One player the Irish will be counting on next year is Justin Tuck. The junior defensive end gave the Irish a much-needed spark in 2002 harassing quarterbacks and playing impressive run defense. Tuck hopes to improve on his sophomore season. "I want to build on the success I had last year," he said. "I had a pretty good season last year. I'll tell anybody that I could have done a lot better. I was just lacking experience. It was good to get in last year and get my feet wet and get that experience and I want to come out this year and build on that."
Tuck played his sophomore year a little undersized weighing around 240 pounds. He was mainly used early as a pass-rushing specialist but he will be counted on to play the entire game in 2003. Tuck says he is preparing to play every down. "I had a few injuries at the end of the year but that was a lack of experience in knowing how to take care of your body for a full season. I think I feel a lot better after working in the weight room all winter to prepare my body and preparing condition-wise to take the whole season. Hopefully we can go out every game and not have the nagging injuries we had last year."
High expectations are placed on Tuck because of his speed, athleticism and ability to get to the quarterback. Tuck is well aware of what is expected of him but he only has one goal in mind. "A lot of people keep throwing the 20 sack thing in my face. If I don't get that number, that's not a big thing. I just want to go out and put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. I am going to go out there and work hard and try to make the team better. Not just for individual goals because the ultimate goal is the National Championship and if I have to lessen my role to get the National Championship, I would do it. It's not necessarily an individual goal of mine."
Tuck is known as a sack guy but he does play very strong run defense. As a true sophomore and only starting one game, Tuck finished seventh on the team in total tackles (44), tied for first in tackles for loss (10) and third in sacks with five. Considering Tuck was inserted early in the year to rush the quarterback, these are some impressive stats. Tuck takes pride in his run defense. "That's one thing coach Mattison was telling me earlier today, keep my aggressiveness. Whatever anyone throws at me, keep my aggressiveness. If you make a mistake full speed you can come out of it a lot faster than if you went half speed. I just try to play both the run and pass with the same aggressiveness."
The Irish should have an outstanding defensive line with Darrell Campbell, Cedric Hilliard, Kyle Budinscak and Tuck returning. Tuck said that this unit has only one goal in mind. "We just want to be the best defensive line in the country. That's what our goal is. We bring it up every day. We wrote it up on our menu board, we have signs up that say ‘best d-line in the country.' We think we can easily be the best d-line in the country."
Talent seems to surface early in a player's career and Tuck is no different. Tuck acknowledged that talent helped him a lot last year. "I think early in the year (last year) it was more pure athleticism. Coach Mattison did a great job of getting me ready. He helped me realize what would be coming at me. Last year I think it was mostly athleticism but it (technique) came on at the end of the year, being able to adjust to things. This year hopefully I can start out knowing much more than last year. Just building on the success I had last year and carrying it on into this season."
Tuck said he currently weighs 252 pounds and recently jumped 40 inches in the vertical jump.
Offensive center is going to be a heavily contested position this year and sophomore Bob Morton should be in the mix for the starting position. Morton was considered the top offensive center prospect in the country in the 2002 recruiting class. Morton suffered a MCL knee injury in the fall but is fully healthy and he looks like a different person after spending time with strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti.
Morton has worked hard in the off-season. "I had a little problem with the MCL last year and my ankle towards the end of the year, that's all fine now, that is the great news," he said. "It really healed up quickly and I was able to practice the last couple of weeks of the season. Going into off-season it was no holds barred, let's go get after it. "
Morton was looking very svelte when interviewed and he looked like a totally different player from when he reported last August. "The way Mickey (Marotti) is both physically and psychologically, it works on everything. Every exercise you do, every lift, every run, it's all about the mental toughness, it's all about strength and speed. Personally I have had some big gains in the off-season. Some physical in leg strength and arm strength, some mental but I think mostly it would be mental because I don't feel like I'm just a freshman anymore."
Morton has clearly made progress in the weight room but he isn't satisfied yet. "I got to tighten the belt a few more notches. I lost some body fat; I lost about five percent body fat and lost about 15 pounds in the process. I'm 18 years old and I am finally growing up. My demeanor in the weight room to get stuff has really changed and I think I can contribute a lot of the weight loss to that."
The first two days of practice have been teaching sessions for the offensive line and for Morton. The Irish line coaches have really stressed technique and have spent most of their time teaching proper technique. "The biggest thing the coaches have done is emphasize technique, more than they did last fall, more than they have ever done, so they say. Everything we are doing is we have to be as low as possible. For guys who are 6-4 and 280 pounds, it's very tough to get your butt under your knees. We have been working a lot on that and bringing our hips and striking. I think if I can get out of the spring keeping a naturally low pad level and still being able to fire out of my stance, I will be pretty happy with that. I just want to play really physical out there. That is something I don't think I did really until the end of last season."
Morton isn't one to lack confidence and he can't wait to start hitting again. "I've been ready since the Gator Bowl. I didn't want to put the pads in the locker. I didn't want to put my helmet in. It's something that I have been thinking about since then and the last couple of weeks have been hard to sit and wait. Psychologically it's almost demeaning. When you are a big gun in high school and there is nobody you can't block, you come in here and people laugh at you. It's all constructive because you want to get better but it is demeaning. I'm sick of it honestly because I want to prove that I want to contribute and I want to help this team win."
Morton will have a difficult task this spring. Most young offensive linemen struggle with the proper technique and having enough strength to play. Morton will also be responsible for all the line calls as a center so his job will be much more difficult. He has a lot of talent but it will take time for the mental aspect of the game to become second nature.
Coach Tyrone Willingham said the Irish coaching staff has been focusing on individual performance early this spring. "We're not in pads so it's still a great opportunity for us to really work on the fundamentals and sometimes you never get enough fundamental work so we are just continuing that theme today."
The Irish staff will use spring to find the best position for some of the young players on the team. Willingham was asked if he thought he needed those answers by the end of the spring. "I hope that as soon as they can tell us where they are and what we should be doing and how to handle them that they let us know. If they don't, then I always say that up until the Friday before the first ball game, we're still O.K. to make some of those decisions. Is it a little unsettling, yes. As soon as you can indentify your lineup, that's the best thing that you can have happen. There's no reason to be upset if you don't as long as you get it done by your first game. Even if you don't get it done by the first game and you still win, we'll just keep marching forward."
Offensive line is going to be the area with the most question marks and Willingham talked a little about that. "If we could get it to solidify early it would be great. Do I expect it to, not necessarily. I let things happen on their own schedule. Hopefully we as coaches are always trying to accelerate that schedule."
Interesting Notes on the Day
The Irish began the day as usual working with their position coaches. The offensive line worked on technique and staying low while pushing defenders and drive blocking. The quarterbacks worked on their drops for passing and distance and spacing on handoffs with the running backs. The receivers worked on running correct routes in the time allowed to view them. The defense was working hard on a strip drill to strip the ball from defenders. The defensive backs worked on backpedal, lateral movement and the proper technique for changing directions.
The Notre Dame football team will be back on the field Thursday after taking Wednesday off. Irish Eyes will be there to give you the latest on what is happening during spring practice.