Defensive coordinator Kent Baer will have the luxury of experience mixed with talent in 2004. The Irish have plenty of experience at linebacker with the three starting linebackers having 44 starts under their belts.
He also has Notre Dame's single-season sack leader returning in Justin Tuck. But, the inexperience at nose guard and the secondary are the concerns heading into 2004.
"I don't know if there was any one thing," Baer said when asked what he wanted to focus on this fall. "You're always trying to develop some depth and create some competition in hopefully every area of the football team. You want to make sure everyone understands the defense. Communication is a big part of it. All of those things I think we've addressed."
The Irish do have three talented starters at linebacker, but after those three, only senior Corey Mays has playing experience.
"I like the four guys that can play," Baer said of his linebackers. "I think Joe Brockington has come around. He's still got a lot to learn. He's still going to be a big part of special teams. Hopefully we can get him some reps.
"With Nick Boresti and probably Maurice Crum, they're probably going to have to play some. Mitchell is our backup SAM. He's come along. He's a lot better than he was last year but we're still real young."
The secondary is also a concern. With senior free safety Quentin Burrell's nine starts the most among the secondary, inexperience could become a problem for Baer.
The focus so far this fall seems to be getting the secondary to play more physical.
"I'm never pleased with how physical we are with the entire defense," Baer said. "It's not just asking them to be physical—the entire defense. I think it's an area we can certainly improve on. I like coach Wilks, how he's handled those kids and I think we are becoming more physical, and I think we need to be."
Baer and Wilks have a number of candidates at defensive back including talented sophomores Ambrose Wooden and Isaiah Gardner. Gardner is known as the fastest man on the team and Wooden isn't far behind. Baer says both players have made progress this fall after spending most of their football days on the offensive side of the ball.
"They're all getting better," Baer said. "They've still got a lot to learn. Some are learning a couple of spots and I see them progressing. Ambrose Wooden I see has made a tremendous amount of progress since last spring. Isaiah (Gardner) is making progress."
With today's offenses, a secondary usually has five starters in the secondary as defenses find themselves in their nickel package a good amount of the time while on the field. Baer was asked if 2003 starter at nickel, Preston Jackson, will remain the starter at nickel for 2004.
"He's been our nickel for two years and I like Preston because he's got the experience," Baer said of Jackson. "The other guy playing our nickel and doing a great job is Ambrose Wooden. They're competing for the position and Ambrose is pushing him."
Probably the most contested positions in the secondary have been the starting roles at strong safety and free safety. Sophomores Freddie Parish and Chinedum Ndukwe have been competing for the starting spot at strong safety, and senior Quentin Burrell and sophomore Tom Zbikowski have competed for the free safety spot.
Baer says the competition hasn't been decided, yet."
"No, I can honestly say that," Baer said when asked if he could name his starters at safety.
"We're still in camp. We're running guys in and out. We're going to get through camp; camp ends tomorrow. Then we're going to start to game-plan on BYU the next two or three days and start trying to fit guys in. Probably by the end of the week we'll have a pretty good idea."
Baer says the competition has been fierce and the decision to name starters at the safety positions will be a difficult one."Real close, they're real close," Baer said when asked how close the competition is at this point. "I don't think there's any question that Quentin Burrell is probably ahead of everybody because of his experience. All those guys are creating a lot of competition there and I like that. We'll see how it all comes out in the next week."
Another area of concern has been stopping the run. The Irish will have a new starter at nose guard with either junior Derek Landri or Trevor Laws. Defensive tackle Greg Pauly also has limited starting experience.
Irish Eyes spoke with Pauly last week and he said the Irish had struggled at times against the run earlier in fall camp. We asked Baer if that is still a concern.
"No, it's just a matter of teaching some young guys," Baer said. "I like what our first group is doing. It's really a matter of teaching the second team where their run fits are, their reads and their keys. I've seen a lot of progress in that area in the last week. That's something we've addressed."
Having a healthy Justin Tuck and Kyle Budinscak will certainly help the defensive line. Both players are returning from knee surgery and Baer says they've been cautious in bringing both players back.
"Anytime you're coming off surgery, and you're asking a guy to practice twice a day, you want to be careful," Baer said. "We're just trying to hold certain guys out and keep them as healthy as we can. That's all it is."
Baer also said Tuck is starting to look like the old Justin Tuck again—a good sign for the Notre Dame defense.
"I think he's starting to play like the old Justin," Baer said of Tuck's progress. "He's still not where he needs to be, but you see some flashes. Anytime you come off that serious of a knee surgery, and you start banging bodies, I'm sure there's a concern in the back of your mind. These last few days I've seen some flashes of the old Justin. I'm excited about where he's at."
Freshman safety prospect Anthony Vernaglia has missed all of fall camp with a knee injury. We asked Baer is Vernaglia has any chance to get into the mix this season.
"That's tough for a guy who hasn't practice yet," Baer said of Vernaglia. "That's a lot to learn. I think he's understanding what we want, but it's entirely different looking at the board or the playbook and lining up and seeing it flying full speed at you. He's had no work fundamentally or anything else so it would be real tough for him to get into the mix this year."
The buzz around fall practice has been that the defense has given the Irish offense some fits at times. We asked Baer if that was a sign of a very good defense or a struggling offense.
"We've put them in a lot of different situations," Baer said of the Irish offense. "I like our offense. I think our offense has really, really improved. They've given us more problems this fall then we've faced which is just great. I like how we're developing defensively. The thing that I like is I know that when we line and up play hard, I think we can be a pretty physical defense."