The Notre Dame defense is lucky in the fact that they are pretty much carrying on with business as usual. The few wrinkles I did see were impressive. I think Notre Dame is going to gamble more on defense to try to force teams into making decisions before they would like. I saw quite a few blitzes from linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks. I will gladly embrace the more aggressive approach to defense. For the first time in years, I believe they have the athletes to gamble more on defense.
Let's start with the defensive line. The big guys seemed to be playing well. Darrell Campbell looks to be a man on a mission. He is always first in line to run any drill or to line up for a play from scrimmage. Campbell looks very strong and quick and passes the eye test. Cedric Hilliard has been banged up. He has a pulled glute from what I was told and sat most of the scrimmages. He looked very quick early and is one impressive physical specimen.
Ryan Roberts looks huge. He is very physically advanced and got good pressure up field during scrimmages. He has to keep his back healthy but he has been productive when he has been in there. Kyle Budinscak has been lining up at the opposite end. Budinscak is an effort player and goes very hard until he hears the sound of the whistle (and sometimes after). He is a younger player that could develop into a great defensive end for Notre Dame. He isn't overly fast but his effort gets him involved in most plays.
The second string was a level behind the first string but there is some talent there. Jason Sapp was impressive to watch. He has suffered some injuries but he looks fully healthy and really started to shine while rushing the passer. He holds his own against the run but can improve there. Greg Pauly has been running with the first team because of the injury to Hilliard. He has looked very good standing his ground against the run and showed some quickness to shoot the gaps in passing situations. He should develop into a nice player. Brian Beidatsch also impressed me with his effort. He needs to get bigger and stronger but he has nastiness to him. He showed some quickness and ability to get into the backfield.
The future at defensive end will likely be Jerome Collins and Justin Tuck. Tuck has quickness and can get to the QB. He needs to get much stronger however. He needs to work on his technique against the run but should develop into a great player. He has all the physical tools. Collins is one big man and could be an answer at weak side defensive end. He is such a great athlete. They played him some at defensive end and he played OLB lining up as a defensive end in the nickel package. He can really get after the quarterback. He needs to learn to play with better technique as well.
It was hard to focus on the freshmen. Derek Landri has been hurt so he hasn't played at all. Travis Leitko got the most reps from the freshmen. He looked pretty quick and he is a hard worker. Dan Santucci also got some looks. It appears he will play inside. He has a ways to go but he works hard and is an effort guy. Chris Frome looked the most athletic out of the bunch and I didn't get much of a look at Brian Mattes to really know what he can do. With pure numbers, the Irish should have bodies at least and hopefully 2-3 develops into quality starters.
The linebackers looked fantastic. Notre Dame hasn't had this level of athleticism at linebacker in quite some time. The good news is that most appear to play football well as well. Courtney Watson has had a great fall so far. He might be the best linebacker we have had for quite some time. He just makes plays all over the field. He returned one interception in practice and he looked like the fastest player on the team. Mike Goolsby has also stepped up his play. He has the perfect size for inside linebacker and he can run. He is very physical and plays with effort. If he can limit his mistakes, he will have a great year for the Irish. He looks to be more comfortable with the defense this year.
Derek Curry is the starter at OLB. He really impressed me in the spring game and impressed me again with his play this fall. He is always around the football and he gets into the backfield often. He has nice quickness but doesn't possess blazing speed. He is around the ball and has great instincts. Another player that I love is Brandon Hoyte. Brandon is a very vocal and fired up guy. He takes that enthusiasm and uses it with every tackle or play he makes. He is going 100% all the time and makes play after play. He is behind Watson but has as much potential as Watson. Notre Dame is lucky to have him.
Carlos Pierre-Antoine is the back up to Goolsby. He has really stepped up his play as well and I am not sure that the job is Goolsby's for sure. Carlos is one big, strong guy and has a lot of speed. He needs to be more instinctual. Corey Mays appears to be the future at MLB. He didn't get a lot of reps but showed he was physical and can move pretty well. It should be interesting to see if he can get in the running for the #2 spot here. Joe Thomas and Pat Ryan look to be solid players that will add depth. I am not sure how much time they will see. Thomas has the better shot to play this year.
The secondary is something to get very excited about. Notre Dame has their best corner tandem in years. Shane Walton is back for his final year and I swear he is faster than before. I don't know where he found the speed but he sure looks to be faster this year. Maybe its just confidence. He plays with perfect technique. Vontez Duff has really developed into a fine corner. He is a ball player. He is always in a position to make a play on the ball. His technique isn't quite as good as Walton but he makes up for that in speed, quickness and athleticism. Duff has a tremendous amount of potential.
It's amazing how much better a player looks when healthy. Gerome Sapp looks to be 100% and played like it this fall. He will lower the boom and can stay with the best receivers in coverage. I expect a big year out of him. Some players just have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Free safety Glenn Earl would be that type of player. He has made so many big plays in the limited time he has had. He also looks 100% and ready to play. He also should have a good year.
As for the future, the future is bright. I was very impressed with the athletic skills of Lionel Bolen. Bolen is just a natural athlete and could play a number of positions for the Irish. He has excellent size as well as speed and is a ball player as well. He is always looking for the ball in the air. I was also impressed with the play of Quinten Burrell. Burrell was playing mostly corner and was being inserted as the nickel or dime back at times. He looked very fluid in one on one situations and also played the ball while it was in the air.
Going into practice, I had heard that Dwight Ellick has struggled making the transition to corner. I would guess he has improved because he wasn't getting turned around as much as I was led to believe. He is a gamer with great speed but does have some more learning to do with regards to technique. With some good coaching, I think Ellick can contribute in the future. Freshman Mike Richardson really impressed me as well. He has never played corner to my knowledge and he was hanging in there with ND's best wide receivers. He wasn't making a lot of plays but was in good position to make plays often. He needs to learn more in technique but he seemed to have a handle on the position.
Jake Carney is another freshman who looks to have potential. He was playing quite a bit in nickel and dime situations and he is a gamer. He jumped right in and is pretty vocal for a freshman. He will have the right attitude. With the lack of depth at safety, he could see some action.
Preston Jackson and Jason Beckstrom will likely be the next two corners to come in after the starters. Beckstrom looked healthy and then got banged up. He did look very good before he got hurt. Jackson is another very vocal guy. He plays with a real passion and he is a fighter. He can cover but is a little small. I expect both to get in quite a bit this year.
Overall, I was very impressed with the defense. Not only the starters but also most of the second team. I do think Notre Dame needs to develop some young defensive linemen. This unit should keep Notre Dame in most games. I don't expect them to look like Miami but they will be a lot better than a lot of people think. Probably the most important thing I can say about this unit is they play with enthusiasm. I never felt that the Davie defense played with the kind of enthusiasm that you need. These kids are out having a lot of fun and I think Coach Baer is going to let them loose this year. I am very excited about the defense.