The good news is that Mike Goolsby and Derek Curry were both starting for the first time in 2002. The bad news is that Goolsby's status for 2003 is uncertain. Goolsby suffered a broken collarbone in the Gator Bowl and appears to need surgery on his shoulder. As of now, it is not clear if he will be available for 2003.
Courtney Watson was a Butkus finalist so he was obviously playing very well last year. He finished his season with 90 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three sacks and four interceptions while missing two full games and parts of others. Watson will be back for one more year and should have a spectacular senior season. Watson is cat-quick and loves to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. He has excellent lateral movement and should have a NFL career when he finishes his career at Notre Dame. Expect big things from Watson this year.
Goolsby had a pretty good season last year. He recorded 75 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and four sacks. His injury could either help or hurt Notre Dame this year. If he plays, it will obviously help the Irish in 2003. If he sits out the year, he will add some much needed depth for 2004. His absence would hurt the 2003 team in quality depth. I am sure the Irish coaching staff will want him to play. For a first year starter, he had a good year. Hopefully you will see even more production from the middle linebacker position this fall. A coach would want around 90-100 tackles out of this position every year.
Derek Curry's numbers were not as impressive as Watson or Goolsby. He finished with 34 total tackles but added seven tackles for loss and four sacks. The position is probably one of the most difficult on the field and one should not expect big numbers from any starter. The responsibilities of the position force the player to be a three-headed monster. The player needs to be able to help with run support, play in coverage in the passing game and to rush the passer. Curry—as a first time starter—did a nice job at the position. With experience and another year to develop his body, he should have a more productive year and become a great player. This will never be a glory position and it's also one of the most difficult positions to play on the field. Curry should have a solid year for the Irish.
Brandon Hoyte had a monster year for Notre Dame last year. He finished with 57 tackles, four tackles for loss and one sack. Hoyte started a few games and played quite a bit off the bench. He showed great quickness and has that nastiness about him that any coach would love. As much as I love Watson, I think Hoyte is going to be better. He has become an impact player without starting and you certainly notice him when he is out there. If Goolsby does not play this year, I expect Hoyte to be the third starter. In this situation, I assume they would move Watson to middle and Hoyte would play the weak side or will linebacker. Either way, they have to find a way to get him on the field more because he makes plays.
One player I am very excited to see in spring and fall is Corey Mays. Mays didn't see much time other than special teams but he showed he likes to hit and can really run. I am reminded of a Duff kickoff or punt return where Mays was seen running side by side with Duff. One kickoff coverage, he is almost always one of the first down the field. He should see quite a bit more time this year and I am excited to see how he plays inside. He looks to be a very athletic big man inside.
Hoyte and Mays are the depth at linebacker. After these two, the Irish will not have a single player to call on that isn't a freshman unless someone moves. Jerome Collins was playing outside linebacker but looks to be moving to defensive end. Another player could move to help out with depth concerns but at this time, there is nobody known to be moving to linebacker. Obviously linebacker was an important need for recruiting this year.
Luckily the Irish signed four linebackers this year and I expect at least one to see the field next fall. Mitchell Thomas might be the most likely. His film is very impressive. He looks like Courtney Watson right now. He has excellent quickness, overall speed and lateral movement. His future might be at one of the inside positions but he has the kind of athleticism to contribute right away. He was a big signing for the Irish.
Many predict Dwight Stephenson will start out at outside linebacker so he might be the guy they call on to give Curry some rest. He certainly has the pass rushing down with his 27 sacks last year. The position is very difficult to learn because of all the responsibilities but Stephenson could be the first guy off the bench out of the freshman. I wish I had a better idea but I have yet to see film on Dwight so I can't offer any insight.
Joe Brockington is considered as a similar player to Hoyte. He has excellent quickness, speed and has a mean streak in him. Brockington will need time to add some size to his 6-2, 210 pound frame. He could make a similar impact as Hoyte but will need some time to develop like Hoyte.
Nick Borseti is more of a thumper inside. Don't believe the size listed on the Notre Dame official release, I am confident he is at least 6-3, 225 pounds. Some will question if he has enough speed to play linebacker but the Irish staff offered him very early. He is a nasty player that plays with a lot of aggression and that is always a plus. With Mays having 3 years of eligibility left, I don't think we will see much of Borseti for a while.
The Irish will not have a lot of scholarships available next year but I am sure they will take at least two linebackers. Goolsby—if he plays—will be out of eligibility as will Watson. Curry will have one year remaining in 2004. The hope is that they land two or three very talented players to add some quality depth and to compete with the four they signed this year.
The 2003 starting linebackers should be as good as any unit they have had in quite some time. They have some quality backups but only Hoyte has proven himself. These four young freshmen will have to develop very quickly and be ready to play in 2004. The overall athleticism of this group is a big plus but the staff will need to get the young guys ready to play.