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Questions galore

Matt Lozar | Friday, August 27, 2004

After the Return to Glory in 2002 and a disappointing 2003, Tyrone Willingham is standing at a very important crossroads. The third year in South Bend has been legendary for many with Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all winning consensus national titles in their third year and Knute Rockne’s 1920 team tying for the top ranking in one of the many lesser polls at that time. The seven other coaches in Irish history went a combined 35-33-2 in their third years, with no national titles and three losing seasons.Needless to say, this year should set the tone for Willingham’s tenure at Notre Dame. The following nine factors will have a major bearing on the direction of this program.

Brady Quinn’s progressionThrown into the fire as a true freshman, Brady Quinn made 59 pass attempts in his first start, just four games into his collegiate career. With Carlyle Holiday proving unsuccessful in Willingham’s pro-style offense, the coaching staff decided to go with Quinn. In many critics’ eyes, Quinn became the future quarterback of the program from the day he committed.After making nine starts in 2003, Quinn enters this season much more acclimated to the speed of the college game. He has had a whole year to work with his receivers on timing, and the offensive line returns with an invaluable year of experience.Quinn needs that experience to carry over from the practice field to actual game conditions. Last season, Holiday looked especially sharp in a two-minute drill open to the media during fall practice. By the end of the Michigan State game, he was watching from the sidelines and making a position change.If Quinn gets hurt, the season could go downhill in a hurry with Pat Dillingham as the primary backup. Two true freshmen – Darren Bragg and David Wolke – are behind Dillingham and those freshmen aren’t at the same point Quinn was last year at this time.

Ryan Grant finding his 2002 formIn 2002, Ryan Grant became the seventh player in Notre Dame history to record a 1,000-yard season, but he had a difficult 2003 and rededicated himself in the off-season. Grant looked faster and quicker in the Blue-Gold game, making cuts and finding holes he didn’t find in 2003.A rejuvenated Julius Jones eventually earned the starting job last season and went on to record three 200-yard games en route to amassing 1,268 yards on the year. Grant became the second-string running back, but this year he needs to regain his 2002 form for the Irish offense to be balanced.Of the four running backs behind Grant, only Marcus Wilson has seen the playing field, and he hasn’t been very successful – averaging just 2.6 yards per carry. Travis Thomas has raised some eyebrows in fall camp, and Darius Walker has all the expectations of being nothing less than a star.

Receivers reaching their potentialRhema McKnight is looked at as the playmaker of the receiving corps. He has the speed to make a big play and, most importantly, wants to be the playmaker on offense.There is a lot of additional talent at receiver. Fellow junior Maurice Stovall has the physical gifts to become a star but has had major problems catching passes consistently. Sophomore Jeff Samardzija had a good camp and is as versatile as anyone on this team. Former quarterback Holiday had an entire off-season to learn the receiver position after making the switch mid-season in 2003. If he can find his role in the offense as the No. 3 or 4 receiver option, the receiving corps will be deep and dangerous.

Offensive line’s experienceWhen Sean Milligan went down with an early-season injury, the offensive line basically had five different starters from the prior season. That inexperience showed in inconsistent play.The quarterbacks had to move around in the pocket to avoid the never-ending blitzes, something Quinn did better than Holiday, which partially explains why he replaced him so early in the season.This year, the offensive line only graduated one starter. John Sullivan looks like he is going to be the starting center after red-shirting last season. Bob Morton will move from center to left guard. Ryan Harris changes sides from right tackle to protecting Quinn’s blind side at left tackle. On the right side, Mark Levoir is at right tackle and a slimmed-down Dan Stevenson is at right guard.The most exciting aspect of this year’s line might not even be this season. All five of those projected starters have eligibility to return in 2005.

Justin Tuck and Kyle Budinscak returning from ACL injuriesIf these two defensive line players can get back to being as healthy as one could hope less than a year removed from ACL surgery, the Irish defensive line will fall into place. Tuck set the school record for sacks in 2003 and has his eyes on the NCAA record in 2004. Budinscak is a solid and consistent player.Along with Tuck and Budinscak on the outside is the continued rise to stardom of Victor Abiamiri. The sophomore flashed an unending wealth of potential as a true freshman and should be ready to take the next step toward being one of the best defensive ends in the country this year.Fifth-year senior Greg Pauly has never attained the expectations coming with being a USA Today first-team All-American. Pauly is projected as a starter along with Trevor Laws, who should receive a push from Derek Landri. The depth at defensive tackle isn’t overwhelming, so this position remains a question mark.

Health of linebackersThe preseason injury that appears to be the scariest for the Irish is seeing Brandon Hoyte in a sling. Linebacker probably has the least depth of any position on the team and with Hoyte’s return unknown, Corey Mays slides into the starting lineup. After Mays, only one of the four backup linebackers saw the field in 2003.Mike Goolsby returns to middle linebacker after missing last season due to a Bookstore Basketball injury. Derek Curry always seems to be around the ball and looking to make a big play. Any other injuries would be devastating to this position.

Finding playmakers in the secondaryOver the past two seasons, the secondary has lost four starters to the NFL and the depth hasn’t been in place to replace that loss of talent. Cornerback Dwight Ellick probably has the firmest grip on a starting position but he hasn’t used his speed to make big plays yet. Safety Quentin Burrell has been injured through camp and is being challenged by Tom Zbikowski for a starting spot. Mike Richardson is listed opposite Ellick at cornerback and Preston Jackson will probably be the nickel back. And Lionel Bolen is currently listed at the other safety spot.None of those names jump out and that is a major concern especially with the wide receivers from Michigan in week two. If the Irish can’t get a pass rush, the secondary needs people to step up or results like the Florida State game in 2003, where Craphonso Thorpe set a record for most receiving yards by a single player against Notre Dame, could happen again.

Managing the scheduleIt’s tough, but not as brutal as last year. The Irish still face eight teams that reached bowls last season and have two top-10 teams in USC and Michigan, along with a difficult road game at Tennessee.This team has to take advantage of winning at home. The only game at home where the Irish shouldn’t be favored is Michigan. The road games at BYU and Navy are winnable while the night game at Michigan State looms as a dangerous trap.Willingham and the players know the schedule isn’t getting any easier in the near future, so just about every week the Irish are facing a big-time opponent. It’s hard for them to take a week off when a “down” opponent is someone like Washington or Boston College.

Getting the swagger backWillingham started to mention this toward the end of last year, but from the 2002 team the one thing that was missing was the swagger of a team that believes they cannot be beaten. The Irish lost that swagger when Shane Walton graduated. With the rough end to 2002 and four blowout losses in 2003, this team was beaten physically and mentally.That’s where someone needs to step up. Winning in the early season and not getting blown out will give this team confidence to have a chance in every game this season. After 2003, that’s about all fans can realistically ask.