Feb. 9, 2001
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Notre Dame's football program made an attention-earning statement in 2000.
The Irish improved from a 5-7 record the previous season to a 9-3 mark that featured a seven-game winning streak to end the '00 regular season and a first-ever Bowl Championship Series berth, in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
Hopes for fifth-year coach Bob Davie's team to take the next step toward sustained national prominence (the Irish ended 15th in the final Associated Press poll for 2000 for its best finish since 1995) are built around an unusually large, talented and experienced senior class that includes 28 returning senior monogram-winners.
Veterans of that group include four-time monogram-winner Grant Irons at defensive end -- as well as three-time monogram-winners Arnaz Battle at flanker, Rocky Boiman at outside linebacker, Tony Fisher at tailback, David Givens at flanker, Ron Israel at strong safety, John Teasdale at offensive tackle and Anthony Weaver at defensive end.
Those 28 players have combined to win 61 monograms and earn 230 career starting assignments. They are the major reasons why Davie candidly says he expects the 2001 team to be the most talented since he took over as Irish head coach in 1997.
Notre Dame must replace a small but talented group of graduates -- most notably four-time letterwinners Anthony Denman (a second-team AP All-American in '00, 207 career tackles) at inside linebacker, Lance Legree (30 career starts) at nose guard, Tony Driver (second in tackles in '00 with 65) at free safety, Joey Getherall (74 career catches for 1,059 yards, Collegefootballnews.com third-team All-American as punt returner in '00) at flanker and Jabari Holloway (41 catches for 692 yards in career) and Dan O'Leary (32 career catches for 383 yards) at tight end.
Gone, too, are both starting offensive guards, The Sporting News third-team All-American Mike Gandy (27 career starts) and Jim Jones (22 career starts), as well as '00 regulars Brock Williams (20 career starts) at cornerback and B.J. Scott at defensive tackle.
The Irish schedule again features a noteworthy month of September, as Notre Dame takes to the road to battle Nebraska, Purdue and Texas A&M, while playing host to Michigan State.
Overall, Davie's crew meets seven opponents that played in bowl games a year ago -- Nebraska (defeated Northwestern in Alamo Bowl), Purdue (lost to Washington in Rose), Texas A&M (lost to Mississippi State in Independence), Pittsburgh (lost to Iowa State in insight.com), West Virginia (defeated Ole Miss in Music City), Boston College (defeated Arizona State in Aloha) and Tennessee (lost to Kansas State in Cotton). Those seven teams alone combined to finish 54-30 (.643) in '00.
Overall, the Irish have 49 monogram-winners back, compared to 19 letterwinners lost. Eight regulars are back on offense, plus six more on defense, as well as placekicker Nick Setta and punter Joey Hildbold.
The Irish have the makings of another talented offense, after averaging 31.3 points (29th nationally) and 213.5 rushing yards (14th) in 2000. They hope to be as proficient as the '00 squad that set an all-time NCAA record for fewest turnovers in a season (eight -- four interceptions, four lost fumbles).
It begins at quarterback where sophomore-to-be Matt LoVecchio (73 of 125 passing for 980 yards, 11 touchdowns, one interception) helped Irish rank 17th nationally in passing efficiency, after starting and ranking as the winning signalcaller in each of Notre Dame's final seven regular-season games a year ago. LoVecchio competes against classmates Jared Clark and Carlyle Holiday, neither of whom played a down in '00 but possess impressive skills and will challenge LoVecchio for playing time in '01.
The running back spots are chock-full of experience -- from junior Julius Jones (leading '00 rusher at 162 attempts for 657 yards, seven TDs, ranked as CNNSI.com first-team All-American as kickoff returner), to seniors Fisher (132 for 607, six TDs) and Terrance Howard (75 for 424, four TDs) and junior Chris Yura at tailback, to seniors Tom Lopienski (nine for 18) and Jason Murray (four for 14) at fullback.
The wide receiver slots feature the multi-talented Givens (leading '00 receiver at 25 catches for 310 yards, two TDs) at flanker, returning senior starter Javin Hunter (13 for 256, three TDs) at split end -- along with the addition of speedy, converted quarterback Arnaz Battle at flanker.
The biggest question mark at the offensive skill positions comes at tight end, where the top candidates are senior John Owens (he also played defensive end in '00), sophomore converted quarterback Gary Godsey and untested sophomore Billy Palmer.
The offensive line is built around returning senior starting tackles Jordan Black (21 career starts) and Kurt Vollers (15 career starts), plus returning junior center regular Jeff Faine. Top contenders to fill the guard spots vacated by Gandy and Jim Jones are two-time senior letterwinners Ryan Scarola and Sean Mahan.
Setta is back to handle field goals (eight of 14 in '00) and PATs (44 of 45) after leading the Irish in scoring last season. Hildbold (a Ray Guy Award finalist for '00) returns to punt (he averaged 40.93 per punt in '00 to help Notre Dame rank 10th in net punting, and the Irish set an all-time Notre Dame record for fewest opponent punt return yards in a season), while Adam Tibble is back as the holder and John Crowther as snapper.
That quartet is part of a Notre Dame special teams group that sparkled in 2000 -- helping the Irish rank third in kickoff returns (mainly with Julius Jones fourth individually at 28.47 yards each) and 12th in punt returns (the graduated Getherall was eighth at 16.33 each).
On defense, Notre Dame made major strides in 2000, ranking 34th in scoring defense nationally at 20.5 points per game -- and setting a passionate tone early that paid major dividends. Look for a front line built around veteran seniors Irons (20 career starts) and Weaver (32 career starts, led '00 team in sacks with eight) and '00 starter Ryan Roberts (five sacks last season) at the end spots, with senior Andy Wisne (two career starts), junior Cedric Hilliard and junior Darrell Campbell fighting for the two inside jobs.
Boiman (two-year starter, 56 tackles, eight for loss, three and a half sacks in '00) is an all-star candidate at outside linebacker, while senior returning starter Tyreo Harrison (46 tackles in '00, 13 career starts) ranks as most experienced of the inside linebackers. Other returnees inside include senior Carlos Pierre-Antoine, juniors Courtney Watson and Patrick Ryan and sophomore Mike Goolsby, as they compete to fill the shoes of Denman, the team's 2000 MVP.
The cornerback roster features senior returning starter Shane Walton (40 tackles in '00, 10 career starts), along with plenty of additional experience in senior Clifford Jefferson (15 career starts), junior Jason Beckstrom and sophomore Vontez Duff. The safety roles include Israel (led '00 team in interceptions with three, 12 career starts) at strong safety along with juniors Glenn Earl (he blocked the potential-game-winning field goal vs. Air Force in '00) and Gerome Sapp (209 special-team appearances in '00), with seniors Donald Dykes and Justin Smith back at free safety.
Additional help assuredly will come from members of the sophomore class, 13 of whom did not play a down as rookies (LoVecchio, wide receiver Omar Jenkins, Goolsby and Duff were the lone freshmen to see playing time in 2000), including former Parade prep All-America defensive lineman Greg Pauly who sat out all of 2000 with an injury.