All Eyes on Defense?

With the opening whistle of the first Charlie Weis spring practice a little more than a week away, Irish fans are giddy with anticipation. The Notre Dame faithful are anxiously awaiting the first news of discipline and an explosive offense, but it's the defense Irish fans should be most interested in.

Spring practice is just around the corner and all Irish fans are excited to see what new Irish coach Charlie Weis can do with the stagnant Irish offense. Dreams of 48-point games, blowouts, and big plays run through their heads. Can Charlie turn Brady Quinn into Tom Brady?

What Irish fans need to be focusing on, however, is the Irish defense. How well the Irish defense catches on to defensive coordinator Rick Minter's defense will likely play a huge role in how much initial success they'll have in 2005.

The first order of business has to be fixing the pass defense.

In the final three games of 2004, the Irish defense surrendered 1,097 yards (365 yards per game), 14 touchdowns (4.5 per game), and allowed teams to complete 65 percent of their passes.

Also consider the Irish defense didn't record a single turnover in all three games, and managed just seven sacks.

With those glaring numbers staring you in the face, are you really that concerned about the Notre Dame offense?

The Irish defense will have to find a way to stop the pass.

The struggling Irish secondary is just part of the problem. Notre Dame's linebackers didn't cover the pass well in 2004, either, and the Irish never generated a steady pass rush to help out the struggling secondary.

The Irish also lose eight starters on defense so there are plenty of jobs open this spring. Factor in a new staff and there should be plenty of competition.

While most people think defensive line will be a strength, the Irish do have a lot of holes to fill. Three starters need to be replaced along the defense line.

Trevor Laws, Derek Landri and Victor Abiamiri will likely end up manning three of the positions come fall, but depth is a big concern.

Laws, Landri and Abiamiri all were top recruits coming out of high school, but none have reached their lofty expectations as of yet in their young careers.

Minter and defensive line coach Jappy Oliver will certainly have plenty of raw talent to work with in these three, but depth is a concern.

Defensive ends Travis Leitko and Chris Frome will likely battle for the other starting defensive end slot. Both players were highly recruited and should be able to fill the role. The return of Dwight Stephenson will help, and freshmen Justin Brown and Ronald Talley are also added to the mix.

Will Abiamiri move to Tuck's old position? Who will win the other defensive end spot? Will Talley move inside? Is Brown the next Tuck? Look for answers to these questions this spring.

Both Laws and Landri will be set inside. Which player will play nose? Landri's quickness certainly helps, and he has a knack for getting into the backfield as evidence of his seven tackles for loss in limited playing time. But his lack of size could be a factor, and depth will be important.

We've always been a big Trevor Laws fan, and the Burnsville, Minn. native has already started to make a name for himself. Is he ready for fulltime duty? Minter and Oliver will have to count on him and hope that he's physically ready to handle the load inside.

Behind Laws and Landri are senior Brian Beidatsch and true freshman Brandon Nicolas. Beidatsch should be able to add quality depth, but Nicolas might be on the move to the offensive side of the ball to shore up some holes along the offensive line.

Can Beidatsch become a solid No. 3? Will Nicolas move to OL? Will Ronald Talley move inside? Look for these answers in spring ball.

The Irish return both Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays at linebacker for 2005. Hoyte's nastiness will fit right in with Charlie Weis' vision, but he rarely played in passing situations, and might be a liability in the passing game.

Mays returns for a fifth year, but he's never started, and has played sparingly most of his career.

Are Hoyte and Mays the best players at their positions? We'll find out soon enough.

Derek Curry has graduated, and sophomore Mitchell Thomas appears to be the heir apparent at outside linebacker. Thomas has all kinds of speed, but he was never tried in passing situations, even when Curry struggled at times in the passing game. Can Thomas catch on quickly to the Minter defense?

Sophomores Joe Brockington and Nick Borseti, and freshmen Abdel Banda and Maurice Crum, jr. add depth to the position. The previous staff raved about Crum's potential. Brockington also received high marks from time to time. Both were lined up as weakside linebackers with the previous staff. Will either move to a different position?

The key will be to get the best three linebackers on the field at the same time. However, finding the right mix to man each position will be difficult. Finding depth will also be critical, as will finding players who can play in the passing game.

With a crowded safety position, we've heard Chinedum Ndukwe will be moved to linebacker this fall. Anthony Vernaglia is also a candidate to move to linebacker, but we feel Vernaglia will likely stay at safety as both Ndukwe and Vernaglia are about the same type of player. We're guessing the new defensive staff wanted one to move and Ndukwe was asked to move.

Ndukwe has been known to love contact, and he caught on quickly at safety. Could he make a surprise impact?

Will Hoyte and Mays hold their spots? Can Thomas replace Curry? Will Crum make a move? Can the Irish linebackers cover the pass? Who are the best three linebackers? These are the key questions for spring football.

The Irish return Tommy Zbikowski as the only starter in the secondary. Also vying for time at the safety positions are Freddie Parish, Anthony Vernaglia and Jake Carney.

Zbikowski will probably earn one spot with the other spot being wide open. Will Vernaglia and Parish battle for the strong safety spot? Will Zbikowski be moved to strong safety to battle Parish with Vernaglia playing free safety? Look for answers to these questions in spring ball.

Corner is probably the most wide open position this spring. Senior-to-be Mike Richardson played in all 12 games for the Irish last year, but he also struggled at times at the corner position. Richardson is the only returning corner prospect with any considerable experience.

Sophomore Ambrose Wooden has seen some playing time, but has been learning the position after switching to defense in the spring of his freshman season. Can Wooden be counted on?

Behind Richardson and Wooden are four freshmen—Terrail Lambert, Junior Jabbie, Leo Ferrine and Tregg Duerson.

Lambert received the most praise from the previous staff, but we've also heard good things about Jabbie and Ferrine. Duerson impressed us with his quickness in the fall, but we're not sure he'll have to size to compete regularly.

We expect one of Ferrine, Jabbie or Lambert to move to free safety at some point soon. Which one will move?

The bottom line is the Irish need to find three corners that can play this spring. They'll need a fourth to develop for depth reasons. It's absolutely vital that they find three players who can play because we're quite sure they'll be tested early and often in 2005 until they can prove they can play with today's best receivers.

The good news for Irish fans is that the young secondary is in the experienced and able hands of veteran coach Bill Lewis. Lewis' career spans 40 years, with most of his career teaching defensive backs. Lewis also has youth on his side with Brian Polian chipping in to help out. We can't think of anyone else we'd rather have coaching the young defensive backs during this critical spring. We expect to see some real results under Lewis' tutelage next fall.

All Irish fans are excited about seeing an explosive offense in the near future, but it will be all for not if they can't fix their defensive woes. While most fans will want to know how Brady Quinn is progressing under Weis, the die-hards will know what to be watching this spring—the defense. The early play of the defense in 2005 will likely be the key in how many games the Irish win next season. Top Stories