The 2004 Notre Dame defensive line was one of the best in country, especially against the run. Notre Dame was also able to muster a good pass rush with Justin Tuck leading the charge. With Tuck now departed a year early for the NFL and defensive tackle Greg Pauly now graduated, will the defensive line be as good as last year? Better? Worse? There are quite a few questions heading into fall camp.
Defensive End - Tuck forgoing his final year of eligibility is truly a big loss. That does not mean anyone should feel sorry for Notre Dame, not that anyone ever does. Junior Victor Abiamiri will have center stage to himself at rush end. It is time for all of that potential to materialize into an All-American candidate. Finding a suitable backup is the only question at rush end. Redshirt freshman Justin Brown is one candidate for the backup position. Beyond Brown, it is anyone's guess what defensive line coach Jappy Oliver might try. Redshirt junior Chris Frome may receive a look, or perhaps one of the linebackers such as projected backup middle linebacker Mitchell Thomas will be utilized as a pass rusher during obvious passing situations. Redshirt freshman linebacker Abdel Banda is another player that could end up being a designated pass rusher.
The strong side end position will have Frome and classmate Travis Leitko vying for the starting position. Neither player has seen extensive playing time, but with the surrounding talent around them combined with their own football talent it should not play a major factor.
Defensive Tackle - Redshirt junior Derek Landri returns after a breakout performance during the 2004 season. Also coming to the forefront during his first college season was now redshirt sophomore Trevor Laws. He is the likely starter next to Landri in the middle. Fifth year senior Brian Beidatsch is a solid interior presence, especially against the run. One more player needs to emerge for depth purposes and the best bet appears to be redshirt sophomore Dwight Stephenson, Jr. Two redshirt freshmen that will also be in the mix are Brandon Nicolas and Ronald Talley.
Projection - The starting unit should be one of the best in the country, but if any injuries occur, particularly to Abiamiri, it could become a major issue. Look for opposing teams to continue to struggle to the run the football against the Irish, but the defensive line will need to apply consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks to help protect a suspect secondary.
Recruiting Needs - The standard four defensive linemen appears to be the goal. Notre Dame has already secured commitments from two of its top targets, John Ryan, DE, 6-4, 250-pounds, Cleveland, Ohio, (St. Ignatius) and Kallen Wade, DE, 6-4, 215-pounds, Cincinnati, Ohio, (Withrow). That doesn't mean Notre Dame would not take another defensive end, but it would likely have to be a truly elite recruit. The best bet right now would be Lawrence Marsh, DE, 6-5, 260-pounds, Augusta, Ga., (Josey). The Irish have a good shot to land Marsh, but the competition will be stiff from schools such as North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Notre Dame is also in the running for Maurice Evans, DE, 6-3, 250-pounds, Queens, N.Y., (Christ the King). Miami, Virginia, Maryland and Penn State are just a few of the schools Notre Dame will have beat out to land Evans.
Notre Dame appears to be close to securing a commitment from Jason Kates, DT, 6-2, 290-pounds, Harrisburg, Pa., (Bishop McDevitt). Penn State is the biggest competitor, but Syracuse and several other schools are also giving chase.
Three other defensive tackle recruits that Notre Dame is attempting to sign are Gerald McCoy, DT, 6-4, 305-pounds, Oklahoma City, Okla., (Southeast), Jared Odrick, DT, 6-6, 297-pounds, Lebanon, Pa. and Butch Lewis, DT, 6-6, 280-pounds, Aurora, Col., (Regis Jesuit). McCoy is currently in the long shot category, with Notre Dame having to move past in-state power Oklahoma for his signature. Odrick appears to be luke warm with Notre Dame at this point, but he has not narrowed his list of schools so there is still time to make up ground. The main competition for Lewis will also be stiff, but Notre Dame has a really good shot to land his services. Watch out for Georgia.
SMITTY'S TAKE - As long as the starters hold up this season Notre Dame should once again have one of the nation's top defensive lines. It may not be as impressive as last season with Tuck moving on, but Abiamiri has even more physical talent. It is up to him to maximize it. Depth is certainly a concern, but there is some flexibility with players such as Frome, Stephenson, Jr. and possibly Brown who could play multiple positions.
Defensive line recruiting is going well to date. When was the last time Notre Dame had two defensive ends committed this early? Assuming Notre Dame lands Kates it can be selective between now and National Signing Day for the last spot. Then again, if someone like McCoy wants to sign with Notre Dame even if the Irish already have four defensive linemen in the fold you can mark it down that Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis will find a scholarship for him.