Aug. 14, 2003
by Chris Masters
Don’t be surprised if you happen to see Buzz Preston walking down Juniper Road past Notre Dame Stadium with a wide smile on his face, whistling an upbeat tune. That’s because the Irish running backs coach has a lot to be happy about heading into the 2003 season.
Much of Preston’s confidence centers on the fact that more than 90 percent of Notre Dame’s rushing offense is back in uniform this year. What’s more, only one of the returning rushers is a senior, meaning a sense of stability and comfort will continue to permeate through the unit over the next two seasons.
“We may have a more balanced and deep group of backs this year than we did last year,” Preston said.
“That says a lot when you look at what we were able to accomplish last season in our first year with this new offense.”
Leading the pack of veteran Notre Dame running backs is junior Ryan Grant. The 6-1, 209-pound native of Nyack, N.Y., had a breakthrough campaign in 2002, becoming only the seventh player in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season (261 carries, 1,085 yards), and the first since Autry Denson in 1998. He posted four 100-yard games and had three others of at least 90 yards. In addition, Grant had a nose for the end zone, scoring nine touchdowns, the most by an Irish tailback since Denson had 15 scores in 1998.
The one question surrounding Grant has been his health. Late last year, he was hampered by a shoulder injury that would eventually require off-season surgery. Consequently, he sat out the entire spring season, although he is expected to be at full strength when the Irish begin preseason workouts in August.
“I saw some really good improvement with Ryan over the course of last year,” Preston said.
“I don’t think he exceeded our expectations for him, only because of his injury at the end of the year. That kept him from reaching the potential that we believe he has. It will be interesting to see how he does when he comes back completely healthy in the fall.”
Joining Grant at the tailback position will be senior Julius Jones and junior Marcus Wilson. Jones missed the ’02 season, but should be valuable with his breakaway speed and good pass-catching ability out of the backfield. In 2000, he was Notre Dame’s leader in rushing (657 yards) and all-purpose yardage (1,169).
Wilson, a Staten Island, N.Y., product, finished fourth on the team in rushing last season with 39 carries for 110 yards, despite missing three games due to injury. A highly regarded back with exceptional quickness and strong pass-catching abilities, the 5-11, 198-pound Wilson should be a sturdy complement to Grant this season.
“Like Ryan, Marcus’ injury situation late in the year stunted his development a little bit,” Preston said.
“But that’s just another part of the growing process that they’re going through. It teaches you how to get through adversity and how much you have to rise in order to become successful at this level.”
Competition is wide open at the fullback spot, following the departure of mainstay Tom Lopienski and his primary backup, Mike McNair. With no true fullback returning at the position, Notre Dame has moved two former tailbacks – Rashon Powers-Neal and Nate Schiccatano – to fullback in hopes of creating mismatches against opposing defenses.
Powers-Neal, a 6-2, 227-pound resident of St. Paul, Minn., moved from linebacker to running back prior to last season and made the transition with ease. He wound up second on the squad in rushing (77 carries, 333 yards, two TD) and his 4.3 yards-per-carry average was tops among everyday Irish ball carriers.
Schiccatano did not see action last season as a freshman. However, the 6-3, 224-pound battering ram from Coal Township, Pa., opened some eyes during spring camp, rushing eight times for a game-high 24 yards and a first-quarter touchdown in the Blue-Gold Game.
“Rashon and Nate have had a year in our system and they understand the terminology, so that should help them make the transition a lot quicker than Tom and Mike did last year,” Preston said.
“Actually, this move gives us more diversity in the backfield. Both guys can slide to the tailback position if that’s what the situation calls for and that kind of versatility makes them more valuable as the season goes on.”