Such is the case in South Bend where January enrollee Aaron Lynch has Irish fans and media atwitter over his spring debut and autumn potential.
Lynch's spring game domination elevated the freshman phenom's status from potential to likely impact player. But the Irish have another likely freshman of impact in Tuitt – a first-year defender capable of bettering his team's defense as a valued member of its defensive line rotation.
Below is a look at the competition ahead and alongside Tuitt as he enters his first college training camp.
Defensive End Depth ChartThe number in parenthesis denotes the player's remaining years of eligibility:
1st Unit: Senior Ethan Johnson (1) participated in 674 snaps last fall and enters his final season as the roster's sack leader (12.5) as well as its most experienced competitor (38 games played). Bookend Kapron Lewis-Moore (2) led the line with 680 snaps last season and a D-Line best 62 stops.
Johnson and Lewis-Moore, if healthy, will start 13 games this fall. Their experience, talent, and bulk (295-plus pounds apiece) is invaluable in the trenches.
Perceived 2nd Unit: Both will face a stiff test from Tuitt, though few of us outside the program walls could conceive of Lynch falling to the No. 5 defensive end spot (behind Johnson, Lewis-Moore, Schwenke, and a fellow freshman) after watching him compete in the spring.
Sophomore Kona Schwenke (3): Took part in 33 snaps last season, his first occurring in a Week Nine loss to Tulsa (during which he recovered a fumble). Schwenke has added 60 pounds since National Signing Day 2010 – listed at 6'4" 285 in the Spring Prospectus. The sophomore could move to nose guard (or a 4-3 interior position) in 2012 if Lynch and Tuitt develop as expected on the edge. At this point, he's at best the No. 3 defensive end and at worst No. 4 (behind Lynch) entering August.
Freshman Aaron Lynch (4): Easily the most explosive force on the field during Notre Dame's annual Blue Gold Game. That fun fact will mean nothing on September 3, but it's notable in early July. Lynch entered spring ball at 6'6" 260 though he'll likely have added strength, if not weight, when the 2011 season heights and weights are released to the public. Schwenke and Tuitt are his chief competitors for playing time behind the starting duo.
Remaining CompetitorsThe unit's only personnel loss was senior Emeka Nwankwo (69 snaps). Nwankwo did not appear vs. USC or Miami to conclude the season.
The numbers listed below are my projections for the four potential defensive linemen among the incoming freshmen, as nothing official will be released by the staff until early August – and likely not until Game Week if the 2010 pre-season pattern holds true:
- Stephon Tuitt: Appears every bit of the 6'5" 270-pounds as listed on und.com. Don't be surprised to see Tuitt at 275 in the '11 Media Guide…and wearing an imposing #7 jersey on the field on September 3.
- Troy Niklas: The definition of a "Big Skill Prospect," Niklas was listed as a TE/DL by the staff on Signing Day. He'll likely get his first look on defense with five competitors set at tight end (and 15 offensive linemen slated for camp). At 6'7" 240, Niklas will rely more on athletic ability and hand technique rather than pure power in August (though he's likely added weight since his February listing).
- Tony Springmann: I have him slated for a move inside and redshirt season in 2011, but the health status of No. 1 nose guard Sean Cwynar (foot) and No. 4 Tyler Stockton (knee) could press Springmann into early duty (At 6'6" 270-plus, he's probably better equipped to compete at defensive end on Saturdays, but with good health in front of him, could earn valuable Scout Team time at both DE and NG.)
- Chase Hounshell: At 6'5" 255 (likely larger now), Hounshell could help at 3-4 Scout team positions: DE, OT, or OG, though Springmann would appear to have the Year One leg up on a full move inside to NG. Hounshell's best chance for a freshman season on the field is at defensive end, despite the depth in front of him.
Tuitt's Potential DebutSenior nose guard Hafis Williams was a "swing" lineman last fall, playing both Nose guard and defensive end, and also as an interior player in the team's 4-3 sets. That's not the plan in 2011 as Elston noted in the spring that the staff would prefer no swing players be necessary for future defensive lines.
Regardless, a portion of Williams' 244 snaps will be available at defensive end this season. From our vantage point, Tuitt is in position to capitalize on that opportunity. Look for the true freshman to debut as a rotation member in the team's dime packages – designed as one of several disruptive pass-rushers to attack the opponent's offensive backfield in long down-and-distance situations.
Note: I'll have more on Tuitt and the team's pass-rush potential in a forthcoming column.