March 26, 2004
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The last three even-numbered Notre Dame football seasons have produced nine or more wins and three postseason bowl appearances (one Fiesta Bowl, two Gator Bowl). The last three odd-numbered seasons, on the other hand, have produced a combined 15-20 record.
Third-year Irish coach Tyrone Willingham won’t be disappointed if that form holds in 2004 – though he’s far more convinced that an injection of renewed confidence, 14 returning starters (eight on offense, six on defense) and 45 returning letterwinners will dictate what happens to Notre Dame as it attempts a rebound from a 5-7 mark in ’03.
That journey begins Monday as the Irish begin their ’04 spring football workouts with the first of their allotted 15 practices. Notre Dame finishes April 24 with its annual Blue-Gold spring finale in Notre Dame Stadium.
After a 10-win campaign in Willingham’s inaugural season in South Bend in ’02, the Irish in ’03 battled gamely against a schedule rated the third most-difficult in the country by the NCAA. Three of Notre Dame’s losses last fall (Michigan, USC and Florida State) came against teams that played in Bowl Championship Series games to end the year.
“The first thing we’ve got to do as a football team is get our confidence back. We did not play with a great deal of confidence during the 2003 season, and we’ve got to have the confidence, the toughness and mental discipline that it takes to be a good football team,” says Willingham.
“Beyond that, we’ll break down the individual areas that were weak for us last year – the red zone, turnovers, first-down success, third-down efficiency. From a technical standpoint those are areas where we need work.”
This time around, Notre Dame’s challenging slate features eight opponents that won eight or more games and played in bowl games following the ’03 season, including Rose Bowl participants USC and Michigan (the others are Michigan State, Purdue, Navy, Boston College, Tennessee and Pittsburgh). The 2004 opponents combined for a .626 winning percentage (87-52 in ’03) – compared to a .645 mark for the ’03 foes.
The Irish will build their offense around a solid corps of eight returning regulars, a returning starter at quarterback in sophomore Brady Quinn, a 1,000-yard rusher from ’02 in senior running back Ryan Grant (he added another 510 yards in ’03), five of the top six pass receivers from ’03 (led by junior Rhema McKnight with 47 grabs for 600 yards) and four returning regulars on the offensive line. Notre Dame played in ’03 with a completely new offensive front – especially after the injury loss of projected regulars Sean Milligan at guard and Gary Godsey at tight end – and transitioned to a rookie signalcaller early in the year. The Irish now are banking on a maturation of the troops on that side of the ball – plus a greater understanding of the system in year number three under Willingham. The most noteworthy losses offensively include running back Julius Jones (he proved to be the most dangerous Irish performer in ’03 with his 1,268 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns), top-rated offensive tackle Jim Molinaro and second-leading receiver Omar Jenkins.
“Offensively, this is an exciting time. We have a quarterback returning in Brady Quinn who has shown some skill, yet he’s still a young quarterback and he needs to further develop those skills,” Willingham says.
“We have a 1,000-yard rusher returning in Ryan Grant. We have an offensive line that returns more people than we lost, and there could be some movement with our personnel there to give us a better chance to be successful. There’s some youth in that line, and there’s some game experience, too. In terms of receivers, we will miss a major guy in Omar Jenkins, but we’ve got some guys returning that have shown on occasion that they can be football players.
“Now what we have to do is be consistent and make sure that all that we do from an offensive standpoint caters to the young men we have on the field – and that they are playing the tough, hard-nosed style of Notre Dame football that we like.”
On defense, Notre Dame will miss a half-dozen graduated veterans in two-time leading tackler and inside linebacker Courtney Watson (he led the Irish in ’03 with 117 tackles and was an ’02 Butkus Award finalist), down linemen Darrell Campbell (three-year starter at tackle) and Cedric Hilliard (71 tackles in ’03 at nose guard), plus secondary veterans Vontez Duff (33 tackles and two interceptions in ’03; third-team All-American in ’02), Glenn Earl (169 career tackles) and Garron Bible (started eight times at strong safety in ’03).
On the plus side, the Irish return four of their top five tacklers from the ’03 season. Blue-chip returnees defensively include senior inside linebackers Brandon Hoyte (he ranks as Notre Dame’s leading returning tackler with 74 in ’03) and Mike Goolsby (he ranked third in tackles in ’02 with 75 and paced squad that year in tackles for loss, then missed all of 2003 due to injury), defensive ends Justin Tuck (set Notre Dame single-season sack record in ’03 with 13.5), Kyle Budinscak (started first eight games in ’03) and Victor Abiamiri (started five times as rookie in ’03) – along with returning secondary regulars Dwight Ellick (starter in six of last eight ’03 contests) at cornerback and Quentin Burrell (led Irish in interceptions in ’03 with four and added 58 tackles) at free safety.
“Defensively, we’re losing some very good football players – names like Darrell Campbell, Cedric Hilliard, Courtney Watson, Glenn Earl, Vontez Duff. We have some men returning that are young and eager, and if they can gain that confidence and have that mental toughness, then we’ve got a chance to play some fine defense,” Willingham says.
Notre Dame’s kicking game will miss graduated Nicholas Setta (46 career field goals in 66 attempts; 40.9 punting average in ’03) in a couple of areas. Back in both the punting and placekicking departments is D.J. Fitzpatrick, who filled in at both slots (hit 12 of 17 field goals; 44 punts for 36.8 average) when Setta missed the final seven games of ’03 due to injury. A key goal will be to identify some new names in the kick return category – after Duff and Jones collaborated to handle 53 of the 77 combined punt and kickoff returns in ’03.