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Irish Safety Is Calm In Frenetic Irish Defense

Nov. 7, 2002

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) – Gerome Sapp is the calm in the midst of Notre Dame’s noisy and emotional defense.

He’s the one his fellow defensive backs call “the professor” because of his relaxed demeanor as he positions everyone while they yap at themselves and opponents. He even sounds a bit like a professor with his thoughtful analysis and deliberate delivery.

The 6-foot, 218-pound strong safety is as steady any player the ninth-ranked Irish have this season. He’s second on the team with 60 tackles and four interceptions, and is tied for the team lead with seven passes broken up.

“I don’t know if he’s had a bad game yet,” defensive coordinator Kent Baer said. “He’s the quarterback back there in the secondary. That’s big because of all the adjustments that we have to make on almost every snap.”

Sapp had a career-high 10 tackles against the Air Force option three weeks ago. He figures to play a key role again Saturday against Navy, which also uses the option.

Despite doing well against that offense in the past, Sapp hates playing against it.

Still, he enjoys the responsibility the coaches place on him, putting him in the middle of the field and depending on him to make the right reads. It’s just difficult to quickly adjust to such a different offense and to be prepared for blockers coming from every angle.

“I’m basically the guy who flies back and forth depending on which way the option goes and basically running a lot of alleys,” Sapp said.

Last season against Navy, he had two fumble recoveries, returning one 39 yards for a touchdown. This season, he had a 54-yard fumble return against Purdue.

He also had a forced fumble against Michigan, two interceptions against Michigan State and another last Saturday against Boston College.

“He’s been a play maker,” Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said. “I think as you look at the interception he had Saturday, that had to be one of the finest interceptions that I’ve seen in a long time.

“But he not only does those type of plays, he also provides great leadership.”

Sapp arrived at Notre Dame in 1999 from Houston’s Lamar High School, billed as one of the top high school prospects in the country. He was rated in the top-10 players in the country by two recruiting experts and at No. 15 by a third.

But it took him time to establish himself at Notre Dame. He played mostly special teams as a freshman. As a sophomore, he was a reserve safety most of the season before starting against Boston College and making eight tackles.

He was plagued last year by a shoulder injury that forced him to miss one game in the middle of the season and the season finale. But he started five games and had a season-high eight tackles against Tennessee.

This season, he hasn’t missed a play and is living up to the blue chip rating he had when he arrived on campus.

“I never doubted my ability,” he said. “It was just a matter of when will I have the chance to showcase it?”

He’s not only showcasing it now, but is trying to help other young Irish players awaiting their turns.

“I just try to make sure their heads are still in it and let them know their time is coming and it will be here a lot sooner than they think,” he said.