Defensive Preview for Spring

Spring practice starts today, and the Notre Dame defense will take the field with nine returning starters, several other key returnees, and a familiar feel for coordinator Rick Minter's scheme.

That puts the unit light years ahead of where they were a season ago, when just four returning starters and a lot of fresh faces were learning a brand new style of defense. With the exception of linebackers and reserves, personnel won't be a huge question mark this spring. However, there are plenty of areas that need addressing.

At an informal press conference on Tuesday, where the defense giving up the big play was as popular a media topic as Brady Quinn's Heisman Trophy candidacy, head coach Charlie Weis and the Irish defensive coaches touched on every area of concern.

With a lackluster Fiesta Bowl performance still on everyone's mind, it's easy to imagine how often the words "big play" were uttered from bothe the media and the Irish coaching staff.

"We gave up way too many big plays, which was our Achilles heal for the year," Minter said. "We did solid against the run. We did solid in the red zone. Solid in taking the ball away, not great, solid. There is just so many things we have to get better at now that we have a year under our belt."

It all starts today.

Just a couple weeks ago the Irish assistants broke down film of every play from last season. They will now show the players the good, the bad and the ugly, explaining why plays developed the way they did. It's now a matter of the players understanding why they were not in position to make a play, or why a big play resulted…..basically, how to avoid surrendering a lot of yardage on one play.

"I think the quickest way to do that is to eliminate, to minimize mental mistakes," Weis said. "And what that means is when you turn a guy free, wide open free, there's a problem. It's usually not the problem that a guy is that much faster than the guys they are playing against. It usually means that there was a mental mistake for one reason or another."

During his opening statement Weis named three keys to the defense that his team will focus on this spring.

"I think defensively, starting off with Victor Abiamiri (team-high eight sacks in 05), we have a veteran defensive line, but we are going to have to do a better job of getting to the passer, so pass rush is definitely an area of concern," Weis said.

"Who is going to play linebacker is going to be an area of concern. There's good and bad in this situation right here. With Maurice (Crum) and Joe (Brockington) being limited at linebacker, and Maurice really being our only guy who has had a lot of time as a starter in our system, I think that it's going to give a number of players an opportunity to make a statement for whether or not they are going to get into the mix.

"We're going to try to protect (Crum) as best as we possibly can. This is going to be one area on defense where we're going to have to find out exactly who is going to play.

"Thirdly on defense, I think we're going to spend a large amount of time with a veteran secondary working on communication. I think there are too many times where we had communication problems and it's going to be an area we're going emphasize this spring."

The Irish return eight of the top 10 tacklers from last season. While many incumbents are back at their position, establishing a two-deep will be key heading into the fall. Here is a look by position of who is in the mix.

Defensive Line

Basically five starters will return this season. Abiamiri (48 tackles, 15 TFL) is close to 100 percent, still recovering from knee surgery following last season. The senior defensive end will be limited this spring. Fifth-year senior Chris Frome (6 tackles, 1 sack), slated to start opposite Abiamiri at the other defensive end spot, will be held out of spring practice with the same knee injury ending his season six games into 2005. Interior linemen junior Trevor Laws (33 tackles, 3.5 TFL) and senior Derek Landri (43 tackles, 8 TFL) are ready to go.

Junior Ronald Talley (23 tackles, 1 sack), Frome's replacement, will be the most experienced end available this spring. Junior Justin Brown (12 tackles) and senior Dwight Stephenson Jr. will get a lot of reps at end with Frome out and Abiamiri limited. Pat Kuntz and Derrell Hand are the top reserves inside.

Weis and company have a game plan for improving the pass rush. They're just not talking about it.

"I'm not telling," Weis quipped when asked about his plan. "We have been spending a lot of time on that, though."

Linebacker

Minter and Weis both mentioned that Crum will learn the nuances of the Mike and Will linebacker positions on top of his strongside duties.

Brockington is also bothered by his back and junior Abdel Banda will miss the spring with a knee injury. Getting their opportunity will be senior Nick Borseti, junior Anthony Vernaglia, senior Mitchell Thomas and sophomores Steve Quinn and Kevin Washington.

The Irish will hope for two of those guys to put together the same type of season Crum did last year. Assistant coach Brian Polian will assist Minter with the linebackers this fall after spending time with the secondary last season.

Secondary

Defensive backs coach Bill Lewis broke down the secondary and built it back up starting last spring. Everyone is back except for seldom used safety Jake Carney. Not starting from square one this spring will be an advantage according to Lewis.

"It gives them a chance to hopefully move to the next level," Lewis said. "For everyone last spring, it was a total new learning experience. We basically had five guys who had a considerable amount of playing time, our starting four and then Leo Ferrine, who went in during our nickel situation. For them, hopefully they can speed through things a little bit faster and hopefully take their game to the next level."

Cornerbacks Ambrose Wooden (74 tackles, 2 INTs) and Mike Richardson (66 tackles, 3 INTs) will be pushed by juniors Ferrine and Terrail Lambert. Sophomores Ray Herring and David Bruton are the top reserves behind starters Tom Zbikowski (71 tackles, 5 INTs) and Chinedum Ndukwe (52 tackles).

There have been no position changes on defense according to defensive coordinator Rick Minter.


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