Stopping the run will be one of the biggest question marks heading into the 2004 season for the Irish defense. It's simple. You stop the run and that sets up the defense to pin their ears back and go after the quarterback—something the Irish have done well recently.
The Irish have plenty of talent along the defensive line for 2004, but not a lot of experience on the interior amongst the big ugglies. The interior defensive line play will be critical to the success of the 2004 Irish.
Let's take a look at the defensive line heading into the season.
Irish fans will be crazy in anticipation to hear if rush end Justin Tuck is back to his 2003 form after his off-season surgery. While all reports will likely state that he's 100 percent healthy, the truth of the matter won't be known until Tuck lines up against BYU on September 4th.
Tuck's return to top form would be a huge boost for the Irish defense. Some suggest Tuck's only weakness is against the run, but Tuck finished third on the team in total tackles with 73. He also finished with 13.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss last season—both team highs. One major concern for the Irish defense heading into fall camp will be their rush defense, and a healthy Justin Tuck would be a good step in the right direction.
Tuck's backup has been Chris Frome, who has battled his own injuries since enrolling at Notre Dame. Frome shows flashes of being the speed rusher the Irish need, but can't seem to stay healthy. He is said to be fully healthy and could see more playing time in 2004 if Tuck isn't 100 percent.
Greg Pauly returns for his final season at defensive tackle in 2004. Pauly recorded 20 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks for the Irish as a part-time starter last season. The Irish will need a productive year out of Pauly, as the starter opposite of Pauly on the interior line will have very little experience.
Pauly enrolled in the fall of 2000 as a highly-touted defensive end. He missed the entire year due to knee surgery that has limited him early in career. This could be the season that Pauly is finally fully healthy and comfortable with his move inside. Could Pauly have a Paul Grasmanis type of season? Grasmanis had an impressive senior season in 1995 after playing sparingly most of his career.
Pauly's backup will likely be Brian Beidatsch. Beidatsch has played scarcely throughout his career as well, recording just five tackles on the season last year. He has had to make the move inside, after playing most of his career as a defensive end. Beidatsch is listed at 295 pounds this fall and should have the size to play inside this season. He could become a key player for the Irish if they suffer any injuries inside.
At nose guard, the Irish will be long on talent, but short on experience. Derek Landri will probably get the first look at the starting position. Like Pauly, Landri reported to Notre Dame as a highly-touted defensive lineman, and with an injury. The injury has limited Landri's progress, but he's shown flashes of the potential he possesses, recording 4 tackles for loss last season in limited playing time.
Landri's only knock is that he's a little undersized to play nose guard—listed at 278 this fall. What Landri lacks in size, he usually makes up for with quickness. His play will likely have a big impact on how well the Irish play defense in 2004.
Competing for time with Landri at nose guard will be sophomore Trevor Laws. Like Landri, Laws is another highly-recruited defensive lineman with a lot of potential. Laws possesses both the quickness and the size (listed at 285 this fall) to compete for playing time.
Laws does lack experience, however, as he has never played a down of football for Notre Dame. Still, the potential of Laws is vast, and we expect him to play a lot in 2004, even if he's not starting. His play will also be important to the success of the 2004 defense.
Starting at the strong side end position will likely be Kyle Budinscak. The 6-4, 275-pound Budinscak is also recovering from knee surgery. How healthy Budinscak will be will also be a factor for Notre Dame.
Budinscak finished his shortened season with 17 tackles, but also recorded 4 tackles for loss and three sacks before the injury ended his season. Some speculate Budinscak could also move inside in pass-rushing situations.
Also pushing for time at defensive end are Travis Leitko and Victor Abiamiri. Leitko has shown flashes of being the highly-touted player he was considered when enrolling in 2002. Leitko is a tall and lanky player who played in 10 games last season. He recorded 12 tackles and one sack in limited playing time. He'll likely be in the mix for 2004.
Victor Abiamiri will also make a case for playing time. Abiamiri played as a true freshman in 2003, and has shown signs of the vast potential he possesses, recording 22 tackles, 4 tackles for loss and a sack. Abiamiri is already listed at 270 pounds and has the physique of a player that plays on Sundays already. We expect Abiamiri to make a strong push for playing time this season.
Other players that could make a case for playing time are Matt Hasbrook and freshmen Brandon Nicolas and Ronald Talley. Hasbrook is a walk-on transfer from Michigan State who has made a positive impression so far with his spirited play. Nicolas and Talley will have a harder time finding playing time, but could make a case this fall for playing time.
The Irish do possess a lot of talent along the defensive line. What they don't have is a lot of experience and healthy bodies at this point. A healthy Tuck and Budinscak will help. Regardless, the Irish will have to prove they can stop the run in 2004 or the Irish defense could have a long season.
The Irish do have plenty of talent inside to stop the run. Irish fans have to hope the young talent develops quickly, and they can get some help from some talented and experienced linebackers to clean up the plays inside. We don't think the Irish will struggle to get a pass rush this season, and they should be very effective in rushing the quarterback.