Middle linebacker Courtney Watson was fired up, and there wasn't even a trash-talking tailback in sight. On this recent afternoon he was agitated over the plight of Notre Dame's campus cafeteria workers, who are not unionized. "I lobbied for them last year, but nothing came of it," says Watson, who was a student senator in 2002-03 and this fall will be a co-president of a group representing students who live off campus.
A business major with aspirations of law school as well as the NFL, Watson is outspoken on issues ranging from workers' rights to diversity on campus. But heading into his fifth season in South Bend (he red-shirted as a freshman), his pet cause is making sure the resurgent Irish perform up to their potential. Last year, in coach Tyrone Willingham's debut season, Notre Dame exceeded expectations with a 10-3 record, but the defensive captain still broods about how punchless the team was late in the season, most notably in a close call against Navy and a Gator Bowl loss to N.C. State. "Maybe our luck ran out," says Watson. "But all of a sudden, instead of three and out, the defense was going seven, eight downs at a time. We can't have lapses like that again."
As tough and opportunistic as the defense was for the better part of last season—the Irish caused 33 turnovers and ranked 13th or better in the nation in four defensive categories—it most likely will be improved because eight senior starters return, including the 6'1", 230-pound Watson, who is the heart of the unit. A wide receiver turned running back at Riverview High in Sarasota, Fla., he switched to linebacker in 2000 and 2� years later was a Butkus Award finalist with a team-high 90 tackles, four interceptions, eight pass break-ups and three sacks.
Still, in the off-season Watson devoted himself to studying game film in an effort to improve. "Courtney's open to being corrected, and that shows on the field," says defensive coordinator Kent Baer. "He understands football and is very coachable."
Notre Dame's success in Willingham's second season hinges on whether the offense, which will operate behind a rebuilt line, can move the ball better than it did last year and whether quarterback Carlyle Holiday has gotten out of his system the mental mistakes that stifled the offense at times in 2002. Julius Jones, who was academically ineligible last season, should provide a spark at tailback if he's able to regain the form he had as the team's leading rusher in 2000 and '01.
Watson sees no reason why Notre Dame shouldn't surprise again. "We can hold our own against anybody," he says. "The difference between us and Ohio State and Miami was very small last year. We were right there. If we forget that, we'll be doing ourselves a great injustice."
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