The Future: Defensive Line

They say defense wins championships. I tend to agree with that, especially defensive line play. But it takes a team effort up front to dominate, and the Irish haven't dominated up front on the defensive line for quite some time.

Two years ago most people were convinced Ohio State would defeat Florida for the National Championship. The Buckeyes had Heisman winner Troy Smith, speedy receivers, a good defense, and a sound running game. Most people didn't factor into the game the disruptive Gator defensive line. The Florida defensive line dominated the Buckeye front and harassed Troy Smith into his worst game of the season….game over.

For the Irish to get to that level—the championship level—they're going to have to dominate up front on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately, I just don't see that happening in 2008, especially along the defensive front. That doesn't mean they can't be good, but depth and talent issues will likely plague the Notre Dame defense again in 2008.

The Now
If I had to guess the starting defensive line in August of this year I'd forecast Pat Kuntz and Justin Brown would start at defensive end, and sophomore Ian Williams would start inside at nose guard. What does that mean? That means the Irish will be starting two three-star players, and one two-star player at defensive line. While stars don't tell the whole story, the lack of star power in the front three is noticeable.

It doesn't stop with the starters…..

The Irish are woefully thin on both numbers and talent along the defensive line. If rumors are true, and Derrell Hand has indeed played his last downs of football, Notre Dame only has four total players as "depth" currently on the roster—barely enough to fill out a two-deep.

Included in those four players is four-star junior defensive end Kallen Wade, who has seen very little time thus far. Three-star junior defensive end Paddy Mullen, who was mainly recruited as a tight end, also is included. And Mullen, like Wade, has played very little minutes for the Irish.

The group also includes four-star true sophomore Emeka Nwankwo, who earned his four-star ranking as an offensive lineman, and not a defensive lineman. Nwankwo redshirted last season thus playing zero minutes. And, four-star true freshman and early enrollee Sean Cwynar, who hasn't attended a team meeting yet at this early point in his Irish career.

In fact, Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen has as many career tackles (1) as the Irish "depth" at defensive line heading into the 2008 season…..not a good sign.

Kuntz and Brown should be OK at defensive end. Neither is going to wow anyone, but they will give effort and hold their own for the most part. Williams, despite starting only two games, ended up with more tackles (45) than Kuntz (40) did as the starter at nose guard.

Williams has shown glimpses of being a very solid nose guard. I think with added strength, he could be very solid inside. I do worry about Kuntz and Brown against the run, however, and they'll need to be more productive in 2008 for the Irish to be solid up front.

Trevor Laws finished the season with 112 tackles last season—Kuntz and Brown combined for just 70. However, Laws became a much more productive player during his last season for the Irish. Hopefully the same thing will happen for Kuntz and Brown, who will both be playing their final season for the Irish. But who provides depth for Williams?

When it comes to depth, I've heard very good things about Emeka Nwankwo. Nwankwo has that nasty streak to him, and he gives great effort combined with good quickness. Like Williams, strength is his biggest obstacle. Hopefully he'll make some big strides and be ready to contribute some quality minutes, but he's also listed as a defensive end and not a nose guard.

For Wade and Mullen the clock is ticking. Both players likely have the spring to impress or they'll probably get passed by the talent coming in. Wade has excellent quickness but is undersized. He also hasn't played much defensive line in his career. Mullen has plenty of size, but he hasn't been able to translate his big body into minutes thus far. Ideally you'd love for these two to develop this year, but both have had plenty of opportunities thus far and haven't taken advantage of them.

The Future

Like Williams, likely one of the true freshmen will see playing time next season. Brandon Newman and Hafis Williams will probably be competing for the backup position behind Williams. Notre Dame can slide Kuntz over at times to play nose guard, his position last year, but Corwin Brown will need at least one player who can give quality minutes to give Williams a rest.

Newman, a four-star prospect, showed he was more than a big body in his Army All-American performance. He's also naturally strong, like Williams, and if he enrolls in good physical shape, he'll have a great shot to play early for Notre Dame.

Less is known about Williams at this point as nobody has any quality film of the 6-foot-4, 285-pound Williams. The three-start prospect has a big body, but we really can't say much about his potential at this point.

Sean Cwynar also has a chance to see the field early. Cwynar, a four-star defensive end prospect, is already enrolled and will go through a winter lifting, a spring practice, and a summer conditioning session in hopes of getting on the field early. At 6-foot-4, 280-pounds, Cwynar also has a big body, which should give him a chance to get on the field early.

Five-star defensive end prospect Ethan Johnson is another player many expect to see the field early for Notre Dame. But like many before, Johnson suffered a knee injury, an injury that kept him out all of his senior season, so one has to wonder if he'll be 100 percent when he arrives in South Bend. Johnson is an ideal pass-rushing defensive end, something Notre Dame is lacking in this group, so his development is vital for the future D-line for the Irish. Hopefully he'll be 100 percent because Notre Dame needs a guy who can make plays behind the line of scrimmage, and nobody on the current roster has shown that ability consistently.

The Irish aren't finished recruiting at defensive line. Mike Martin is a big body who may be added, but they'll have an uphill battle to steal him from Michigan, Martin's original choice before the coaching change.

Notre Dame continues to search for another nose guard candidate, and hopefully they'll land another player to provide depth at the position.

A lot of Irish fans are hopeful for a return to the BCS next season. I just don't see it. There are too many holes on this team to make that kind of a run. The Irish surrendered a record 58 sacks last season on offense, and registered a very low 19 sacks on defense. Out of those 19 sacks, only one, yes one, came from any of the defensive linemen currently on Notre Dame's roster.

The Irish do have some talent, and the light bulb can come on for some of these older players like it did for Trevor Laws this season. But I worry the most about depth. The Irish have essentially no experienced depth behind the projected starters, and the projected starters haven't been highly productive, either.

One thing is obvious, Corwin Brown and Jappy Oliver have their work cut out for them, but the lack of depth and talent also opens the door for some very talented freshmen to earn some early playing time. Top Stories