There are many questions yet to be answered regarding the 2003 team, but a year later the situation is vastly more stable. 2002's 10-3 mark provides a much higher platform than 2001's 5-6 disaster.On offense Notre Dame returns a starting quarterback, Carlyle, Holiday who sports a career record of 14-5 in games he starts and plays most of the game, a 1000-yard rusher in Ryan Grant and a trio of receivers (Jenkins, Stovall and McKnight) who played well and extensively last year.
The best Notre Dame defense in at least a decade loses inspirational performers Gerome Sapp and Shane Walton, but returns every other important player. Kicker Nicholas Setta returns and though punter Joey Hildbold will be a key loss, Setta is an excellent punter as is recruit Geoffrey Price. The recruiting machine is in high gear as the coaching staff turned 33 visits into 22 commitments comprising perhaps the best class since Holtz's days.Still, there are huge holes to fill. Last year's offensive line play was ragged except for a decent stretch in the middle of the year, and the Irish lose All-American Jeff Faine at center along with starters Brennan Curtin and Jordan Black. Starting tight end Gary Godsey's health is uncertain and while back-ups Billy Palmer and Jared Clark have shown flashes of good play they are a long way from being consistent, quality starting players. Arnaz Battle was N.D.'s leading receiver last year and he will take his talents to the N.F.L. Despite Grant's solid play last year, N.D.'s rushing attack was the weakest in a generation and N.D. has no experienced fullback to replace the departing Tom Lopienski.
So, can anything really be learned from spring practice and the Blue-Gold game? As it turns out, probably "yes."
Here are a few things that quickly became evident last year:Focus
The 2001 team had a nasty habit of beating itself with penalties. In 2001, the Irish averaged almost 7 penalties and 56 yards penalized per game. N.D. for the year was minus 126 yards and minus 7 first downs in penalties.
It didn't take a close observer to see that this was heading for change in 2002. N.D. in 2002 averaged about 6 penalties and 53 yards penalized per game and for the year was plus 64 yards and plus one first down in penalties.
Even this significant improvement really understates the matter, because the Irish actually got off to a bad start in the penalty department. N.D. was minus 86 yards in penalties after the first two games, but then was plus 150 yards for the last 11 games.
Going from roughly minus 11 yards per game in penalties (the 2001 average) to plus 14 per game (the 2002 average after the first two games) is a significant matter for a team that does not possess an offense yet able to chew up huge chunks of yardage.Offense versus Defense
Last year's Blue-Gold game made clear that the defense was way, way ahead of the offense. Even though the game was played in a rain storm, the 3-0 final score was reflective of how the season would go. Hopefully this year will show a little more balance. We know the defense is excellent. If the offense can move the ball better in this year's game, that's probably a good sign.The Passing Game
Holiday in last year's Blue-Gold game was 3 of 7 for 27 yards with no interceptions and he played on the winning team. In many respects that summarized his season. He was right around 50% completions, he didn't get intercepted and he threw for reasonable but not spectacular yardage. In short, he did what he needed to do to give his team a chance to win the game. If his numbers look a bit better in the Blue-Gold game, then that's probably a sign of progress.
It will be interesting as well to see how the other quarterbacks look. Last year a walk-on named Patrick Dillingham completed his only pass for 26 yards to Battle for the longest play of the game. That same combination would connect for 60 yards against Michigan State in what remains the most stirring moment of the 2002 season.The Running Game
Grant's 7 carries for 45 yards (he was the offensive MVP) showed that he was ready to be N.D.'s feature back. Unfortunately, his counterpart Julius Jones produced little (5 carries for minus 3 yards) in that game and he would produce nothing in 2002 as he became an academic casualty. If a healthy Jones returns to share the carries with Grant that could turn out to be the most significant improvement in this year's offense.Receivers
Battle with 5 catches for 73 yards announced that he would be N.D.'s primary receiver, a title he did not relinquish. Perhaps Jenkins, Stovall or McKnight will make a similar announcement this year.Defenders
Gerome Sapp intercepted a pass and was the defensive MVP of the Blue-Gold game. Cedric Hilliard was the game's leading tackler along with Sapp. Justin Tuck and Courtney Watson were among those with tackles for loss. Vontez Duff had an interception. Back-up Brandon Hoyte had two tackles and looked good in limited action. Sound familiar?
Of course, nothing is foreordained by spring football. New freshman and potentially returnees like Jones will not participate. Last year an enormous amount of effort went into scheme teaching as, for practical purposes, N.D. was a team full of freshmen when it came to understanding what these coaches expected of them. This spring will be different. The coaches will be familiar, the schemes familiar. More effort can go into refining techniques and drilling fundamentals. But the hints of progress will be there too.