"It was embarrassing for us to play the way we played," said Irish defensive coordinator Rick Minter of his unit's Fiesta Bowl performance. "It was a game of big plays. The biggest difference in that game, let alone they were four big plays, they all went for touchdowns, where as we gave up big plays all year, they didn't all go for touchdowns. We could rally, we could pursue, we could drag someone down, and then invariably, something fortunate would happen to us.
"We dodged bullets a lot of times, just by giving us ground to stand on, making them play another play, and something reversed and happened good for us. It didn't happen (in) this game. All the big major plays went for scores. That's 28 points on the board right there, and there's no excuse for any of them."
Minter also said the Irish coaching staff spent the off-season breaking down the season, play-by-play, to see where they were having the most problems on defense.
"After you come off any season, good or bad, you park it in the garage and you tear it apart," he said. "Just a couple of weeks ago we finished up going through every play of our season and critiqued it, analyzed it. We've analyzed what we're doing and who we're doing it with. What can we do to get those two aspects better coming into this year?"
The Irish finished the season ranked No. 75 out of 117 teams in total defense and No. 103 in pass defense. Minter admitted there is plenty of room for improvement in 2006.
"We played solid," Minter said of his unit's performance. "I don't think we were a great defense by any stretch of the imagination. We gave up way too many big plays, which was our Achilles heel for the year, but we did solid on the run, solid in the red zone, solid in taking the ball away. There's just so many things that we've got to get better at. Now that we've had a year under our belt, we've got to take it a whole another notch higher than it was."
"We need to be top 20ish in defensive categories…even better," said Minter as to where he'd like his defense to rank next year. "If you're at least in the top 20 in most categories, you're playing pretty good ball. It means you're being relied upon and you're coming through when you need to come through. If we can do those things, we can look back and say ‘we had a pretty good year.'"
This spring will allow plenty of players the opportunity to make an impact as some projected Irish starters appear to be limited. Linebackers Maurice Crum, Joe Brockington and Abdel Banda are all considered limited this spring. Senior defensive end Chris Frome will also be battling some injuries and likely will see limited, if any, action.
"We're barely two-deep on defense," said Minter, who also coaches the linebackers. "There's not going to be a shortage of reps and opportunities, old and young players alike, to show what they can do. What we do is not going to change drastically. We're not going to reinvent the wheel. We're just going to try to cut out the unnecessary, refine what we still do, and get as good as we can at it."
"Overall, we'd like to get to where we play more players than what we played. We're not going to play anyone that's undeserving to play, but you'd like to come out of spring with a two-deep of players that you feel good about."
Spring is usually a time for experimentation and finding just the right combination of players to put on the field. Position switches most likely happen in the early spring or fall, but Minter said he doesn't expect many players to be jumping around from position to position this spring.
"I don't foresee a lot of position switches, trial and errors, and situations like that," he said. "We feel that we've got a majority of our guys in the places where they need to be to be successful."
The Irish do return essentially nine starters from last year's defense and experience can be a huge factor for any team. But Minter knows replacing both Corey Mays and Brandon Hoyte, two Irish leaders from the 2005 defense, is not going to be easy.
"I think that overall, the fact that we have a good number of players returning in our program," Minter said when asked what he felt good about concerning his defensive unit. "It's not a start-over concept that it was a year ago. Our experience factor and our continuity factor (are) going to be a plus for us. We're going to miss the two senior linebackers, obviously….leadership, production, but all eyes forward, we have at least nine other positions that return players from last year's unit with key backups and guys that have gotten their feet wet in our first year here."