Spring Look: At Notre Dame

Notre Dame, once one of the most dominant teams in college football, hasn't won a bowl game since 1993 and finished 5-6 last year. Enter new coach Tyrone Willingham, who has won over the Irish locker room impressively and has intentions of returning Notre Dame to national prominence. "I think it's best for us to feel like we're starting from scratch," Willingham said. "I say that from a teaching standpoint because it means we will not leave any gaps in our instruction."

Notre Dame, once one of the most dominant teams in college football, hasn't won a bowl game since 1993 and finished 5-6 last year. Coach Bob Davie was fired at the end of the season. His first replacement, George O'Leary, resigned within five days after admitting he had lied about his academic and athletic credentials.

Enter Tyrone Willingham, who has brought a fresh approach -- not to mention a new (West Coast) offense -- to South Bend, Ind. Willingham, who posted a 44-36-1 record in seven seasons at Stanford and represents the first African-American head coach of any sport at Notre Dame, inherits a 2002 Irish squad that abounds in potential and questions.

While Willingham has won over the Irish locker room impressively, his intention is to rebuild the nation's most storied football program from the ground up.

"I think it's best for us to feel like we're starting from scratch," said Willingham, who welcomes back 16 starters, including a pair of specialists. "I say that from a teaching standpoint because it means we will not leave any gaps in our instruction. At some stages we can cover some of these gaps more quickly because of the experience level at certain positions. But we have to start at a level and cover things without assuming anything."

Notre Dame and Florida State renew their rivalry this season, when the Irish visit Doak Campbell Stadium Oct. 26.

The two teams last met in the 1996 Orange Bowl, with the Seminoles rallying for a 31-26 victory over the sixth-ranked Irish. FSU quarterback Danny Kanell tossed a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes to give the 'Noles an NCAA record 11th straight bowl win and a top four finish in the AP poll for a record ninth consecutive season.

The two teams first met in 1981 and FSU leads the series 3-1.

FRESH START

While the Seminoles have remained among the nation's elite despite last season's 8-4 struggles, Notre Dame, noted for its unparalleled history of success and stability, has been awash in cynicism. Davie is fired. O'Leary resigns in shame. Willingham is focused on returning Notre Dame to its glory days of national prominence.

It's not expected to be easy.

Willingham hopes to improve a program that has lost six or more games in three of the last five seasons and has not won a bowl game in nine years. He inherits a team that struggled on offense in 2001, finishing 114th nationally in passing yards per game (101.55) and averaging the fewest points per game (19.45) at Notre Dame since 1982. Additionally, he faces a schedule that features six teams that participated in postseason bowl games last year and five opponents that finished in last season's top 25.

Still, there's good news, too.

The Irish return four offensive line starters, including center Jeff Faine, all four returning starters in the secondary (the Irish ranked 10th nationally in pass defense last season at 176.4 yards per game), plus its top rusher in veteran tailback Julius Jones and a pair of quality quarterbacks in Carlyle Holiday and Matt LoVecchio.

Better yet, Willingham is known for his enthusiastic hands-on approach. In fact, he stunned his players by participating alongside them in conditioning drills in January, February and March. Hey, the Irish believe.

"I'm completely sold on the man," said Jordan Black, a senior offensive lineman. "I think he brings a lot of great things to this program that are going to help us reclaim a championship and bring Notre Dame back to the place it used to be."

The Irish concluded spring drills last Saturday. Notre Dame's spring game, played in the rain and with a running clock, was extremely vanilla - by design. The only scoring in the 48-minute game was a 37-yard field goal by Nicholas Setta for the Gold team, quarterbacked by Holiday. David Miller missed field goals of 23 and 37 yards for the Blue team, which had LoVecchio at quarterback.

Willingham said he will wait until the fall before deciding whether his No. 1 quarterback will be Holiday, last season's starter, or LoVecchio, the starter two years ago.

Neither Holiday nor LoVecchio threw the ball well last season — they combined for 11 interceptions and 4 touchdown passes — and not one of the returning receivers caught more than nine passes. Holiday completed 73 of 144 passes for 784 yards, three touchdowns and seven interceptions last season and added 666 rushing yards to finish second on the team. LoVecchio had 287 passing yards after winning his first seven starts as a rookie a few years ago.

In the spring game, Holiday was 3-for-7 for 27 yards with no interceptions, while LoVecchio was 6-for-14 for 58 yards with three interceptions. Notre Dame had the nation's second-worst passing offense last year. Holiday said it has been difficult trying to learn so many new plays in such a short period, though he believes he is "steadily progressing. It started off a little shaky, but as spring went on I became more comfortable with the system,'' he said. "I felt comfortable out there.''

The two most effective players on offense both played for the Blue team. Arnaz Battle had five catches for 73 yards and Ryan Grant rushed for 45 yards on seven carries. For the Gold team, Julius Jones had five carries, losing 3 yards. Defensively, Gerome Sapp had five tackles and an interception for the Gold team.

"I have seen little signs that tell me we're going in the right direction, but it's still very early," said Willingham, whose Stanford team averaged 451.5 yards and 37.1 points a game last season. He led the Cardinal to its first Rose Bowl appearance in 28 years in 1999 and to No. 9 in last season's final Bowl Championship Series rating..

Notable players who must be replaced include tailback Tony Fisher (he finished 17th on Notre Dame's all-time rushing list with 1,849 yards), to top two Irish pass-catchers in Javin Hunter (37-387) and David Givens (33-317), plus Kurt Vollers (25 career starts) at tackle. Defensively, losses include Anthony Weaver, end Grant Irons, inside linebacker Tyreo Harrions.

While skepticism might remain in South Bend, the soft-spoken Willingham has rallied his players with a quiet intensity.

"It's about his presence," Setta. "Whether it's the type of voice he has, how he projects his voice, how he stands there — there's a confidence about him. He tells us: `If you follow me, I'm going to take you where you need to be. I'm going to make you the man you want to be, I'm going to make you the football player you want to be.' "

FACT BOX

Head coach: Tyrone Willingham (Michigan State, 1977)

Record at Notre Dame: 0-0, first season

Career record: 44-36-1, .549 winning percentage (seven seasons)

Offense: Multiple

Defense:4-3

2001 Record: 5-6 (Home 4-2, Away 1-4)

Letterman Lost: 12 offense, 12 defense

Letterman Returning: 21 offense, 21 defense, 4 specialists

Starters lost: 8

Starters returning: 16

Returning offensive starters: 7. OG Jordan Black, OG Sean Mahan, OT Brennan Curtin, C Jeff Faine, TB Julius Jones, FB Tom Lopienski.

Returning defensive starters: 7. DT Darrell Campbell, NG Cedric Illiard, ILB Courtney Watson, CB Shane Walton, CB Vontez Duff, FS Donald Dykes, SS Gerome Sapp.

Specialists: 2. P Joey Hildbold, PK Nicholas Setta.

2001 Final NCAA STATISTICAL RANKINGS

Team Rankings/Notre Dame

Rushing Offense: 30th at 188.8

Passing Offense: 101.50 yards per game

Total offense: 289.73

Scoring offense: 19.45

Rushing defense: 39th at 132.27

Passing defense: 10th at 172.64

Total defense: 14th at 304.91

Scoring defense: 22nd at 19.55

FUN FACTS

*Notre Dame will once again face one of the nation's toughest schedules. For the second consecutive season, the Irish face nine teams that appeared in postseason bowl games and five teams that finished in the top 25, including Maryland (11), FSU (15), Stanford (16), Michigan (20) and Boston College (21).

*Notre Dame has been on one of the four major networks (NBC, ABC, CBS or ESPN) in 111 straight games, a streak that includes nine full seasons. The last time the Irish didn't appear on one of those four networks was Oct. 31, 1992, against Navy at Giants Stadium.

*Fans in South Bend have shown Willingham love. With his wife, Kim, and three children remaining in California until the school year ends, Willingham made an 11 p.m. trip to McDonald's a few months ago. Discovered by a fan while in the drive-through, Willingham ended up signing autographs for 30 minutes.


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