13 said.

The team is allowed 12 practices in its spring season, including the spring game. Williams has scheduled those practices over the course of three weeks, with half at the team’s typical 7 a.m. time and the rest later in the afternoon.

Each of those practices, Bibb said, is marked by the spirit of competitiveness that Williams seeks to instill in his team. But spring is also a chance to experiment, and many Elis are spending practice in new positions.

Elijah Thomas ’14, who was recruited as a fullback but earned playing time at running back when injuries ravaged the Bulldogs last season, is returning to his original position. Defensive lineman John Oppenheimer ’14 is moving to offense and trying his hand at center. John Powers ’13, who moved to running back last season, is once more practicing as a safety.

“Spring is the time to make those changes,” Williams said. “You get to give a guy the chance to get 12 practices under his belt, so that when fall comes around he has the chance to compete for playing time.”

That competition is still months away. Football season begins five months after the spring game. The class of 2015 will have joined the team by then, and freshman standouts might follow the lead of Randall, Sandquist and offensive lineman Wes Gavin ’14, who all earned substantial playing time as rookies last season. Nothing is certain yet.

“Spring is a time when teams find their new identities,” Smith said. “Our guys are stepping up well and really rising to the occasion. It’s been a long offseason, and we’re excited to get back to work and play the top teams.”