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Future will reveal seniors’ role

Andrew Soukup | Friday, November 14, 2003

History will judge what role the 2003 senior class had in shaping Notre Dame football, and that’s a good thing.

Because right now, this senior class’ legacy isn’t looking too good.

In the 117-year history of Notre Dame football, the Irish have never had three losing seasons in a five-year span. And if the Irish lose to BYU, Stanford or Syracuse, the fifth-year seniors playing their final game in Notre Dame Stadium Saturday will have been the only class of players to see Notre Dame through such an ignominious stretch.

Not exactly something you want to put on your resume.

And that’s why fans will have to wait until future football seasons to determine how much of an impact this senior class had on the football program.

One thing for sure – this year’s senior class has experienced nowhere near the success that last year’s class did as the team’s leaders. And that’s surprising, considering that a new head coach bent on installing his own style often neglects the players who will be around for just one season.

But Tyrone Willingham welcomed and embraced last year’s seniors, and they responded by serving as a rallying point for Notre Dame’s remarkable run. Seven went on to get drafted by the NFL, and many of those who did are playing key roles on their respective teams.

So what happened to this crop of seniors?

For one, there aren’t many impact players in the lineup – especially on the offense. In fact, aside from Julius Jones, no other senior has had a massive impact on Notre Dame’s ability to move the ball – maybe because only three played regularly (wide receiver Omar Jenkins and lineman Jim Molinaro).

Defensively, the inability of Notre Dame’s once-dominating unit to shut down opponents is even more puzzling, considering the Irish at the beginning of the season started seven players who attended Notre Dame for at least four years.

This season is more or less a throwaway, because even if the Irish win the rest of their games to become bowl-eligible, there’s little chance they’ll actually get selected for one.

And that is where the evaluation of this senior class can begin.

Can vocal leaders like Courtney Watson rally the Irish and keep them focused late in the season? When the Irish stumbled to a losing season two years ago, it was in part because some the younger players – who are now this year’s seniors – adopted a “wait ’till next year” mentality. How can this senior class prevent others from making mistakes?

Can future NFL talent, like Julius Jones or Darrell Campbell, pass what they have learned to the younger players who will take their place? Notre Dame is such a young team right now – the Irish have played six true freshmen – that the youth need the experience the seniors can provide if Notre Dame is to be successful in the future.

Can Notre Dame actually have a winning record in November? (The Irish haven’t in four of the last five seasons). Five years ago, then-Irish coach Bob Davie told his team that fans wouldn’t remember how Notre Dame started out the season, “but they’ll remember what you do in November.” And fans did – Notre Dame lost the final four games of the campaign to record its first losing season in 13 years.

The same holds true for this batch of seniors. Notre Dame fans are more likely to remember the BCS bowl run of 2000 and the Return to Glory campaign of 2002 than they will the losing-record years of 1999 and 2001 – all teams the graduating class of fifth-year seniors were members of.

But the manner in which the Irish team ends the season will be the true testament of this class’ leadership ability. Because if Notre Dame sputters its way to another losing season – just like the Irish did last year – it’s hard to imagine that Irish football will experience a miraculous rebirth in the offseason.

On the other hand, if the Irish finish the season on a positive note, Notre Dame will finally have some bounce in its step in the offseason, which could in turn lead to repetition of Willingham’s miraculous first year at the helm of Notre Dame football. And by doing so, the seniors will show that their final year, the year Notre Dame stumbled again, was merely an aberration.

Time will judge those playing their final game in Notre Dame Stadium Saturday. But against BYU, the seniors will begin filling the pages of the history books.

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Andrew Soukup at asoukup@nd.edu.