Mr. November

IrishEyes offers a pre-camp assessment of one of Notre Dame's most indispensable players for the coming season.

You've doubtless heard the story, repeated ad nauseum on Irish message boards, on football radio and television shows, and at any Notre Dame fan/alumni gathering throughout the 2011 off-season.

It entails Notre Dame's plucky backup, the kid that at the 2010 season's outset, had no chance to supplant the no-brainer, veteran starter at his position.

But in late-October, unfortunate injury intervened, the backup became the starter, and Notre Dame rode his play – at football's key position, no less – to a 3-0 November finish.

Yeah, you're probably sick of hearing about Irish nose guard Sean Cwynar, it's not like he was the only player to improve during Notre Dame's bounce-back season…

(Wait, to whom did you think I was referring?)


On October 23, Notre Dame's defense yielded a staggering 367 rushing yards in a humbling loss at Navy. One week later, the defense put up even less of a fight, allowing 102 first quarter yards on the ground to Tulsa.

Then the party stopped.

With Cwynar now anchoring the middle, the Irish defense allowed just 469 rushing yards over the next 19 quarters. More important, it yielded a single touchdown, and that the result of a four-play, one-yard drive by USC over Thanksgiving Weekend.

Cwynar wasn't the star of the defensive turnaround, but his role in the resurgence should not be understated.

"A lot of that (late-season improvement) goes to Sean Cwynar," said classmate and fellow defensive lineman Ethan Johnson. "He stepped in after always working hard, and though he might not have been typical as a 3-4 nose guard, he worked his butt off every day. He brings his lunch pail to work and goes after it. Starter or backup – he practiced like he was a starter. It was no surprise to me how well he played."

Johnson continued to praise Cwynar, as much for his approach as play between the lines.

"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."

But Cwynar's ascent to the starting role was not without casualty. According to head coach Brian Kelly, Cwynar's increased work volume (number of snaps) – which reached as high as 50 per game – contributed to necessary back surgery at season's end. The senior has fully recovered from that procedure, but another to repair a broken bone in his foot, suffered during the team's Sun Bowl victory over Miami, has proved more difficult to overcome.

Cwynar missed all of spring practice rehabbing the foot, and as late as June 13, was said to be operating at around 75 percent per his head coach.

He's expected ready for training camp on August 6 – one that will involve heavy competition for the defense's most important role.

Trio to tangle

Cwynar will be joined at nose guard by unheralded classmate Hafis Williams (another less-publicized November 2010 stalwart) and redshirt-freshman Louis Nix, the latter likely the team's starter of the future once his conditioning catches up to his massive 350-pound frame.

If ready, Cwynar will start, and since Nix is unlikely to progress from being unable to move into a proper football stance (last September), to an every-series competitor in a calendar year, its logical to assume the 2011 nose guard position will receive ample snaps from three, rather than two participants.

Crucial to the position's 12-game performance: quality play from each of the trio during his time allotted.

Can Cwynar play 30-35 snaps for three months without straining his surgically repaired back, or foot? Can Nix and Williams combine for 35 more? (Notre Dame's defense averaged 69.8 snaps per game last fall.)

Cwynar's health and ability to play at a high level affects not only his position, fellow linemen, and defense, but the team as a whole, as no team that struggles vs. the run – a threatening aspect of the game in ample supply among the season's opponents – can meet Notre Dame's lofty 2011 goals.

November 2010 showcased Notre Dame at its recent best – and there's more than one former backup who contributed greatly to the cause.

If the Irish continue to defend as they did in the season's final month, Cwynar will once again be at the center of the effort.

Cwynar's Snapshot

A look at Cwynar's 2010 season and career numbers to date:

Notes: Has started five games: 2009 Senior Day vs. Connecticut and the final four regular season contests of 2010…24-game veteran can apply for a 5th-year of eligibility at season's end…Recorded 33 tackles last season including 3.5 for lost yardage after entering the season with just three career stops (played a total of 50 minutes as a sophomore in 2009)…His 431 snaps last fall ranked third among D-Linemen behind Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore…Forced a fumble on a TFL vs. Pittsburgh last October…

Room for improvement: Cwynar's second-half results in the October 23 loss to Navy mirrored that of his defensive teammates. My notes from the game's film review were sobering, and showed no evidence that the backup nose guard would later become a rock in the middle over the remaining contests:

2nd Half: Like Ian Williams before him, Cwynar lost his one-on-one battles with center Brady DeMell…Completely engulfed (along with Te'o) on Teich's 14-yard gain down to the Irish 7-yard line…Cwynar was pushed into the end zone (along with DE Ethan Johnson) on Dobbs final TD plunge of the day. 35-10 Navy…Rough final 18 minutes for Cwynar who was dominated by DeMell on yet another 16-yard gain over the left A gap. (Cwynar did register six tackles on the afternoon.)

Best Games: Of Cwynar's six tackles vs. Utah in a 28-3 Irish victory, four resulted in no gain, including two on screen passes in which the undersized nose guard sniffed out the play and sprinted to the spot to shutdown receivers Eddie Wide and Shaky Smithson – the latter, in combination with Ethan Johnson – resulting in a three-yard loss…Cwynar also recorded five stops in relief at Michigan State, two for no gain.

Most Important Snap: Facing 3rd and 1 at midfield with the Irish and Trojans tied near the end of the third quarter, Cwynar beat USC center Kris O'Dowd to the punch, then discarded the former All-America to team with Ethan Johnson on a stop of QB Mitch Mustain for no gain, forcing a Trojans punt. Top Stories