Senior offensive lineman Dan Stevenson is excited about the 2004 season. The Barington (Ill.) native says the thought of last season was all the motivation this team needed to prepare for 2004.
"I think the team is definitely excited to finally get back out there and play some football," Stevenson said. "We were all disappointed about last year and I think the team is really eager to get out there and play again."
The Cougars run the uncommon 3-3-5 defense and certainly blitz a lot. But, the Irish front line returns four out of five offensive lineman that played against BYU last season. Stevenson says that should minimize any surprises this type of defense might create.
"They do run a different defense than most teams do, but we've seen them in the past," Stevenson said. "The coaches do a great job of showing us good looks and getting us prepared for that defense. Obviously having the offensive line back helps because we're comfortable with each other and know what each other is going to do on each play."
As a matter of fact, Stevenson believes the experience returning at offensive line should be a huge advantage for the Irish all season.
"We return four out of five starters," he said. "It's a solid core that we brought back and we're all comfortable with each other. A year under our belt makes each player better.
"I think everyone is on the same page now, not just on the offensive line," Stevenson said when asked what gives him confidence for 2004. "Brady's (Quinn) is back with a year under his belt, Rhema (McKnight) and Maurice (Stovall) are back, Ryan Grant. I just think the experience and being on the same page, experience overall is really showing."
The senior marketing major also believes he and his teammates have made the necessary changes to avoid a similar season to the dismal 2003 campaign.
"I think coming off a disappointing season, the key is the off-season," Stevenson said. "It's not about what we do now, it's about the hard work and effort we put in last January. That includes winter condition, spring football, summer workouts, I think all that really aids in building the core of this team."
Also on the interview list on Monday was Ryan Grant. Grant has been out with injury for most of fall camp and unavailable to the media. His availability on Monday should be seen as a good sign for Irish fans.
"It's pretty frustrating--anytime you're watching your guys go out there, especially when you're doing well," Grant said when asked how he's been coping with his injury.
"Luckily it happened at a time where it gave me a chance to heal so I'd be ready to practice during game-week. I'm happy to be back."
Even more depressing for Grant was the fact that he's was said to be playing his best football since enrolling at Notre Dame.
"I felt like I was playing well," the junior sociology and computer applications major said. "I felt like there was a lot of good things I was learning and I think the team was playing really well.
"It's rough for me to sit back and watch. I understand that I'm not helping the team if I'm injured so I need to take care and make sure I can get the job done."
The injury appears to be a thing of the past for Grant as of now. He says he expects to play on Saturday.
"I think the trainer did a really good job of helping my leg get better," he said. "It's fine now. I'm good to go. I wouldn't even think I had an injury so I'm excited to get after it."
The former USA Today New Jersey player of the year said he started practicing with the team again last week.
"I started testing it last week," Grant said. "The only thing I haven't done is lower my shoulder. I've done all the drills--all the running. I tested it last week, it felt good, and I'm probably about 95 percent right now."
The Nyack, N.Y. native says he thinks the lack of contact will actually put him in a better position to perform this season.
"I haven't had any contact yet, which is probably better for me, because I've got a couple of teammates that have been messing with me," Grant said. "They've been the through the whole banging of fall training camp.
"So, I kind of got rested. All I was doing was running and lifting, so I've got my summer weight and my summer strength. A lot of guys are saying I better be trucking guys, running guys over and running past guys. I feel great. My body is in great shape. It gave me an opportunity to get my legs back."
"We need to do a lot of the little things, and I feel that's executing," Grant said when asked how his team could improve on 2003. "You look at a lot of games last year. A good three-four games are determined by one play and little things. That's so important in a team."
One of the "little things" would be pass blocking—something the backs really struggled with in 2004. Grant says that pass blocking was the most stressed aspect of fall football this season.
"The biggest thing, I think, was pass protection this year," he said. "Pass blocking is really just attitude. I think if you asked the coaches how we competed this year when it came to pass protection, I think it's a 180 degree turn from a year ago.
"Guys really want it. You can't be just a runner, you're not going to play. You have to be able to run, to receive, to run block, to pass block and do all types of things because of the type of offense we run."
Grant also says he believes he's the starter at this point at running back for the Irish.
"I don't really know. I'm guessing, as of right now, I'm still the starter," the three-time monogram winner said when asked if the coaches have told him he would start against BYU. "I would expect that's it's always someone's job to lose."
The good news for Irish fans is that Grant has returned. We've heard his play this fall had been the best football he's played since enrolling at Notre Dame. A healthy Grant would be a big plus for the Irish heading out to Provo this weekend.