The first order of business is getting a status report for Justin Tuck and Kyle Budinscak. Mattison didn't say they wouldn't play, but reading between the lines would suggest they would be limited at best this spring.
"They're right on progress," said Mattison about his two injured defensive ends. "The trainers have done a great job with them. Everything has been repaired. Now it's just a matter of when they're ready to start drills. I'm not worried about pushing them because they've both proven themselves. The biggest thing we need to do with them is to get them 100 percent healthy."
"Spring to me is to bring your depth along and bring your younger guys along," Mattison continued. "I think that will be what we try to focus on more than anything."
When healthy, the Irish used Budinscak in a number of ways. On running downs he'd be lined up at defensive end. On passing downs he was often lined up inside. We asked Mattison if he planned to move Budinscak inside fulltime when he returns. "Our number one thing along the defensive line is to stop the run and Kyle has done a great job of establishing that at defensive end. One thing we did last year against passing teams was move him inside to give us even more quickness inside and at end so I think we'll keep moving him in that same way. In the nickel defense he'll probably move inside."
The Irish will have to replace former starter Cedric Hilliard at nose guard. Two highly-touted players will be competing for that job in Derek Landri and Trevor Laws. "I am really, really excited about the nose guard position with Derek Landri and Trevor Laws. Ced played a lot of football for us here, but these two guys can be outstanding nose guards because they have the quickness and the ability to make a lot of plays. They've shown that in practice that they're play-making nose guards instead of just pluggers."
Greg Pauly will line up at defensive tackle for the Irish. We asked Mattison if Trevor Laws might also backup Pauly at defensive tackle. "We'll have Greg and his backup will be Brian (Beidatsch) and defensive tackle. Then you have Derek and Trevor at nose. We like to work with them in pairs so this is how they'll line up."
Irish fans have been waiting for Landri to realize his talent. Landri has been hit with injuries since his arrival, but Mattison said he should be set for a breakout year. "Derek had some bad luck with his ankle injury and then once that healed he had the shoulder problem. He is completely repaired right now and I'm looking forward to him having a great year."
Two players who have a golden opportunity this spring are defensive ends Travis Leitko and Chris Frome. Both players will get a chance to show what they can do with the absence of Tuck and Budinscak. "They fit the bill," Mattison said of Leitko and Frome. "I'm really, really looking for Travis to have a breakout year. I think he's getting the strength that he needs, he's always played hard, and he's always been able to run. He's another of those guys that has the ability to make plays. I think he's going to get a great opportunity this spring with the other two guys being hurt. It should be a great spring for him."
"Chris made great gains last spring," Mattison continued. "We were really excited about him going into fall and then he got pulled hamstrings that really held him back. Hopefully both of those guys will get what they need out of spring to be ready to contribute."
Another defensive end that Mattison is obviously excited about is freshman Victor Abiamiri. Abiamiri filled in nicely for Budinscak in his absence last year and reminds Mattison of another former great defensive end for the Irish. "I see lots and lots of Tony Weaver in Vic. I'm really excited about him. The thing for Victor is how good does he want to be? Is he going to be hungrier going into his sophomore year as he was a freshman? I believe he will be. I can't wait to see what he can do for us."
The Irish appear to have the makings of a very talented defensive line for years to come. Justin Tuck should be an All-American. Pauly, Landri and Laws were All-Americans out of high school--so were Leitko and Abiamiri. We asked Mattison if this group of defensive linemen could be the best he's ever coached. "I would say on paper, the way they were recruited, I'd say it'd be right up there with them. Now it's a matter of how lucky are they with injuries and getting them ready to play. I think they've have the chance to be very good."