Better make that a diet cokeNotre Dame's defensive end depth chart is the program's most impressive since at least the 2004 season (Justin Tuck, Victor Abiamiri, Kyle Budinscak, and redshirt-freshman swingman, Trevor Laws). But neither senior DE bookends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, nor youngsters Kona Schwenke, Aaron Lynch, or Stephon Tuitt will reach their collective potential without solid interior play on the nose.
He's not a tough guy to find.
"Louis Nix did a very good job of maturing and understanding that if he wants to play more plays, he has to be able to stay physically fit to do that," said head coach Brian Kelly at his opening press conference. "This was Louis' opportunity to mature as a person.
"(Kelly told him) ‘If you want to be 350 (pounds), fine. You can waddle around at 350 and you're going to get about 15 reps. How's that sound for you? Maybe 12, because you can't go longer than that.'
"He said, ‘No, I want to play more than that,' Kelly said of Nix.
"Now he's hovering around the 330 mark and if he stays in that range, I think he's going to be able to play significant reps for us."
Notre Dame's rush defense ended 2010 on a high note, limiting its final four foes – all rush-heavy offenses – to an aggregate 367 yards with just one touchdown. Its season ranking, however, was a pedestrian 50th (39 spots better than 2009), due largely to major breakdowns in losses to Michigan (288 yards) and Navy (367).
Though Cywnar and classmate Hafis Williams are solid, undersized performers inside (especially Cwynar, who was instrumental in November's defensive effort), it is Nix that must become an immovable force inside if the 2011 defense is to reach its potential.
(For a season preview of Sean Cwynar, click here.)
In search of: a third wheelSenior Michael Floyd is the starting "W" wide receiver. Junior Theo Riddick will start and is the de facto second option, either at the "X" (outside) or "Z" (slot). Who's No. 3 the final game day starter?
"That next best player," Kelly offered, "Is either T.J. (Tai-ler Jones) or Goodman. Those are the guys competing for that next starting position, and then the other guy will be a swing guy. That will be a very competitive situation."
The "swing" receiver must be adept at every receiver position. Both Jones and Goodman noted they're well-versed enough to teach the youngsters – just one year after hitting camp with limited knowledge of the offense. "Most of us (veterans) have been in every position and know every position," Goodman noted. "We do a lot of flipping and flopping, so we all know every part of the field because you need to know what the other guy is doing.
Jones offered similar sentiments in the spring.
"It helps because our offense is concepts, and playing each one of them helps me learn the concepts," he said. "There are a lot of more formations where I'm moving inside and Theo (Riddick) is moving to the single receiver (X). It's shifting more this year than last year."
Jones earned the starting nod at the outset of 2009, thereby becoming the first freshman to officially start the opener since Milt Jackson in 1982. Two of Jones' first three receptions resulted in touchdowns, though he slowed a bit as the season progresses and eventually lost the starting role following a neck injury suffered in Week Nine vs. Tulsa.
Goodman finished with 15 receptions for 146 yards but never hit pay dirt, starting three games. The Bishop Dwenger (Fort Wayne, Ind.) product noted at the conclusion of the spring that one of his goals was to earn a starting job this season. To that end, he continued to work on his weaknesses:
"Catching the ball, getting out of breaks, and blocking," Goodman offered as a self-assessment of his problem areas. "Those are the three main things. (Wide receivers) coach Alford has helped me out a lot."
Rounding out the receiving corps during the team's opening weekend were "W" backups Daniel Smith, Deion Walker, and Luke Massa; Slot backups Robby Toma – who should see ample playing time this fall – and freshman Matthias Farley. In addition to Goodman and Jones, freshman DaVaris Daniels, a touted freshman from Vernon Hills, Ill., lined up at the "X" position to open camp.
While fans (and media) are anxious to discern if Riddick's spring move to the outside receiver role is permanent (thus positioning Jones and Toma as a diminutive 1-2 punch in the slot), my guess after spring conversations with the team's veteran wideouts and comments from their head coach this August: It's fluid.
When Riddick lines up in the slot, Jones or Goodman can play outside (at the X) opposite Floyd. When Riddick is aligned outside, Jones, Toma, and even the 6'3" Goodman, will man the slot.
Regardless of where they line up, each has the same goal so plainly stated by their offensive coordinator, Charley Molnar:
"Why would you run a pass route where the intention wasn't to score?" Molnar reiterated often last spring, summer, and autumn.
Proving again, it's not where you start the play, but where you finish.