Notre Dame Fighting Irish - Official Athletics Website

Irish Football Ranked No. 22 By Athlon's

May 5, 2003

Notre Dame, Ind. – Honors are already starting to roll in for the 2003 Notre Dame football team as the Irish are ranked 22nd in the Athlon’s magazine 2003 preseason poll and three Irish defensive players have been tabbed to its preseason All-America teams. Senior linebacker and 2002 Butkus Award finalist Courtney Watson was named a preseason first-team All-American, while senior cornerback and kick returner Vontez Duff appeared on the second team and senior nose guard Cedric Hilliard earned third-team accolades.

Watson, who led the Irish in tackles in 2002 with 90 in only 10 games, returns as one of the best linebackers in the country. A 2002 Butkus Award finalist, given to the nation’s most outstanding linebacker. In addition to his 90 tackles, the native of Sarasota, Fla., recorded 10 tackles for loss in 2002, including three sacks and a team-leading four interceptions. Watson earned first-team All-America honors from and was named a third-team honoree from both The Sporting News and

Watson is also one of 36 players named to the Bronko Nagurski Watch List, given to the nation’s most outstanding defensive player. In 2002, Irish cornerback Shane Walton became the first finalist in Notre Dame history for the award presented by the Charlotte Touchdown Club. Arizona State’s Terrell Suggs won the 2002 award and was later taken with the 10th pick in the 2003 NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens.

One of the most exciting players in college football today, Duff was named a third-team All-American by Associated Press in 2002. Duff became the first player in Notre Dame history to return a kick, punt and interception for a touchdown in a single season and was two yards away from becoming the first player in NCAA history to return a kick, punt, interception and fumble for touchdowns in a season. The native of Copperas Cove, Texas, finished the 2002 season with 36 tackles at the cornerback spot and finished eighth in the nation in kickoff returns at 27.68 yards an opportunity. He ranks sixth all-time in total return yardage at 1,349 and has a chance to break Tim Brown’s all-time record of 2,089 yards.

Hilliard, from Arlington, Texas, has caught the eyes of many people with his play over the last 12 months. The 6-2, 295-pound Hilliard recorded 31 tackles in 2002, including five for loss and two sacks in only 10 games. He also received Gator Bowl Player of the Game honors for Notre Dame. For his career, he has 60 tackles, including 14 for loss and is a critical player on special teams as he blocked a field-goal attempt against Michigan in 2002 ensuring Notre Dame’s 25-23 win over the seventh-ranked Wolverines.

Notre Dame reports for fall practice on Aug. 10, before opening the season against 2003 Rose Bowl participant Washington State on Sept. 6 at Notre Dame Stadium. Game time is 1:30 p.m.