SI.com 2003 College Football Preview




SI.com's College Football Team Previews - from Athlon Sports

  Notre Dame Fighting Irish

 
The Lowdown
Coach: Tyrone Willingham (2nd year, 10-3)
2002 record: 10-3 (Lost to N.C. State 28-6 in Gator Bowl)
2002 offensive stats:
Rush: 139.4 ypg (68th in nation)
Pass: 174.2 ypg (91st)
2002 defensive stats:
Rush: 95.2 ypg (10th)
Pass: 204.8 ypg (46th)
Projected Starters
Offense (5 returning starters in bold)
SE   80   Omar Jenkins   Sr.  
FL  21  Maurice Stovall  So. 
LT  70  Jim Molinaro  Sr. 
LG  55  Zachary Giles  Jr. 
76  Bob Morton  So. 
RG   65   Sean Milligan   Sr.  
RT  74  Dan Stevenson  Jr. 
TE   14   Gary Godsey   Sr.  
QB   7   Carlyle Holiday   Sr.  
FB  16  Rashon Powers-Neal  Jr. 
TB   4   Ryan Grant   Jr.  
Defense (8)
DE   92   Kyle Budinscak   Sr.  
DT   60   Darrell Campbell   Sr.  
NT   50   Cedric Hilliard   Sr.  
DE  44  Justin Tuck  Jr. 
SLB   49   Derek Curry   Sr.  
MLB   41   Mike Goolsby   Sr.  
WLB   33   Courtney Watson   Sr.  
CB   34   Vontez Duff   Sr.  
CB  Jason Beckstrom  Sr. 
SS  26  Garron Bible  Sr. 
FS   19   Glenn Earl   Sr.  
Special Teams
13  Nicholas Setta  Sr. 
19  D.J. Fitzpatrick  Jr. 
KR  34  Vontez Duff  Sr. 
PR  34  Vontez Duff  Sr. 
2003 Schedule
Sept. 6  Washington State 
Sept. 13  at Michigan 
Sept. 20  Michigan State 
Sept. 27  at Purdue 
Oct. 11  at Pittsburgh 
Oct. 18  USC 
Oct. 25  at Boston College 
Nov. 1  Florida State 
Nov. 8  Navy 
Nov. 15  BYU 
Nov. 29  at Stanford 
Dec. 6  at Syracuse 
Stuck between a Rockne and a hard place, Tyrone Willingham approaches his second season at Notre Dame with the bar set right where it always seems to be in South Bend -- high above everyone's heads. It's his own fault, a product of the leadership that helped the Fighting Irish produce eight consecutive victories, giddy talk about championships, and the dramatic, weekly Sea of Green backdrop within Notre Dame Stadium.

The coach is a year away from the unreasonable (yet inevitable) line that separates the fates of Notre Dame head coaches -- that third-year national championship. Never mind that many of those third-year successes took place before scholarship limitations or widespread cable television exposure for opponents. Win a title in your third year and you can immediately take your place among the immortals. Anything less, and the guy in charge might as well put the house on the market.

So this season, in the eyes of the plaid-pants crowd, creates the transition from an energetic season that ended unsatisfactorily to the year the Irish go all the way. Winning a bowl game, something the Irish have not accomplished since Jan. 1, 1994, would be a good way to wrap it up.

"You have to have a memory," Willingham said when asked about the importance of winning the last game. "To a degree it has to be that short-term memory we always refer to quarterbacks having. You have to remember that certain things happen. You can't forget that, but you don't let them wear you down. That's the difference."

OFFENSIVE KEYS:

The second season of Willingham's version of the West Coast offense, directed by quarterback Carlyle Holiday and supervised by offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick, should present a greater sense of stability. But there's an enormous "if" attached.

For the Fighting Irish to thrive and have any chance of building upon their surprising 10-3 season of a year ago, they must see rapid development in a new offensive line. Right guard Sean Milligan is the only returning starter among the interior linemen, a group that allowed Holiday to adapt to the demands of a pass-oriented system. Senior Jim Molinaro and junior Dan Stevenson, who started in the Gator Bowl, lead the candidates at the four other offensive line spots.

If that protection holds up, Holiday will be able to continue his remarkable progress from an option-oriented quarterback to a reliable leader of a balanced offense. His five interceptions in 257 attempts amounted to an interception percentage of .0194, third-best in Irish history. The move of Rashon Powers-Neal from tailback to fullback should add versatility in the backfield and helps make room for the return of tailback Julius Jones. Jones fulfilled the university's academic demands and was reinstated in the offseason. He'll combine with Ryan Grant, who became the seventh player in Irish history to exceed 1,000 rushing yards in a season, to make a formidable backfield duo.

DEFENSIVE KEYS:

Eight returning starters will help determine the direction of a unit that was essential to the undefeated run into November, but allowed 680 passing yards in the last two games. Darrell Campbell, who has been used at the tackle and end positions, and nose guard Cedric Hilliard create an imposing presence up front.

Inside linebacker Courtney Watson was a Butkus Award finalist. Cornerback Vontez Duff became the first player in Irish history to return a kick, a punt and an interception for touchdowns in a single season. Free safety Glenn Earl should continue to make an impact -- his block of an Air Force field goal attempt in 2000 saved a Fiesta Bowl bid.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Nicholas Setta can finally get his wish. From the start of his college career, Setta hoped to win the twin duties of placekicker and punter, and the departure of punter Joey Hildbold can make that possible. Setta's streak of 87 consecutive point-after attempts is second-longest in school history. Duff averaged 27.7 yards per kickoff return last year, ranked eighth in the nation. The potential return of Jones could give the Irish a return unit capable of changing a game with every kick.

FINAL ANALYSIS:

Every Notre Dame coach reaches the end of the honeymoon. The question is whether the late-season slide, with one-sided losses to USC and N.C. State, will eventually become viewed as a temporary problem or a larger issue. Just when Irish fans showed signs of being content with solid progress, the 8-0 start and resulting talk of a national championship reset the bar as high as it can go.

The complex construction of a reliable offensive line can be a tricky business with the most talented of groups. But a difficult transition period up front can undo months of progress. Ann Arbor in September is not the easiest place to build continuity.

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