Irish front wall may be best ever
By Terrance Harris
SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame senior defensive tackle Darrell Campbell tacked a message to his dorm room door at O’Neill Hall during camp for his teammates to see in general, and for his defensive line mates to take notice specifically:
“Ask yourself a question. Before you put on your pads, are you worthy to put on the jersey? If you are then go out there and play like that.”
It’s a simple challenge, but one that is paramount to a group for which much is expected. With defensive end Kyle Budinscak, nose guard Cedric Hilliard and Campbell all returning along with sack-master reserve Justin Tuck, the front four could be as dominant a defensive line as Notre Dame has had in years — maybe ever.
The unit, which also boasts depth, is expected to be equally adept at both stopping the run and pressuring the passer. Both attributes will be essential as the Irish once again take on a slate of teams that will challenge them in every area.
Defensive line coach Greg Mattison certainly has confidence in the unit he has assembled. Led by Campbell and Hilliard inside, many believe the Irish will dominate up front this season.
But Mattison insists the players will have the final say.
“There is a lot of talent here, but that only goes as far as you work with (them) on,” Mattison said. “The word ‘potential’ is always there for Notre Dame football players. The key will be how hard this defensive front plays from game-to-game and doesn’t look ahead and doesn’t rest on what they’ve done, just like any great defensive line would have to do.”
Last season, the defensive line was instrumental in transforming the Irish into one of the most stout defensive teams in the country. Notre Dame ranked in the top 13 nationally in four major defensive categories in 2002: ninth in scoring defense (16.7 points per game), 10th in passing efficiency defense (98.24) and rushing defense (95.2 yards per game) and 13th in total defense (300.0 yards per game).
The Irish front prided itself on its stinginess against the run. It held opponents to under 100 yards total rushing on seven occasions last season and allowed just three backs to net over 100 yards rushing.
Campbell and Hilliard were the primary run-stuffers, with both combining for 13 tackles for loss, while Tuck played the role of pass-rush specialist with five sacks and 10 tackles for loss as a reserve in 2002.
But Campbell suggests that his line-mates leave last season in the past and focus on the task at hand.
“Even though this is the second year, and there is a lot of experience returning, in that experience it’s human nature to say that we know everything because we’ve been through it,” said Campbell, who is a three-year starter along the front. “But we have to display that and just start off fresh.
“That way we can keep the same intensity, the respect and the same discipline that got us where we were last year, but also push us even further on this season.”
Perhaps the greatest edge will be the depth that Mattison has been able to develop along the front this season. The Irish coaches want to have a chance to go at least two deep at all four spots, with senior Greg Pauly leading the way at nose guard after having played significant snaps as a reserve last season.
But while the other reserves, such as Derek Landri, Brian Beidatsch, Travis Leitko and Chris Frome, aren’t as experienced as Pauly, their size and athletic abilities have convinced the coaching staff
that a rotation will be possible.
Freshmen Trevor Laws (nose guard) and Victor Abiamiri (defense end) have also been impressive in spots during camp, but they aren’t sure if they will play this season.
“Those guys give us a chance to develop quality depth,” said defensive coordinator Kent Baer. “I don’t have those concerns (about their lack of experience). They have to get it sooner or later anyway, so this is a great time to do it.”
Mattison sees the ability to have quality depth as a boost for several reasons this season, the primary reason being for the peace of mind of the four starters.
“Those guys then have the belief and the trust that they can go as hard as they can go and not try to save it and put something in their tank for later in the game,” Mattison said. “They can know they can go as hard as they can go, and when the next guy comes in, they are not worried about having to go right back in if they are not rested enough.”
Mattison has been pleased with the progress so far in camp.
“Right now with two weeks left before the first game, I think we are getting closer and closer to being able to say anybody that’s in that game right now, we have confidence in,” he said. “That allows us to be able to go.”