As a freshman, the aggressive inside linebacker did not see game action for the Irish. One year later, the reserve sophomore won a monogram thanks to 175 special teams appearances, while also appearing in cameo roles from scrimmage, recording 11 tackles over the course of the season.
The paragraph above described former All-America and Butkus Finalist Courtney Watson's (1999-03) first two seasons under the Golden Dome. Present day relevance? It's nearly identical to the two-year career arc of junior-to-be Anthony McDonald, Notre Dame's post-Spring leader for the starting inside linebacker role next to Manti Te'o when camp begins next month.
Watson won the starting role as a redshirt-junior in 2001 and finished second on the squad in tackles before his breakout, All America senior season in '02. If the 2010 Notre Dame defense is to perform at the level expected by its success-hungry fan base, McDonald will likely continue to follow Watson's career-arc – serving as a second thumper inside next to the talented Te'o next fall.
It's a role for which the former U.S. Army All-American Bowl selection feels he's well-suited.
"The defense we run now is a lot like the defense we ran in high school," McDonald explained in April. "The 3-4…we're playing downhill, running, making plays. That's what I'm used to."
The Irish defense made far fewer plays of relevance than it allowed last season. The result was the end of the Charlie Weis era, a subsequent switch in defensive philosophy, and an opportunity for new blood to work its way through the broken unit.
At 6'2" 230 pounds, McDonald reportedly does not possess ideal size for the new scheme. But that hasn't deterred his progression according to new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.
"I'm really surprised," Diaco began of McDonald's emergence with the first unit for the bulk of April. "I say surprised – it shouldn't cast a disparaging light on him – but he's not an overly big player. (But) he's tough and rugged, he's really strong, and he's got a lot of snap (quickness and explosion)."
Easing his assimilation to the first unit was McDonald's inherent response to Diaco's tutelage.
"I love the guy. He reminds me a lot of my high school linebacker coach (Mike Curio at Notre Dame high school), who I loved."
Like Watson and scores of linebackers before him, McDonald received his first taste of the force and speed of college football as a special teams combatant. His 180 appearances last season ranked fourth on the squad behind classmate Steve Filer, departed 5th-year senior Scott Smith, and 2010 senior Bobby Burger.
McDonald hopes he can resume his special teams duties next fall.
"I enjoyed it a lot (last year) and hopefully I'll be able to play some special teams this year as well. I just love running down on kickoffs, making plays, busting some guys up, because that's what I do as a linebacker (too)," said McDonald.
McDonald posted 10 special teams tackles to rank second behind Filer's 12 last season. He's certain his acclimation on special teams will help him adjust to the violence and pace necessary to perform on the Irish defense in the fall.
"I think I'm a lot more comfortable being on the field now – (after) taking reps and getting on the field in special teams. We went up against some pretty good guys in the wedge. I got (hit) some guys good; some guys got me pretty good. I just think I'm a lot more experienced because of it."
Running With the Ones
Spring sensations have been a dime-a-dozen over the years in South Bend. McDonald's emergence from April's 15-practice session in the good graces of his coaches guarantees nothing when the practice begins anew in August. Training camp will provide another audition for the starting role next to Te'o.
"I just do my best every time I'm out there…every chance I get I go balls out."
That approach endeared McDonald to his high school and current teammate, quarterback Dayne Crist.
"He's going to give you everything he has even when he has nothing left," Crist said of his friend and opposite side of scrimmage competitor. "He's a really special athlete and I think he's going to do a great job helping us win games."
McDonald's spring ascent stands as a testament to seizing opportunity, as this past April was the first in which he was able to compete for a role. At the tail end of his freshman season (2008), McDonald suffered a torn ACL in his right knee while covering a practice punt. He sat out the ensuing spring session in '09 and the injury lingered, at least in his own mind, through last fall.
"Honestly, I just feel that when I tore my ACL…even playing special teams last season, I always had in the back of my head, ‘is my knee going to be okay?'"
Fully recovered both mentally and physically, McDonald appeared comfortable with his newfound notoriety. In fact, a few minutes spent with McDonald provides a brief glimpse into his love for the game: its physical nature; the competition; the inherent desire to beat the man in front of him – McDonald thrives on those elements, and they'll serve him well in Diaco's "no crease" Base-50 (3-4) defense.
"(An inside linebacker) has to engage the blocker in front of him. He needs to defeat that block," Diaco noted of the positional requirements in general.
Head coach Brian Kelly noted McDonald's ability to play "downhill" in the spring.
"I like being with those guys on the first team because everyone's really excited," he explained following an April practice, a steady rain still peppering his helmetless head. "It hasn't been too hard (mentally); just really getting a grasp of the plays is important."
While most of the squad headed inside for cover that rainy afternoon following another two hours of Kelly-induced hell, McDonald (and not coincidentally, his high school teammate, Crist) remained behind to speak with reporters.
"I like being outside (in the elements). It makes you tougher. At linebacker you have to be tough."
Consider one necessary skill set crossed off McDonald's list as he prepares to help restore pride – and eliminate creases – for the Irish defense next fall.
McDonald's Best Moments in 2009
- Nevada: Recorded two special teams tackles, including a solo stop in kick coverage, in his first career game action for the Irish.
- Michigan State: Notched a solo stop vs. Spartans kick returner Glenn Winston preceding the Spartans final drive in the 33-30 Irish victory.
- Connecticut: Totaled a career-best three stops, including two kick return tackles inside the Huskies' 24-yard line.
- Stanford: With the score knotted at 38 late in the 4th Quarter, McDonald limited Cardinal punt return Drew Terrell to a two-yard gain
McDonald's Moments to forget in 2009
- Michigan and Connecticut: Though neither runner ran through McDonald's assigned gap, the Irish kick return defense allowed two long touchdowns last season, one by Michigan's Darryl Stonum (94 yards) the other by UConn's Jordan Todman (96 yards). Both impacted close Notre Dame losses. (McDonald had an outside chance at slowing/stopping Todman, but hesitated after shedding an initial block.)
- Washington: A moment of film-room infamy, one for which the junior remains famous: "The highlight of my career," jokes McDonald when asked about the concussive, blind-side blow he received from Washington Huskies safety Victor Aiyewa on the game's opening kick-off.
"He blindsided me; I didn't see him coming until the last second. He got me right in the chin and knocked me out. I didn't know where the hell I was."
McDonald received a dose of good-natured ribbing from his teammates and former coach Charlie Weis when the squad gathered for its weekly Sunday film review following the overtime win.
"We watched it on tape and everybody was jumping out of their seats," McDonald chuckled. "We watched it like 10 times. It was embarrassing but it was kind of funny to watch because I had no clue what I did."
(A dazed McDonald ran to the Huskies' sideline following the hit.)
IrishEyes' Pre-Camp Assessment of junior linebacker Anthony McDonald.
Junior Anthony McDonald looks to lock down a starting job next to Manti Te'o.