Notre Dame spent the spring trying to get a grip on its new
coach's West Coast attack
One indication of the change that Tyrone Willingham is bringing
to Notre Dame can be seen in the way the new Fighting Irish
coach tools around campus. Unlike predecessors Lou Holtz and Bob
Davie, both of whom drove a golf cart to practices and other
campus functions, Willingham climbs onto a sleek, blue 24-speed
mountain bike. "To accommodate my schedule, the best way to get
around would be to have somebody drive me," Willingham said last
week. "I'm not comfortable with that."
Adding an element of cool to the South Bend transportation scene
may prove easier than dragging the Irish offense into the modern
era. The team that went 5-6 running an option-oriented attack a
year ago and finished next-to-last nationally in passing yardage
(101.5 per game) is trying to learn the West Coast offense that
Willingham employed so effectively at Stanford for the past
seven seasons. (Last fall the Cardinal averaged 250.5 passing
yards and 37.1 points per game and finished 9-2; overall
Stanford was 44-36-1 under Willingham.)
Last Saturday's rain-drenched spring game showed how big a
challenge the new coach is facing. Neither of the two
quarterback candidates was exactly a showstopper. Junior Matt
LoVecchio completed six of 14 passes for 58 yards and was
intercepted three times, while junior Carlyle Holiday completed
three of seven for 27 yards. The 3-0 game was decided on a
37-yard field goal.
Willingham will discuss the merits of individual players in only
general terms. The most he'll say about his dueling quarterbacks
is that both are progressing well. "We don't want to have to
make a decision [about them]," he says. "We like our players'
[production] to tell us who should be the starter."
LoVecchio, who is a solid, if unspectacular passer, won seven of
eight games as a starter in 2000 but lost his first two games
last fall and gave way to Holiday. When the Irish tried to
capitalize on Holiday's strength--his running skills--he took a
pounding because defenses didn't fear Notre Dame's passing
attack. "People may think I don't belong in this [West Coast]
offense, but I feel like I have a lot of the tools necessary for
it," says Holiday, referring to his arm and field sense.
The Irish understand that in Willingham's offense the emphasis
will be on quickness and execution. Tailback Julius Jones has
dropped 15 pounds, to 205, and focused this spring on pass
blocking and running routes. "We're not just asking [our backs]
to catch the ball," says Notre Dame offensive coordinator Bill
Diedrick, one of six assistants who came with Willingham from
Stanford. "We're also talking about spacing, field distribution,
what adjustments to make against zone coverage." Before spring
ball Diedrick said that in 15 practices he hoped the Irish would
progress from a crawl to a jog. Last Thursday, Diedrick said,
"We're in a swift walk. We're not quite to a jog."
Crawl, walk or jog, the players are trying to catch up with
Willingham and his offense before the Irish open the season
against Maryland on Aug. 31 in the Kickoff Classic. By then
their coach may have shifted to another unexpected mode of
transportation. So far, says Willingham, it has been too chilly
in South Bend for his Rollerblades.
Ohio State Tailbacks
A Freshman Springs Forward
Win the tailback job at Ohio State and you win a ticket to the
NFL. Eight Buckeyes tailbacks have been selected in the last 10
NFL drafts, including Jonathan Wells, a fourth-round pick of the
Texans last month. When Ohio State coach Jim Tressel looked for
the next future pro this spring, he found four candidates, the
most impressive of whom is a freshman who arrived on campus only
four months ago.
Maurice Clarett, the USA Today High School Offensive Player of
the Year in 2001, has been the hit of the spring in Columbus.
The 6-foot, 230-pound Clarett rushed for 2,194 yards and 38
touchdowns at Harding High in Warren, Ohio, last fall. He
enrolled at Ohio State in January, and at spring camp he proved
to Buckeyes coaches that he's both a fast and powerful runner
and an aggressive blocker. "If you asked me who would be our
best pass protector [among tailbacks], it would be Clarett,"
Sophomore Lydell Ross, who rushed for 419 yards and six
touchdowns last season, had been the favorite to win the
starting tailback job outright. But during spring drills he was
hampered by a strained right hamstring, giving Clarett,
sophomore Maurice Hall and redshirt freshman JaJa Riley a chance
to shine. Tressel plans to use all four of his runners this
fall; to that end he has installed a splitback set that employs
two tailbacks at a time.
"It's not like a tailback, if he starts, is going to have the job
after the third play of the game," Tressel says. "They're all
going to have to battle for carries, which is great."
Washington State's Goals
Fix the Defense, Rule the Pac-10
When Washington State coach Mike Price handed out the 2001 Sun
Bowl rings to his players after practice last week, the
recipients were pleased but not overwhelmed. "It's a nice little
ring," said junior defensive end Isaac Brown, trying to sound
polite. Brown and his teammates have already moved on to loftier
goals: improving on last year's performance and becoming only
the third Cougars team since 1960 to produce consecutive winning
records. "We're aware that we went to the  Rose Bowl and
the next year we were 3-8," says Brown. "We're trying to set a
standard. We're going to follow up our 10-2 season with a 10-2
season or better. That's our mindset."
Washington State, the preseason Pac-10 favorite, has a good shot
at reaching its goals, which also include a conference title.
Quarterback Jason Gesser (199 of 375 for 3,010 yards and 26
touchdowns in 2001), wide receiver Mike Bush (46 receptions,
20.8 yards per catch) and four starters on the line return to an
offense that last season averaged 35 points per game. "With our
offense, if we hold opponents to 30 points, we're all right,
right?" jokes Cougars defensive coordinator Bill Doba.
Washington State's defense was hardly a joke last season: The
Cougars forced 45 turnovers, fourth in Division I-A, and had 40
sacks. (Returning players had 31 of them.) Doba is concerned,
however, that this fall his unit will be vulnerable in the
secondary, where only five players with any significant
experience will return. Junior cornerback Erik Coleman, a
physical tackler, successfully moved this spring to free safety,
a switch made possible by the development of sophomore corner
Karl Paymah, who grabbed an interception in last Saturday's
Crimson-Gray game. The secondary won't jell, however, unless
junior cornerback Jason David returns to the field. David, who
had 36 tackles and three interceptions in 2001, didn't practice
this spring so that he could shore up his academics. "We're
working like crazy to get Jason back," Doba says.
"Nobody expects Washington State to do much," says Brown. Most
years, that would be true--but not this one.
Five teams on the rise
1. USC Defense, led by senior free safety Troy Polamalu,
is very good. If the Trojans can run the ball at
all, watch out.
2. Penn State Behind sophomore QB Zack Mills (1,669 yards
passing in 2001), Nittany Lions will give JoePa
one last hurrah.
3. Louisville Senior QB Dave Ragone (3,056 yards passing in
2001) and junior DE Dewayne White could be All-
4. Georgia Bulldogs are young but experienced. With coach
Steve Spurrier gone, Florida is vulnerable in SEC
5. Iowa Recipe for a winning season: 14 returning starters
in a still-mediocre Big Ten.
Five on the decline
1. Nebraska Spirits are low after the 37-14 loss to Miami in
the national championship game. Talent is ebbing,
2. Auburn All spring practice proved was that Jason
Campbell and Daniel Cobb still aren't productive
3. Michigan Offense lost its two best weapons: wide receiver
Marquise Walker and kicker Hayden Epstein.
4. North Carolina Five defenders drafted by the NFL means the
defense can't carry the offense anymore.
5. UCLA Tough to see how Bruins rebound after turning 6-0
start last year into 7-4, especially with a young