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Tuesday, March 8

Notre Dame begins Willingham era

Fighting Irish fans hope new coach Tyrone Willingham can re-establish the high level of recruiting that was evident during the Lou Holtz era at Notre Dame. Meanwhile, on the field this coming season, the big question is whether Willingham will alter his offensive scheme to maximize the running skills of sophomore QB Carlyle Holiday.

OFFENSE
Under Willingham last season, the Stanford offense was ideally balanced, averaging 269 yards per game through the air waves and 200 yards on the ground.

Tyrone Willingham
Irish coach Tyrone Willingham has Notre Dame back to its winning ways.
With Holiday at the controls, Willingham and offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick will be challenged to utilize their QB's athleticism and running skills effectively while striking a balance in the passing game. Last season, Holiday rushed for nearly 700 yards but struggled at times passing (completing about 50 percent). He also accomplished something that had never been done by a Notre Dame signal-caller, rushing for 100-plus yards in three different games.

QB Matt LoVecchio has transferred to Indiana, where he'll sit out the 2002 campaign. So the Irish are left with an inexperienced redshirt freshman walk-on, Pat Dillingham, as Holiday's primary backup. In August, it will be interesting to see how quickly freshman Chris Olsen can grasp the Irish offense. Olsen was ranked 97th in recruiting guru Tom Lemming's top 100.

Highly regarded sophomore RB Ryan Grant will attempt to replace Julius Jones, Tony Fisher and Terrance Howard in the backfield. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Grant shows a great deal of promise, but he carried the ball just 29 times last season. Redshirt freshman Marcus Wilson figures to be the primary backup. At fullback, expect senior Tom Lopienski to become a factor carrying the ball in the new Irish attack.

While David Givens and Javin Hunter weren't All-America candidates during their careers with the Irish, they combined for 68 catches last season -- and their departure to the NFL leaves the Irish with no proven options at wide receiver. Converted QB Arnaz Battle, a senior, was a non-factor last year after going down with a season-ending leg injury early in the campaign. Junior Omar Jenkins is being penciled in as the other starter, but keep an eye on the development of freshmen Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight. At 6-5 and 200 pounds, Stovall has the physical prowess the Irish need. He was ranked by Lemming as the 44th-best recruit in the nation.

The new starter at tight end could end up being another former QB, sophomore Jared Clark (6-4, 230). After switching positions midway through spring practice, Clark showcased exciting potential with his ability to stretch the deep middle. Last year, starting TE John Owens, a fifth-round pick of the Detroit Lions, caught just six passes. Clark could significantly improve on that total, if Holiday can get him the football. But currently, junior Gary Godsey -- who switched earlier during his college career from QB to TE -- is listed as the starter.

The offensive line is led by one of the team's top overall players, junior center Jeff Faine. Eventually, he could carry a pro draft grade equal to former Notre Dame standout Tim Ruddy, who was a second-round choice of the Miami Dolphins in 1994. Senior Jordan Black, entering his third year as a starter, could end up at either right or left tackle depending on how things take shape in August. Senior OG Sean Mahan is also a battle-tested performer.

DEFENSE
Anthony Weaver, Notre Dame's top defensive player from last season, has moved on to the NFL. But the Irish still have some capable performers on the defensive line. Senior Ryan Roberts is viewed as the top pass-rusher, while sophomore Kyle Budinscak also can generate pressure off the edge. On the interior, the key performer is junior DT Darrell Campbell. He's been talked about over the years as a possible standout, but the week-to-week results have been just average. This year Campbell must take his game to a new level.

At linebacker, defensive coordinator Kent Baer will need either Carlos Pierre-Antoine, Derek Curry or Mike Goolsby to burst onto the scene like Tyreo Harrison did last season. Harrison jumped from 46 tackles in 2000 to 91 tackles in 2001. For his efforts, Harrison became the sixth-round draft choice of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Depending on the pressure Roberts, Budinscak and company can get on opposing QBs, the Irish secondary has a chance to be fairly solid. This is especially true of battle-tested cornerbacks Shane Walton and athletically gifted Vontez Duff. Last season, you could argue that Duff was Notre Dame's MVP, not only for his play in the deep patrol but also because of his skills as a punt/kickoff returner. Just a junior, Duff has as much upside as any player on the Irish roster. The safety spots should be adequate, provided senior SS Gerome Sapp performs to the level expected of a former prep All-American.

Special teams should be a strength for the Irish. Junior kicker Nicholas Setta and senior punter Joey Hildbold are reliable veterans, while Duff has few peers as an ever-dangerous return man.

OVERVIEW
It will take some time for Willingham and his fine staff to fortify the talent base in South Bend, so expecting a significant turnaround of Notre Dame's football fortunes this season could be asking too much. This is especially true when you factor in a schedule that includes nine opponents who went to bowl games last season. But despite a 5-6 record last season, the Irish under Bob Davie won five of their last eight games, including victories over bowl-bound Pittsburgh, USC and Purdue. The Irish also hung tough against Boston College and Stanford while battling hard against Tennessee.

The key performers on offense are QB Holiday, RB Grant, WR Battle and TE Clark. Willingham must decide whether to scrap the option altogether or at least allow Holiday to utilize his impressive running skills with some designed plays that maximize his athletic prowess. Grant may be unproven but he's a talent, and Lopienski could carry the ball six to eight times per game. The fullback and tight end are featured more in coordinator Diedrick's system, so Clark's development is critical. In just seven or eight practices at TE in the spring, Clark reportedly showed he could become a standout. Battle, another former QB, is viewed as the potential No. 1 receiving target, which is why freshmen Stovall and McKnight could be thrust into the limelight.

Defensively, the line has potential but lacks a proven standout now that Weaver has moved on to the NFL. There are also questions at LB. With any semblance of a pass rush, Walton and the multitalented Duff should perform well at cornerback.

This year, the Irish really are a mystery. Will Holiday have to adapt to a completely different system or will Diedrick tailor the attack to maximize his QB's running ability? With no experienced backup, the Irish need Holiday to stay healthy the entire way. They also have major questions at WR, where Battle must develop into a go-to option and the young freshmen must contribute.

The defense has some strong components but equally as many question marks. A lack of quality depth is also a problem at a number of positions. Ultimately, to elevate the Irish back into contention for a major bowl, Willingham needs to land super, blue-chip recruits who develop into first- or second-round NFL draft choices on a year-to-year basis.

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