The believers filled a hotel ballroom in Chicago last spring, and for one evening, the institution of Notre Dame football was right where they know it should be — looking down at everyone else. Ara Parseghian was before them, 40 years after he had arrived to rescue a program from the mediocrity of the early sixties. There were those who said back then that Notre Dame could never win again at a championship level, that the academic standards were too demanding, that the old days were gone forever.
Is this beginning to sound familiar?
So after the frustration of a 5-7 season — with blowout losses of a magnitude unprecedented in school history — there was no better person for the Domers to stand and cheer. The hope for a new season may actually obscure the static of the last few months: the ongoing speculation about potential conference membership, Heisman winner Paul Hornung's high-profile but misguided thesis on the need to lower academic standards to attract minority athletes and the manifesto created and publicized by a collection of dissatisfied alums. (This just in: They don't like losing.)
As Parseghian stood at a podium and tried unsuccessfully to get the audience to stop cheering, the issues surrounding Tyrone Willingham's program felt far away. When these alums were students and the reality of a South Bend winter closed in, they would say, "Ara Stop The Snow!" One night, when a power problem caused a delay at an Irish home basketball game, they chanted "Ara Fix The Lights!" They did not chant "Ara Fix The Team" on this night. They knew he would if he could.
But they listened to an interesting thought.
"Tyrone Willingham's record is 15-10," Parseghian told the crowd. "He was 10-3 in his first season and 5-7 in his second season. But what would you think if he was 5-7 in his first season and 10-3 last year?"
If anyone else had said that, it would have sounded like a hollow endorsement. But somehow, the way Parseghian made his point, it made sense. Four decades after his 9-1 inaugural season brought the Fighting Irish back to life, Ara was preaching to the choir, saying that one day, it could happen again.
OffenseThis is Brady Quinn's offense. The uncertainty of last season, when Quinn replaced Carlyle Holiday four games into his true freshman season, has been replaced by a sense of stability. Despite the problems that resulted from an inexperienced and injured offensive line, Quinn was able to display flashes of what he can become.
His receivers could make up one of the deepest and most talented areas of the team. Holiday has had a full off-season to complete his transition to wideout. Junior Rhema McKnight caught 47 passes for 600 yards and three touchdowns last season, and Maurice Stovall, a 6-foot-5 junior, caught 22 for 421 yards and three touchdowns.
Senior running back Ryan Grant averaged just over a half-yard less per carry last season than he did in 2002. But a dramatic decrease in opportunities — due to the return of the departed Julius Jones from a one-year banishment — reduced his yardage from 1,085 and nine touchdowns as a sophomore to 510 yards and three scores last season. Grant will have a chance to regain his status as a 1,000-yard rusher.
Inexperience in last season's offensive line has given way to a veteran, potentially cohesive unit for '04. Bob Morton, who started 11 games at center last season, has moved to guard. Mark LeVoir and Dan Stevenson, last years starting guards, are back, but LeVoir has jumped to right tackle. Sophomore Ryan Harris, a starter for the last eight games of the season at right tackle, is now at left tackle.
DefenseThe progress of an inexperienced secondary could determine Irish success this season. Senior Dwight Ellick is the one returning starter at cornerback. The new faces at the position include freshmen Ambrose Wooden and Isaiah Gardner, neither of whom played last season. Tom Zbikowski and Freddie Parish are exciting safety prospects.
Senior defensive end Justin Tuck set a school record last season with 13.5 sacks, and fifth-year senior Kyle Budinscak has grown into a reliable member of the unit, but both were nursing knee injuries over the spring. Sophomore Victor Abiamiri could become a force at end this season. Trevor Laws, who did not play last season, could make an important contribution at tackle.
Fifth-year senior linebacker Mike Goolsby ranked third on the team with 75 tackles in '02 and led the Irish with 13 tackles for a loss, but he missed the last season because of injury. His return at inside linebacker is essential for a group that will seek to establish an identity.
SpecialistsD.J. Fitzpatrick has already earned his place in the hearts of the faithful, due to his game-ending field goal that beat Navy. He will return to handle the placekicking, and the Irish better hope he stays healthy. Fitzpatrick is the only scholarship kicker on the roster. Geoffrey Price is the new punter.
Final AnalysisThe Irish need to win a bowl. Any bowl. The giddy, premature talk of winning a national championship in Willingham's first season has been replaced by a realization of the building that needs to take place. Notre Dame's last bowl victory was the 1994 Cotton Bowl. Before anyone talks about the BCS, Notre Dame needs the positive momentum of a happy ending, no matter where it takes place.