Irish Defense Has More Questions Than Answers

Yesterday we spent time taking a look at some of the questions facing the offensive side of the ball leading up to the season, and this week I want to spend time on what has to be most peoples' biggest concern – the defense. Will the Irish defense be strong enough to make a run at the National Championship?

Will the secondary continue to struggle in coverage this year? Is a lack of pass rush something we'll have to endure for yet another season? How will the linebacker position shake out? Can we expect a few heralded underclassmen to get on the field and make an impact?

Victor Abiamiri must step up and become the consistent, disruptive player we've seen flashes of during his first three years in South Bend if this defense is going to improve upon last year. It all starts up front, and while fans will bring up his seven sacks last year, that is hardly enough for the playmaker on your line, especially when nearly half of them came against Stanford at the end of the season.

Chris Frome, if fully healthy could be the answer opposite Abiamiri. Ronald Talley, Dwight Stephenson and Justin Brown will continue to battle it out for the spot opposite Abiamiri if Frome isn't healthy, however it's reasonable to expect we'll see a healthy rotation throughout the season. Travis Leitko had to leave Notre Dame last season to deal with some extremely unfortunate personal issues and has just returned to the school, however it remains to be seen if he will re-join the football team. It would be an obvious plus if he could return to the field this season and help out the pass rush.

Derek Landri and Trevor Laws give the Irish a solid one-two punch in the middle, however depth is a concern. Neither Pat Kuntz nor Darrell Hand have had significant playing time and I do worry about what we'd do if one of the starters we to get hurt. Landri and Laws will also need a breather in all games. Can Kuntz and Hand provide quality depth in 2006? So far they haven't shown they can, but they're just true sophomores at this point.

This season is going to be especially important for Landri as he will be eligible for the NFL draft in April. There isn't a big market for 6-foot-2, 265-pound defensive tackles at the professional level unless you're looking at a 1-gap team like the Philadelphia Eagles or Atlanta Falcons. Landri had bulked up to 285 pounds during spring, but he'd still be considered undersized even for most college teams.

While Landri is definitely a talented and scrappy player, he hasn't had the pass rush production (3.5 career sacks) that NFL teams look for. How he is used at Notre Dame has contributed a lot to that lack of production. However that won't make much difference to NFL scouts. What I am getting at is that Derek will be fighting both for team and personal accomplishment this season.

If you pay attention to message boards the Irish could be starting just about anyone except Kory Minor at linebacker this season, and furthermore, "insiders" even have us running a 4-2-5 defense like schools such as West Virginia or Toledo. I don't know how much I buy into those rumors, but keep in mind a 4-2-5 is essentially a nickel package, so it's not as if we'd be revolutionizing football here. That fifth guy could just as easily be a corner, safety or linebacker in different situations.

Maurice Crum is the lone returning starter, and we heard positive things about both Steve Quinn and Mitchell Thomas during spring ball. Everyone is waiting to see Anthony Vernaglia show why he was such a heavily recruited player out of Orange Lutheran high school and this could be the end of what seems like an eternity of waiting. What these guys lack in size they make up for with speed, and I'd expect Minter to be creative with his blitz packages and formations to confuse the opposing quarterback.

From all I've heard I wouldn't be surprised if Maurice Crum, Mitchell Thomas and Steve Quinn were our starters come September, but players like Joe Brockington and Abdel Banda will return from injuries and will try to get into the mix.

The Irish secondary have been the whipping boys among the national media for years now, yet I rarely hear those same detractors mention how hard it is to cover a receiver without a consistent pass rush. I'm not advocating that this unit doesn't need to improve drastically, but there are eleven players on the field.

Mike Richardson returns for what feels like his seventh season to start alongside the speedy Ambrose Wooden. Both players are suited to play more in press coverage, however Rick Minter wasn't able to use it enough in his first year due to a lack of consistent pass rush. Terrail Lambert reportedly had a great spring and will have an opportunity to impact the game in nickel packages.

Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe return at safety to complete a veteran Irish secondary, however experience hasn't really been the issue has it? This group really needs to step it up a notch if they have any expectations of a National Championship this year.

Charlie Weis knows as well as anybody what a special kicking game can do for a team, but unfortunately he goes into this year with the cupboard essentially bare. While the expectation is for freshman Ryan Burkhardt to come in and play immediately, it's a huge concern to not have at least some experience at the position. The Irish will also hand the ball to a new punter in 2006. Uncertainty in both kicking and punting is usually never a good recipe for a National Championship run.

The Irish certainly return a lot of talent in 2006, but they also have some holes that need to be addressed. It's quite possible they can do just that, but having essentially three linebackers starting at a new position for the first time, the lack of a consistent pass rush, and communication problems in the secondary usually isn't a formula for success. Hopefully the Irish can and have addressed all three issues heading into fall camp.

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories