Aug. 11, 2003
With 14 returning starters and 39 lettermen on the scene, Notre Dame’s 2003 football team hopes to build on last year’s success and solidify the program’s foundation for the distant future. Practice to practice and game to game, head coach Tyrone Willingham is laying the groundwork in which the Irish impressively have injected themselves back onto the national college football scene.
The ’02 Irish did it with eight straight victories to open their defense-dominated campaign (the best season-opening stretch since ’93) and earned the Irish a number-four ranking in the Associated Press poll, and eventually a 10-3 mark, number-17 final ranking and Gator Bowl appearance.
Now, in Willingham’s second season as Irish head coach (he was named national coach of the year by Home Depot/ESPN and the Maxwell Football Club in ’02), Notre Dame aims for consecutive AP top 20 finishes for the first time since 1995-96. The Irish will do it against a demanding schedule that features three Bowl Championship Series teams from a year ago and eight teams who played in bowl games to conclude the ’02 season.
Expect the defense again to shoulder a majority of the load, thanks to the return of eight regulars – led by the top three ’02 tacklers in senior inside linebacker Courtney Watson (a Butkus Award finalist and first-team ESPN.com All-American in ’02), hard-hitting senior free safety Glenn Earl, a Thorpe Award candidate, and active senior inside linebacker Mike Goolsby, plus all-purpose senior cornerback and return specialist Vontez Duff, a solid Thorpe Award nominee for ’03.
That group is back to see if the Irish can match or improve their defensive numbers from a year ago when Notre Dame ranked among the top 13 teams in the country in four major categories (ninth in scoring defense at 16.7, 10th in pass efficiency defense at 98.24 and in rushing defense at 95.2, 13th in total defense at 300.0).
“From a defensive standpoint, we’ve got to work in some new players and maintain the passion our defense played with last year. If we can do that, play with the same level of intensity we did a year ago, and get better in some critical areas, we’ll be in good shape,” Willingham says.
Four of the five offensive regulars back play skill positions – senior quarterback Carlyle Holiday (he’s now started 21 games for the Irish), junior tailback Ryan Grant (he became Notre Dame’s seventh 1,000-yard rusher in ’02 with 1,085), senior wide receiver Omar Jenkins (his 37 receptions in ’02 would have led the team in nine of the previous 14 seasons) and senior tight end Gary Godsey.
Arguably, the most notable Irish challenge for ’03 will be rebuilding an offensive line that graduates four starters, including All-America center Jeff Faine. If Willingham and his staff can accomplish that, they’ll have a leg up on upgrading the offensive production of the new system they instituted in ’02.
How young will the offensive line be? A year ago this time, the returning offensive linemen as a group had started 79 games in their careers, including 32 by tackle Jordan Black. This year that number is only 21, led by Sean Milligan’s 17.
“From an offensive perspective, we’ve got to get deeper into our system in terms of knowledge, especially in the passing game. That’s going to be critical, for us to embrace and understand the spacing and timing we need to be successful throwing the football,” says Willingham.
“As far as the running game, we need to become much more physical both up front and with our backfield and receiver play.”
Special teams will feature senior kicker Nicholas Setta, who could take over punting duties as well in ’03, plus all-star returner Duff, who brought back a punt, kickoff and interception for touchdowns last fall.
“This is a different situation than it was a year ago. Our players should have a strong idea of what our system is about. This team should need less time to learn the system but may need more scrimmage time to get that spacing and timing down. We don’t have to do as much with vocabulary either, so in a couple of areas we’re light years ahead of where we were last year,” Willingham says.
The Irish can’t discuss the coming season without addressing graduation losses.
On offense those losses include wide receiver Arnaz Battle (his 58 receptions in ’02 marked the most by a Notre Dame player in 32 years), two-year fullback regular Tom Lopienski, plus the quartet of linemen – center Faine (he started 36 career games and was a Rimington Award finalist and Lombardi Award semifinalist), tackles Black (a four-year starter) and Brennan Curtin and guard Sean Mahan (he started the last 24 games in his career).
On defense they featured unanimous All-American and Nagurski Award finalist Shane Walton (seven interceptions in ’02) at cornerback, veteran Gerome Sapp (71 tackles, four interceptions in ’02) at safety – and defensive end Ryan Roberts (45 starts and 20 sacks in his career). Also missing is standout four-year punter Joey Hildbold (career 40.25 average).
Notre Dame in ’02 defeated as many teams that finished in the final AP poll (#9 Michigan, #13 Maryland, #19 Pittsburgh, #21 Florida State) as any team in the country. Seven of the first eight ’03 Irish opponents played in bowl games a year ago (five of the seven were winners), highlighted by BCS participants Washington State (Rose Bowl), USC (won Orange Bowl) and Florida State (Sugar Bowl), all of whom come to Notre Dame Stadium. Add to that list Michigan (won Outback Bowl), Purdue (won Sun Bowl), Pittsburgh (won Insight Bowl) and Boston College (won Motor City Bowl).
Those first eight opponents (also including Michigan State) combined for a 69-35 mark (.663) in ’02 – and six of the eight won nine or more games. New names on the agenda in ’03 include Washington State (first-ever meeting), BYU (first meeting since three games in 1992-94) and Syracuse (only previous meetings came in 1914, ’61 and ’63).
Willingham’s staff remains intact from a year ago, including defensive coordinator Kent Baer, one of five finalists for the ’02 Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in the country.
Here’s a position-by-position look at Notre Dame fortunes for the coming season:
QUARTERBACK: Senior Carlyle Holiday (129 of 257 for 1,788, 10 TDs, 5 interceptions) boasts solid credentials that include nearly two full seasons as the Irish starter. He steadily grew into the new Irish offense a year ago, throwing only two interceptions in Notre Dame’s first 11 outings combined. Among his credits from ’02 included an ultra-efficient, 13-of-21 effort at Florida State for 185 yards and two scores, a career-high 272 passing yards against Navy and an Irish record-tying four TD passes versus Rutgers. He also finished as Notre Dame’s third-leading ground-gainer (second in carries) with 92 attempts for 200 net yards (432 rushing yards gained, and 3 TDs – only Ryan Grant scored more often on the ground), distinguishing himself as one of the better all-around athletes on the Irish roster. Holiday also was drafted in the 44th round of the 2003 Major League Baseball draft by the Cincinnati Reds after only playing 10 games as a senior in high school.
Experience behind Holiday a year ago was in short supply, but now includes sophomore Chris Olsen, who was promoted to the backup position after winning the offensive most valuable player award for the 2003 Blue-Gold game (11-25 for 161, 1 TD) and junior Pat Dillingham (41 of 81 for 434, 1 TD, 7 interceptions), a former walk-on who earned a scholarship during the summer of ’02. Dillingham led the Irish to a victory versus Stanford in his only ’02 start and also played much of the way against North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl.
RUNNING BACK: Junior Ryan Grant (261 for 1,085, 9 TDs) won his warrior’s stripes in ’02, thanks to a gutty, season-long performance that produced the ninth 1,000-yard rushing season in Notre Dame history. A hard-working runner with deceptive speed, Grant returns as the first-teamer after four 100-yard efforts in ’02, including a career-high 190-yard effort against then unbeaten Air Force, and nine 90-yard performances, one of those a career-high 190 yards against then-unbeaten Air Force.
Also back for the Irish in ’03 after a one-year layoff is senior Julius Jones. A three-year monogram winner for the Irish, Jones has rushed for 1,750 yards, including a career- and team-high 718 as a junior in ’01. In 33 career games, the Big Stone Gap, Va., native has averaged 4.3 yards a carry and has 16 rushing touchdowns.
The only other returning letterwinner is junior Marcus Wilson (39 for 110 in ’02), who will be complemented by sophomore Jeff Jenkins, who did not play in 2002, but saw the majority of reps during spring practice as both Grant and Wilson were hampered with injuries.
FULLBACK: Losses are multiple here, thanks to the graduation of a trio of lettermen – two-season regular Tom Lopienski (20 for 48, 1 TD), veteran Mike McNair (6 for 25) and special-team standout Chris Yura (1 for 7, 160 special-team appearances).
Still, this fullback slot likely remains in good hands, with the springtime shift of junior Rashon Powers-Neal (77 for 333, 2 TDs) from running back to fullback. Powers-Neal ranked second in rushing yards (including a 108-yard effort against Stanford) for the Irish in ’02 as Ryan Grant’s top backup. He provides a nice combination of elusiveness, power and blocking ability.
Also in the mix is sophomore Nate Schiccitano, who probably can play either running back spot. Schiccatano did not see action as a rookie in ’01, impressed at the 2003 spring game, rushing for 24 yards on eight carries and one TD. Also look for Cole Laux and Josh Schmidt to add depth here for the Irish.
WIDE RECEIVER: It won’t be easy to replace the big-play production of Arnaz Battle (58 for 786, 5 TDs). The new Irish offense helped him catch more passes in a season than any Notre Dame player since Tom Gatewood grabbed 77 in 1970 and his 58 catches ranked third on the Notre Dame single-season record list.
Next in line to take over the big-time receiver role is dependable senior Omar Jenkins (37 for 633, 3 TDs), whose first season as a starter produced a noteworthy 17.1-yards-per-catch mark. His 166 receiving yards against Navy marked the most by an Irish player since Raghib Ismail’s 173 yards 12 years earlier against the Middies.
Jenkins and the Irish offense also should benefit from the maturation and development of sophomores Maurice Stovall (18 for 312, 3 TDs) and Rhema McKnight (9 for 91), the only two scholarship freshmen to see game action in 2002. Both the 6-5 Stovall and the athletic McKnight displayed flashes of their all-star potential as rookies, and they’ll combine with the sure-handed Jenkins to provide Notre Dame with solid experience at the pass-catching spots. Stovall was named a third-team freshman All-American by The Sporting News, while McKnight developed into one of the best blocking receivers on the Irish roster.
Other letterwinners who will contend for playing time are senior Ronnie Rodamer (2 for 14) and junior Matt Shelton (1 for 18).
TIGHT END: Everybody is back at tight end, headlined by multi-talented veteran senior Gary Godsey (16 for 155), along with classmate Jared Clark (7 for 104), both former quarterbacks on the Irish roster. Also returning is senior Billy Palmer (1 for 4), whose blocking abilities won him a monogram in ’02, not to mention plenty of playing time as Godsey’s top backup.
Sophomores Anthony Fasano and Marcus Freeman (both DNP in ’02) add even more depth to the tight end roster for ’03 and are vying for some much wanted playing time.
CENTER: There’s a major question at center, with the departure of three-year starter Jeff Faine, who won first-team All-America honors from The Sporting News in ’02. With veteran Ryan Scarola also graduating, there’s a bare minimum of experience at this key position.
Junior Zach Giles (he played in 1 game in ’02) was named the starter coming out of spring ball, but sophomore Bob Morton (DNP in ’02), along with junior converted defensive lineman Jeff Thompson (played 1 game in ’02), will challenge Giles and be in the mix come this fall.
OFFENSIVE GUARD: The lone returning starter on the Notre Dame offensive line is senior Sean Milligan, who started 12 games in ’02 at right guard and five others in ’01 at the guard spot. He’s far and away the most experienced player back at the center, guard and tackle positions combined, (he played more minutes in ’02 than any other offensive player coming back except Holiday), with two-season left guard starter Sean Mahan graduating.
Additional experience is limited at guard, with the only other scholarship returnees being juniors Mark LeVoir (4 games in ’02) and Darin Mitchell (played in 1 game in ’02) and sophomore James Bonelli (DNP in ’02). LeVoir emerged as the starter at the left guard position after spring practice, with Mitchell as his backup. Bonelli missed all of spring drills with an injured foot and is still a year away from making a significant contribution. Also, look for Jeff Thompson to see some time backing up either LeVoir or Milligan at guard.
OFFENSIVE TACKLE: Both starters (four-season regular Jordan Black and two-year starter Brennan Curtin) from the ’02 campaign are gone, making for a hefty rebuilding challenge for the Irish offensive line for 2003.
Senior Jim Molinaro (played in all 13 games in ’02) provides the most experience after starting against Rutgers, USC and North Carolina State (in the Gator Bowl) a year ago. Junior Dan Stevenson won a monogram while playing in 10 games at guard in ’02, then switched over to start at tackle in the Gator Bowl against North Carolina State. Molinaro and Stevenson are tough, physical players who have a nasty streak in them.
Also competing will be sophomores Brain Mattes, Scott Raridon and Jamie Ryan, none of whom played as rookies in ’02. Mattes moved from the defensive to the offensive side of the ball in the spring and quickly adjusted to his new position, while Raridon and Ryan also made tremedous strides this spring and should be capable reserves in 2003.
DEFENSIVE END: Gone from Notre Dame’s defensive end ranks is veteran Ryan Roberts (25 career starts, 42 tackles in ’02), but there’s no shortage of talent at these two slots. Senior Kyle Budinscak (20 tackles, 3 sacks, 6 TFL) returns as the starter at the opposite end slot, while junior Justin Tuck (44 tackles, 5 sacks, 10 TFL) emerged as a pass-rush specialist who ranks as the fifth-leading returning tackler though he started only one game a year ago. Tuck, who did not play as a rookie, was named a second-team freshman All-American by The Sporting News and will receive a great deal of attention from opposing defenses in 2003.
Junior Brian Beidatsch (played in all 13 games, 2 tackles in ’02) qualifies as the lone other letterwinner on the roster at end, while senior Jerome Collins will also see more time backing up Tuck in passing situations after moving from outside linebacker. Both Beidatsch, who can also play inside, and senior Jason Sapp (3 games played in ’02) will have help from two promising sophomores – Chris Frome and Travis Leitko. Neither saw action in ’02, but both will contend for playing time this season. Mattes is slated to back up Tuck at one end, while Leitko will help Budinscak on the other side.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE/NOSE GUARD: Notre Dame should be solid up the middle on defense in ’03, thanks to the return of three experienced veterans – senior nose guard starter Cedric Hilliard (31 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 TFL in ’02), senior tackle starter Darrell Campbell (33 tackles, 6 sacks, 8 TFL), plus senior tackle/guard Greg Pauly (11 tackles, 3 TFL).
Campbell is a two-season first-teamer and a team leader for the Irish. Hilliard, who has been named to many preseason All-America teams, might have been Notre Dame’s most improved player a year ago – while Pauly played well enough to start three times in 2002 and will see equal time in rotating with both Campbell and Hilliard.
Next in line are sophomores Derek Landri and Dan Santucci, who both did not see game action as rookies in ’02.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Senior Derek Curry (34 tackles, 4 sacks, 7 TFL) proved he could handle a starting slot in ’02 in his initial full-time look with the Irish defense – and he adds a nice dose of quickness and enthusiasm to the defensive mix. He’s supported by senior Jerome Collins (played in 11 games in ’02). They’re the only two scholarship players back at that position.
INSIDE LINEBACKER: The Irish strength up the middle continues at the two inside linebacker positions in the person of two returning senior starters – Courtney Watson and Mike Goolsby.
Watson (90 tackles, 3 sacks, 10 TFL, 4 interceptions) played well enough in his second season in the starting lineup to pace the squad in overall tackles even after missing the first two games of the season with a viral infection. All that was good enough to win him first-team-All-America honors from ESPN.com, second-team accolades from Walter Camp and third-team notice from The Sporting News and Associated Press. Watson was one of three finalists for the Butkus Award as the top linebacker in the country in 2002 and has already been named to many preseason All-America teams.
Not far behind was Goolsby (75 tackles, 4 sacks, 13 TFL) who in his first season as a regular ranked third on the team in tackles and paced the Irish in tackles for loss with 13.
Other letterwinners back to support that talented duo are junior Brandon Hoyte (57 tackles, 1 sack, 4 TFL), who rated sixth overall in tackles for Notre Dame though he started only the first two contests that Watson did not play and the Gator Bowl – and junior Corey Mays (4 tackles in 10 ’02 appearances). Hoyte, who did not play as a freshman, was named a second-team freshman All-American by The Sporting News, while Mays is looking to have a breakout season after struggling through assorted injuries his first two years in an Irish uniform. Sophomore walk-on Anthony Salvador is able to play both inside backer positions and will add some stability to the lineup.
CORNERBACK: The Irish lose one star at cornerback with the graduation of consensus All-American Shane Walton, but the efforts of sidekick senior corner Vontez Duff (36 tackles, 1 interception, 6 passes broken up) proved him capable of the same sort of achievements.
An Associated Press third-team All-American himself, Duff will qualify as Notre Dame’s top cover defensive back in ’03. Add in his all-star return skills and he also qualifies as one of the top all-around athletes on the Irish roster as well as a Thorpe Award nominee. He played more minutes than anyone on the ’02 roster and is already being mentioned among the nation’s best players for 2003.
Senior Jason Beckstrom, a three-time letterwinner who sat out all of the ’02 campaign with a torn biceps, has the inside track on Walton’s starting spot, while senior Preston Jackson (26 tackles, 3 TFL, 141 special-team appearances in ’02), converted junior wide receiver Carlos Campbell (4 catches for 38 in ’02), junior Dwight Ellick (5 tackles, 138 special-team appearances) and sophomore Mike Richardson (DNP in ’02) will contribute to the Irish cause in 2003.
SAFETY: Similar to the corner positions, the Irish lose one standout safety in the graduated Gerome Sapp (71 tackles, 3 TFL, 4 interceptions in ’02) but return another blue-chipper in senior Glenn Earl (81 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 interceptions), also a Thorpe Award nominee. Sapp ranked fourth on the Irish roster in total tackles, while Earl finished behind only Watson and developed a reputation as the hardest hitter in the secondary.
There are more than enough candidates to battle for Sapp’s role in ’03. Senior Garron Bible (32 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL, 194 special-team appearances) looks to be the front-runner after spring practice, while junior Lionel Bolen (played in 11 games in ’02, making 88 special-team appearances) and sophomore Jake Carney (DNP in ’02) will spell him if needed. Quentin Burrell (played in all 13 games in ’02) is the primary backup to Earl in ’03 and could be used in both nickle and dime situations.
KICKER/PUNTER: Notre Dame will miss departed punter Joey Hildbold (38.9 average in ’02), who handled those chores with aplomb the last four seasons. That means senior Nicholas Setta (29 of 42 on field goals in 2001-02 combined) could end up handling both the kicking and punting duties in 2003. Setta is a more than capable punter who has a current streak of 87 straight PATs and hit 14 of his 25 field goal attempts in ’02 (including five in the opener vs. Maryland). At one point, Setta had hit at least one field goal in 16 straight games for the Irish. He needs 15 field goals in ’03 to pass Irish career leader John Carney (51 in 1983-86).
Senior Vontez Duff is back to provide a potentially spectacular return game. He ranked eighth nationally in kickoff returns in ’02 with his 27.7 average and also averaged 9.6 on 40 punt returns. He returned both a punt and kickoff for a touchdown in ’02.
The Irish also welcome back Julius Jones to return kicks. Jones ranks second on the all-time Notre Dame kick return yardage list with 1,857 yards and is only 233 yards away from breaking Tim Brown’s all-time record of 2,089 yards. The senior earned first-team All-America honors from CNNSI.com as a kick returner during the ’00 season.
Other candidates to return kicks and punts in ’03 include junior speedsters Dwight Ellick and Matt Shelton, along with sophomores Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight.
Snapper John Crowther must be replaced for ’03, as does ’02 holder David Miller. Tight end Gary Godsey looks to be the leading candidate to fill the gap left behind by the three-year monogram winner Crowther, while senior Matt Krueger and junior D.J. Fitzpatrick are battling for the holder spot.