The "Big Uglies" have been one of the most important reasons the Irish defense has played well this year. They are big but I am not sure I would call them ugly. The starter who has made the most progress this year I think is Darrell Campbell. Darrell struggled at times last year against the run but he has been handling the double team this year and pushing back. Campbell has always been a better than average pass rusher. He has now become a complete player. Campbell has 2 sacks this year and many other quarterback pressures this year. Darrell's job most days is to take on the double team or get in the backfield. He has been doing both very well. Oh yeah, he has another year left.
Cedric Hilliard has also made considerable improvement this year. Big Ced has shown flashes of his vast talent and has finally put it all together. These two interior guys are not going to show up with large numbers on the stat sheets but they are more than doing their jobs. They occupy offensive linemen so our lightening quick linebackers can clean up the play. I haven't seen two more productive interior defensive linemen play for Notre Dame in quite some time. You would have to go back a long way to find two more productive starters playing together for Notre Dame. Ced has 4 tackles for loss and 2 sacks so far this year. You won't find a guy who has been held more this year without getting the call either. Both Ced and Campbell have been getting that needed push up the field to collapse the pocket in pass rushing situation. He is also back for another year next year.
Ryan Roberts has also stepped up his game. People will be shocked to know that Ryan Roberts is leading this team in sacks with 4. He has quietly put together a very productive season while being replaced in obvious passing situations with Justin Tuck. Roberts has also done a nice job against the run with 15 total tackles on the season. Roberts has been playing outstanding in a limited role.
Kyle Budinscak has also had a productive year. He doesn't have many tackles (6) but does have 2 tackles for loss and one sack. I expect Kyle to improve as he gains more experience just as Hilliard and Campbell did as the year went on. He will be back for two more years.
The biggest surprise has been Justin Tuck. Tuck does not start and usually won't play half the game but he has 11 tackles (10 solo) and 3 tackles for loss with 2 sacks. Tuck has many more quarterback hurries and has been a dominating pass rusher the Irish desperately need this year. He has been held more times than we can count. Justin Tuck has the most potential I've seen as a pass rusher at Notre Dame in a very, very long time. What is even more encouraging is that he can also tackle and play the run as evidence in his total tackle count so far this year. He will improve and I expect very big things from him in the future. The good news is we get three more wonderful years of this talent.
Depth is a concern and Notre Dame is starting to play more backups. Greg Pauly has been getting quite a few snaps. The snaps haven't made an impact on the stat sheet but he is getting valuable playing experience. He will have a couple of years as well.
One player who appears to have as much talent as Justin Tuck is Jerome Collins. Collins is 6-5 and 260 pounds and still ran a 4.6 40-yard dash in the spring. Collins has made the switch to defensive end this season and it will take some time. Collins is probably as athletic if not more athletic than Tuck. If he can turn his athletic ability into production and sacks, Notre Dame should have a very dominant defensive line in the future.
Other players such as Brian Beidatsch and Jason Sapp have also gotten valuable minutes. The key is to develop this depth so they are ready to step in when players graduate. Two interior guys will be needed at the end of next year so somebody will have to develop to take the place of Hilliard and Campbell.
To be a great defense, you need excellent defensive line play. Notre Dame's corners and linebackers have looked outstanding this year but they have to give a lot of credit to the Notre Dame defensive line. They are stuffing the run and forcing teams to pass. When they do pass, the defensive line is providing enough pressure to force quarterbacks to make decisions before they would like. I expect to see this line only get better and I think you will see many more sacks in the near future. The first and foremost responsibility of the defensive line is to stop the run. They are giving up an average of 73 yards rushing a game. They are doing an outstanding job against the run.