Notre Dame's 9-3 season in 2005, while exciting, ended on a sour note with Notre Dame's loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeyes offensive explosion proved the Irish just weren't in the elite category of teams at the present time, and the Irish will have to fill some holes to get back to that level in the future.
Weis and his staff will have plenty of questions and concerns they'll want to address this spring. We'll be taking a look at some that will probably be high on their list. We'll first take a look at some questions that will need to be answered on the defensive side of the ball, and today we'll talk specifically about Notre Dame's lack of pass rush.
How can Notre Dame generate a pass rush?
The memory of Tom Zbikowski chasing Ted Ginn Jr. in the Fiesta Bowl is still a vivid image for many Irish fans, but not all of Notre Dame's problems in 2005 started or ended with the secondary play. Notre Dame just couldn't seem to generate a solid pass rush, especially against the better teams.
The Irish did finish the season with 31 sacks, but the 2005 defense was hardly swarming when it came to chasing opposing quarterbacks.
The Irish front four just couldn't get it done by themselves, and Notre Dame often had to send linebackers, safeties and even corners on blitzes to put pressure on the quarterback.
When you gamble, sometimes you pay, and Notre Dame paid often in the Fiesta Bowl, and throughout the year, sometimes even when not gambling.
Senior defensive end Chris Frome will likely return in 2006 after being sidelined in Notre Dame's sixth game of the season due to a knee injury. It will be nice to have Frome back, but he only registered six tackles and one sack after starting in six games. While a solid player, he hasn't shown the ability to get to the quarterback on a consistent basis, either. And, will Frome be fully recovered from a knee injury?
Senior Travis Leitko could return in 2006 as well after sitting out the 2005 season. But like Frome, Leitko hasn't proven he's the answer recording just one sack and 12 total tackles in his career at Notre Dame. Also, Leitko will be out of football for an entire year and hasn't spent much time working with Rick Minter's defense.
While neither player has proven to be a great pass rusher, they do give defensive line coach Jappy Oliver options and competition, and usually competition brings out the best in everyone.
Sophomores Justin Brown and Ronald Talley have shown some promise at defensive end, but neither has shown glimpses they might be in the Justin Tuck mold. Brown, at 247 pounds, is undersized at defensive end, and Talley probably doesn't have the foot speed to be a great pass rusher.
Senior Victor Abiamiri is Notre Dame's best chance at a pass rush most believe, and Abiamiri did finish the season with eight sacks. But four came against a poor pass-blocking team in Stanford, and Abiamiri faced constant double-teams throughout the year. We don't expect Abiamiri to see less double-teams in 2006, so someone else is going to have to step up and help out Abiamiri.
Interior players Derek Landri and Trevor Laws did a pretty good job of getting pressure up the middle last year. Landri recorded three sacks and seven tackles for loss and Laws chipped in 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss. Both should have better seasons in 2006 and they'll need to in order to help solve this problem.
Notre Dame does have three other players, Dwight Stephenson, Patrick Kuntz and Derrell Hand currently playing defensive line. So far none have stepped forward for consistent playing time, nor has it been said that they might be the answer for pressuring the quarterback in the future.
The Irish also have freshman John Ryan and Kallen Wade reporting this summer, but I doubt either will be able to play significant minutes next year. Wade is athletic enough to possibly be a good pass rusher in the future, but at 215 pounds, his time is somewhere down the road for the Irish.
Looking at the current group of players, and those reporting this summer, it appears the Irish will likely have to figure out how to pressure the quarterback with what they currently have. Will these players suddenly become much more effective getting to the quarterback? Not likely. So the coaching staff will have to find creative ways to get that done.
Unfortunately I don't think Notre Dame has that speed rusher in the Justin Tuck mold anywhere on their roster. This allows teams to double-team Notre Dame's best pass rusher, Victor Abiamiri, neutralizing him often during games.
The Irish don't have a dominating pass rusher inside at this point, and that also allows teams to man-up against Notre Dame's front four rushers.
When you look at the situation it doesn't look promising that the Irish will suddenly become a dominating pass rushing team. But they can do some things scheme-wise that might help them.
What's more troubling to me is the fact that Notre Dame often left all three linebackers in the game in obvious passing downs. You rarely saw the nickel back, and hardly ever saw a dime back in those situations. This should clue you in on how confident the Irish coaching staff was in their nickel and dime packages last season. They chose to keep traditionally slower players in to defend in obvious passing situations.
The Irish could find a smaller, quicker linebacker to line up at defensive end in obvious passing downs, and that very well may be a thing tried this spring. But more importantly, if you're going to play as much zone coverage as Notre Dame does, they'll need to find some quality nickel and dime backs to give them a chance to defend if they're not going to sell out to get to the quarterback by blitzing.
Notre Dame could go to a 4-2-5 defensive alignment next year as well, especially since they have to replace two linebackers in Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays. But the real question there will be: Do they have more faith in the fifth defensive back than they do in their third linebacker?
Some have suggested a 3-4 defensive scheme. With the Irish thin on defensive line, many would think that might be looked at, but Notre Dame also has to replace two linebackers. That would mean three new starters at linebacker learning a completely different scheme. I'd be surprised to see this in 2006.
With the offensive firepower Notre Dame will have next season, I don't believe you'll see the Irish gamble a lot on defense. Weis will know he can score with almost anyone, so expect to see a lot more conservative game plans on defense. But if they're going to do that, they better be able to find a quality nickel and dime back to give them a chance to defend.