Aug. 16, 2004
During the first two seasons of Tyrone Willingham’s tenure as head coach at Notre Dame, the Irish defense has been a constant force, ranking among the Top 35 nationally in total defense both years. However, in the eyes of Notre Dame linebackers coach Bob Simmons, that’s not nearly good enough. “We have to do a better job of flying to the football and making plays on defense,” the veteran assistant says. “In 2002, we caused 33 turnovers and put our offense in a position where they could get points on the board. Last year, we weren’t giving our offense those same opportunities and that’s something we have to correct in 2004.” If it seems as though Simmons is taking this challenge personally, it’s because his linebacking corps stands at the heart of the Notre Dame defense. An Irish linebacker has led the team in tackles each of the past four seasons, with Courtney Watson piling up a career-high 117 tackles last year, the most by a Notre Dame defender since 1998 (118 by Bobbie Howard). Watson, a 2002 first-team All-American and Butkus Award finalist, was the leader of the Irish defense the past two years and was selected in the second round of the 2004 National Football League Draft by the New Orleans Saints. Despite the loss of Watson’s veteran presence, Notre Dame has plenty of experience to bolster its linebacking unit this season. In fact, all four upperclassmen at the position have started at least one game, with the three projected starters having cracked the lineup for a combined total of 47 games in their careers. Senior Derek Curry has been a mainstay at the outside linebacker position for the past two seasons, starting 24 of the last 25 games. Last year, he registered a career-high 66 tackles (fourth on the team), including 6.5 for loss and a career-best 4.5 sacks (second on the squad). However, Simmons says it’s Curry’s emotion on the gridiron that sets him apart. “Derek is a real student of the game and is very vocal,” Simmons notes. “He has a lot of confidence in his abilities and in a lot of ways, he’s like a coach on the field. That’s going to be very important to our success in the overall scheme of things.” Unlike Curry, senior Brandon Hoyte has seen his development accelerated due to injuries suffered by his teammates. Hoyte has started 11 times and played in 24 games over the past two years, ranking second on the team with a career-high 74 tackles in 2003. He also had 7.5 tackles for loss last season and posted a career-best 11 tackles against Washington State.
Brandon Hoyte is a leader both on and off the field for the Irish.
“Brandon is an energetic, hard-hitting linebacker who just hates to come off the field,” Simmons says. “We have discussed with him some ways in which he can expand his game and be an even bigger presence for us this year.” Senior Mike Goolsby returns to the Irish lineup after missing all of the 2003 season with a shoulder injury. The Joliet, Ill., native started all 13 games in 2002, placing third on the team with 75 tackles and leading the unit with 13 tackles for loss. A physically gifted player with a nose for the football, Goolsby should be especially geared up after being forced to the sidelines for a year. “With Mike, there’s a lot of hunger to come back and be productive this season,” Simmons says. “He was a bit rusty going through the spring, but we think he’s going to be a big impact player for us in the fall.” Another player to watch is senior Corey Mays. A product of Chicago, Mays has appeared in 22 games during his Irish career, earning his first start in last year’s opener against Washington State. He finished the 2003 season with a career-best 26 tackles, including four stops for losses and one sack. “Corey has bulked up to near 250 pounds and really dedicated himself to becoming a complete player,” Simmons says. “It’s going to be hard to keep him off the field this year.” A trio of sophomores — Nick Borseti, Joe Brockington and Mitchell Thomas — also could push for playing time this season. All three did not see action last year, but did log four tackles apiece in this spring’s Blue-Gold Game. With a stable full of experienced linebackers ready to charge from the gate this season, Notre Dame unquestionably has the foundation upon which to build another sturdy defense in 2004. Hoyte and Curry Teamup to Make a Difference in the Community In addition to their numerous contributions on the gridiron the past two seasons, senior linebackers Brandon Hoyte and Derek Curry have made their mark off the field as well. The pair is actively involved in the Notre Dame football team’s community service initiative known as “Tackle the Arts.” Now in its third year, the program partners with the St. Joseph County Public Library in South Bend, the Food Bank of Northern Indiana and the Notre Dame Marching Band in providing an interactive approach to help inspire children to explore different areas of the arts such as reading, creative writing and poetry, drawing and music. The “Tackle the Arts” program was conceived by another former Irish linebacker, Courtney Watson, with Hoyte and Curry providing additional support to Watson’s efforts. Besides “Tackle the Arts,” Curry also is involved with the Boys and Girls Clubs of St. Joseph County. Meanwhile, Hoyte has served on the Notre Dame Student-Athlete Advisory Council and has been a student representative on the board of the Notre Dame Club of St. Joseph Valley. “Like Courtney, Brandon and Derek have made a commitment to give back to the South Bend community,” Irish linebacker coach Bob Simmons says. “They are true examples of Notre Dame men and we are proud to have them helping to represent our football program and our University.”