Questions for Spring: Defense

Spring football should be fairly interesting on the defensive side of the ball. The Irish only need to replace three starters from the 2007 squad, but we expect more position battles than just the three. What impact will new linebackers coach Jon Tenuta have on the Notre Dame defense?

The 2007 numbers on defense weren't overly impressive, especially against the run. When a team allows over 195 yards rushing per game, they're not likely to win many of them. Notre Dame also allowed almost 29 points per game…..a number that will have to trend downward next season if they want to turn their fortunes around.

Here's a look at things we'll be following throughout spring.

How do you replace Superman?

In all seriousness, Trevor Laws was Superman for the Irish last year. 112 tackles is an insane amount of tackles for anyone, especially a defensive end. The Irish also must replace their second leading tackler in Joe Brockinton (108 tackles), who only started 10 games for the Irish.

The Irish are very thin in experience along the defensive line, and some would suggest talent as well. Laws was the one rock they could count on…..the one consistent force making plays on defense. Multiple players will likely have to step up to replace the productivity of Laws as I don't currently see any candidate on the defensive line currently with Trevor's type of talent.

So who steps up?

Good question… I'm not sure I or the Irish coaching staff has an answer for. Last year many were left scratching their head as to why Trevor Laws wasn't moved to the inside nose tackle position—as he was the strongest and most experienced player at a critical position. 112 tackles later and I think we now understand why. Why move a player when he's being productive where he is? Moving Laws would make him less productive inside as he fought off double teams.

Could the same be said for moving Pat Kuntz (if he indeed rejoins the team in the fall)? Well, that's in the future and Kuntz won't be available this spring, unfortunately.

The one certainty we know is that freshman Ian Williams will play nose tackle and should do a solid if not spectacular job next season. The 6-foot-2, 300-pound sophomore-to-be played very well in his limited minutes last season, and that experience, plus some added size and strength, should benefit him a great deal next season.

The Irish do have senior Justin Brown back at one defensive end position. Brown has never been a dominant player, but he does have some quickness to make plays. He was listed at 6-foot-3, 261 pounds last year. He'll need to add some size and strength to be an every-down player for the Irish next season. Can Brown have that fifth-year senior breakout season we've seen others have in the past?

After Brown and Williams, there's a whole lot of unknown. The name I hear most often is Emeka Nwankwo. The 6-foot-4, 285-pound freshman has been impressive as a scout team player according to many, and we expect Nwankwo to start to turn some heads this spring. His off-season development could be critical to the success of the Notre Dame defense next season.

Kallen Wade and Paddy Mullen are two upper classmen who have yet to make a contribution to the team. Both have solid potential, but neither has realized that potential as of yet. The Irish will add true freshman Sean Cwynar to the mix as well this spring. He should get some valuable minutes, and an off-season of conditioning could get him battle-ready for 2008.

Quick! Name the last great Irish linebacker.

I stumped you, didn't I? You certainly had to pause for awhile and think. It's been awhile folks, and that needs to change.

The good news is head coach Charlie Weis went and found arguably the best linebacker coach in the country. If the Irish have any talent on the roster at linebacker Jon Tenuta will likely find it and hopefully maximize that talent.

The Irish certainly have some athletic prospects. Maurice Crum, jr. seemed to struggle at times last season after moving inside from his outside backer spot. Crum got caught in traffic often, and didn't appear to have the speed to get outside. They'll need him to have a more productive season in 2008.

Next to Crum will be anyone's guess. There doesn't appear to be an heir apparent at this time. Toryan Smith and Scott Smith seem to be the most likely candidates to battle for the other inside backer spot. The Irish need to find someone who can get off blocks and plug the middle.

Outside backer is loaded with talent, speed and solid numbers. Freshmen Kerry Neal and Brian Smith sparked the Irish defense in their limited action last season. Both should develop into outstanding players under Tenuta's tutelage. Sophomore Morrice Richardson is no slouch, either. Look for him to also make an impact next season. And the Irish also return part-time starter John Ryan. Will Ryan stay at outside backer, or will he start to see some time at defensive end?

What role will Tenuta play?

I get asked this question often, and I'm not sure I have an answer other than linebackers coach. I also think Weis said it best. He's an "idea man," and a very valuable one at that. It appears there's harmony between Tenuta and defensive coordinator Corwin Brown, and that will be the most important factor. I expect to see Brown and Tenuta tinker with things a bit. I expect to see a smaller, quicker defense in obvious pass rush situations, and I expect to see a much more aggressive defense. If nothing else, the Irish defense should be fun to watch in 2008.

When was the last time……

When was the last time we went into a spring practice session not worried about the secondary? I can't remember the last time. I have no worries in the slightest. Yes, the Irish will have to replace Tom Zbikowski, but they have a large stable of impressive athletes to take his place. That spot should be the most hotly contested position this spring. I could see any of five players winning the spot—Ray Herring, Kyle McCarthy, Sergio Brown, Jasaad Gaines or Harrison Smith. That's quite an athletic and talented group to choose from.

Speaking of athletic and talented, don't be surprised if David Bruton sneaks into the first round with a solid 2008 season. I've heard rumors of 4.4 and even some 4.3 40 times for Mr. Bruton. After watching him for years on kickoffs, and last season in action, I don't doubt those rumors.

And Hallelujah about cornerback! Notre Dame probably won't have two first round corners starting in 2008, but they do have very solid corners in Darrin Walls and Terrail Lambert, and plenty of depth and talent behind them in Raeshon McNeil and Gary Gray. They'll add Robert Blanton and Jamoris Slaughter this fall, but Walls, Lambert and McNeil are battle-tested, and Gray is said to be one of the best prospects out of all of them. The Irish finally have both talent and depth at corner, and I can't remember the last time I could say that.

Special teams tomorrow. Top Stories