Defense looking to take the next step.

Notre Dame's lofty No. 3 ranking in the first major poll of the college football season will be contradicted by so-called experts saying the Irish defense won't be good enough to give them a chance at the National Championship. The thing is, Irish defenders won't see and hear that just in the media, they will be hearing it on their own practice field.

"They are going to be played as the underdog the whole time and that is something psychologically very easy for me to play on," head coach Charlie Weis said during his press conference at Notre Dame's media day Sunday. "You guys aren't any good anyways, what difference does it make. That is what everyone is telling you. You might hear that once or twice…..about every five minutes."

Joking aside, Weis and his staff really put a lot of work last spring and this summer to improve a defense that finished 75th in the nation in total yardage (396.2). With nine-returning starters and most of the two-deep back, even with the question marks at linebacker, the Irish defense should be quite a bit better in 2006.

"We have a lot of reasons to believe that," Weis said. "Sometimes experience can be a negative, not a positive. Everyone says we got everyone back, but it's what they are doing being back. I think both on the coaching side and on the players' side, we have fixed a lot of problems and I expect that to show up early in the season.

"A lot of times in your first year, you are just putting it in, and you don't have a chance to tweak it," Weis continued, talking about his scheme. "I think that we have had some time to research, evaluation, other outside resources to take it to a different level than we were at last year."

One of the outside sources the Notre Dame coaching staff used were the NFL's Carolina Panthers coaching staff. During the summer Irish coaches made the trip down south to meet with Panthers head coach John Fox and one of the NFC's better coaching units.

"Every year, any year you are in college football you are going to make a professional enhancement trip," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. Minter and Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac worked together in the past. "We went down to the Panthers because we all have friends and connections there. They threw things off us, we threw things off them."

Though Minter said nothing was ground breaking, If the Notre Dame defense could resemble the Panthers defense, they will be in good shape.

The Panthers generate a great pass rush with a very physical defensive line. The Irish have the makings for a physical defensive line themselves, especially with a 285-pound Derek Landri in the middle.

"We have high expectations for our defensive line," Weis said.

Even with stud pass rusher Victor Abiamiri coming off the edge, the Irish only generated 31 sacks last season. That was something the unit as a whole worked on during the spring.

Defensive line coach Jappy Oliver hinted that the Irish defensive line could be in a position to solely think about the quarterback this year and leave the running back to the linebackers.

"Just turn em loose first of all," Oliver stated. "We as a coaching staff at times just need to turn my guys loose. I think that is something we want to do more and more. Just turn them loose, just straight rushes, getting after them. The quarterback is the issue and whether we are moving or not, just the fact that we are turning them loose and getting after them I think will be a major plus."

If that's the case, the linebackers, a pretty green linebacker corps, will be counted on to fill the gaps a lot of time.

Maurice Crum Jr., the strongside linebacker last season, and the only experienced player in the group, will enter fall camp as the middle linebacker. If this is the style the Irish choose to play, the junior Crum should greatly improve on his 57 tackles (sixth on the team) a year ago.

"Let him have the opportunity to make most of the plays," Weis said. "Lets say (Nick) Borseti or Toryan (Smith) or Scott Smith or one of those guys comes a long and they prove to be one of the best three linebackers, we know we can always move Maurice back out to SAM. Right now I want the guy leading the defense to be in the middle of the defense, and I think Maurice will be the guy clearly leading the defense."

Weis also stated that linebackers Mitchell Thomas and Anthony Vernaglia showed a lot of promise during the spring.

"I think the guys around me constantly say we are supposed to be the weak link and we don't want to be that," Crum said concerning his fellow linebackers. "I think that drive and motivation will push us to be better than people expect us to be."

Pushing the secondary to be better is five incoming freshman trying to impact positions that return the top two players from a year ago. Highly touted freshmen corners Raeshon McNeil and Darrin Walls are really expected to pressure their older teammates.

"This year going in, that gives us six corners walking in the door when last year we didn't even know who our second starter was," Weis said.

All-American safety Tom Zbikowski gave reasons to why the Irish secondary will be better.

"We worked this spring, not slowing things down, but kind of going back to basics, Cover 2, Cover 4, just really pretty much get it down pat, know it perfectly, know it inside and out.

"I think if you look, a lot of big plays last year, they came from communication breakdowns, not someone getting beat. Once we get that down, I think we will be good to go."

If Weis is right and the Irish defense looks a lot better early, then Notre Dame's season will be good to go as well.


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