Aug. 19, 2003
by Alan Wasielewski
Opposing offensive coordinators will receive a tough assignment when the Irish pop up on the schedule this fall. Notre Dame’s defense was one of the best in the country last year, ranking 10th in the nation in rushing defense. The nucleus of that stout defense, its interior linemen and ends, return to wreak havoc in the offensive backfield once again in 2003.
A simple list of returning monogram winners point out how many weapons defensive line coach Greg Mattison possesses entering the season. Senior Kyle Budinscak, junior Brian Beidatsch, junior Justin Tuck and senior Jerome Collins lead a talented and deep group of ends. In the middle, seniors Darrell Campbell, Cedric Hilliard and Greg Pauly are back and ready to pick up where they left off in 2002.
“We return three of our starting front four and you could argue that Justin Tuck was a fifth starter for us last season,” Mattison says.
“Our depth will allow us to rotate in a lot of players again this season. We have developed a lot of quality back-ups because we have been able to do that in the past.”
Budinscak and Tuck are the leading candidates to start against Washington State in the season opener at defensive end for the Irish. Budinscak posted three sacks and six tackles for loss in 2002, while Tuck came through with five sacks and 10 tackles for loss in his breakout year last fall.
Budinscak has been flexible enough to play at defensive tackle earlier in his career, as well as attacking the quarterback on the outside. The finance major was also a Verizon Academic All-District selection in 2002 and is a leading candidate for Academic All-America honors this season with almost a 3.7 overall grade-point average. Tuck is arguably one of the most talented and athletic players on the Irish team and Mattison is expecting even bigger things from him in ’03.
Collins and senior Jason Sapp will be vying for back-up roles, providing some experience and leadership for the entire group of ends.
Running defense is keyed by the play of the interior defensive linemen, however, and Mattison has two of the best and most experienced in the country in fifth-years Campbell and Hilliard. Hilliard already has earned preseason All-America honors from several media outlets after putting up 31 tackles, two sacks and winning the Notre Dame Gator Bowl Most Valuable Player Award last season. Campbell, who has unlimited potential came through with six sacks and eight tackles for loss in 2002. Pauly (11 tackles, three TFL) is also in the mix at both inside positions, after starting three games in 2002 in place of an injured Hilliard, to complete the rotation.
Perhaps in no game last season was Notre Dame’s defensive line prowess more apparent than at the Air Force Academy. The Irish ends and tackles performed flawlessly against the Falcons – who entered the contest ranked first in the nation in rushing yardage. Air Force worked extremely hard in gaining only 104 yards – ultimately the lowest output of the season for the Falcons. Mattison hopes to see more of that kind of dominating performance in 2003.
“I am really excited about our whole group,” Mattison says.
“We have a ton of talent across the board and some good incoming freshman as well. We should be able to keep everyone fresh throughout the game and not miss a beat performance-wise.”
Two of those incoming freshmen, Trevor Laws and Victor Abiamiri were among the most highly touted recruits in the nation last season and might get a chance to play right out of the chute.
So just how can opposing coaches formulate a game plan against one of the best front fours in the country? Perhaps the only relief is to hope the Irish have an off day, but with athletic pass-rushing ends and great run-stopping tackles, the chances of such a day are few and far between.