Impressions: Defensive Linemen

From debilitating weakness to definitive strength in just two seasons.

From worst to first?

In June/July 2009, I ranked Notre Dame's position groups heading into the season. The ratings were based on forecasted improvement, but also with a nod to the previous fall and the players lost/returning. Standard, except I rated the Irish defensive line 11th out of the team's 11 main position groups – a portent to the disappointing season.

Last summer, noting the return of developing talent and a new coaching staff, the Irish defensive front finished No 6 in my pre-season team rankings.

Approximately 60 days from today, I suspect the Notre Dame D-Line – made up largely of the same players ranked No 11 two summers prior – will conclude our annual team unit rankings at the top of the chart.

Two on Top

Classmates Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson finished #8 and #9, respectively, in Irish Eyes' post-season Top 10 player rankings last fall. The duo combined for 69 stops of three yards or fewer and finished No 4 (Lewis-Moore) and No 6 (Johnson) in total defensive snaps.

Johnson, listed at 300 in the spring media guide but likely to play "at 290-295 pounds" next fall, is the squad's active career leader in sacks (12 5) and second overall in tackles-for-loss (17 5). Lewis-Moore is the omni-present and versatile end, knifing through gaps to wreak havoc in the backfield; Johnson became a top-notch run stopper last fall, consistently battling double teams to augment his pass-rushing prowess…Both were better players in November 2011 than at any point in their collegiate careers and together, rank as the undervalued defensive tandem in college football…The pair has started together in 21 of the last 22 games (in his infinite wisdom, then-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta removed a defensive lineman from the starting lineup vs Navy in 2009: 343 rushing yards later…) and with good health the duo will start 13 more together next fall.

Three-headed monster

Sean Cwynar (431 snaps last fall to rank third among D-Linemen) sat out the spring session while rehabbing his surgically-repaired foot (injured incurred during the Sun Bowl), a development that afforded valuable practice reps to his competitors, but for fans anxious to anoint young, unproven talent such as that of massive nose guard Louis Nix (discussed below), consider Ethan Johnson's mid-spring comments regarding Cwynar:

"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."

In Cwynar's stead this spring stepped classmate Hafis Williams (244 snaps last year). Williams, who played in 2009 as a 4-3 defensive tackle, then split time as a defensive end and nose guard last fall, noted in the spring he's far more comfortable as a true nose guard whose goal is to hold down the fort inside…I've been high on Williams' potential as a rotation player since he helped submarine a Jake Locker QB keeper in the defense's first goal line stand vs Washington in October 2009…Regardless, he's much more suited for a true No 2 role than as the lead dog inside. Williams matches Cwynar in terms of hustle points, but the former uses his hands and creates leverage much more consistently than does his less-experienced classmate…

Relevant Point No 1 regarding Louis Nix: He'll make his field debut next fall, and the BCS-level trenches aren't won with sheer power Nix will have to maintain discipline in his stance and gap assignment to earn consistent snaps in the middle…The staff is confident he won't be moved from his gap in his initial field forays – but snaps 20+ each Saturday will tell the tale…In a true three nose guard rotation, Nix could dominate; in tandem, he'd likely be more effective in the forgiving weather of October and November than early September day games vs South Florida and Michigan State. But as a starter? He's not yet physically capable of holding down the fort for 50 plays inside, so Cwynar must return to good health…

Relevant Point No 2 regarding Nix: The Irish allowed short-yardage, goal-to-go, power formation touchdowns vs Michigan (2), Stanford (1), Western Michigan (1), Navy (2), and USC (1 – though it took four snaps) last fall – Nix will make a difference in this defensive package every time he steps on the field…A four-man front of Nix, Cwynar, Johnson, and Lewis-Moore as the base of the team's goal line defense would be a tough quartet for any foe to penetrate.

Junior Tyler Stockton missed the bulk of the spring due to a PCL sprain in his left knee – Stockton will need a huge effort this summer to get into practice shape (forget game shape, he's light years away from that status) in order to compete for his spot in August…Senior Brandon Newman worked at defensive end during the Blue Gold Game, but D-line coach Mike Elston noted he's a nose guard – the No 4 spot inside is there for the taking for the inexperienced senior.

The New Era

January enrollee Aaron Lynch was tenacious vs first-team linemen in the Blue Gold Game. While scrimmage statistics are meaningless, the five-yard burst Lynch consistently showed after shedding blocks cannot be taught – or denied If Lewis-Moore and Johnson remain healthy for 13 games next fall, Aaron Lynch will become a late-season pass-rushing force as he becomes a bigger part of the edge rotation…Lynch, like most young players, will likely be the early victim of blown assignments due to mis-direction aimed at neutralizing him next September, but he has two astute, experienced veterans from which to learn ahead of him in the line's pecking order…If Lynch can continue to attack without ranging from his responsibility, he'll become a feared No 3 defensive end next fall.

From 225 (last February) to 245 (last August) to 285 (today) – Kona Schwenke's staggering growth in his first season of college football will prepare him for upwards of 40-45 snaps – in 2012…This fall, Schwenke is in a perfect position as he grows into his new, trenches-ready body: a No 3 or No 4 defensive end with plenty of experienced talent above him, not to mention ample reinforcements ready to challenge for his spot in August camp…If Lynch continues his ascent (the first DE off the bench) as forecasted, Schwenke will rank as the most promising No 4 defensive end at the program since sophomore Thomas Knight in 1993… Can Schwenke keep incoming freshman Stephon Tuitt off the field in 2011? The Irish are stacked at defensive end entering August and well-positioned at nose guard assuming Cwynar returns to form. It's the best starting defensive front since 2002 and the deepest since the program's early 90s glory days.


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