Aug. 18, 2004
by Cory Walton It isn’t at all uncommon for a football team’s defensive line to be referred to as its’ “front four.” In the case of the 2004 Notre Dame unit, however, the adage doesn’t apply. Defensive line coach Greg Mattison plans to work so many players into his rotation this season that the term “front 10” might be more appropriate. “We’re looking for the strength of this unit to be depth,” Mattison says. “We’ve got a lot of guys who have played, and who have put a lot of time in at practice to be ready for their turn.” The defensive end positions will be manned by what Mattison calls “an exciting group” of players, highlighted by seniors Justin Tuck and Kyle Budinscak and sophomore Victor Abiamiri. The trio combined to make 23 starts, record 106 tackles and notch 17.5 sacks for the 2003 Notre Dame squad. Tuck’s solo total of 13.5 sacks established a new single-season school record, and ranked him sixth in the nation in sacks. Budinscak earned his third consecutive CoSIDA Academic All-District V selection in 2003, while Abiamiri became one of only six true freshmen to earn a monogram for the campaign. “Justin Tuck is coming off of a great year, and he has a wealth of talent,” Mattison says. “He’s a great pass rusher, and he’s shown that he takes great pride in playing the run. “Budinscak is a physical kid who plays hard and takes pride in his technique. Victor’s got great talent, and he now knows what it takes to be successful at this level. We’ll see some special things from him this year.” Senior Brian Beidatsch, who recorded five tackles and a fumble recovery in nine games last season, and juniors Travis Leitko and Chris Frome will also compete for playing time at defensive end in 2004. The interior linemen on this year’s squad, however, aren’t as battle-tested as the players lining up on their flanks. The reason for the relative lack of experience at the tackle position is the fact that, for the past three years, the spots were occupied by two of the most prolific stalwarts in recent Notre Dame history – Darrell Campbell and Cedric Hilliard. “You don’t start for three years at the University of Notre Dame and not be missed,” Mattison says of the departed duo. “The guys that played behind gained valuable experience learning from those two guys. Now it’s their turn to step in and do what they have to do.” Senior Greg Pauly has seen more action for the Irish than any of his fellow defensive tackles combined, with 24 appearances and five starts under his belt. He notched a career-high 20 tackles, and added two sacks, in 2003. “Greg has been a great part of our defense for the past three years,” Mattison says. “The way I see it, he’s ready to be the leader of that front and really give us what we’re looking for at that position.” Pauly will be joined in the rotation by junior Derek Landri, four of whose 13 career tackles have been for losses, and senior Matt Hasbrook (a transfer from Michigan State) and sophomore Trevor Laws, neither of whom have played a down for the Irish. This season, the Irish linemen will look to continue the success they had last year defending the pass. Notre Dame’s defense posted 39 sacks in 2003, the most since the 1996 squad tallied 41.5. Defensive linemen, paced by Tuck’s personal total of 13.5, accounted for 19.5 of those sacks. “I think we have the talent to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks,” Mattison says. “The number of sacks you get is often times out of your control, but when we force a team to pass we have to get to the quarterback.” The way to force a team to pass is to stop the run, and after ranking 10th in the nation against the run in 2002, the Irish slipped to 29th last season. To that end, Mattison says he has made stopping the run the number goal for his unit this season. “We fully expect to have a very good defensive front against the run because we have strength, athleticism and technique,” he says. “Every group that comes to Notre Dame is expected to stop the run first, and this year we’re going to get back to that.” Mattison Expects Big Things From Abiamiri He’s 6-4, weighs 269 pounds and has a build rivaling that of a Mack truck. He’s lauded by defensive line coach Greg Mattison for his strength and speed, which he parlayed into honorable mention freshman All-America honors in 2003. According to Mattison, however, it’s not only his physical gifts that make sophomore defensive end Victor Abiamiri a force to be reckoned with. “Victor is a very proud football player, and he’s a very intelligent football player,” Mattison says. “Probably the biggest compliment I can give him is on his `want to.’ He doesn’t ever want to make a mental mistake. He’s always trying to know exactly what to do, and then just go do it.” As a freshman in 2003, the Randallstown, Md., native played in all 12 games for the Irish, starting five. The former first-team USA Today prep All-American recorded 22 tackles, including four for losses, and notched a sack en route to becoming one of only six true freshmen to earn a monogram. The frightening thing, at least for opposing offensive linemen, is the fact that Mattison expects to see more out of Abiamiri this season. “The biggest improvement a player makes is between his freshman and sophomore years,” Mattison says. “He’s shown great improvement since the season ended because of his conditioning and weight training. He’s got the total package, and now that he has a whole year of technique and pass rush ability, I think you’ll see a noticeable improvement.” With such a combination of physical attributes and extraordinary determination, Abiamiri is poised to terrorize opposing offenses once again this fall for the Fighting Irish.