Opportunty Abounds at D-line

Continuing on with our spring preview series, today we take a look at the defensive line heading into spring practice. With a new defensive coordinator, and with a new defensive scheme being put in place, the defensive side of the ball will be just as interesting to follow as the race to replace Brady Quinn this spring.

Defensive line coach Jappy Oliver has his work cut out for him over the next few months. The Irish have to replace three starters along the defensive line, and two that were pretty much three-year starters for the Irish in Victor Abiamiri and Derek Landri. The Irish are both thin on depth and experience along the D-line heading into the spring, and some might suggest talent as well.

The big question on everyone's mind is if the Irish will switch to a 3-4 defensive this spring. I don't believe we have the definitive answer to that question just yet, but many expect we will see new Irish defensive coordinator Corwin Brown making the transition this spring. I also believe we'll see the switch.

Out of all the possible fifth-year candidates who could apply for another year, the most important player the Irish needed to return, at least in my mind, was defensive lineman Trevor Laws. Without Laws, I think this unit would really struggle next season, but the 6-foot-1, 285-pound senior should provide a rock for which Oliver can build this young and inexperienced line.

Laws will certainly add some weight and strength this winter, spring and summer. He'll need to if the Irish switch to the rumored 3-4 defense this spring. I'd suggest Laws is probably the only player who would be strong enough to man the middle or nose position for this type of defense, if they do make the switch, as the rest of the depth is rather young and probably not as strong as the Burnsville, Minn, native.

Behind Laws you have a whole group of players who haven't played much football for the Irish.

The next most experienced player is probably Justin Brown. Brown has been in the program for three years now and has two years of eligibility left. He recorded six tackles this past season with 1.5 sacks.

At 6-foot-3, 254 pounds, he doesn't have ideal size for a 3-4 defensive end. He does bring some quickness and speed, however, and might be a great guy off the end in pass-rushing situations. But to play defensive end in this scheme, he'll need to add some size and strength over the off season if this is where he'll be slotted to play. Some think he may end up as an outside linebacker in this defense. We'll have to wait and see, but he should be able to get to 265 pounds rather easily. Ideally, you'd like for any defensive end to be a little heavier than 265 in the 3-4 defense.

The next player with the most experience is probably Pat Kuntz. Kuntz has also played two seasons for the Irish already and recorded seven tackles this past season as a backup defensive tackle. He has two years of eligibility left as well.

At 6-foot-2, 270 pounds, Kuntz better fits the mold of defensive end in the expected 3-4 scheme. What I like most about Kuntz is he's a fighter. He's the type that's throwing a few jabs down in the bottom of the pile, and that will be a very welcomed attitude for this type of defense. The switch to this scheme is probably excellent news for Kuntz as I'm not sure he'd ever get to 300 pounds, an ideal weight for a defensive tackle. He should be at 280 no problem by this fall and it will be good weight where he can still move and use his quickness.

Freshman John Ryan also gained some experience this year backing up Abiamiri from the defensive end position. He logged four tackles and a tackle for loss during his first Irish season. He has three seasons of eligibility.

At the listed 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, he's obviously a little light to play defensive end in this scheme, but he is a true freshman, and most true freshmen make their most weight and strength gains between their freshmen and sophomore years as they work for the first time with a state-of-the-art strength and conditioning program.

I'd expect Ryan to end up around the 260-265 range by next fall, and while he'll be a little light, he's got a lot of that fighter in him that Kuntz possesses, and a big reason he saw the field this past season. The switch also might end up being a good one for Ryan in the end.

Another player Irish fans don't know much about yet is 6-foot-3, 285-pound sophomore Derrell Hand. Hand has yet to play much for Notre Dame, but it's mostly been due to the Philadelphia, Pa, native's injury problems that have kept him off the field….the latest being said to be a back injury after a foot injury sidelined him earlier this season. He also has three years of eligibility.

Hand enrolled at over 300 pounds, so he can easily add more weight, but a strength coach would want it to be good weight, and so far Hand has done a very nice job reshaping his body. Hopefully he can get healthy because they could use his body inside at the nose position. Hand could really be an important key in this transition as the Irish will need to find a solid backup and future starter for the nose position. Hand is the most natural candidate to replace Laws.

Another freshman, who will also factor into the mix this spring, is 6-foot-5, 265-pound Paddy Mullen. The St. Louis, Mo. native is a big man who will only get bigger. He's another player this change of defense could really be good for as I'm not sure he'd ever be quick enough to play defensive end in a 4-3, but at 6-foot-5, he's not the ideal defensive tackle/nose guard height. He'll have four seasons of eligibility after red-shirting this season.

Mullen also bring some attitude to the position, and he looks the ideal candidate for one of the defensive end positions in both body size and physical play needed. He also could possibly move inside as he looks like he can easily add weight to his 6-foot-5 frame. He'll be one to watch this spring.

We've also heard freshman offensive lineman Chris Stewart might be switching to the defensive side of the ball. Stewart is listed at 6-foot-5, 367 pounds currently, and enrolled at close to 390 as a freshman last season. Stewart certainly has the body size needed to man the middle position, and with a full year in the strength and conditioning program, he's probably getting close to being able to compete strength-wise along the defensive line as he's already a naturally strong man.

However, strength coach Ruben Mendoza will have his hands full trying to keep Stewart to the 340 pounds he'll likely need to be at to play the defensive side of the ball effectively. Any nose man endures a tremendous amount of double teams and physical play, and an out of shape nose man won't get the job done. Stewart has shown a commitment already to try to get into shape. Hopefully he'll continue along that path as he'll need to shed some pounds to be ready to play on the other side of the ball. He currently has four years of eligibility.

Another freshman, 6-foot-5, 220-pound Kallen Wade, could also factor into the mix, but many suggest that Wade would probably be a better outside linebacker candidate than a defensive end candidate—at least initially. Wade has a long way to go to gain the size and strength needed to play defensive end, and he probably needs to catch up in the physical play department as well. I'm going to guess Wade ends up playing outside linebacker this spring, but I think that will all depend on how much weight and strength he gains this off season. He has plenty of time to mature as he has four seasons of eligibility.

Fifth-year senior Dwight Stephenson will also return. Stephenson has played his entire career at defensive line, but at 6-foot-2, 248 pounds, I'm not sure he's an ideal player at defensive end. He's already matured physically as a fifth-year player, so I'm not sure how much bigger he can get.

Why would he want to come back? Would he be a better fit at linebacker? Maybe even inside linebacker? I'll admit that I'm not sure where he'll end up this spring, but he is a guy who can run pretty well and was known as a very physical player coming out of high school. Unfortunately for Stephenson, he's been kind of a "tweener" in that he's not been able to find his ideal position in the 4-3 scheme.

Freshman Morrice Richardson also played some defensive end this past fall, but we fully expect the Irish to use his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame to come off the edge at outside linebacker this spring.

I must admit that I wasn't overly happy when I heard the 3-4 defense was likely coming to South Bend. I suppose like anyone, I resist change. I can't say I'm an expert in either the 3-4 or the 4-3, not even close, but after researching and writing this article, I can fully understand why it's coming.

When you look at Notre Dame's young personnel along the defensive line, their bodies and style of play really do look more like a 3-4 than a 4-3 defense. The Irish won't get a lot of sacks out of these three down linemen in the future, but they should get a whole lot of physical play. Notre Dame's best chance for speed on defense would be at the linebacker position, and they do have a lot of players who can run at the linebacker position. The next test will be teaching them how to play linebacker, and play it well, because these four starters will be asked to make a lot of plays for the Irish in the next few years.

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