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Defense Is Buzzword

Defensive Coordinator McNab Has Notre Dame Swarming to the Ball Again

November 03, 2000|PAIGE A. LEECH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHERMAN OAKS — Like honey bees to a hive, the Notre Dame High defense swarms to the football.

It is the fundamental principle of the Knights' defense. And the defense is the No. 1 reason the Knights are undefeated.

There isn't a Notre Dame defender around who can escape the often-screamed words of defensive coordinator Joe McNab:

"Run to the football. . . . Finish at the football."

"He makes sure that we run to the ball and that we're all doing our job right," said senior linebacker Tom Curiel, who leads the team with 49 unassisted tackles.

"If you mess up, he'll get on you, but that's what we want because come Friday night we want to be mistake free."

For all their yelling, screaming and repetitive directives, McNab and Coach Kevin Rooney have built a defense that has enjoyed extraordinary success this season.

Only four of eight opponents have scored against Notre Dame, and no team has scored more than 11 points.

The Knights, who employ a 3-4 defensive front which looks more like a 5-2, allow only 160.6 yards and 4.75 points a game. No other team in the region comes close to those statistics.

"Statistically, we're doing pretty good," said Rooney, always a model of modesty. "They're very quick, aggressive and determined."

Rooney is reluctant to rank the Knights' defense among his others until the season is complete. Instead he chooses to concentrate on how his defense will fare against its next opponent.

Notre Dame (7-0-1, 1-0 in league play) gets its toughest test to date tonight against St. Francis (7-1, 1-0) in a game that should determine the Mission League champion.

St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds is not so guarded when it comes to ranking Notre Dame's defense.

"They might be the best defensive team I've seen in my four years as a coach," said Bonds, who coached at Alemany for three years before taking over at St. Francis in January.

"You can tell those kids have been doing the same system and the same blitzes for four years."

Notre Dame's defense has been impressive for at least a decade. But for the first time in several seasons, the defense is flourishing as a unit and without the benefit of a marquee player.

That's what makes the defense special, if not unique.

"Having one or two [standout] individual players in football doesn't make you a good team," Rooney said.

For the last three years, defensive end Travis Johnson was the focal point. At 6-feet-5, 280 pounds, Johnson, now redshirting at Florida State, could dominate like none other.

Perhaps that's why this year has proven a bit different. While running to the football has always been the basic philosophy since Rooney and McNab started at Notre Dame 20 years ago, Johnson's ability allowed them to be somewhat less diligent in preaching the virtues of swarming.

"I think we as coaches got away from it the last couple of years," McNab said. "But, this year not a play goes by where they don't hear it. I'm sure they get sick of hearing it."

Sick or not, defenders have built upon the basic philosophy and adopted an "all-for-one" mentality.

"I know if I don't pick up a tackle, I know a linebacker will be right there to pick it up," said junior Tim Volk, Johnson's successor at defensive end who has 44 unassisted tackles, including 16 for losses.

"I think that's what makes us so good, everyone plays well together."

The tight-knit group is also very complementary of each other.

Jimmy Sharp, a senior cornerback who leads the team with five interceptions, credits the defensive line and the pass rush for his productive thievery.

"We feed off of each other's energy," Sharp said. "We're tough and we fly to the ball."

The strength of Notre Dame's defense has afforded the Knights' offense, average at best, time to improve gradually each week.

"We get such good field position usually every game because of our defense," said Sharp, who also starts at wide receiver. "It's a lot easier to score from the 50 [yard line] than [our own] 20.

"In the beginning of the year, we weren't regarded as a team to beat. But we're proving everyone wrong because defense wins games.

"Our defense is the heart and soul of this team."

*

* GAME DAY

Mission League football championship is on the line when Notre Dame High travels to St. Francis tonight. D16

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

ON A MISSION

A look at how Notre Dame has fared this season:

*--*

Opponent Score Lynwood 24-6 Burroughs 41-0 Saugus 34-11 Alemany 31-10 Damien 0-0 Bishop Montgomery 52-0 Serra 24-0 Chaminade 45-10

*--*

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