Look Ahead: Defensive Line

O'Malley's first of 10 looks at Notre Dame's position groups heading into the off-season – verbal pledges included.

Our first in a series of looks at Notre Dame's position groups with a handful of recruiting and 5th-year options still pending.

Defensive Line

The unit was the team's best at season's end, despite missed time from four key starters/competitors throughout the course of the season.

Departing: Ethan Johnson is the only member of the unit to exhaust his eligibility with last week's Champs Sports Bowl, though two other seniors are likely to be part of a National Signing Day numbers crunch.

Players Returning: Notre Dame might not have the nation's No. 1 ranked defensive line heading into 2012…but it will in 2013.

  • Redshirt-freshman Louis Nix – An 11-game starter at nose guard, Nix's continued ascent is one of the keys to next year's potentially dominant rush defense
  • Freshman Aaron Lynch – Finished the season as one of the team's 10-12 best players and is the best pass rusher at the school since Justin Tuck. Aside from Tuck, he could be the best since Ross Browner from the mid-70s and title team of '77.
  • Freshman Stephon Tuitt – The most intriguing prospect of the group, Tuitt was held back by three factors in 2011: a coach's decision to keep him sidelined vs. Michigan, a warranted suspension for missing class, and a late-season illness. He's the most versatile defensive lineman and second-most important player on the front seven behind Manti Te'o.
  • Freshman Chase Hounshell – Surprised fans with mid-season playing time when the depleted front line needed him most.
  • Sophomore Kona Schwenke – Was slated for a sophomore year redshirt before Tuitt's suspension in Week Five (Purdue). Played what we've deemed unnecessary snaps in that contest and thus burned a year of eligibility. Schwenke has gained nearly 70 pounds since he signed with the Irish in February 2010 and is still adjusting to the new frame.
  • Junior Tyler Stockton – Did not play this fall after missing most of the spring with a sprained knee. Played six games in 2010 under Kelly but needed shoulder surgery at season's end. Stockton will have two seasons of eligibility remaining starting next fall.

Potentially Returning: Senior Kapron Lewis-Moore is expected back for a 5th-season as is classmate Sean Cwynar. It would be a seismic shock if Lewis-Moore does not return, and since I've spoken with Cwynar on the matter, a major surprise should he not be in the fold.

Fellow seniors Hafis Williams and Brandon Newman are expected to graduate but not return for a 5th-season on the field next fall.

Incoming: Current freshmen interior defensive lineman (nose guard) Tony Springmann, who was withheld from action this season, reportedly pushed for a varsity role in August camp. Springmann told Irisheyes.com his transition from high school defensive end to collegiate interior lineman was challenging – nevertheless, he nearly rested a backup role from senior Hafis Williams, a promising development for Irish fans.

Verbal pledges Jarron Jones (four stars, Rochester, N.Y.) and Sheldon Day (five stars, Indianapolis) will add size, talent, and depth to the interior – the latter is expected to enroll for the winter semester. Both could play next season though with the luxury of veteran players in front of them on the depth chart.

Incoming 6'4 ½" 225-pound defensive end Romeo Okwara (Charlotte) will either grow into the position with a year on the scout team or challenge for a backup outside linebacker role next fall.

Potential Position Switches: In addition to Okwara noted above, Stephon Tuitt could spend considerably more time inside in a 4-3 set than outside as a 3-4 defensive end, especially with Lynch and Lewis-Moore already available on the edges. The addition of the Day/Jones freshmen pair could allow Hounshell more work at DE rather than the interior where he was often pressed into action this fall.

Jones could play along the offensive line as well, though numbers don't indicate a need at present.

Hunch: DOG outside linebacker Troy Niklas will be used in a pass-rushing defensive end role (a move to CAT LB could become official) though he'll likely remain listed at OLB.

Projected Spring Depth Chart

Notre Dame shifts its front from a base 3-4 to a 4-3 look throughout the game. Below is my best guess at both sets Entering spring ball:

4-3 Base (Left to Right):
First Unit: Lynch, Nix, Tuitt, Lewis-Moore
Second Unit: Hounshell, Springmann, Cwynar, Schwenke
Reserves: Day, Stockton

3-4 Base (Left to Right):
First Unit: Lynch, Nix, Lewis-Moore
Second Unit: Hounshell, Cwynar, Tuitt (1B)
Third Unit: Okwara, Springmann, Schwenke
Reserve: Day, Stockton

Note(s): Jones and Okwara aren't expected to join the fray until next summer.

Next in our position previews – the Irish wide receivers

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