Experienced Irish ranked No. 18 in preseason coaches’ poll
Fresh off its first 10-win season since 1993, the University of Notre Dame football team has been ranked No. 18 in the ESPN/USA Today preseason coaches' poll that was released last week.
The ranking is virtually the same placement the Irish enjoyed at the end of last season -- they were ranked No. 17 in the coaches' survey following a 10-3 record and New Year's Day appearance in the Toyota Gator Bowl.
Second-year head coach Tyrone Willingham has a plethora of talent returning this season as 14 starters are back in the fold, including eight from the nation's No. 13-ranked defense.
Among the featured veterans on the defensive side of the ball are senior inside linebacker Courtney Watson (Sarasota, Fla./Riverview H.S.), a 2002 Butkus Award finalist and 2003 preseason first-team All-America selection by The Sporting News and Street &Smith's, and senior cornerback Vontez Duff (Copperas Cove, Texas/Copperas Cove H.S.), who also earned '03 preseason first-team All-America honors from Street &Smith's.
On offense, the Irish have five starters returning this season, led by senior quarterback Carlyle Holiday (San Antonio, Texas/Roosevelt H.S.). The veteran is beginning his second full season as Notre Dame's starting quarterback and he is one of 42 players on the watch list for the '03 Davey O'Brien Award, which is presented to the nation's top quarterback.
Also back on offense for the Irish is junior running back Ryan Grant (Nyack, N.Y./Don Bosco Prep), who became just the seventh player in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards last season, finishing with 1,085 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns.
The Notre Dame special teams unit will be paced by senior placekicker Nicholas Setta (Lockport, Ill./Lockport Township H.S.), who has made 87 consecutive PATs, the second-longest streak in school history, and needs just 15 field goals to pass John Carney as Notre Dame's career leader in that category. Setta also is expected to handle the punting chores with the graduation of two-time Ray Guy Award semifinalist Joey Hildbold. Duff was a third-team All-America kick returner last season and is back to fill that role this year.
The Irish will kick off their rugged 2003 schedule on Sept. 6 when they play host to Rose Bowl participants Washington State at 1:30 p.m. (EST) at Notre Dame Stadium on NBC. That game is the first of three for Notre Dame against '02 Bowl Championship Series qualifiers, with home games against USC (Oct. 18) and Florida State (Nov. 1) slated later in the campaign. All together, nine of the this year's 12 Irish opponents are ranked or receiving votes in the ESPN/USA Today preseason poll.
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