Class of 2001 stands strong despite defections
By MIKE CONNOLLY
Associate Sports Editor
The Class of 2001 laughed and joked together as they walked off the practice field last night.
Moving in a close clump, they showed no signs of the beating their class has endured from Student Affairs suspensions, transfers and injuries. Of the original 19 players that signed with Notre Dame on Feb. 5, 1997, only 12 are left on the active roster.
"I think retaining players is a challenge, and that is something that is a priority for us," Bob Davie said about the retention rate of his first recruiting class as head coach. "I think it is easy to look at the numbers. But you've got to look at the big picture. First of all, that first recruiting class, you take the job in December, signing date is Feb. 2. It is tough."
With all the turnover, it would be easy for the class to lose its unity and leadership — but that hasn't happened. Even as one classmate after another left the program, the Class of 2001 stood strong.
"It's a responsibility for us to hold up the Class of 2001," safety Justin Smith said. "We know we have to say tight. We see other classes staying tight, so we have to stay tight too."
The strain on the Class of 2001 to stay strong has been tougher than on most classes.
"You look as to why players have left," Davie said "That is another subject. So it is a challenge for us, but I think we have done a pretty good job with it."
Student Affairs has been especially rough on the Class of 2001. Four of the seven players not currently on the active roster are off the team because of decisions by the discipline-enforcing department.
It dealt the class its first blow when it expelled highly touted running back Cooper Rego early in his freshman year. Rego was an All-American coming out of high school and expected to play a big role in the future Irish backfield.
Linebacker Kevin Dansby, like Rego, was kicked out of school by Student Affairs for discipline reasons as a sophomore. He transferred to Div. 1-AA Troy State where he was also kicked out of school for suspected dorm arson.
The class lost another key player in its sophomore season. Quarterback Zak Kustok found himself fourth on the depth chart behind Jarious Jackson, Arnaz Battle and Eric Chappell in an offense that did not suit his drop-back talents. At the close of summer camp, he transferred to Northwestern and is now the Wildcats' starter.
The biggest blows to the class, however, have come this year. Linebacker Hugh Holmes, rated the 26th-best linebacker in the country as a high school senior, was forced to quit the football team for medical reasons.
At the conclusion of summer practice, tailback Darcy Levy found himself listed as the fifth-string tailback behind Tony Fisher, Tony Driver, Terrance Howard and Julius Jones on the depth chart. Deciding to try his chances elsewhere, he asked Notre Dame to release him from his scholarship and he transferred.
While Rego, Kustok, Dansby, Holmes and Levy are gone from the Irish roster forever, two other players, Driver and cornerback Brock Williams, are merely suspended from the team and will return for spring practice.
Driver and Williams were both suspended by Student Affairs for violating team rules.
The recent loss of players like Driver, Levy, Holmes and Williams has been especially difficult for this class, according to defensive end Grant Irons.
"It was just like losing a member of our family," Irons said. "We've been through so many things. So many ups and downs."
The tough times and hard work the class has gone through has helped the players remain close.
"We know that the players who are still here have made the same sacrifices and put in the same time, so for us, we have to make sure we are there for each other," Irons said.
With so many players gone, it can be hard to remember that a lot of talent still remains in the Class of 2001. Currently there are five juniors — Irons, Jabari Holloway, John Teasdale, Anthony Denman and Joey Getherall — in the starting lineup, and many others make significant contributions to the team.
"I have noticed those guys have stepped it up," Davie said. "I think Grant Irons has played well in the last couple of weeks. I think he is starting to really emerge now. I think Jabari Holloway has played well."
Perhaps the most successful member of the Class of 2001 this year has been Denman. The inside linebacker is third on the team in tackles with 50 and third in tackles for a loss with five.
Despite all the transfers, expulsions, suspensions and injuries, one thing has remained a constant for the Class of 2001: they are a family.
"We came in together and it's a family," Irons said. "We just try to stay together and stick together."
All Sports Stories for Thursday, November 4, 1999