Aug. 27, 2003
by Alan Wasielewski
There are three names that Notre Dame football fans need to learn for the upcoming season. Sam, Will and Mike will be key members of the Irish linebacker corps this fall. These three names are not new players joining the program, however. They are the three positions that all of Notre Dame’s linebackers are required to be familiar with this season.
Linebackers coach Bob Simmons has envisioned a group of players who can switch back and forth between positions without missing a beat.
“We have asked our players to learn all the different spots,” Simmons says.
“We want them to know all three positions and be able to move back and forth during the game.”
The motivation of this flexibility is simple, the Irish have enough athletic linebackers with the ability to plug up the running game, pursue down the field, drop into coverage and rush the quarterback.
The key player in the position fluidity is senior Derek Curry. Curry took over as a starter last season and finished with 34 tackles and four sacks, spending most of his time on the outside. He will be switching back and forth this season to take advantage of his experience.
“Derek Curry is entering his senior year with experience at all three positions,” Simmons says.
“He really knows the game and will see action all over the field.”
Curry’s experience comes from his tutelage inside before being pressed into service on the outside for 2002. The Sealy, Texas, native also has another year of eligibility remaining after the ’03 schedule.
While Curry is making the adjustment to switching back and forth from outside to inside, two of Notre Dame’s top tacklers from a year ago will be doing the opposite. Butkus Award finalist Courtney Watson and Mike Goolsby are going to be all over the field as well.
“Watson is coming into his fifth year and we are counting on him to provide leadership and be productive,” Simmons says.
“He had a sensational year (in 2002) and really knows our defense. He is like the defensive quarterback on the field.”
Watson’s sensational year in ’02 included a team-high 90 tackles (including 10 for a loss), three sacks and four interceptions. He earned All-America honors from The Sporting News and Associated Press and was one of three finalists for the Butkus Award given to the nation’s top collegiate linebacker.
At times during the 2002 season, it seemed that if Watson wasn’t making the tackle, Goolsby was right there to clean things up. In his first season as a regular, every-down contributor, Goolsby notched 75 tackles, four sacks and 13 stops behind the line of scrimmage. His main motivation over the summer, besides getting to know all three linebacker positions, is recovering from a broken clavicle suffered in the Gator Bowl.
There are two experienced players behind Curry, Watson and Goolsby who can see an increase in playing time this fall. Senior Jerome Collins (11 games played in ’02) will use his speed to enter the game during Notre Dame’s nickel-package defense, while Brandon Hoyte continues to be a reliable back up in the middle. Hoyte was able to put up 57 tackles last season while earning second-team freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News. Junior Corey Mays, who did not workout in the spring because of a shoulder injury, also is a critical player in the linebacker rotation in 2003.
While the returning talent level is high, the linebacking corps is not very deep. Simmons will look for one of four incoming freshman to step up during fall camp with hopes that one, if not all, can come in a play immediately.
“Mitchell Thomas has good size and could develop into a factor. Nick Borseti and Dwight Stephenson, Jr. are both gifted athletes and have a lot of speed. Joe Brockington could come in and play the weak side for us,” Simmons says.
The rookies should pay close attention during those two-a-day workouts. As the 2003 season will show, Irish linebackers will need to be adept to moving all over the field while learning to embrace the names Sam, Will and Mike.