When your best pass rusher, who broke Notre Dame's all-time single season sack record the previous season, is on the mend, a coach might be a little nervous.
When your other end, who has been a two-year starter in the two previous seasons, is also recovering from ACL surgery, a coach might have a few restless nights.
When your projected starter at nose guard has just 73:45 minutes of playing time and only one start under his belt, and his backup has never played a down of football for the Irish, a coach might find himself having nightmares.
So why is Defensive line coach, a man who is faced with all these challenges heading into the 2004 season, not worried? Simply put, pure talent.
The Irish are loaded with talent along the defensive line for 2004. Defensive tackle Greg Pauly, nose guard Derek Landri, nose guard Trevor Laws and defensive end Victor Abiamiri were all USA Today first-team All-Americans before reporting to Notre Dame. Travis Leitko was nominated to the second-team on the very same All-American team.
Unfortunately for Mattison, the talent does come with some question marks heading into the season.
Both Budinscak and Tuck are recovering from ACL surgeries suffered last season. Neither player practiced during the spring, and both are trying to make it back to being 100 percent healthy for the season. Mattison said he's been pleased so far with what he's seen in both Budinscak and Tuck.
"I'm very pleased with what I see so far," said Mattison of Tuck and Budinscak's ability to move on their mended knees. "They're two guys going out there doing the best they can do. They're working through it."The one thing I've noticed is they haven't been real cautious. They have gone out, they've been cleared so they know they're ready to go and they're working as hard as they can.
"The biggest thing they're working through right now is that they didn't have spring football. It's been almost a year since they've done something. There's the timing and all that kind of thing that they're working through."
Many players who have suffered ACL injuries in the past have taken well over a year to recover before many consider them 100 percent healthy with no ill effects of the injury. Budinscak and Tuck will try to return to the football field with well under a year's time of rehabilitation.Mattison says he's not interested in what has happened with other players in the past.
"I don't worry about what other people have done," Mattison said. "Each kid is different. I think the whole thing is the player's mentality--if he feels he's ready and he does the reps. The biggest thing is the practice time, getting himself ready. Both of them haven't missed a beat—haven't missed a snap. They're working really hard to get the practice reps to get them ready to play."
Besides the uncertainty of the health of Tuck and Budinscak, Mattison also has a problem of inexperience at nose guard. Junior Derek Landri has some playing time, but only one start under his belt. Trevor Laws has never seen the field at Notre Dame.
"If you're at Notre Dame, and you're a backup, and you've gone through one year at least, it's your time to step up," Mattison said of Laws and Landri. "I think we get as close to game-like tempo in practice so the game is the fun part of it. I have no concerns about those guys. I know they're going to play their hardest. I think we have very, very good depth which helps a guy.
"I think when an inexperienced guy has to play for the first time; the hardest thing is the number of reps. When he gets tired he might not be ready to go. I think we have a luxury where we have a couple of guys who are very, very equal and both of them could compliment each other there.
"They have both done very well," said Mattison when asked if either has stood out at this point. "They've both worked extremely hard. They both are kind of alike."
Irish Eyes also spoke to defensive end Victor Abiamiri on Thursday. The Randallston, Md. sophomore told us he was not happy with his pass rush last season. We asked Mattison if he felt Abiamiri was ready to contribute rushing the passer this season.
"Victor is a very good athlete and he's as quick he ever was at 245, he's just stronger. We can't judge the pass rush until we see him in a game. You can get real excited or get real down based on practice and that doesn't mean anything. It's what they do when they get in a game."
Team-leader and senior Greg Pauly is 100 percent healthy heading into the season at defensive tackle—something he hasn't been able to say for a while. Pauly knows about knee injuries as he's battled his problems with his knee since reporting to Notre Dame recovering from a torn ACL.
Mattison believes Pauly is ready for an outstanding final season.
"I'm proud of Greg Pauly," Mattison said. "I think you guys know he's always been one of my favorites because of the kind of kid he is and what he brings to this team. He is a leader in the effort he puts out on the football field. He's had a great off-season and I'm really excited about him this year."
Another question many fans have is what role will Budinscak play in the defense? Last year, Budinscak played defensive end, but moved inside on pass rushing situations. Mattison said he expects to use Budinscak in the same role this season.
"I think everything will be exactly the same as it was last year," Mattison said of Budinscak's role. "Last year, at times, we put him inside in pass rushing situations because he does have such great quickness."
We also asked Mattison what roles Travis Leitko and Chris Frome will play along the defensive line this fall.
"A great role," Mattison said. "I think we have the opportunity possibly up front to have a lot of guys that can go in and do what they have to do for us to win. We don't talk about starters or anything like that. Whoever it is, when the time comes, he's got to be ready to play and I think those kids are working to do that."
"I think all three freshmen that I'm working with on the defensive line all have potential," he said. "They all have what it's going to take and now it's just a matter of how quickly and how fast they come on."
The hype has been that Justin Brown is going to remind a lot of people of Justin Tuck when all is said and done. We asked Mattison if Brown had Tuck-like potential.
"I don't know yet," Mattison said. "I do know one thing, he's very explosive and he's very fast. It's hard to label somebody somebody else. A guy like Justin Tuck, nobody would've labeled him anything when he was a freshman, he was a one-star by all those recruiting gurus, and now all of the sudden, Justin Tuck is Justin Tuck. So we'll just have to wait and see on those kids."
People have also wondered if Ronald Talley might end up moving inside to play along the interior in his future at Notre Dame.
"He's an end," Mattison said of Talley's position. "He's got the size, the quickness and the strength. He's got what you're looking for when we were recruiting him, and he's shown that on the field."
The Irish defense logged 39 sacks total last season—an impressive number. Mattison said his unit has worked very hard this off-season to increase that total in 2004.
"The one thing that I've been pleased with is these kids have worked extremely hard on their pass rush ability and techniques this summer," Mattison said. "They took great pride in working on that along with the weights. I have some seen some signs that they are improving on that."
The Irish do have tremendous athletic ability along the defensive line. Can Tuck and Budinscak beat the odds and be 100 percent by September 4th? Can Laws and Landri handle the double-team? The answer to those questions could predict how well the Irish do defensively this season.