Bob Simmons might not have a lot of depth but he's happy with players he does have. "I have been pleased," said Simmons of his linebackers. "Every guy that is back has played. I told them since we are an experienced bunch; the experience can take you either way--it can take you down or it can take you up. We can take advantage of what we've learned in terms of leadership, our alignments, how we handle the defense and I think for the most part all the guys really understand the concept of what we are trying to do."
Simmons returns 2002 Butkus Finalist and 2003 Butkus Candidate Courtney Watson. Simmons has high praise for his star but says his leadership is the most valuable asset he brings to the team. "When you talk about Courtney, there is always a high level you expect him to perform at. He had a good year with obviously his goals, the team goals to perform, to win, to be a team leader and to play on a great defense. He's always let any accolades come to him from things he's contributed to the team. He's an influence guy—he's a coach of the field, knows how to get us lined up, can play all the positions. The best thing you can say about Courtney is the positives he can bring to the team as well as his play."
A player likely stepping into a starting role this year is junior Brandon Hoyte. Simmons says Hoyte should be ready for his new role. "He gained a lot of confidence last year. He played a lot last year in the rotation. His learning process has increased in understanding the concepts of our scheme in the passing game. (He) Always was a guy that would come out and knock you out. He had to learn pass concepts of routes and pass drops and I think he's made a vast improvement in that area."
The 6-0, 230-pound Hotye has improved in the passing game according to Simmons. Hoyte's aggressiveness is what has hurt him in the past according to Simmons. "He has improved. Last spring he had a couple of interceptions. I told him he's got to get his hands better—‘hands of stone' is not going to get it done. He's been in position, he's breaking better. All the guys have to get used to when we are zone to not chase guys--to understand zone concept—and when a guy passes through the zone, he's passing through. We're keying the quarterback, seeing the ball thrown and not chasing guys. At times he wants to lock onto that guy and chase him and he can't do that in zone."
Hoyte broke into the starting lineup last year due to an injury of starter Courtney Watson. Simmons said he didn't disappoint in his first game and showed he was a player throughout the season. "I thought he did an outstanding job. For a guy who hadn't played, if you look at the Maryland game and you look at the Purdue game, the one thing he did do was he showed me he was a ball player. When he tackled someone, they went one way and that was backward. For a guy his size, he isn't the tallest guy in the world but his size hasn't prevented him from being a good linebacker."
Derek Curry also returns as the starting SAM linebacker this year. Curry had a solid season last year and should have an even better season this year. Curry's intelligence on the field is what impresses Simmons the most. "I think D. C. (Derek Curry) is really a knowledgeable player which I think gives us the flexibility. Having him play the SAM (outside) linebacker position and then moving him inside at times because he does understand routes and coverages to be able to play both in our base and nickel packages. It allows us to get our best cover backers on the field when we go zone and go man."
Probably the most athletic linebacker is Jerome Collins. We asked Simmons what has kept him off the field so far. "For the most part, it's been Derek Curry. I think Jerome gives us a plus. He's athletic enough to play our SAM position but he's strong and quick enough to play as a down lineman in our nickel position. There's not too many linebackers in the country at his size that can be a down rush guy and then come back and cover guys like we ask him to. He becomes a specialist for us and has a dual role. Jerome didn't come off the field this spring because he's playing nickel and he's playing SAM."
Simmons says that Collins hasn't begun to scratch the surface of his talent yet. "Everbody says he's a diamond in the rough and we're waiting for that diamond to be polished. He's got to understand that for a guy who is 6-4, 260 and can run a 4.5 with his kind of quickness, he can have a great future."
Corey Mays is another linebacker that should provide some depth for the Irish. Mays had been hurt but Simmons sees potential in this hard-hitting junior. "He was injured in the spring. He really came on at the end of last season from a maturity standpoint. He fought through the injury that he had--he made plays on our special teams. I think that helped him in his growth process. He's done well—he's very physical which is what we like. We expect for him to be part of the rotation."
Simmons is also adding four freshmen to the squad in 2003. Dwight Stephenson, Mitchell Thomas, Joe Brockington and Nick Borseti all reported in August and Simmons sees potential in all of them. "I'm excited about all of them. Their learning process is coming along. Anytime you have a young guy and you start teaching him your defense there is brain-lock. Probably down the road they'll be better than they are now. They all have upside in terms of size and being athletic. We've just got to get them to learn what we want them to do in playing the Notre Dame defense."
It takes time to learn how to play linebacker according to Simmons and he doesn't expect anyone to understand the system right out of the gate. "You've got to understand every position—not only yours but you've got to understand the defensive line positions. You've got to understand coverage, you've got to get everyone lined up and everything starts with the linebacker and that's their responsibility. It takes more than just three weeks for a guy to have that. It just takes time."
Simmons does see the potential of all four but admits they have a lot way to go. "You always see signs. What I see now is guys out there thinking. And when you think, you're not the same player you were in high school. When a guy is thinking out on the field, his athleticism won't show. They've got to get out of the thinking process and just go out and play."
Having all the talented linebackers makes Simmons' job easier but he says he's just happy to coach here. He's grown very fond of Notre Dame and thinks coaching here is every coach's dream. "I think Notre Dame has always been a special place to coach at. You talk about the tradition and what they've added to college football. Their high level of expectations for the student athlete I think is the one thing that really shines through. The kind of young men they want us to recruit that will be successful not only on the football field but throughout their life. I enjoy coaching here. Every coach will tell you it's a special place."
The Irish are in the middle of fall camp right now and Irish Eyes has been at every practice finding the latest inside scoop. You will not find better practice reports anywhere. Do you want to know how of the offensive line is progressing? How does Carlyle Holiday look this fall? What about Julius Jones? You will find it all in a Total Access Pass for Irish Eyes as well as updates on almost every player on the 2003 roster. Don't miss out on all the inside scoop.
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