The third of seven spring position overviews examines the team's defensive front wall, both through the words of the Irish players and staff, and our own observations.
Defensive LineOne year ago today, Notre Dame's new 3-man defensive front ranked among new head coach Brian Kelly's biggest question marks. Potential was obvious, prior production decidedly lacking.
Today, the senior-laden line returns two of Irish Eyes' Top 10 overall players from last season, as well as an injured season-saver on the nose, plus his unheralded interior classmate. A pair of first and second-year prospects, both of whom possess the physical makeup of players two classes their senior, populate the unit's second tier as does an improved, immovable object.
In short, the Notre Dame defensive line is a sure thing. They'll be good – but how good will be determined by good health, continued top tier guidance from the staff, and expected improvement over the next eight months.
With depth suddenly a strength, defensive line coach Mike Elston hopes the players' position slotting can take root as planned in Season 2 of the Kelly regime.
"We're hoping we don't need a swing guy. We're hopeful that those days are gone," said Elston of the hybrid DE/NG role occupied by Hafis Williams and, at times, Sean Cwynar last year. "We're going to have anywhere from four to five (defensive) ends, and with the class that we signed at defensive end, we're going to start training right away."
"There's a skill set that those guys have to have," Elston continued of the team's defensive bookends. "We have to develop those young guys at those end positions. If they don't develop, then yeah, we have to swing a guy like Hafis or Sean, but we want to stay away from that."
Rookies are nowhere near ready for prime time, but the tandem at the top of the rotation undoubtedly possesses Elston's desired skill set.
- (Defensive End) Senior Ethan Johnson (final season of eligibility) – The team's leading active sack-master (12.5) is equally stout – and likely, better – vs. the run. The improvement of Johnson and his ability to control the edge over the course of 2010 played a major role in the defense's dominant finish. Johnson, who's seen the defense evolve from 2008-09 whipping boys to potential Top 10-15 status for his senior season, believes the 2010 late-season resurgence was just the tip of the iceberg for his fellow defenders.
"You can believe all you want, but until you see it produced on the field during game day, there's always a little feeling of ‘what else do we need to do? Is there anything fundamentally that we're doing wrong as a group?" Johnson noted of previous spring and fall camps rooted in hope for improvement.
"I feel like we have that now: confidence in our preparation and knowing what's been successful in games. A lot of it is a game day mentality and knowing what you're going to do. You can practice all you want, but it has to translate to the game."
- (Nose Guard) Senior Hafis Williams (2 yrs remaining) – From 2009 afterthought to key cog in the 2010 November machine, Williams has worked with the first unit this spring while starter Sean Cwynar recovers from off-season foot surgery.
Williams has adapted to a full-time gig inside after a career spent shuffling both on the interior and perimeter of the Irish D-Line.
"At nose guard, I don't have a lot of spaces I have to cover," Williams explained of his new role. "When I was at defensive end, I had a lot of responsibility, I had to contain, I had to cover the field (side), but at nose, I'm in a nice little comfortable spot between the guards. I feel at home."
The goal inside? "Go forward and don't get moved."
- (Defensive End) Senior Kapron Lewis-Moore (2 years remaining) – Along with Johnson, one of two Irish Eyes Top 10 from 2010. Lewis-Moore enters the season on pace to finish his career among the program's Top 10 in total tackles by a defensive lineman. (His 108 total tackles ranks third on the squad behind Manti Te'o and Harrison Smith over the last two seasons.)
Like teammate Kona Schwenke (highlighted in Part II), Lewis-Moore entered the University undersized for scrimmage play at 215 pounds. Now listed at 295 (he played at 280 last fall), KLM joins Te'o as the team's most likely defensive All-America candidates – for 2012. An arrival to that status a year ahead of schedule would take the Irish defense from very good, to great, next fall.
Senior nose guard Sean Cwynar will likely earn first-string status in August. Cwynar remains in a protective boot following post-season foot surgery. He was lauded for his late-season contributions by his classmate, Johnson.
"A lot of that goes to Sean Cwynar," Johnson said of the unit's November improvement. "He stepped in after always working hard and though he might not have been typical as a 3-4 nose guard, he works his butt off every day. He brings his lunch pail to work and goes after it. Starter or backup – he practiced that he was a starter. It was no surprise to me how well he played.
"I just feel like we need to develop some more guys like Sean with that attitude. That it doesn't matter if he's starting or third on the depth chart. Stuff happens and you have to be ready to play. That's his mentality and we're looking for more of that."
(Note: Click here for Part II.)