Half-full...I think

Irish Eyes entertains all arguments in a summer-long look at Notre Dame's perceived strengths and weaknesses. First in the series: the assumed excellence of a veteran defensive line.

Recent conversation among Irish fans reinforces a prevailing belief I've had since the Sun Bowl last New Year's Eve. That feeling was strengthened over the spring and is unlikely to dissipate much in the summer months:

Notre Dame's going to turn the corner in 2011. Goodbye consolation bowls with mid-day start dates – hello January prime time.

But a closer, critical look offers ample evidence to the contrary.

I figured the best way to work through these conflicting feelings, not to mention their disparate end results affecting my 2011 winter (either BCS flight plans…or a Christmas season spent eating free Emerald nuts in San Francisco, where it will likely snow upon my arrival as it did in El Paso last December), is a series of healthy, unbiased arguments – with myself.

First in the series: a look at the expected excellence of the Irish defensive line.

Glass half-full: The D-Line will dominate

You can win without a great quarterback, without a star pass-catcher, and without a shut-down cornerback – but as Lou Holtz once opined following a 58-27 win at Navy: "If you can't stop the run in college football, you're whistling in the dark."

And for the first time in at least five years, I can confidently surmise: Notre Dame is going to stop the run this season.

Irish Run Defense – Final Four Foes of 2010:

  • Utah
    Season Average: 32 carries for 152.9 yards per game, 27 rushing TD
    vs. ND: 29 rushes, 71 yards, 0 TD
  • Army
    Season Average: 56 carries for 251.6 yards, 34 rushing TD
    vs. ND: 43 carries, 135 yards, 0 TD
  • USC
    Season Average: 36 carries for 189.3 yards per game, 20 rushing TD
    vs. ND: 30 carries, 80 yards, 1 TD (4-play/2-yard drive)
  • Miami
    Season Average: 38 carries for 182.4 yards per game, 19 TD
    vs. ND: 25 carries, 87 yards, 0 TD

In total, Notre Dame held 10 of its 13 foes below their season rushing average (the exceptions were Michigan, Michigan State, and Navy – the latter of the epic variety). The aggregate W-L record of the nation's top 10 rushing defenses last fall was a telling 101-29, with a curious 5-7 Kent State team the outlier in a group that included five BCS bowl participants and the national champion.

Among other team issues, it was the Irish run defense that ultimately destroyed the program's best laid plans in the final seasons of the Charlie Weis era, and in early September last season. With one exception (discussed later in the column series), the front seven has ranked between solid and dominant, since.

They're deep: three-deep on the nose; at least two-deep at both DE positions depending on the eventual impact of freshman Stephon Tuitt, who joins the fold in August.

They're seasoned: the defensive ends have combined for 50 starts with 68 games played (including five-game contributing sophomore Kona Schwenke in the mix), and the team's pair of senior nose guards has appeared in 43 combined games with five starts, all from Sean Cwynar.

And they're ripe with reinforcements in the form of redshirt-freshman nose guard Louis Nix, the aforementioned Tuitt, and one of the nation's top spring newcomers in early enrollee Aaron Lynch.

Informed, unbiased observers would have little ammo to contradict the above outlook on the 2011 Irish defensive line…unless they watched its humbling at the hands of Navy, but that's a Q&A for another day.

Glass half-empty: projection rather than proof

I'm certain of the ability, and senior-year potential of the team's defensive end tandem, Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore. Both played their best football as the 2010 season progressed; both are much better players entering 2011 than at any point in their Irish careers; both are legitimate NFL Draft prospects.

The pair alone places the Irish in a favorable starting point of strength up front.

Conversely, it's possible I (we) are projecting too much too soon at the line's most important position, nose guard.

Senior Sean Cwynar thrived in a four-game stint as a starter late last season. He also eventually broke down, enduring resulting back and foot surgery in the off-season, the latter of which kept him out of spring practice. According to his head coach, the comparatively undersized Cwynar (6'4" 280) was simply not ready for the "work volume" he received in November as the line's anchor. Can he be after a winter conditioning season and spring session spent in recovery an rehab?

Behind Cwynar is classmate Hafis Williams – 2011 will be his first as a full-time nose guard. Behind Williams is redshirt-freshman Louis Nix – a massive prospect that's never played a down and had trouble maneuvering into a proper football stance as late as October of 2010.

Close observers know that as a trio, it's a promising group. But removing any of the three from the lineup – whether due to injury or general ineffectiveness – lessens the position's collective potential. Nix not-yet-developed, over-sized frame isn't ready for a season of full-time work; Cwynar's body hasn't proved capable of handling it; and Williams has yet to start a game entering his senior season.

That's the reality of the Irish nose guard position entering August camp. I think the trio will thrive in 2011…but I have no body of evidence to back-up that claim.

Note: The next glass half-full/half-empty argument will be published Sunday.

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