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Upgrading Defense Key Goal For 2000 Notre Dame Football

April 20, 2000

Motivation for Notre Dame’s football squad in 2000 may come from a variety of sources:

* It may come from an Irish squad intent on proving its 5-7 record from 1999 – coming on the heels of 12 consecutive winning seasons – was only an aberration.

* It may come from an offensive unit that returns a solid core of experienced veterans – led by junior tailback Tony Fisher, who led the Irish in rushing in ’99, six of the top eight pass-catchers from ’99, and four returning offensive line regulars.

* It may come from junior quarterback Arnaz Battle, who wants to prove he can fill the shoes of graduated record-setter Jarious Jackson and complete the picture on offense.

* It may come from a defense bent on markedly improving its productivity from ’99 when the Irish dealt with more than their share of adversity on that side of the football.

* Or, it may come from an overall Irish roster that appears better equipped for battle – in terms of depth and quality players – than in any of Irish head coach Bob Davie’s three previous seasons.

The task ahead is not an easy one. After playing a schedule in ’99 that the NCAA rated the third most difficult among all NCAA Division I-A teams, Notre Dame opens the 2000 slate by playing five teams that played in bowl games in ’99 – Texas A&M (Alamo), Nebraska (Fiesta winner), Purdue (Outback), Michigan State (Citrus winner) and Stanford (Rose).

The Irish will contend with that daunting beginning with 44 returning letterwinners, including seven returning starters on offense and five more on defense. Top losses include Jackson, who broke Notre Dame single-season records for passing yardage and passes completed, ’99 leading receiver Bobby Brown – plus four of the top six tacklers on defense.

Notre Dame has the makings of a top-flight offense – particularly in terms of a running game – thanks to the return of tailbacks Fisher, Julius Jones and Terrance Howard and fullback Tom Lopienski. While the ’99 offensive line began as the most inexperienced portion of the team, the corps of guards Mike Gandy and Jim Jones, tackles Jordan Black and John Teasdale and tight ends Jabari Holloway and Dan O’Leary have transformed that into a strong point. Senior Joey Getherall heads the wide receiver ranks.

The main Irish mission for 2000 is to upgrade a defense that permitted an uncharacteristic 27.6 points and 383.7 yards per game in ’99. Key components in making that happen will be defensive linemen Grant Irons and Anthony Weaver, inside linebacker Anthony Denman and cornerback Clifford Jefferson. Returning to the secondary mix for 2000 are Brock Williams and Tony Driver, they both bring solid experience in the defensive backfield, but neither contributed there in ’99.

Davie on the Irish
“We enter the spring trying to improve as a football team. The potential for us to be an explosive offense is definitely there. But defense is our number-one priority as we enter the spring. Everyone has an accurate perspective of what it’s going to take to be successful. The coaches have all been here, they know the things we did well last year and the things we did poorly.

“You learn from each season – and what we learned last season is that if you can’t play good defense, you can’t win. Building our defense back up is our number-one objective. The players understand that – the coaches understand that. With that said, that means there are a lot of positions open.

“What’s exciting is that we’ve got some numbers on defense – particularly in the secondary. Looking back on last year, we had too many players who had to play every play and we got worn down as the season went on. At the end of the season we didn’t play at the same level we did early. So, developing quality depth is imperative. We lacked some confidence on defense and we gave up far too many big plays. It’s not that our players didn’t play hard or play with passion.

“To me, it’s about going back to raising the level of expectations. Every time that ball is snapped, you have some accountability to each other and as a defense. We gave up too many big plays, too many yards and points to be successful and all of us realize that. We all have a responsibility in restoring it. We all take responsibility for what’s happened. We all take responsibility to get back to the level it takes to play championship football.

“The time for talk is past. What we need to do is be productive. A lot of things factored into it, but the reality is we lost our last four games in 1999. We need to restore some things and there’s no way to do that other than by our actions. There hasn’t been a whole lot of talk about what we’re going to do – we understand the challenge.”

Defensive Losses Greatest
Though Notre Dame’s numerical losses to graduation were highest on defense, no discussion of Irish changes from ’99 begins without quarterback Jarious Jackson (184 of 316 for 2,753 yards – all three numbers Notre Dame single-season records). As valuable as Jackson’s statistics might have been, he’ll be missed just as much for his leadership (he was Notre Dame’s sole captain in ’99) and his sheer competitiveness on the field.

Other departures on offense include two-year center starter John Merandi, fullback regular Joey Goodspeed, productive wide receiver Bobby Brown (94 career receptions, 35 of them in ’99 to lead the team) and veteran pass-catcher Raki Nelson (63 career catches).

Also gone is placekicker Jim Sanson, whose 28 career field goals rank him fifth all-time in that category.

The list of letterwinners lost is even greater on defense, especially in the secondary where starters Deveron Harper (a three-year starter with 172 career tackles) at corner and A’Jani Sanders (225 career tackles, including team-high 91 in ’99) and Deke Cooper (203 career tackles) at safety have moved on.

Other major contributors gone from the defense include starting inside linebacker Ronnie Nicks, veteran defensive linemen Brad Williams (35 career starting assignments) and Lamont Bryant (199 career tackles, 31 career starts).

Battle Inherits QB Slot
Any changing of the guard as far as the quarterback position at Notre Dame earns more than its share of attention. That again will be true in 2000. Record-setter Jarious Jackson (he was Notre Dame’s second-leading rusher in ’99 at 464 yards as well as breaking nearly all the Irish season passing marks) has completed his eligibility – and junior Arnaz Battle awaits the chance to show what he can do.

With seven returning starters, the potential for an offense that could match or better last year’s averages of 29.0 points and 419.7 yards per game (238.2 through the air, second all-time at Notre Dame) is there. But, contributions from Battle may well hold the key. For Battle – who has played in 11 games over the last two years, thrown 35 passes and carried the ball 32 times – the positive is that the he’ll have help handling the load from a solid list of returnees among linemen, running backs and receivers.

“Different from last year, I don’t think the quarterback has to carry the weight of the offense on his shoulders. A year ago, we were in a new offense with a new offensive line, new tailbacks. This year, it’s almost the opposite,” says Davie.

“Arnaz’s potential is exciting. I think in the opportunities he’s had to play, he’s done well. With Arnaz it’s about the ability to consistently throw the football and make good decisions in the passing game. Everyone sees that from an option standpoint he can be outstanding.

“Fundamentally in practice, we feel good about Arnaz. Yet, you don’t see much of the magic that makes a great quarterback until there are people in the stands. That’s the exciting part of it.

“With our schedule, there is no honeymoon period for the quarterback. He’s thrown into the fire right off the bat. But Arnaz had the opportunity to learn from Jarious and watch Jarious, and that’s invaluable.”

Backup quarterback remains a concern. Sophomore Gary Godsey (did not play in ’99) ranks as the only other scholarship quarterback.

Irish Deep in Backfield
“There’s no lack of talent, quality or depth at the running back slots, starting at tailback where junior Tony Fisher, sophomore Julius Jones and junior Terrance Howard all return.

isher (156 carries for 783 yards, 5 TDs) stepped into Autry Denson’s shoes last fall and led the Irish in rushing while starting every game. The elusive Jones (75 for 375, 3 TDs) added a game-breaking dimension at tailback as well as with the return game. Howard (18 for 100, 1 TD) adds a combination of quickness and power.

Jones ended up leading Notre Dame in all-purpose yardage at 105.3 per game, with his rookie-season opportunities multiplying as the weeks went by. Veteran senior Tony Driver, who worked at tailback in both ’97 and ’99 (49 for 1287, 4 TDs) moves back to safety for 2000.

“The job is wide open between Tony Fisher, Julius Jones and Terrance Howard. All three of those players will have an equal opportunity to win that job – and all of them have different skills,” says Davie.

At fullback, look for the Irish to employ some combination of juniors Tom Lopienski (25 for 76 in ’99) and Mike McNair (played only in the Kansas opener in ’99), senior Jason Murray (DNP in ’99, but he earned a letter in ’98) and sophomore Chris Yura (he earned a monogram in ’99 as a defensive back with his special-team play).

“Tommy Lopienski is a player we think has unlimited potential. Everyone is anxious to watch Mike McNair. Jason Murray is a young guy who had shoulder surgery and is finally healthy – and Chris Yura has moved over from defense. That job is wide open. But we’ve got some talent,” Davie says.

Receiving Corps Provides Options
Notre Dame’s tight end combination may be unsurpassed anywhere in the country, thanks to the presence of senior Jabari Holloway (12 catches for 189 yards, 3 TDs), an honorable mention All-American in ’99, and fifth-year veteran Dan O’Leary (13 for 183, 2 TDs).

“We have two outstanding tight ends with a lot of skills in Jabari Holloway and Dan O’Leary,” Davie says.

Junior Gerald Morgan (played in one game in ’99 at tight end, but also saw action in the last five as snapper on field goals and extra points) is another possibility, as could be sophomore Gary Godsey, who also is working at quarterback for the time being.

The Irish lose some productivity at wide receiver, with veterans Bobby Brown (leading ’99 receiver with 36 for 608, 5 TDs) and Raki Nelson (23 for 395) gone, but the cupboard isn’t bare here either.

Senior flanker Joey Getherall (35 for 436, 3 TDs in ’99) provides a multi-purpose performer who can compete with Julius Jones in the kick return derby. Talented juniors David Givens (14 for 187, 1 TD) and Javin Hunter (13 for 224) may be ready to bust out. Fifth-year veteran Jay Johnson (6 for 109, 2 TDs) has been a dependable complementary receiver – and sophomore Jamaar Taylor (DNP in ’99) starts over after a campus bicycle accident cut short his rookie campaign.

“Joey Getherall has been productive anytime he’s on the field. Javin Hunter looks like he’s made a lot of progress, as has David Givens. Jay Johnson came on late in the season and took advantage of some opportunities. Jamaar Taylor is a young player who was injured last year,” Davie says.

“We are probably as deep at wide receiver as we’ve been in a long time.”

Offensive Line Has Matured
A year ago, Notre Dame’s running attack had to be completely rebuilt following the loss of not only career rushing champion Autry Denson but also four offensive line starters. This year, it’s the other way around – with four line starters back on board from a unit that helped pave the way for 419.7 total yards in ’99.

“It starts up front with the offensive line and this is probably the most experienced offensive line as far as numbers of players that have played in games since I’ve been here. We should have a lot of competition at each position and we should have depth. The only new starter will probably be the center position,” says Davie.

At center, it’s untested sophomore Jeff Faine (DNP in ’99) who’s expected to bid for John Merandi’s vacated starting spot. Senior JW Jordan (DNP in ’99) is an option, as are juniors Sean Mahan and Ryan Scarola and sophomore Ryan Gillis, all of whom are capable of playing either guard or tackle as well.

Everywhere else, there are plenty of experienced hands on the roster, especially at tackle where both returning regulars – senior John Teasdale and junior Jordan Black – are joined by letterwinners Mahan (he started once in ’99), seniors Kurt Vollers (he started three times) and Casey Robin and sophomores Neil Ambron and Brennan Curtin (neither played in ’99)

At guard, both starters are back in fifth-year veterans Jim Jones and Mike Gandy. They’ll be pushed by senior Rob Mowl (he started the Stanford finale in ’99), Scarola (he opened vs. Boston College) and sophomores Gillis and Sean Milligan (neither played in ’99).

“We’ve got a lot of numbers – we’ve got a lot of experience up front on offense and with one year in the system I think the expectations are high for that group,” Davie says.

Defensive Line Looks Good
The Irish make a slight adjustment on the defensive line in 2000 – going from a two end-two tackle alignment to one featuring two ends, a tackle and a nose guard. Senior end Grant Irons, fifth-year nose guard Lance Legree and junior tackle Anthony Weaver are the mainstays at those slots.

Irons (34 tackles, 4 sacks in ’99) has been a key contributor since his rookie season and should be one of the leaders of the 2000 squad. Both Legree (20 tackles) and Weaver (24 tackles) have been familiar names up front the last few seasons.

The newcomer expected to emerge is talented sophomore Darrell Campbell (DNP in ’99), who probably will inherit Lamont Bryant’s end position.

“Grant Irons has found a home at end and in the middle part of the season he started to come on. Darrell Campbell is a young defensive end with unlimited potential. Lance really played better than even we thought last year when you look at the tapes. He was consistent in his performance. Anthony Weaver will be a tackle and we expect him to have a productive year. Talent is not an issue – the talent is there,” Davie says.

More help could come at end from junior converted tight end John Owens (he earned a letter at tight end in ’99), junior Ryan Roberts (10 appearances in ’99) and sophomore Jim Molinaro (DNP in ’99).

Sophomore Cedric Hilliard (DNP in ’99) will work at tackle with Weaver. Senior Andy Wisne (12 tackles) and senior B.J. Scott (a ’98 letterwinner on defense, he worked on the offensive line in ’99 after switching from defense) are other options.

Denman Heads Linebacking List
Two of three starting Notre Dame linebackers are back in the fold in senior Anthony Denman inside and junior Rocky Boiman outside.

Denman (top returning tackler from ’99 with 89, plus 9 for losses) will be a ringleader of the Irish defense in 2000 thanks to his experience and aggressiveness, while Boiman (39 tackles) adds a solid dose of enthusiasm and pass-rush ability.

Top candidate to fill the other vacancy inside probably is junior Tyreo Harrison (34 tackles).

“Anthony Denman needs to have a great year for us as a senior. Rocky Boiman as an outside linebacker has continued to progress and certainly has all the tools. And Tyreo is a young guy who played a lot last year for us. So we feel like we have three linebackers who have all played enough football and all have enough talent,” Davie says.

Added competition comes inside from junior Carlos Pierre-Antoine (19 tackles in ’99 – “It’s time for him to be productive.” Davie says), sophomore Pat Ryan (DNP in ’99), fifth-year veteran Anthony Brannan, who formerly was a walk-on – and one-time running back Courtney Watson (DNP in ’99), now a sophomore.

Sophomore Justin Thomas (five appearances in ’99, four with Irish special teams) joins the cast of outside linebackers.

New Names in Irish Secondary
Experience in the secondary could have been an issue for Notre Dame in 2000, until you add the names of Brock Williams and Tony Driver, game-proven defensive backfield players who weren’t part of the mixture there in ’99. Instead, their presence helps provide an interesting combination of options, even after the loss of three starters to graduation.

Junior cornerback Clifford Jefferson (third in tackles in ’99 with 77, plus a team-high 8 passes broken up) technically ranks as the lone regular returning from a year ago when the Irish faced a glut of talented opposing quarterbacks and receivers. But he’ll have lots of assistance at corner from senior Brock Williams (a ’98 starter who sat out all of ’99), junior Shane Walton (he played soccer for the Irish in ’98, then switched to football in ’99) and sophomores Jason Beckstrom (73 special-team appearances in 10 games in ’99) and Albert Poree (he missed the last half of ’99 with an injury).

“We probably have more numbers of quality players back in the secondary than at any time since I’ve been at Notre Dame. They are young but they are talented and if we keep them intact there will be some depth there,” Davie says.

Then, at safety, there’s Driver who is back on defense after playing tailback in ’99. He was good enough to start seven times at strong safety in ’98. He’ll compete with talented sophomore Gerome Sapp (he won a monogram as a rookie in ’99) and senior letterwinner Justin Smith.

At strong safety, look for senior Ron Israel (two starts in ’99), junior Donald Dykes (he made 160 special-team appearances in ’99) and sophomore converted receiver Glenn Earl (DNP in ’99) to battle it out.

“You look at the secondary and it ‘s a lot like our running backs situation. There’s some depth. But the bottom line is, we’ve got to improve our performance,” Davie says.

“We feel much better about our ability to play man coverage – our ability to just cover in general. You still have to see it and you still have to do it. Last year we were exposed at times because of a lack of experience and depth. This year that shouldn’t happen.”

Irish Search for Placekicker
Notre Dame’s kick return fortunes in 2000 benefit more than anything from the gradual emergence of sophomore Julius Jones throughout his rookie campaign. Jones contributed a little more every week that went by in ’99 – and ended up leading the Irish in punt returns (he averaged 13.0 yards each, 1 TD, with 10 more returns than anyone else) and kickoff returns (23.2 average, again with 10 more returns than anyone else).

Others who could factor are Tony Driver, David Givens, Javin Hunter and Joey Getherall.

“We could really be explosive in the return game – that is something that has been lacking in the past several years and we’d like to get that back,” Davie says.

Sophomore punter Joey Hildbold (39.0-yard average in ’99) is back, but he could have competition from classmate Nick Setta (DNP in ’99). The kicking job is wide open between Setta and junior David Miller (2 of 5 on field goals). Snappers Dan O’Leary (punts) and Gerald Morgan (field goals, PATs) are back.

The 2000 Schedule
There’s no room for the faint of heart at Notre Dame in 2000, as the Irish open the schedule with five teams that played in bowl games following the ’99 campaign.

The Irish begin with three home games – against Alamo Bowl participant Texas A&M (8-4 in ’99), Fiesta winner Nebraska (12-1) and Outback participant Purdue (7-5). Then, after a road tussle at Michigan State (10-2 after a Citrus Bowl win over Florida), there’s a home date with Rose Bowl qualifier Stanford (8-4).

Other common foes Navy, Air Force, Boston College (8-4 after an Bowl appearance) and USC also await.

Gone from the ’99 agenda are Kansas, Michigan, Oklahoma, Arizona State, Pittsburgh and Tennessee. New to the 2000 slate are Texas A&M (the Aggies played the Irish in three Cotton Bowls in the ’90s, but the teams have never met in the regular season), Nebraska (first regular-season meeting since 1948), West Virginia (Notre Dame’s first-ever visit to Morgantown), Air Force (first meeting since ’96) and Rutgers (Notre Dame’s first stop there since a 1921 meeting at the Polo Grounds).

“No one’s pride has taken a beating more than our players,” says Davie.

“But the great thing about our schedule being front-loaded the way it is – we have a chance to make a statement right off the bat. Now, is that going to be easy? No, but we realize that it’s a challenge as well as an opportunity.”

Irish Health Update
A glut of late-season injuries in ’99 and off-season surgeries has kept life hectic in the Irish football training room. Junior defensive end Ryan Roberts (back surgery) is out of spring drills, while junior offensive tackle Jordan Black (shoulder surgery and knee ligament injury), senior defensive lineman Andy Wisne (shoulder surgery) and junior offensive tackle Sean Mahan (shoulder surgery) will participate this spring on a limited basis.