May 8, 2000
By Bo Rottenborn
One of the biggest difficulties for Notre Dame's '99 football squad was its inability to stop opponents from finding the end zone. Opponents scored 27.6 points per contest a season ago while racking up 383.7 total yards per game.
So, what can you do to fix a defensive squad that has lost more than half its starters from a season ago? Two words - aggressiveness and effort.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison feels that stressing these two things will lay the foundation for a greatly improved Irish defense in the coming fall.
"This spring our goal right from the start to establish a personality with our defense and bring back the old aggressive attitude and great effort. We want to get back to where you see on every snap that there are 11 people running to that football and not just running, but running to go make a hit."
Mattison identifies these characteristics as lacking at times in '99: "I think we started out playing hard and doing some good things. But as the season went on, we slowly lost our ability to play with great effort down in and down out."
He also points out that big plays were detrimental to the defense last year: "When you start giving up big plays, you lose your heart. It really rips your defense apart. I think the kids still tried, but I don't know that they played with great intensity."
The area on defense with the most returning experience is the line, although the Irish switch from a two end-two tackle formation to one featuring two ends, a tackle and a nose guard. Senior end Grant Irons and junior tackle Anthony Weaver both return to their starting positions, as does fifth-year nose guard Lance Legree, who has 17 career starts under his belt. The other end position is expected to be filled by sophomore Darrell Campbell, who did not play a season ago but Mattison says could have seen action had he been needed. He will fill the hole left by Lamont Bryant, who leaves Notre Dame with 199 tackles and 31 career starts.
"We have to get more productivity in passing situations out of this group," Mattison says. "They have to get better at general pass rushing - the ability to just beat somebody one on one and get to the quarterback. I know the first unit has ability and now it's a matter of playing to that ability with great technique and great effort."
Another priority will be bringing along a second unit that will feature the likes of sophomores Jim Molinaro, junior John Owens, sophomore Cedric Hilliard and senior B.J. Scott, who makes the transition back to defense after a season on the other side of the ball. Mattison says there is talent in this group, but they are young and inexperienced.
"We've got some kids that have played," Mattison says. "Rocky Boiman has played a great deal of football here already, even though he is young. He has to continue to improve and come up with some great plays for us. Anthony Denman is probably the most experienced and I think he has to develop a level of consistency."
Establishing a legitimate backup for Boiman is another key with Justin Thomas and Courtney Watson as the leading candidates. Mattison says Anthony Brannan and Pat Ryan will both get a lot of reps as well.
The secondary is the biggest question mark due to the loss of Deveron Harper, Deke Cooper and last year's leading tackler, A'Jani Sanders. Those three combined for 220 tackles and nine interceptions a season ago and leave after starting a combined 81 games. The Irish have only one returning starter in the secondary - junior corner Clifford Jefferson.
"Clifford Jefferson has played a lot of football and has a lot of ability. A lot of times you'll see that corners will come off of a challenging year and it'll all click for them (the following season) and that's what we're working on with him," Mattison says.
Jefferson is the only returning player in the secondary to see more than 70 minutes of playing time a season ago. Nevertheless, Mattison is optimistic:
"In the secondary, there are some kids who have played. A key for them now is going to be having success. We're working really hard to try to improve any technique flaws the group had last year and to get them to play with a lot more confidence. The secondary will have two seniors returning to the secondary after being absent last year. Tony Driver moves back to safety after a season at tailback, while Brock Williams will return after sitting out all of '99. Both Driver and Williams saw extensive playing time two seasons ago in the secondary.
"Having Brock Williams back is a big plus. He's got a lot of ability and a lot of experience and adds a lot of personality to our defense. Getting Tony Driver back at a position where he's played a lot of football will help us, but he's still fairly green there because he's played only one year at the safety position. We've got to work hard with him on his technique and knowing what to do in each defense," Mattison says.
Contenders for the other safety position are sophomore Gerome Sapp and seniors Justin Smith and Ron Israel. Sophomores Jason Beckstrom, Albert Poree and junior Shane Walton should see time as backup cornerbacks. Mattison also has hope that next year's freshmen will help with some depth problems, but he cautions that Notre Dame is "past the point where we have to recruit a guy with the idea that he' s going to come in and start.
"These kids (incoming freshmen) have great talent and they were highly recruited players, but you hope that the ones we have here right now have paid their dues and it's their time. The best scenario is for a young guy to get his feet wet and, if he can help you, it is in a backup role and then the next year, when that guy ahead of him leaves, he's ready to step in."
One key to winning games this fall may be improving defensively. To do that, Mattison again stresses effort, saying "going into this year, we have really made an effort to eliminate big plays and to play with great effort every play.
"We've kind of gone back to basics. We went through the entire package and decided what schemes to play and who to play them
with. That's what the spring's all about - implementing any changes we want to make and getting the players in there that can play in that scheme."