The Notre Dame defense ranked 13th out of all Division I teams in total defense. Kent Baer says that is not enough. "We've got to improve in all areas. We played well at times but our defense has got to get much better. It's a lot of the little things and that is why we are focusing on the fundamentals this spring. We've got a long way to go but we've made progress this spring."
One player that will have to be replaced this year is Shane Walton. Two players that are competing for that job are Jason Beckstrom and Preston Jackson. Baer said both are competing and we might not know which player will start until the fall. "When you lose a player like Shane, you lose a lot of leadership. Shane was a very instinctive football player; he made a lot of plays and made a lot of big plays when it counted. I'm not sure you ever replace that. Every player is a little bit different. They may not be Shane but they may be better in certain areas. The thing that I like about Jason Beckstrom is he is a tremendously hard worker. I think it means a lot to him. I think he's got really good feet and good speed and he's probably faster than Shane. Preston Jackson has had a lot of playing time under his belt in our nickel and dime packages. I like the competition and we always say the best player is going to play. Nothing is really etched in stone right now and we'll wait and see what happens when we line up next fall."
Jerome Collins has been playing linebacker this spring. Injuries have forced him to play linebacker all spring but Baer sees potential in Collins as a pass rusher as well. "I think he can do that," said Baer of being a pass rusher for the Irish. "He is a tremendous athlete and we need to be able to use him in as many situations as we can. He certainly has the ability to do that. He's worked some there last year and he's working on it a little bit right now. He hasn't got as much work there this spring as I would've liked because our numbers are down at linebacker so we haven't got the development that we'd hoped but will get it in camp."
The talk of the spring has been the emergence of Greg Pauly at defensive line. Pauly has earned praise from his position coach Greg Mattison, the head coach Tyrone Willingham and now his defensive coordinator Kent Baer. "I'm not sure he's our third. I'm not so sure he is not a starter for us. That is how much he has improved. He's had a tremendous spring and he has gotten better. That is one player that I can really honestly say he's worked really hard and gotten better. It develops depth for us. We have the ability to move Darrell (Campbell) outside to an end and let him play inside at nose and move Cedric (Hillard) to the three technique or whatever. I'm really pleased with what he's done. He's a tremendously hard worker, he hasn't missed a practice and he is going to be a good football player for us."
Having three great interior defensive linemen allows Baer to do a lot more on defense. Baer says the ability of these three to collapse the pocket will give the Irish the flexibility to play a number of coverage's on defense. "When we first came in as a staff and we looked at it, we said we need to develop some pass rushers and have the ability to just rush four guys. Not having to pressure all the time and bring five or six people allows us to do different things."
Baer expanded on how this helps his defense. "An example, the Pittsburgh game, as difficult as that game was we had 8 sacks. We played a lot of two-deep zone that really enabled us to have a great chance to win the game. I know we gave up a lot of yards but we kept the ball in front of us. The bottom line is I think they only scored seven points (actually six) on us. The more we can develop those pass rushers and continue to recruit kids that can rush the passer, it's going to make us a better football team and it allows us to do more."
The Irish were a pretty good tackling team last year and they played with aggression. Baer said that while his team was a good tackling team, his defense is still is focusing on the fundamentals this spring. "We're focusing on both (scheme and fundamentals)," said Baer. "Our first two practices we really had no team (practicing as a full unit). It was all-individual, working on the fundamentals and technique with their position coaches. We made that a huge emphasis early on just by the way we practiced. We took the approach that we didn't know anything; we'd go back and teach everything from step one. I think that's important because there are always little things that you pick up. As we talk about the package maybe there is something that a kid didn't pick up before. The scheme is important but it's not as important as the fundamentals and technique right now. We're not trying to beat our offense and we're not trying to game plan to beat somebody. It allows us to really work on those fundamentals and technique."
Baer is pleased with what his team has accomplished so far this spring. "We've done more this spring because of our numbers. Last spring we didn't get into our nickel and dime packages and this year we have. I think we're further ahead from a year ago. I think we are a lot further ahead but that doesn't mean we are there because we have a lot of work to do."
The Irish defense will have to lead the team again in 2003. The Irish will face eight straight teams who went to a bowl game last year to begin 2003. With the offense having to replace four starters along the offensive line, the Irish defense will have to carry the team until the younger offensive linemen can develop. Kent Baer seems confident they will do just that.