Sept. 11, 2000
by Dan Bent
Irish captains Anthony Denman and Jabari Holloway have had more than a little impact on Notre Dame's football program over the last three years. Yet, they wonder if anyone ever expected much of anything.
"In some ways we were people who weren't destined to be anything when we came to Notre Dame," Holloway said.
"Exactly. That's us," Denman said.
The term outcast hardly suits either of the two All-America candidates, but they don't mind the description.
"When I came here, I was a big-time recruit in the state of Texas, but I wasn't all-world or all-whatever," Denman said.
"We didn't have the notoriety that a Dan O'Leary or a Grant Irons had coming out of high school," Holloway said, referring to the two former prep All-Americans.
"Exactly," Denman said.
"When I became the second-team drop linebacker my freshman year, I was labeled a surprise. I became the surprise of the tailbacks. That's all anyone wrote about me. I didn't think much of it, but even after I started making plays on defense I was still labeled a surprise."
"When Jabari came in as a freshman, he didn't expect to start at tight end."
"I was supposed to play defense," Holloway said.
"He was supposed to be a linebacker," Denman said.
"But he started a few games at tight end his freshman year and suddenly he became surprising Jabari Holloway. That's why we say we're outcasts."
While Holloway's outstanding freshman campaign at tight end surprised some outside the football program, he requested the position change from defense to offense before he arrived at Notre Dame. Denman, on the other hand, had not anticipated a switch to linebacker.
As a high school senior in the tiny town of Rusk, Texas, the agile Denman rushed for 1,250 yards and 12 touchdowns. While he garnered all-state honors as a running back, he also took the field as a fullback, a quarterback, a linebacker and along the defensive line.
Recruited as a running back by Notre Dame, Denman arrived on campus as part of a heralded group of freshmen that included USA Today All-American Tony Driver. As he competed for playing time with his classmates and Autry Denson, eventually Notre Dame's all-time leading rusher, he found himself near the bottom of the depth chart at running back.
Denman, however, constantly flashed a natural play-making ability that pressed the coaches to find a way to get him on the field. Because of a lack of depth at linebacker, the Irish coaching staff offered Denman the opportunity to switch to defense.
"I approached Anthony about making the switch," inside linebackers Coach Kirk Doll said.
"He was either fifth or sixth on the depth chart at tailback. I told him that he had an opportunity, if he wanted to come over to linebacker to play and letter his first year. He was very receptive to that offer and came over and did a good job."
"I made the change because Autry Denson was a big-time football player," Denman said.
"I realized that no one was going to get the ball besides Autry, and I didn't want to wait to touch the football. I thought I could compete with the other guys coming in, but I wasn't going to wait two years just to get on the field. That's why I switched from running back to defense."
Denman moved from the crowded backfield to second on the depth chart at drop linebacker where he was allowed to showcase his athletic ability. He was also given the chance to learn the position from talented former captains Kory Minor, now with the Carolina Panthers, and Bobbie Howard.
"They taught me to go out and play hard every day," Denman said.
"Bobbie Howard played injured. So did Kory Minor. They were both just tremendous people. They loved the school and were true Notre Dame men."
"They also taught me a lot with regard to technique. Kory taught me that you have to hunker down at drop (linebacker) because you might have a big, 260-pound tight end coming at you. I'm only 235 pounds, so I have to focus on my footwork and use my hands well. If that tight end gets to my chest, it's all over.
"From Bobbie Howard I learned to use my quickness. I'm not the biggest inside linebacker, so I have to use that to my advantage and get around the linemen. I have to make the play."
Denman oftentimes did make the play, as he tallied 34 tackles and three sacks in two years as Minor's backup. He also developed a reputation as one of Notre Dame's most physical players.
"He's definitely a hard-nosed, impact player," defensive end Grant Irons said.
"He makes big plays. I don't remember what game it was in last year, but there was a play that showed just how physical he is. He was on the left side of the field and I was on the right side. The other team ran a sweep out left and Anthony hit the ballcarrier so hard he popped the ball up about 10 feet in the air. When I looked up, the ball had landed in my hands. He hit the runner so hard it knocked the ball across the field to me.
It was this playmaking ability that allowed Denman to step into the starting lineup his junior year, but not at his familiar drop linebacker position. The Irish coaching staff moved Denman once again when Howard and inside linebacker Jimmy Friday graduated following the 1998 season. Their departures created a large hole in the middle of the defense and the coaches needed a special player to fill that void. They knew Denman was the perfect fit.
"He always plays hard," Doll said.
"He's a very physical player. He possesses a strong work ethic. When he switched positions, he worked even harder and did all the different things he needed to do to ease that transition. He just works hard at trying to set a good example in practice. All those things are traits that you want to have in a leader."
As one of the leaders of a young Irish defense, Denman did not disappoint the coaching staff. He recorded 89 tackles, one sack, forced two fumbles and recovered three more in his first year as a starter. He also played an instrumental role in last year's 25-24 come-from-behind victory over USC.
After such an impressive third year, expectations for Denman to continue to make big plays have increased. Prior to the start of the 2000 season, he was named to the Butkus Award watch list, which tracks the play of the nation's premier linebackers. This added pressure and scrutiny does not bother Denman.
"I want to be an impact player on the field. I want to dominate the game. If they run to my side, I want them to wind up with negative yards. If I'm rushing the quarterback, I want to get there every time and sack him."
Denman realizes, however, that it will take more preparation to dominate the game this year because he is no longer just a surprise.
"I feel I need to improve my film study this year. Last year I didn't do too much film study on my own. But this year, I want to get more hours in scouting the other team. I need to find out what they do, discover their tendencies, anything that will give me a competitive advantage. I need to become a student of the game."
As Denman seeks ways to perfect his game, he realizes there will always be room for improvement.
"If you try to be perfect in everything, you're going to be disappointed every game. It's just not going to happen. I just try to make as many plays as possible and help the defense hold the opposing offense to fewer points."
This approach to the game has won the respect of his teammates and coaches alike.
"He brings so much to this team with his whole attitude," Irons said.
"He's fearless, and you can just see how that attitude rubs off on this team."
"I just try to lead by example," Denman said.
"I'm not the type of guy that's going to be cheer-cheer, rah-rah. I just try to let my actions speak for me. Jabari's like that too. We don't say too much, but when we do, I think people listen."
Area high school and elementary school students certainly listen when he warns them of the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, or about the importance of making healthy life decisions. A spokesman for the University's Office of Drug and Alcohol Education, Denman uses his newfound celebrity in positive ways throughout the South Bend community.
While he might object to the celebrity label, Denman can hardly dispute the importance of his leadership and big time play to his teammates and coaches. As they all will tell you, Anthony Denman is no longer an outcast.