Their lack of elite talent and depth eventually caught up to them. Knowing the Irish offense was sub-par, teams went after the Irish aggressively. The Irish weren't able to put much pressure on opposing defenses this season. The defense up to this point is statistically better than the 2005 defense but not as good as the 2006 defense.
So why am I so excited about the play of the Irish defense this season? Why am I looking forward to the remainder of this season defensively? Why in the world am I looking forward to seeing the Irish defense during the 2008 season? Two words.....Corwin Brown. There is a bunch to be excited about from a talent standpoint in the future, but Corwin Brown is the reason for my optimism. As it was under Rick Minter, the players have to make plays. So of course the success of the Irish defense ultimately comes down to whether or not the players can make plays. But there are attributes that great defenses must possess that the Irish have lacked the last two seasons.
Passion, emotion, toughness, and the mental ability to overcome adversity, those are the traits that I speak of. This is a season where one might expect the Irish defense to quit, to become frustrated, and to start pointing the finger at the horrible special teams and even worse offense, but we saw none of that this season. What we have witnessed is a unit that continues to play with more and more fire and intensity each week.
Watching the Trojans of Southern Cal hang 38 on the Irish left a bittersweet taste in my mouth. Anyone who watched that game knows there is plenty of work to do. Anyone who watched that game also knows that the Irish defense didn't give up 38 points. Anyone who watched that game knows that the Irish offense isn't always going to be this bad. Anyone who watched that game has to get excited about that last thought. When the Irish offense finally gets on track it's going to make this defense that much better.
Schematically I haven't seen nearly the complexity as I anticipated. Perhaps that is a good thing. The first issue is a lack of depth. While the depth up front is solid, the lack of depth at the linebacker position hurts the Irish. The lack of beef up front, outside of Trevor Laws, also really hurt the Irish this season. Heart and intensity only gets you so far. Let's be honest, Patrick Kuntz should be playing the end position for Notre Dame. It's hard to ask that young man, as well everyone on that line not named Trevor Laws, to hold up as much as they were asked.
The Irish defense has been on the field for an average of 74.5 plays per game this season. Compare that with 62.1 plays last season and 67.8 plays during the 2005 season. Take into account the numerous short field situations the defense was put in and that stat is even more remarkable. This defense simply wore down, but the fire never went away.
Now let's get back to the schemes of the defense. Another factor that went into the simplicity of the schemes this season is the fact it's a new defense. I felt that Coach Brown has done a tremendous job coming up with effective game plans (after the Georgia Tech game) that also were simple enough for the Irish to execute. We have seen far fewer big plays given up this season against the Irish defense. We have seen far fewer blown assignments this season from the Irish defense. The final factor is that you can't be very aggressive defensively when you don't trust your offense to move the ball and score points or for your special teams to help you in the field position battle. You must take a more conservative approach in this situation.
As the offense improves we will see a more aggressive style from the Irish front seven. With the Irish taking a more basic approach on defense, combined with the size of the defenders, the opponents were able to really move the ball on the ground. In order to prevent this in the future the Irish will need to play with a more aggressive mentality from a play-calling standpoint.
Another bright spot for the Irish defense is an influx of speed the last two seasons. It's been a very long time since the words "fast" and "Irish defense" were used in the same sentence unless the word "not" was also included. While this problem hasn't been completely rectified the Irish have taken huge steps. We'll get into more specifics later, but when I watch players like Kerry Neal, Brian Smith, Darrin Walls, and David Bruton play defense I see speed. The Irish need more of that.
When I first heard about this defense I thought we would see a different personnel set. I imagined guys like John Ryan playing end and guys like Kerry Neal being the outside backers. But having watched the defense this season I realize that the Irish have a serious need for beef. For the Irish defense to reach its peak we need to see more beef. We need to see players like Pat Kuntz manning the edge and for more Ian Williams-type players to be brought in for the nose. I've purposely avoided recruiting talk in this article. This is an article about the current football team. If the Irish can hold onto the entire defense class they have committed right now that won't be a problem in the very near future.
DEFENSIVE LINE – I have a confession to make. In the off-season I kept telling people not to worry as much about the Irish defensive line. "They'll be okay," I kept telling my friends and concerned Irish fans. I must be honest, that is not at all how I felt. I was sincerely worried about the Irish front line just getting destroyed.
Trevor Laws to me was the only player the Irish had. The next most talented guy was a true freshman, Ian Williams. I began having nightmares heading into the Georgia Tech game. That game only backed up my fears. But something happened against Penn State, went away against Michigan, re-appeared against Michigan State, and has been steadily growing every week. The Irish defensive line started to make plays. You have to credit Jappy Oliver. Coach Oliver has taken a lot of heat the last three years at Notre Dame. For what, I do not know. Despite having good but not great talent and no depth the Irish defensive lines have been quite effective. He has been able to maximize the abilities of Laws, Kuntz, Brown, Stephenson, and Williams this season. At some point he has to get credit for the production of the defensive front.
Laws became an absolute monster. I expected him to have a big season, but he has far surpassed my expectations. With the fact he was surrounded by lesser players, he was going to get double-teamed all day. He has, but that hasn't stopped him from putting up tremendous numbers. Right now Laws is on pace for 100 tackles. That's an incredible number for a defensive end in the 3-4.
He has made play after play this season. Whether it be making a stop in the backfield, pressuring the quarterback, batting down balls, or blocking a kick, the Minnesota native has made his presence more than known this season. When you talk about the Irish defensive line play it begins with Laws. I haven't seen an Irish defensive lineman play this well in my life. Now, before you start throwing names out at me, remember that when Bryant Young was dominating in South Bend I was in Junior High. But that is still quite a long time.
But it doesn't end with Laws. Patrick Kuntz is a player who has really showed me something this season. First of all Kuntz is playing out of position. We all know that. He is a jacked up 285 pounds and is by no means a nose guard. I knew it would be a matter of time before Ian Williams beat him out. Shows what I know. Kuntz has been a warrior all season. He has his limitations. As the game wears on he wears down a bit. He just isn't big enough to hold up for 70 snaps a game. He struggles at times beating double teams. but Kuntz has made his fair share of plays this season as well.
He and Laws are great at knocking down passes. What is going on is the Irish players are being taught that if you aren't getting pressure find the football. They are doing a great job of finding the football and knocking it down. There have been several knock downs that have come at critical times when the defense was having trouble getting off the field. I commend Jappy Oliver for this just as much as I do Kuntz and Laws. Kuntz would be better served during the 2008 season to play end, but right now his play as a nose guard has far exceeded what I felt he could accomplish.
Ian Williams has shown flashes as well. For a 6-foot-2, 300-pound guy, he is very quick off the ball. As you would expect he struggles with consistency, but when he is right you see why the Irish coaches are so high on him. He is naturally strong, has a great first step, and has a motor that doesn't stop. I remember watching a play this season, I wish I could remember what game, but Williams was getting driven off the ball. He spun out of the block and chased down the ball carrier, who had broken downfield. It was a great effort play. I have seen this several times from Ian. As he gets stronger, gets in better shape, and gets more used to the physical nature of college football, he has a chance to be outstanding.
The platoon of Justin Brown and Dwight Stephenson has also been very effective. Neither player is great as a 60+ snap a game guy, but as a duo they are effective. Both players have been stout against the run this season despite the fact both players are undersized for the position. Stephenson uses toughness, leverage, and experience to make plays. Brown uses a good reach and his athletic ability to make plays. When both of these guys have been playing together they have been effective; when Brown was out with injury, Stephenson's play tailed off a bit. You have to appreciate the "story" behind Dwight Stephenson as well. After struggling early in his career and never seeing the field he came back for a fifth season. Not many people outside of the Stephenson family expected much from the young man, but the Irish defense would not be as effective as it is if he wasn't a part of this unit. In a year where the talent wasn't high the Irish needed warriors. Dwight Stephenson was one of those players for Notre Dame this season.
Derrell Hand hasn't played as much as the two other ends. At times he hasn't looked very good, but as the season has dragged on he has begun to show more flashes. If he can continue to get in better shape and keep his nose clean he has a chance to help out much more during the 2008 season. One player whose development is going to be worth watching is Kallen Wade. If Kallen is able to gain the necessary strength and mass to play end I think he could really be a solid player. He's a sleeper prospect whose best days are ahead of him. He might never pan out and see serious minutes, but he's a young man with the raw ability to come out of nowhere and be a player. It will be interesting to see what happens with him.
INSIDE LINEBACKER – This was a position I expected more from. I felt that Maurice Crum would be able to make a nice transition into the inside linebacker position in the 3-4. Crum's play this season has been inconsistent. At times, like the UCLA and Michigan State games, he has looked outstanding. At other times, like the Purdue and Michigan games, he has disappeared. Maurice has to become a much more sound tackler if he ever wants to reach his maximum potential. He also has to learn to play with more consistent aggression. The inside linebacker position in the 3-4 is a bit more reactionary than the Mike linebacker position in the 4-3. Once you diagnose what is happening, you have to be aggressive downhill. At times Crum was far too passive, caught too many blocks, and was taken right out of the play. I'm glad to hear he is coming back next season. I hope that a year in the new system and some extra motivation will allow him to play more consistently. The Irish defense needs him to do so.
Joe Brockington is another of those warriors I referred to earlier. You have to love players like Brockington. He's not the most talented guy in the world, but he gives you all he has. This young man loves contact. In between the tackles this season Brockington has been very effective. He is rarely out of position, from what I can tell, and does an adequate job taking on much bigger blockers. Brockington isn't that big but plays big. You have to respect that. Where he struggles is when asked to play laterally. If you get him working laterally or outside of the tackle box he struggles. He's not the fastest or smoothest athlete and struggles a bit in space.
Toryan Smith is a unique player. He doesn't always look great. At times he looks a bit tentative, as if he isn't sure where he is supposed to go. When I see that I don't get all that excited. Then you see him know exactly where to go, he just flies to that spot, and blows up whoever he comes in contact with. Despite his inconsistency at times, he absolutely wrecked UCLA at times. As he becomes more comfortable in the system his game translates perfectly to what you want out of your 3-4 inside linebacker. He's a bigger, stronger athlete who can take on blocks and smack people. His progression is vital for the 2008 defensive unit. He needs to finish this season strong.
It will be interesting to see how the young linebackers progress. At worse I expect Steve Paskorz and Aaron Nagel to be very good special teams players. At best both have the toughness and athletic ability to be very solid inside linebackers. My only question with Paskorz is whether or not he has the instincts. I'm not saying he does or doesn't. I'm saying I don't know if he does or doesn't and that will determine how good he can be. My question with Nagel is whether or not he can get big enough and still stay fast enough to be effective. It will also be interesting to see if the makeup of the defensive staff changes for the 2008 season.
I don't feel the inside linebackers are always the best prepared bunch. They don't always look sure of where they are going, and they don't always play with very good technique. Whether that's lack of coaching, I don't know, but I think it couldn't hurt to have a more consistent presence with these guys. To me, the inside linebackers are the key to this defense being great.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER – While this unit didn't play great this season, no unit on defense has me more excited. As the season has wore on the puppies have pushed the veterans to the side. Kerry Neal, John Ryan, Brian Smith, and Morrice Richardson are all very young players. Ryan and Richardson got very little playing time in 2006 and Neal and Smith are true freshmen. At times these guys tantalize you with their speed, athletic ability, and play-making skills. Neal brings a speed and athletic dimension to the front that they haven't had since Justin Tuck. I feel Neal's upside far surpasses that of Tuck. He has a ton of work to get there, but the talent is evident. But these youngsters have also had moments where you say to yourself, "Yep, he's a rookie."
John Ryan is a hard guy to read. At times I am scratching my head at his inability to get off a block. At other times he shows a real good toughness on the edge and a fine knack as a pass rusher. I tend to forget sometimes he is just a sophomore and a first-year starter. Compared to the other outside backers he's a grizzled vet! Ryan has to get healthy and stronger. He's not the athlete that Neal, Smith, and Richardson are, but don't think for a moment he's un-athletic. Ryan is a smooth football player, but he must get stronger in order to be more effective on the edge. He's really the guy responsible for stopping the outside run, or at least containing it. If he is able to get stronger and be more consistent he'll be a player. If he doesn't he could get beaten out by a younger player.
Kerry Neal is the player with the highest ceiling. Everything we saw him do this season he did with just natural ability. As he gets stronger, gets taught to play with better technique, and gets used to playing at the point of attack, he's going to be real good. As a pass rusher Neal just uses speed. When the Irish go to their "Nickel" and "Dime" packages he is the edge rusher. At times he has been able to really collapse the pocket but the pressure hasn't been consistent. That's due mainly to the fact he really only has one move, and that's run by the guy.
As he gets more comfortable playing outside backer he'll then be able to work on and develop better pass rush moves as an end in those packages. He and Smith are keys to the Irish becoming a better pass rush team, which is an absolute MUST! When Neal has struggled this season is when opponents run right at him. It's obvious he doesn't have the strength to hold up against big tackles and tight ends at this point. He'll make his fair share of plays but just isn't there yet. Ideally you'd want to have him being more of a pass rusher as a freshman. The Irish didn't have that luxury and he had to play, he was simply too good to keep off the field. While it might have caused inconsistency and struggles at times as a freshman, I believe it will make him a much better player in future seasons.
Brian Smith is the surprise of this class. When I watched film of Smith coming out of high school I liked what I saw. I loved the fact that he wanted to come to Notre Dame, his dad played here, and I was happy for him. I thought he might be able to play for the Irish in his career. He wasn't a legacy recruit. I had no idea he would be this good this fast. Smith had many of the same struggles as did Kerry Neal as a freshman. Smith isn't quite as explosive as Neal, but is stronger at the point of attack. While both bring excitement to the game they are different athletes. Smith is the more physical, high-energy guy. Neal is the athlete. That's a good combination.
To me, Morrice Richardson is going to be one of those "late bloomer" type players. Right now he seems like more of an athlete than a football player, but he has shown steady progress. Once he gets the technique and pass rush moves down he has a chance to be a real good player. This unit has potential for great depth. Richardson, for a player who is only 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, is actually a pretty physical young man. He holds up well against the run and has a real good first step. It's funny how easy it is to critique Richardson, Neal, and Smith. They all really have to work on the same things. Get stronger, play with better technique, get stronger at the point of attack, and learn more pass rush moves than "run by him." This unit has potential to be a great one, although it might have been the least productive this season.
DEFENSIVE BACK – You have to love the coaching union of Bill Lewis and Corwin Brown. It's a coaching match made in heaven. Lewis is a guy I always thought of as an aggressive, man-to-man type of secondary coach. I remember his secondary units with the Dolphins being some of the best in the NFL at playing man-to-man. That style didn't match at all with what the Irish did defensively during the 2005 and 2006 seasons. It matches up quite nicely with what Corwin Brown wants to do. The secondary for the Irish has been solid all season. In order for the defense to achieve elite status, however, they have to get better.
I felt this unit has done a very good job all season defending the pass. Outside of the great play by Vidal Hazelton against USC, and the Michigan game, I don't remember this unit getting beat deep very often. It's been a solid unit. When they have gotten hurt guarding the pass is when teams have had far too much time to throw the football. This defense has to get better at pressuring the quarterback. The other area of concern has been the "Nickel" back. Ambrose Wooden has manned this position most of the season and has struggled. When he isn't getting beat he is being called for pass interference. The best job I saw a slot defender do all season was the job Raeshon McNeil did against Purdue. Despite getting beat twice by Dorien Bryant I felt McNeil really did a solid job.
Terrail Lambert has been solid all season, despite taking quite a bit of criticism on message boards. He isn't a superstar player, but he is a solid player. He wasn't great against Michigan, but for most of the season his name hasn't been called very often. Like an offensive linemen, the less you hear a cornerbacks name called the more productive he is playing.
Despite his thin frame Darrin Walls has been outstanding as a cover cornerback this season. He struggles at times against bigger receivers, which is why Purdue hurts him, but he really has grown as a player. Walls is very natural in coverage. He has quick feet, great hips, and plays the ball well most of the time. The Pennsylvania native also has surprisingly good speed. He is very smooth and when he runs he doesn't look all that fast, but he is. As he continues to develop physically he will only get better in coverage.
David Bruton has been the ultimate centerfielder, outside of one pass against Chris Bell and Penn State. He shows very good sideline-to-sideline range, and when asked he has been solid coming up in run support. Tom Zbikowski is not a great cover guy, but when asked to do so this season he has been decent. He isn't nearly as bad as you would think if you only read the message boards and didn't watch the games. He will never be considered anything more than an average coverage safety. Kyle McCarthy stepped up this season. At times he takes bad angles to the football but showed himself to be a sound player, isn't afraid of sticking his nose in there, and is a better athlete than I ever gave him credit for.
One area where this unit struggled this season was against the run. This unit missed far too many tackles this season. Despite run stopping being his strong suit, Tom Zbikowski has not tackled as consistently as he has in past seasons. I think I know the reason for that. First of all I don't feel Zbikowski is great in space. It's difficult for a safety to come up on a running back who has room to make moves. In games where teams spread the Irish out and Zbikowski was deep, the Purdue game for example, he struggled coming up and missed several tackles. As has been an issue for him in the past, he takes bad angles to the ball carrier at times and is out of position. Coach Brown really adjusted to this and began inserting Kyle McCarthy and Jashaad Gaines in the game and using Zbikowski as a linebacker. This is the "Dime" package I refer too in the breakdowns, but the Irish play it like a "Nickel" package and use Zbikowski as they would a linebacker. He has been much more effective in this role covering tight ends, being in better position to support the run, and pressuring the quarterback. Zbikowski has shown more of his playmaking ability this year by stripping several balls and making a nice pick against Purdue.
Darrin Walls, for all his coverage talents, at times has been a liability in the run game. He has gotten better but has a ways to go before he can be considered anything but that. If he wants to maximize his ability he has to get better in run support. I'm not saying he needs to be Champ Bailey, but he has to do a better job. Even if he doesn't make the tackle he must do a better job taking on the wide receivers and funneling the ball carrier back inside. He absolutely must learn to, at the bare minimum, hold his ground. Lambert has been okay against the run but still has his moments as well. Ambrose Wooden is in the same boat as Lambert.
The future looks very bright for the secondary. You could argue that the two best athletes (not named David Bruton) never saw the field this season. Those two players would be Gary Gray and Harrison Smith. Munir Prince, arguably the fastest defensive back, is still learning the position. He has shown some flashes as a cover man and his progress heading into this spring is something to keep an eye on. It will be very interesting to see how they all progress this spring.
This unit is still very young. Zbikowski and Wooden are the only guaranteed losses in the secondary. For all those who feel otherwise, don't be fooled, losing Tom Zbikowski is a blow, but the Irish will have plenty of options to replace him. Guys like Jashaad Gaines and Sergio Brown have a lot of athletic ability and will hit. They aren't as fast as Zbikowski, but are bigger and more naturally powerful players. Walls and McNeil are still developing as players and have a bunch of good football ahead of them. The longer Bill Lewis hangs around on the Irish sidelines the better for this unit. He is one of the best secondary teachers in the business. He has really brought along a very green unit this season and as each week passes the secondary becomes better and better.
We are just beginning to scratch the surface of how good this unit can become. Not even discussing the class of 2008 there is some real good young talent on this defensive unit. If these young players begin to step up this off-season we could really see this unit take off in 2008. The depth is going to improve, they will be faster, and they will be bigger.
I'm fully confident that coach Weis will get the offense back on its feet and back to the top of the national rankings; whether that is during the 2008 season or the 2009 season that will happen, but the Irish will continue to be at best a 10-2 football team if the defense doesn't get better. We saw this unit make great strides from an attitude standpoint, a physical standpoint, and from a results standpoint. The sky is really the limit for this unit as long as Corwin Brown is manning the ship.