There's no question that coaching and "want-to" can go a long way in college football. How else could one explain the many improbable upsets that happen every week in the nation's best game—it is the nation's best game because I said so. Upsets make the game exciting, but there is nothing more exciting than watching your team win a national championship.
It's been 17 years since Notre Dame has tasted the sweetest smell of victory, and almost as long since the Irish had a first round draft pick on defense…..1997. Nine long years it has been since Renaldo Wynn was taken with the No. 21 pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Since Wynn's pick, Notre Dame has had just 16 total players drafted in the NFL draft. 10 of those players have been defensive players. Sadly, the Irish have been able to muster just two second-round picks, one third-round pick, two fourth-round picks, one fifth-round pick, three sixth-round picks and one seventh-round pick in those nine years on defense.
I'm all about Rudy, but Rudy never won championships for Notre Dame.
Does defense win championships?
The evidence shows it certainly helps….
In 2005, Texas won the national championship behind the magic of Vince Young, but many forget the excellent 2005 Texas defense that got them there. While Young was certainly dazzling, the Longhorn defense ranked in the top 10 in total defense, and they finished No. 8 in scoring defense (my litmus test for a great defense), allowing just 16.4 points per game.
USC won it all in 2004. The Trojan defense was ranked No. 6 in total defense that year. They also finished No. 3 in scoring defense, allowing just 13.0 points per game.
2003 saw both USC and LSU split the national championship. LSU finished ranked No. 1 in total defense and allowed just 18.3 points per game. USC surprisingly finished No. 30 in total defense, but they also held opponents to just 18.5 points per game.
2002 the Buckeyes won it all behind a stingy defense that finished No. 2 in scoring, allowing just a shade over 13 points per game.
That same year the Irish also had what many consider their best defensive performance in many years behind the magic of Shane Walton and the like. The Irish finished ranked No. 9 in scoring defense, allowing just 16.7 points per game.
Was that Irish defense full of top draft picks? No. In fact, Walton (fifth round) was the only Irish player drafted on the defensive side of the ball.
Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle. In 2004, North Carolina State finished ranked No. 1 in total defense, yet they only had two total players selected in the fifth and sixth round the following spring in the NFL draft.
But the evidence shows talent can usually propel a team to top defensive performances.
In 2005, Virginia Tech finished ranked No. 1 in total defense. They also had two second-round picks, a third, a sixth and a seventh taken from that defense in this year's draft.
Alabama finished second in total defense. They also had two second-round picks and two fifth-round picks in this year's draft.
LSU, No 3, a third, fifth, and sixth-round pick.
Miami, No. 4, a first, two second, two fourth, and a fifth-round pick.
That dominant Buckeye defense that finished No. 5? Three first-round, two third-round, and a fourth-round pick.
2004 also looks similar. We've discussed North Carolina State finishing first in total defense already. Alabama finished second again in 2004 with just a sixth and seventh-round pick.
LSU finished ranked No. 3 with a first, second and fourth-round pick. Virginia Tech finished ranked No. 4 with a third and fourth-rounder, and Auburn rounded out the top five in total defense and had a first and seventh-round pick taken from that team's defense.
USC, which won the national championship? They had a first, two seconds and a seventh-round selection from that sixth-ranked defense.
LSU finished ranked No. 1 in total defense in 2003 and also won a share of the national championship. They also had a second and fifth-round pick taken that spring in the NFL draft.
USC also shared the championship that year and had a first and fourth-round selection.
Miami finished ranked No. 2 in total defense that year and had an amazing four first-round defenders taken and two seventh-round selections. Oklahoma was third with a first, second and third-round pick taken from that defense.
Georgia finished ranked No. 4 with a second and two fourth-round selections. Auburn rounded out the top five with two second and a fourth-round selection.
When most people think speed on defense they think the Florida schools, particularly Florida State and Miami. Both programs have had very good defenses over the past 10 years. How have the Irish stacked up in producing top defensive talent compared to these top schools?
In 1997, the same year Renaldo Wynn was Notre Dame's last first-round defender selected, linebacker Kinnon Tatum was also selected in the third round of the '97 draft.
I remember that defense well. Notre Dame had a pair of bookends (Wynn and Melvin Dansby), and two great outside linebackers in Kory Minor and Pro-bowler Bert Berry. But the Irish lacked speed in the middle and had some weakness in the secondary that year. I loved Tatum as a player as he was tough as nails and played to the whistle, but I kept wishing Notre Dame had a guy like Ray Lewis that could run sideline-to-sideline to match the speed to the outside that many running backs had at that time.
Here I was thinking Notre Dame had been down at linebacker that year, yet only Courtney Watson, picked in the second round of the 2004 draft, has been considered a better "talent" at linebacker since by the NFL experts. Rocky Boiman, picked in the fourth round by the Tennessee Titans, is the only other Notre Dame linebacker taken in the fifth round or higher since Tatum's '97 pick. The Irish have had just six total linebackers taken in the past 10 years—three have been sixth round or later selections.
In comparison, Florida State has had two first-round selections, three second-round selections, on third-round selection, two fourth-round selections and a fifth for a total of 10 players taken in the NFL draft.
Miami has been just as good with four first-round selections, a second, a third, a fourth and a seventh-round pick for a total of nine picks.
Rush the passer?
Since Wynn's '97 pick, the Irish have had just three defensive ends drafted in the NFL draft. Berry Berry went in the third round to the Colts in '97, Anthony Weaver went in the second round in 2002, and Justin Tuck went in the third round in 2005.
In that same span of time, Florida State has had five first-round picks (2 more than ND has had drafted), one second, one third, two fourth and one sixth-round selection at defense end for a total of 10 players.
Can we cover anyone?
Since '97, the Irish have had just six players drafted from the secondary. Allen Rossum, '98, third round, was the highest player selected. In 2004, safety Glenn Earl was a fourth-round selection. The remaining four were fifth-round selections or later.
The Hurricanes have had a whopping eight first-round selections in the secondary in the same time. They've also had a second and a fourth-round selection and 15 total secondary players drafted since '97.
Florida State has also had three first-round selections, three second-round selections, two third-round, and a fourth-round selection in the same time and a total of 13 players drafted.
The arrival of Charlie Weis certainly got a lot of Irish fans excited, and the inaugural season that followed saw the Irish land in the Bowl Championship Series. But that January night against a good Buckeye defense showed just how far the Irish have to go. An explosive offense won't beat most top five teams; you need a great defense to have a real fighting chance to win those types of games.
The Irish got a nice start with the 2006 class landing some talented and athletic players. They'll need to land more in 2007 to get back to the elite of college football teams.
What's the difference between average and great? I'd say about 10 points a game.
Notre Dame surrendered 24.5 points per game in 2005—that great Ohio State defense surrendered about 15. In reality, that's two big plays a game the Irish need to eliminate. If they can do that they'll be right on the fast track back to the top.
One final thought:
I threw out a lot of stats in this piece all designed to support a point of view. A person can get lost in the stats and numbers. If I can leave you with just one more, I think you'll understand what I mean.
In the past nine years, Notre Dame has had a total of 10 defensive players drafted in the NFL draft. Miami? They have more first round picks on defense (15) than Notre Dame has had drafted. They've also sent a total of 34 players into the league over the past nine years. What about Florida State? They've also have more first round picks (11) than Notre Dame has had drafted. The Seminoles have also sent a total of 36 former defenders to the NFL.
I know the first question out of your mouth will be; "but how many of those players could get into Notre Dame?" Enough to field a great defense; I'm sure of that. The problem has been Notre Dame hasn't landed those top players that could get in. They'll need to start doing that to get back to playing great defense.