Irish on the spot

Irisheyes.com publisher Tim O'Malley stops by to discuss three Irish starters that Alabama could exploit at times in the BCS Championship game.

#57 -- Right Guard Mike Golic, Jr.

For a two-game period, it appeared the fifth-year senior and first-time starter at right guard might prove the offensive line's weak link. Golic struggled mightily vs. both Purdue (and future first-round pick Kawaan Short) and a physical Michigan State team in September, once famously getting knocked back in space by Spartans MLB Max Bullough.

But since, Golic began a steady climb, one that began with a strong late-game effort vs. Michigan, dominant work vs. Miami, and key blocks leading to touchdowns vs. Brigham Young and most important, Oklahoma (against whom he was outstanding). By season's end, Golic was well-known in South Bend for his ability to pull from right to left, leading the 'back through the hole in Notre Dame's power running game.

He nonetheless struggles in pass protection. Quick athletes occasionally beat him off the snap; power rushers can get through his shoulder early. Alabama has both. And perhaps more vexing, there are the occasional mental missteps in the team's interior pass protection scheme. Its not that Golic will be beaten regularly -- he's a battler tends to bounce back after an error -- but in a game this close, one big sack or pressure on third down that changes field position will exacerbate any mistakes by the offensive front.

#11 -- Backup Cat Linebacker/DE Ishaq Williams

The 6'5" 255-pound true sophomore rushes the passer as a 4-3 DE in nickel sets, but is actually more well-versed in space -- a nickel 'backer coverage role (in place of a third cornerback) in third and medium-to-gain situations. Williams also rotates in for starter Prince Shembo as a backup Cat (boundary) linebacker and sometimes as a 4-3 end in base sets. And at times, Williams has shown athletic glimpses representative of his 5-star rating coming into college.

But if Williams continues to rotate in for Shembo in the team's base defense, Notre Dame will give up a rushing touchdown to the Tide -- with a fairly long run over Williams' edge keying their scoring march. Williams can run down the seam with tight ends (and slots, as he did vs. Oklahoma). He can come off the edge and be part of looping stunts at the line. But when the sophomore enters the game for the stout Shembo on the edge, the outside is far less secure.

Shembo plays with a fury. At this point, Williams still just plays football.

#22 -- Nickel Cornerback Elijah Shumate

Notre Dame prefers to play linebackers in most nickel situations, with former safety Danny Spond (the starting "Drop" 'backer) remaining in the game, and the aforementioned, rangy Williams entering as the extra zone defender, most often replacing Dan Fox, the Will (inside) 'backer. (Fox can run and cover too, though perhaps not against a team with Alabama's speed).

Save for one or two missed instances in my game film reviews, Notre Dame used its official nickel back, true freshman Elijah Shumate, on just 17 snaps in September (three games, never vs. Navy's option); 14 snaps in October (never vs. Brigham Young), and 18 snaps in November. If you're scoring at home, that's an average of just over four snaps per game (in reality, five, as Shumate did not play in two contests).

Shumate shined in man-under coverage early, but his presence and the defensive package as a whole contributed third-down plays with far more confusion in coverage than did the nickel package including the 6'5" 255-pound Williams playing zone. Its unlikely that the Irish can defend 'Bama's receiving corps for 60 minutes without the presence of a fifth defensive back. That makes the true freshman Shumate a player to watch when he enters the contest head up over a slot receiver.


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