It's assumed Notre Dame's defensive front ranks as a team strength for 2012. Its young stars are a year older, stronger, faster, and wiser. Its remaining veteran starter has made great strides in his recovery from mid-season knee surgery, and whether there's a three or four-man front, it appears position coach Mike Elston's unit has the horses to hold the fort vs. any offense it will face.
Fans and media probably assume too much.
"You have to make sure you don't think you've arrived," said Elston of sophomore Aaron Lynch but also of fellow youngsters Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. "Work every day to improve something in your game. For the most part I think Aaron has done that. I can't say we haven't taken a step back in a practice or a drill, but we're five practices in and he's been better than he (was last year).
"We expect them to be better than they were a year ago. Not just on Saturday, they have to work that way (every day)," Elston offered. "In practice they need to improve in everything they do. Their attitude, they way they approach every single drill.
"That's my expectation. The expectation from the people outside is they have to get sacks, more tackles; that they have to be more disruptive. My expectation is that's going to come with punching the clock every day and raising their level of work."
Lynch led the squad with 5.5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss. His 14 QB hurries marked a decade high though the number is unofficial (and judging from some of the totals from the Justin Tuck years, poorly tracked). Regardless, Lynch showed rare pass-rushing prowess for a true freshman, and his classmate Tuitt made his mark, albeit in limited appearances as well.
"We kept it simple for him when we moved him into the nose," said Elston of Tuitt's work at both defensive end and nose guard, a rarity for a true freshman at the collegiate level. "It was more of a nickel and dime package. But that was unique, and it took him awhile to get it."
Said Lynch of Tuitt: "We have the same mindset. We both have an intensity to go out there and kill. That's how we get along. We have a close relationship. We really want to help the team."
Faces new and (relatively) oldTuitt's freshman versatility was referenced because 2012 early enrollee Sheldon Day has also impressed early in camp.
"Sheldon Day is doing very good," Elston said. "He's way ahead of what we thought he'd be; his technique and everything. He's just a solid, solid player right now. He has a lot to learn, obviously, and a lot to get better at, but having said that, just still (by age) being a senior in high school he's really shown some good technique."
Day will work exclusively at defensive end as a freshman, but another competitor has emerged as the unit's potential swingman on the second line.
"Kona (Schwenke) is having a great spring. He's probably the most improved player on the defensive line," Elston offered. "The ability to use his techniques, to use his hands. He's using his hands a lot more. As you know, a defensive lineman being able to combat with his hands and getting off blocks (is key), which makes him much more production player, both in the run game and the pass game.
"He's much more explosive, now that he's used to his weight," Elston continued of the junior-to-be. "He's got more longevity in terms of stamina, and all around is just improved.
Schwenke is working on the nose in camp, due largely to the absence of redshirt-freshman nose guard Tony Springmann, who along with sophomore defensive end Chase Hounshell, will use the spring to recover from off-season surgery (Springmann back; Hounshell shoulder).
The duo's absence has opened more reps for the rest of the second unit's competitors.
"Sheldon in particular (has received more snaps). But having the flexibility to think about moving Kona down into the nose some (has helped). But we'd rather have Chase and Tony, we're really thin right now. It'll be great to get them back."
Senior will have his moment(s)Lynch, Tuitt, Nix, Schwenke, and Hounshell combined to play 44 games last season, earning 21 starts among them. Or eight fewer starts than 5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore has earned entering his final season.
Lewis-Moore started each of the season's first seven contests before leaving the USC game with a knee injury and eventual season-ending surgery.
The line's most accomplished player (140 tackles, 13.5 TFL) is apparently ahead of schedule in his recovery.
"He's actually returned pretty well from that knee. He was running with that second group to begin with just to make sure he could get acclimated to get the speed right and he's really come back nicely.
"(But) Kappy's really not a two. We really don't have twos. He runs with the ones a lot too. The depth chart isn't set; it's just a matter of getting guys the most reps (through rotation) in an equal amount to work their game.
Lewis-Moore, after admittedly wallowing a bit following his season-ending injury, has returned ready to compete. "It's just now doing what I can to get better and also to help the defensive unit get better and help the team get better, wherever my role might be," he said. "It's a blessing to be out there because you never know, you might never be able to play again."
Lewis-Moore, Lynch, Tuitt, Nix, Schwenke, Hounshell, et al…Notre Dame's 2012 defensive front boasts a depth chart that will likely remain fluid for the all the right reasons.