I remember watching the final games of great players like Chris Zorich, Melvin Dansby, Bryant Young and Anthony Weaver. I assume Irish fans felt much as I did—I didn't want them to ever leave. The Irish don't have a long-standing tradition of star-quality defensive linemen so when they do have such a player; it's hard to see them go.
The great ones usually shine in their final season. Watching Dansby hobble off the field in his final game was heartbreaking. Weaver's final season was a one-man show for the most part. Who can forget Chris Zorich's last game? The best players almost always have a great final season.
Can we expect that kind of season from Cedric Hilliard and Darrell Campbell? Both players have a lot of dollars on the line so I expect both to be highly motivated. Both have all the physical skills needed to be NFL players.
Cedric Hilliard was a force to be reckoned with inside in 2002. When healthy, he disrupted the flow of the game and could probably take most of the credit for shutting down Greg Jones at Florida State. Hilliard's quickness and strength has made him a playmaker and he is very difficult to block one on one or even two on one. I expect big things from him this year.
Darrell Campbell has many of the same skills as Hilliard. He has brute strength and plays with great intensity. He handles the double team pretty well and can get into the backfield. He should have a productive if not spectacular senior season.
Kyle Budinscak has been a very steady performer since playing his true sophomore year. He is a lunch pail guy. He shows up and does his job with little fanfare. He is a 100 percent guy and these players usually tend to have great careers at Notre Dame. Budinscak isn't considered a great player at this point but I bet he ends up being a great player in the future. If the Irish can find another top defensive end prospect, I expect him to move inside for 2004.
Justin Tuck was the surprise last year. He really got after the quarterback and gave the Irish staff someone who could harass the quarterback. Tuck was a true sophomore playing a lot of minutes. His physique and his experience will only improve. Tuck should be a great player for the Irish the next three years.
Irish fans should be excited about the starters along the defensive line. This unit should be very productive for Notre Dame next year and Bundiscak and Tuck have eligibility beyond 2003.
More good news is the fact that the Irish have depth and potential at each position as well. The immediate depth might not be that impressive in namesake but they have years of experience and will provide the starters time to catch their breath now and again.
Greg Pauly reminds me of Darrell Campbell and Cedric Hilliard in 2001. Neither player really contributed a great deal and looked to get manhandled at times. It takes time and strength to play inside. Pauly did make some nice plays while in there and should have time this winter and fall to add strength to his body. Pauly's knee injury has put him behind but he does have some potential. He doesn't appear as quick as Hilliard or Campbell but he does have talent. He should give the Irish some quality minutes this year.
Of course everyone is hoping that Jerome Collins develops into another pass rushing specialist like Justin Tuck. He has all the physical tools to become a great defensive end. You should expect to see him in on third down much like Tuck in 2002. If he can contribute early, he gives the Irish flexibility to move Bundiscak inside to give Hilliard or Campbell a breather.
Brian Beidatsch and Jason Sapp could also fight for some playing time. Beidatsch has at least two years left and Sapp could have two as well. Sapp—like Pauly—has had to battle knee and back injuries since arriving. He has potential and could be a factor at defensive end this year. Beidtasch will have time to add more size and strength to his body and should be able to play more minutes this year.
Notre Dame added four more players to the mix last year in Landri, Santucci, Leitko and Frome. Landri is obviously the most highly recruited and should be a future interior star. Santucci's career could mirror Budinscak's and he could become a sleeper inside. Leitko was highly recruited and should develop into a fine strong side end. We don't know enough about Frome yet to predict where he will play. He has the frame to play outside, inside or possibly move to the offensive line in the future.
Notre Dame was very fortunate to sign two very talented players this year in Trevor Laws and Victor Abiamiri. Laws looks a lot like Cedric Hilliard on film and might have more potential. Abiamiri looks better than any defensive end prospect they have signed in many years. Both players should have very good careers at Notre Dame and beyond.
2003 should be a great year for the defensive line. I can't remember the last time Notre Dame had this much talent returning along the defensive front. The four starters should all have great seasons. The depth has experience and talent. The potential of the younger players is outstanding. Notre Dame should be very solid along the line for many years to come. Get excited Irish fans, I think you will see the type of defense you have wanted very soon.