Experience proves crucial for Boiman, young linebackers
Rocky Boiman is much more comfortable as he surveys the offensive set just now placed before him. The reads are more familiar. He feels more at home.
It's only spring practice, but Boiman is confident that the linebacking corps, of which he is an integral part, have already made a marked improvement over last year's group which struggled toward the end of the disappointing 5-7 campaign.
The defense would tend to show signs of wear in the latter stages of games. Tennessee and Stanford are just two of the teams that defeated Notre Dame by way of huge second half scoring outputs. Boiman chalks up much of that to lack of experience.
"Last year was a learning year," Boiman said. "It was my first year at the position, and it took some getting used to."
Rising senior Anthony Denman was quick to echo his fellow linebacker's sentiments. He too was playing a new position for the first time.
Boiman is now a bona fide veteran outside linebacker, while Denman also exudes a confidence that stems only from experience.
"We want to win this year," Denman said. "Our goal is to win the national championship."
While Denman's goals may seem a reach to anyone who witnessed the team's sub-par play last season, an influx of new talent that blends nicely with returning experience has the linebackers in particular believing that anything is possible.
The unit loses senior leaders Ronnie Nicks and Joe Ferrer to graduation, but Boiman believes this year's group is more than ready to step up.
"Nicks was great, and he'll be a big loss," said Boiman. "But we have to step up, and make sure the defense doesn't skip a beat."
In addition to seasoned veterans like Boiman and Denman, the unit returns up and comers Tyreo Harrison and Carlos Pierre-Antoine, sophomores who could be poised for breakout seasons.
Harrison saw spot duty last year, amidst several injuries to Nicks, and that experience, though limited, will no doubt help him.
"Tyreo got a lot of valuable experience last year," Denman noted. "I think that'll be real important."
Blue chip recruit Mike Goolsby, of Chicago's Joliet Catholic, is ranked by numerous services as one of the top 20 recruits at any position, and could compete for a regular spot in the rotation.
With the personnel base for an excellent linebacking corps set, the men that compose the heart of the Irish defense are concentrating on the little things that they feel will make the dream of a national title a reality.
"We've been working on pass-drops, reads, and footwork," Denman said.
"Little things like that are what the coaches are really getting on us about. Even though we've only been practicing a couple of weeks, you can already see improvement."
"We're feeling good," Boiman added. "I think we're starting to see the results from our work. Our play is improving on the field, and right now we're just real confident."
Linebackers are oftentimes overlooked. It is the responsibility of the defensive line to stop the run, and that of the secondary to derail an opponent's passing game. It's not infrequent that those units get the lion's share of the praise in good times, along with the blame in the bad.
What makes a linebacker unique is the versatility that is inherent to the position.
"It takes a special athlete to play linebacker," Boiman said. "You have to be both strong and fast."
It will be this unit's primary focus to stop the run, though third down passing situations will often force at least one backer to drop back into coverage.
"Stopping the run is our priority," Denman noted. "That's how you shut them down."
Boiman can't wait for the season to get underway. The only thing more electrifying than the color of his rich red hair is the intensity with which he plays. While he and Denman will be the lifeblood in the heart of the defense, the unit's success will hinge on the ability of Harrison and Pierre-Antoine to contribute.
Boiman just wants to play. He is anxious to show people that this year the linebackers will be nothing but an asset. If it's up to him, the defense won't be suffering any more late-game collapses.
All Sports Stories for Friday, April 14, 2000