The return of Mike Goolsby at middle linebacker for 2004 should solidify what could be the best set of linebackers the Irish have had in many years. Goolsby sat out 2003 with a shoulder injury, but returned for spring practice this year and immediately made his presence felt.
Goolsby brings both attitude and experience to the middle linebacker position and should be set for an outstanding senior season. His leadership might be his attribute when all is said and done for this Irish defense.
Another spirited guy that will be starting for the Irish at the SAM position for Notre Dame is Derek Curry. Curry returns after starting the two previous seasons at SAM for the Irish. Curry finished the 2003 season fourth in tackles with 66 and second on the team in sacks with 4.5. At the end of 2003, we saw Curry being used a lot more in pass-rushing situations on blitzes with much success. Will we see that again in 2004?
Curry and Goolsby will combine to be two of the clear leaders on the defense. Both players should be set for outstanding seasons for Notre Dame. Curry says he'll be glad to have Goolsby back for this season.
"Me and Mike are so much alike," Curry said. "It's really fun to have him back in there. Goolsby and I communicate really well and get each other fired up. It's good to have another guy out there like myself in the linebacker corps because I'm not the only one out there yelling and screaming."
Starting at the WILL or weak side backer spot will be Brandon Hoyte. Hoyte is another returning starter from 2003, and he also gained a lot of experience in 2002, filling in for the injured Courtney Watson early in the season.
Hoyte has certainly shown a knack for finding the ball against the run with some punishing hits in games. He finished second on the team in tackles with 74 in 2003 and he also chipped in 7.5 tackles for loss.
The only question on Hoyte has been pass coverage. Irish defensive coordinator Kent Baer told us after the spring game that he has been encouraged with Hoyte's progress in this area.
"I'm glad you mentioned that because it's an area where we've really focused on with him, and he's gotten better. It's just something we've got to keep working on and getting better and better at," said Baer.
Hoyte's put in a lot of work to improve in this area and we expect him to have an impressive season, giving the Irish three outstanding starting linebackers.
After the starting three linebackers, the Irish are very thin on experience and the lack of depth could be a cause for concern if the injury bug hits the linebacker corps.
"Corey Mays has had an excellent spring. I'm not sure he's a young guy, but I've been really pleased with what he's doing," Baer said. "I think Joe Brockington has done a nice job for us. He's missed a little time, but he seems to understand a little quicker what we're trying to do defensively. If you're going to name a couple of younger guys who haven't played a lot, I'd name those two guys."
Corey Mays is the only non-starting player with experience. Mays has shown a knack for finding the ball as well, recording 26 tackles and 4 tackles for loss in limited playing time. Mays should add quality depth and could fill in at a number of positions if injuries start to hit the linebacker position.
Other than Mays, the Irish are out of experience. But, they do have some talented sophomores that gained some experience with the team this past fall and spring.
Brockington is the most likely candidate to backup Hoyte this spring. Linebacker coach Bob Simmons was also impressed with Brockington in the spring.
"Joe has really improved in the off-season and a guy we see as a shorter version of Courtney Watson," Simmons said. "He was a tailback in high school and is about 225 right now. He has excellent quickness and that is going to be his asset, his quickness and his ability to help us in our pass coverage."
Alabama sophomore Mitchell Thomas will likely backup Derek Curry at SAM linebacker. Thomas has very good quickness and is considered to have a lot of potential at SAM.
Also playing in a backup role with be sophomore Nick Borsetti. Borsetti will likely have to bide his time at middle linebacker, but could get some time in mop up situations or special teams.
Three freshmen will also enter the mix at linebacker this season. Maurice Crum and Abdel Banda will start out right away at linebacker, and many speculate that Anthony Vernaglia will also end up at linebacker when all is said and done. All three will have a difficult time finding early playing time as freshmen, but could contribute some on special teams.
The goal for the linebackers this spring has to be some fine-tuning for the starters, but more importantly, get some experience for the backups. The Irish were lucky last year keeping all their players healthy at linebacker. They might not be as lucky this season, so these sophomores have to be ready if their name is called.
You can't simulate game action in practice, but the more reps these young sophomores can get, the better in developing much needed depth.
If the starters can remain healthy, this group should be the strength, and most likely the main leadership, of the defense.