We all know defensive end Trevor Laws is going to have an outstanding senior season, but Laws can't do it without help. With the recent suspension of backup nose guard Derrell Hand, the Irish are woefully thin along the defensive line heading into the 2007 season. Some players will have to step up immediately for the Irish to have another solid season.
What to watch: The first thing to look for is size. Have these guys added some size? Justin Brown (255), Dwight Stephenson (257) and Kallen Wade (240) are all very small for defensive ends in a 3-4 look defense. Pat Kuntz (272) is also light for a starting nose guard position considering most nose guards are north of 300 pounds. Paddy Mullen (285) and Trevor Laws (295) do have the size needed, but only Laws has much experience. Size and strength will give this unit a fighting chance.
Switchback? Sophomore Chris Stewart spent the spring on the defensive side of the ball after enrolling into Notre Dame as an offensive guard. Rumors had circulated that Stewart was switching back to the offensive line, but with the loss of Hand, Stewart may find a permanent home at nose guard.
The freshmen: The suspension of Hand, freshman Ian Williams might be forced into action even quicker than he thought. The good news is that Williams is very strong for a freshman, and should be close to 300 pounds when the season kicks off. Emeka Nwankwo and Andrew Nuss will most likely start out along the defensive line as well. Williams has the best chance to make an impact early.
The future: Probably more than any position, the chance of future success on defense will rest on the progress of players like Wade, Kuntz and Mullen, as well as the freshmen. Notre Dame certainly has a lot of talent enrolling next year at defensive line, but these players will be the immediate future, and they'll have to step up in a big way for the Irish to challenge for anything in the future. Watch their progress because it will be key.
Crum and who?Notre Dame has plenty of numbers at linebacker this season, but we're not sure which players will be starting. As Lou Holtz used to say; "if you can't name a starter, you essentially have two backups." Notre Dame needs to be able to find four starters quickly or it could be a long season on defense.
Outside: The big question is who will start at outside linebacker. The one name who seems to be a constant is John Ryan. Ryan is known as a tough competitor who plays very physical. But is he a great pass rusher in this defense? Will he be an every down player? The other position could see Anthony Vernaglia start, who has impressed at times but needs to be more consistent. At the end of spring practice junior Scott Smith appeared to be the starter at the other spot. The X factor is Kerry Neal. Can he take one of the outside positions? He certainly has the athletic ability.
My thoughts? I think you'll see some musical chairs with the outside position most of the year. Corwin Brown knows he has some guys who do some things very well at the outside backer position, but I'm not sure he has any complete players at this point. Neal could definitely fit the bill, but how quickly can he learn the scheme? I think you'll see all four mentioned play early for the Irish, and you may see Morrice Richardson as well.
Toryan Time: Let me be clear in saying that I thought Joe Brockington was playing as well as anyone at the end of last season at linebacker. So why would I pick Smith over Brockington? Because Smith is a natural inside linebacker perfect for this offense. He has excellent size, instincts and quickness. His instincts and nastiness will be what wins him this spot.
The Freshmen: Besides Neal, Irish fans will get their first look at Aaron Nagel (inside backer), Steve Paskorz (inside backer) and Brian Smith (outside backer). We've heard all three showed up in fine condition and with pretty good size. I don't expect any to see the field much this year unless it's on special teams.
Experience: Some Irish fans tend to be intrigued with the sidelines. Someone on the sidelines can always do it better some think. With the coaching experience of Bill Lewis and Corwin Brown, I have to feel that these two will know who the two best are, and my guess is the two best corners will be Ambrose Wooden and Terrail Lambert come September 1. Why? Nobody seemed to put up much of a challenge during spring practice.
The end of the big play: "Too complicated" is all I heard coming from Irish defenders when asked why the Rick Minter defense failed. Most just weren't 100 percent sure what they were supposed to do on any given play. This forced them to play slow, and to have some serious breakdowns in coverage. Will we finally see the end of the big play? There shouldn't be any excuses at this point.
Time to step forward: Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil enrolled into Notre Dame with a lot of fanfare. Both played as true freshmen, and both had some ups and downs, which is to be expected. Neither has shown thus far that they're a real threat to Wooden and Lambert. They've added a third class member, Munir Prince, to the corner position as well, and I've heard he's been very impressive in a short period of time. These three will have to stake claim to their spot this season or they'll likely get passed by when freshman Gary Gray and 2008 future signees Robert Blanton and Jamoris Slaughter get into the mix. Their time to shine is now.
Athletic, but? We've all known for quite some time how athletic free safety David Bruton is, but is he the answer? I've heard he has shown a lot of potential thus far with the first unit, but just needs to be a bit more consistent. If he can put it all together, look out….
Also time to step forward: Juniors Ray Herring and Kyle McCarthy, and sophomores Sergio Brown, Jasaad Gaines and Leonard Gordon, will need to also stake their claim this season. With the departure of Tom Zbikowski after this season, and the amount of dime coverage teams play, someone in this group will have to step forward or some talented young players could end up jumping this group for playing time.
The freshmen: Corner Gary Gray looks to be on the sidelines for most of the season after having surgery earlier this spring. Safety prospect Harrison Smith seems like a prime candidate to get on the field at least for special teams. He has outstanding speed and is quite an athlete. Don't be surprised to see him on the field early on special teams.
Notre Dame does not release a depth chart, so we've tried to put together one of our own for our customers heading into fall camp. This is our best attempt at a defensive depth chart to the best of our knowledge.
Justin Brown or Dwight Stephenson
Anthony Vernaglia or Scott Smith
Toryan Smith or Joe Brockington
Sergio Brown or Kyle McCarthy
Raeshon McNeil or Leo Ferrine