Junior starter ready to create
By TIM CASEY
Assistant Sports Editor
Arnaz Battle is no longer just Arnaz Battle.
He is now Ar-nez, Ar-naz, No. 3, Battle, "the quarterback", "Jarious's successor" and "the guy who can run but can't pass." Alumni, subway alumni and non-alumni all have preconceived opinions of the 11th starting Irish quarterback since 1985. He has more aliases than Prince — or is it The Artist?
When the 6-foot-1 inch, 218-pound junior jogs onto the Notre Dame Stadium field in tomorrow's season opener against Texas A&M, the entire college football world's eyes will be focused on the humble, quiet kid from Shreveport, La.
If he throws touchdowns, avoids tacklers, runs over linebackers and leads the Irish to victories, he will be adored by fans, media and sponsors.
If he throws interceptions, pitches errantly on the option, is chased down by defensive linemen and leads the Irish in defeat, he will be constantly criticized by the same triumvirate.
All for tossing and running with an oblong shaped pigskin. All for being the quarterback at Notre Dame.
"I never thought I'd be here," Battle said. "I envisioned myself as probably playing at a southern school, an Arkansas or a Mississippi State or somewhere like that."
The will to win
On a cold, November afternoon in 1989, while gathered with his family, Battle's life forever changed. That day, Battle's brother Brandon was found floating in his grandmother's swimming pool. A few hours later, Brandon Battle died in a Louisiana hospital.
Brandon was 3. Arnaz was 9.
In the summer of 1998, Arnaz had an image of his brother's face tattooed on the upper portion of his left arm.
"It's a constant reminder," Battle said of the tattoo. "I still think about him every day. But life goes on."
After the tragedy, Battle focused more on athletics. He had started in organized football at age 6 as a running back before switching to quarterback in junior high. But in those pre and early-teenage years, his attention was split between football and basketball. Battle played AAU ball with 2000 NBA draft picks Stromile Swift, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Fizer but after breaking both his wrists during an eighth grade scrimmage, Battle devoted himself to the gridiron.
He played both quarterback and wide receiver as a freshman at C.E. Byrd High School before becoming a full-time signal caller as a sophomore.
"We were a very untalented team," Battle said. "Most of [the offens] was just bootlegs, rollouts and belly options. It was like backyard ball."
Despite the lack of individual stars, Battle led Byrd to a 10-0 record as a junior, then a 9-2 mark a year later. He accounted for over 4,500 total yards in his three years as Byrd won two district and conference championships.
Battle's high school heroics caught the attention of many major programs. Nebraska, Tennessee, Georgia and Texas A&M were among Battle's final five choices in the winter of 1997.
But after spending the first weekend of December in South Bend and the following weekend in Lincoln, Battle cancelled his remaining visits.
"Notre Dame's the pinnacle of college football," Battle said. "Watching Tony Rice and all those guys when I was little and just the gold helmets and the fight song. I wanted to be a part of it."
A New Chance
Two distinct moments stand out thus far in Battle's college career.
On Nov. 28, 1998, Battle was inserted into the USC game with 11:53 remaining in the second quarter. Starter Jackson suffered a regular-season ending right knee injury the week before against LSU and backup Eric Chappell struggled mightily in his first career start. So coach Bob Davie turned the offense over to a freshman, who four weeks earlier had sprained his right shoulder against Baylor. His statistics (7-of-19 passing for 94 yards and two interceptions plus seven carries for 25 yards) combined with a 10-0 loss, which denied the Irish a BCS bowl appearance, left Battle with a sour introduction to college football.
"I probably knew 70 percent of the offense and that was mainly running plays,"Battle said. "It was a tough situation to be in."
In the season opener a year ago against Kansas, Battle got his second chance, albeit one with much less pressure. He quarterbacked 12 plays, mixing poor throws with sensational running in the Irish's 48-13 win.
With 2:08 left in the game, Battle scrambled to his right on a keeper, broke a tackle and ran 74 yards for his first and only career touchdown.
"I finally showed what I can do," Battle said of the run. "Too bad it didn't carry over throughout the season."
He appeared in seven games last season as Jackson's backup but only played a few series or plays at a time.
Besides learning the college game, Battle also had to adjust to a new offensive coordinator, Kevin Rogers, who implemented a more complex system, with the main emphasis on the quarterback.
But despite the difficulties, Battle had a chance to learn from a seasoned veteran.
"Watching Jarious Jackson and the way he handled things helped me out a lot," Battle said. "This year we'll put Notre Dame back where it's supposed to be. I think guys are fired up.
Adjusting as leader
The interview requests are constant, the attention is just beginning.
Already this preseason, ESPN, NBC, MSNBC, the San Diego Union-Tribune, College Football News Online and KTBS, the Shreveport CBS affiliate, have sent reporters to question Battle.
Not to mention all the local media outlets hounding Battle every day, looking for sound bites, quotes or anything else.
"Everyone wants a piece of him," said Lisa Nelson, Notre Dame's publications coordinator who handles football media relations. "I guess it all comes with being the quarterback at Notre Dame."
Said Davie: "I told Arnaz they'll probably shut down that Wal-Mart in Shreveport in honor of him on Saturday, it's such a big day. That's pretty big when they shut that Wal-Mart down."
Most of Battle's family, including his parents and grandmother, will be in the stands on Saturday as Battle, a sociology and CAPP major, makes his starting debut.
So far, the reviews from teammates and coaches on Battle's preseason performances are consistently solid.
"He's taken on more of the leadership role," said backup quarterback Gary Godsey. "You can tell, the way he's moving everybody around, recognizing when there's mistakes and trying to correct everything."
That leadership is not limited to the practice field. Battle has made a conscious effort to help his younger teammates, especially the three freshman quarterbacks, Carlyle Holiday, Jared Clark and Matt LoVecchio, deal with the transition to college.
He has taken it a step further with Holiday, a neighbor at Carroll Hall.
"Every morning I go there and wake him up," Battle said. "I make sure he gets to class and makes it to practice. I'm not going to turn my back on them just because they're competing with me."
Battle hopes the Irish fans will heed his advice of sticking with the 2000 Irish in victory or defeat. But that may only be a dream.
"Until Arnaz is under the gun, until he picks up those newspapers Sunday morning after the game and goes through the whole thing it takes to be the quarterback at Notre Dame you just don't know for sure (how he'll handle it)," Davie said. "You never know."
his future is uncertain, but one thing is clear: Arnaz Battle is no longer just Arnaz Battle.
All Sports Stories for Friday, September 1, 2000