July 30, 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.
The 2001 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 their best finish since 1995) are built around an unusually large, talented and experienced senior class that includes 29 returning senior monogram-winners.
Veterans of that group include four senior captains -- Grant Irons and Anthony Weaver at defensive end, outside linebacker Rocky Boiman and flanker David Givens -- as well as other three-time monogram-winners Arnaz Battle at flanker, Tony Fisher at tailback, Ron Israel at strong safety, John Owens at tight end and John Teasdale at offensive tackle.
Those 29 players have combined to win 62 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 had to 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 arduous '01 Irish schedule again features an especially 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 a hefty 54-30 (.643) in '00.
Overall, the Irish have eight regulars are back on offense, six more on defense, plus junior placekicker Nick Setta and junior 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 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 earned the '01 starting role based in particular on his experience -- while sophomores Jared Clark and Carlyle Holiday, neither of whom played a down in '00 but possess impressive skills, could yet play roles this fall.
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 (he can play fullback, too) at tailback. At fullback, there are three seniors -- Tom Lopienski (nine for 18), fifth-year veteran Jason Murray (four for 14) and Mike McNair.
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 Battle at flanker.
Sophomores Omar Jenkins, Ronnie Rodamer and Lorenzo Crawford also will compete for playing time -- with Jenkins' seven game appearances in '00 qualifying as the only experience among the trio.
The biggest question mark at the offensive skill positions comes at tight end, where senior John Owens (he also played defensive end in '00) heads the list, with support from junior 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, who already is regarded as one of the best in the nation at his position.
Top contenders to fill the guard spots vacated by Gandy and Jim Jones are two-time senior letterwinners Ryan Scarola and Sean Mahan (he's the front-runner at left guard) along with junior Sean Milligan (he's battling Scarola at right guard).
Other offensive letterwinners back are junior tackle Brennan Curtin, fifth-year tackle John Teasdale (10 career starts), fifth-year guard Casey Robin -- and fifth-year center JW Jordan.
Also in the mix on the offensive line are junior offensive tackle Jim Molinaro (he converted from defense last spring) and junior guard Ryan Gillis.
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 senior Adam Tibble is back as the holder and senior 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 fifth-year senior nose guard Andy Wisne (two career starts) and junior tackle Darrell Campbell the headliners for the two inside jobs.
There's support to be found from junior nose guard Cedric Hilliard, sophomore tackle Greg Pauly (he missed all of '00 after knee surgery) -- and sophomore ends Kyle Budinscak and Jason Sapp.
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 junior Courtney Watson (he came out of spring drills with the starting job created by 2000 MVP Denman's graduation), senior Carlos Pierre-Antoine, junior Patrick Ryan and sophomore Mike Goolsby.
Additional linebackers include junior Justin Thomas and sophomore Jerome Collins outside -- to go with sophomore Derek Curry inside.
The cornerback roster features senior returning starter Shane Walton (40 tackles in '00, 10 career starts), along with plenty of additional experience in projected senior starter 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 Gerome Sapp (209 special-team appearances in '00), with senior Donald Dykes, junior Glenn Earl (he blocked the potential-game-winning field goal vs. Air Force in '00) and fifth-year defender Justin Smith at free safety.
More help in the secondary is available from sophomores Preston Jackson and Garron Bible (he's a converted running back) at corner -- along with sophomore converted quarterback Abram Elam and senior Dwayne Francis at safety.
The Irish boast their share of all-star candidates for '01, including Irons, Weaver and Jones, all of whom earned second-team preseason All-America honors or better in at least one publication projecting college football fortunes for the fall.
Key to the bottom line for 2001 will be the sophomore class, 13 of whom did not play a down as rookies (LoVecchio, Jenkins, Goolsby and Duff were the lone freshmen to see playing time in 2000).