The offense certainly struggled last year but 2003 is a new season with new players and hopefully a new attitude. The Irish showed that fire on offense a number of times with desperately needed drives against Michigan and their dominating performance against Florida State. Can Notre Dame capture that attitude for an entire season?
The return of Julius Jones will certainly help. I picked Julius Jones as my offensive M.V.P. in the next issue of Irish Eyes magazine. Julius Jones is hungry and he wants the ball. His commitment to his body this past year has been impressive—as is his commitment to school. Jones knows he starts at the bottom and will have to work himself up to the top and that is the way it should be.
Why did I pick Jones? Jones has that extra something that the great players have. He has that wiggle and boy does he have that speed. The 2001 version of Julius Jones was not impressive. The 2000 version was exciting to watch and could score at any time. I picked Jones because he can make big plays. When he hits the hole, he has the quickness to make it through the linebackers and into the secondary very quickly. His quickness will give him more chances to make big plays than any other back on the team.
The other reason I picked Jones is because he is hungry. Jones made a very wise decision by spending last year working out with his brother Thomas. The results are both physically and mentally impressive. Jones is in the best shape of his life and he has been humbled. Jones has the potential to be a high draft pick in the 2004 draft and I don't think he is going to waste that opportunity. Expect Jones to really hit stride in the second game against Michigan. The Irish staff will be looking for players to make plays in that game and Jones has all the talented needed.
The offensive line will be a big topic of discussion in 2003. Who will start? Will Sean Milligan pass his physical? Jim Molinaro, Dan Stevenson and Mark LeVoir are almost certainly starters. Molinaro impressed me with his play last year. He looked quicker than former starter Jordan Black and he looked hungry. Molinaro is going to surprise some people this year. He will struggle at times but looks to be more athletic than Black was. Molinaro could work himself into a draft position this year.
Dan Stevenson has a wealth of talent but I think his best position is offensive guard. The Irish don't have the luxury of letting him dominate at guard so he will have to play tackle. Stevenson has that nasty attitude that every line coach loves. He loves to hit people and should have a great season for the Irish. Look for him to be one of the most consistent offensive linemen this year.
With Stevenson slated for right tackle, the status of Sean Milligan becomes even important. Milligan is the only potential returning starter for Notre Dame but back problems have become a concern. The Irish will be looking for that bread-&-butter hole to run through and the gap between Milligan and Stevenson would be inviting. Milligan told Irish Eyes he will be ready but he still has to pass the physical. If there is any way he can play, he will. The Irish need Milligan and his experience. We won't know for a while if he will be available but he says he will participate in fall practice.
The best news of the spring was the aggressive attitude of Mark LeVoir. LeVoir has really improved his mental toughness and has started to play very aggressively. LeVoir has a lot of talent and is starting to emerge as a force along the offensive line. The Irish will need him to step up his level of play to have success. All signs point to him doing just that.
Who will replace Jeff Faine? Bob Morton and Zach Giles are battling for the position and neither is going to give up until the decision is made and probably not then either. Zach Giles has had a great off-season in the weight room from what I hear. Morton has also worked hard. Morton is probably the more athletic player and quicker off the ball—Giles is the veteran with experience. I don't think this decision will be made until later in fall camp or even into the season. If the decision isn't made by the end of fall camp, the Irish could have a problem at center.
Will Mike Goolsby play this year? I'm going to say no. I don't know that for sure but I will say no. I've heard Goolsby has been limited in what he could do this summer and hasn't been able to participate in all the lifts. If he is sidelined, the Irish will have to find someone to replace him. Hopefully I'm wrong on Goolsby but I don't see how he can play without being physically ready.
Who will replace Shane Walton? Preston Jackson is a gamer and a fighter but Jason Beckstrom will win this job. Jackson will be the nickel and Beckstrom will be the starter. I also think Beckstrom will have a solid year playing the position. Will he have the same instincts of Walton? Probably not but I wouldn't count him out either. Beckstrom has waited a long time for this and is another player who is hungry.
The final question, will Holiday become a good quarterback this year? If he is given time to throw, yes! Holiday's 2003 performance will likely be a direct result of protection along the offensive line, the running backs and Notre Dame's ability to run the football effectively. If the Irish rushing attack returns and they can protect Holiday, expect him to have a big year for Notre Dame. He is mentally tough and he makes plays. If they can give him more time, I think Irish fans are going to be very surprised by Carlyle Holiday in 2003.