Middle linebacker Courtney Watson was fired up, and there wasn't
even a trash-talking tailback in sight. On this recent afternoon
he was agitated over the plight of Notre Dame's campus cafeteria
workers, who are not unionized. "I lobbied for them last year,
but nothing came of it," says Watson, who was a student senator
in 2002-03 and this fall will be a co-president of a group
representing students who live off campus.
A business major with aspirations of law school as well as the
NFL, Watson is outspoken on issues ranging from workers' rights
to diversity on campus. But heading into his fifth season in
South Bend (he redshirted as a freshman), his pet cause is making
sure the resurgent Irish perform up to their potential. Last
year, in coach Tyrone Willingham's debut season, Notre Dame
exceeded expectations with a 10-3 record, but the defensive
captain still broods about how punchless the team was late in the
season, most notably in a close call against Navy and a Gator
Bowl loss to N.C. State. "Maybe our luck ran out," says Watson.
"But all of a sudden, instead of three and out, the defense was
going seven, eight downs at a time. We can't have lapses like
As tough and opportunistic as the defense was for the better part
of last season--the Irish caused 33 turnovers and ranked 13th or
better in the nation in four defensive categories--it most likely
will be improved because eight senior starters return, including
the 6'1", 230-pound Watson, who is the heart of the unit. A wide
receiver turned running back at Riverview High in Sarasota, Fla.,
he switched to linebacker in 2000 and 2 1/2 years later was a
Butkus Award finalist with a team-high 90 tackles, four
interceptions, eight pass break-ups and three sacks.
Still, in the off-season Watson devoted himself to studying game
film in an effort to improve. "Courtney's open to being
corrected, and that shows on the field," says defensive
coordinator Kent Baer. "He understands football and is very
Notre Dame's success in Willingham's second season hinges on
whether the offense, which will operate behind a rebuilt line,
can move the ball better than it did last year and whether
quarterback Carlyle Holiday has gotten out of his system the
mental mistakes that stifled the offense at times in 2002. Julius
Jones, who was academically ineligible last season, should
provide a spark at tailback if he's able to regain the form he
had as the team's leading rusher in 2000 and '01.
Watson sees no reason why Notre Dame shouldn't surprise again.
"We can hold our own against anybody," he says. "The difference
between us and Ohio State and Miami was very small last year. We
were right there. If we forget that, we'll be doing ourselves a
great injustice." --K.K.
COLOR PHOTO: TED S. WARREN/AP GREEN MONSTER Watson leads a defense that ranked 13th or better in the nation in four categories last season.
2002 RECORD 10-3
FINAL AP RANK 17
RETURNING STARTERS 13
KEY RETURNEES (2002 stats)
QB Carlyle Holiday (Jr.)
Completed only 50.2% of his pass attempts
LB Courtney Watson (Sr.)
Once again a leading Butkus candidate
CB Vontez Duff (Sr.)
Returned punt, kickoff and interception for TDs
LB Mike Goolsby (Sr.)
Stopped nine opposing runners in the backfield
FS Glenn Earl (Sr.)
Heavy hitter had 78 tackles to go with two INTs
Players with 1,000-yard rushing seasons in Notre Dame history,
including Ryan Grant, who had 1,085 as a sophomore in '02.
To fortify the depth chart and add variety on defense, Irish
coaches will use some starters as backups at other positions.
This spring outside linebacker Derek Curry learned to man the
middle, and Darrell Campbell (tackle) and Cedric Hilliard
(noseguard) rotated to the other defensive line positions.
SEPT. 6 WASHINGTON STATE
13 AT MICHIGAN
20 MICHIGAN STATE
27 AT PURDUE
OCT. 11 AT PITTSBURGH
25 AT BOSTON COLLEGE
NOV. 1 FLORIDA STATE
15 BRIGHAM YOUNG
29 AT STANFORD
DEC. 6 AT SYRACUSE