Finding the Right Combinations

With spring practices just about halfway through, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Corwin Brown is simply searching for the right combinations of players to put on the field. Brown spoke Monday evening about a couple of positions that will see new faces in the fall — the defensive line, safety and linebacking corps.

At Saturday's practice, which was open to the media, the defensive line looked rather shaky at times, being pushed around by their offensive counterparts. With Pat Kuntz absent for the spring and Trevor Laws now moving on to the NFL, Brown acknowledges that some of the younger players are going to have to step up their play. After all, it isn't easy replacing a fifth-year senior defensive end who led the squad in tackles in his final season with 112 total takedowns.

"Well what has to happen is the other guys around him have to play at a higher level to make up for one guy," Brown said of Trevor's former teammates. "You have to get higher play from the nose and the tackle and the end. The secondary has to play at a higher level cause we relied on Trevor so much. It was almost like we just played to his strength because he was our biggest playmaker on defense. What we did was to kind of allow him to do things where now, we'll need more plays from a larger number of guys. That's how you do that; everybody picks up their game. Coaches pick up our game, and then we'll be better."

Brown did have some promising points to say about some of the players who have stepped in and risen to the challenge at hand.

"Well, you see Ian [Williams] playing well," Brown said of the sophomore-to-be. "You kind of see flashes from Emeka [Nwankwo], and some of those guys and Mo Richardson and guys like that, you know, do things well, where honestly, some of those guys didn't make those plays last year. Mo Richardson didn't play with the motor that he's playing with now. So that's a plus, that's a positive. So you just hope that it becomes infectious and a lot of guys start doing it."

Staying with Richardson, Brown has noticed that his drive is different from last year. It is no surprise to see that the current sophomore is taking the majority of the first team repetitions this spring.

"Well I think it's a combination of things," Brown said of Richardson's newfound confidence. "It's being older, it's wanting to do it inside. I think that's it. I think seeing that opportunity helps, but he's always had that opportunity. But I think it's a combination of things and that's what you want, You want the Mo's and the Kyle's [McCarthy], and you want everybody to have that same zest or zeal or whatever you want to call it, where they see it and they want to take it. That's kind of what it's about here. That's what it's been about in the past… so hopefully everybody keeps feeding off of it and starts to grow. We'll see."

Before setting any official roster changes within the defensive line, however, Brown offered a progress report of the spring thus far, and whether the squad has lived up to his expectations.

"I think from a schematic standpoint, I think the guys are picking up kind of what we're asking them to do," Brown said. "We're adding a lot of things to what we did last year and we're getting a lot of looks that they're getting comfortable with. We're starting to find out now, who does what fairly well or pretty good."

At safety, Notre Dame knows it has a proven playmaker with David Bruton. After last season, his playing experience helped show his teammates that he can be a leader by example. Corwin Brown knows that with Tom Zbikowski graduated, it's Bruton's time to become the leader of the secondary.

"David leads by example," Brown said. "First and foremost, that's the most important thing you have to do as a leader. You have to be able to, without opening your mouth, show the guys that A.) you're dependable, B.) you're going to be there, you're going to make plays, you're going to do it the right way and that's what leadership is all about."

Bruton knows that it was his experience from last season that helped him become a person some of the younger players look up to.

"Experience is something that always is able to teach younger players," Bruton said. "Bring them along and help possibly watch cut-ups from last season. Just experience showing how I didn't start or really even play much on defense, but being able to have a chance to take advantage of it and go out there and make plays."

Bruton stressed that being one of the last two players in the defensive backfield, there has to be a large amount of communication between both safeties. With Kyle McCarthy lining up next to him, the senior-to-be isn't worried.

"Kyle's had a great spring," Bruton said. "He's making plays and doing things right. He's taking advantage of his chance to be with the one's. I feel like he's making tremendous progress getting on the field and getting real comfortable with the system. Me and him talk and we run over things, communication. We go back and forth, so it's a great experience having him back there and he's doing whatever he can to stay back there."

Brown couldn't agree more with his standout safety.

"From what you ask a safety to do, and that's a position I played, so I have a special feeling towards safeties, I'm happy. Does it mean I'm always satisfied? Absolutely not, because I always want those guys to make the play. But from what I see from Kyle McCarthy, we can go out and line up right now and I won't lose a minute of sleep knowing he's out there. I'll actually feel pretty good, cause he'll tackle, he'll get guys lined up, he has some athleticism. I think people don't know that he's a good kid, he's tough so we'll see."

Returning to the concept of finding the right combinations, look for freshman safety Harrison Smith to get some repetitions at linebacker. In today's practice, the sophomore-to-be lined up with coach Tenuta and the linebackers rather than his usual spot with the defensive backs. Another change along the group — Brian Smith got some looks at the inside linebacker spot, as opposed to his usual outside position.

"Well, when we started, we kind of knew what we got with Brian outside," Brown said. "And some of the other guys inside. And what we're trying to do now is, we're trying to juggle some things around. Get some different combinations together and see if we can get the same play from different spots, but also create some depth, just in case of injury or just in case maybe a young guy that you're planning on doesn't pan out well, you know, just trying to get some different looks. As a coach, you always try to cover your bases. Well, we know Brian Smith is pretty good outside, let's see what we can get from him inside. You move a guy around like Harrison Smith and he makes plays at all the positions. So you say, ‘well so let's try him here, let's try him here,' and you do that with a number of guys with a number of different combinations and hopefully, you strike gold."

After one day, however, Brown can't tell yet whether the switch will prove to be a great success.

"Not after one day, no," he said of the new combination. "Not after one day, but hopefully by the end of spring we'll know, but they're good players, so we'll see."

Don't get the wrong impression, though. Just because Brown had some pleasant details to say about Harrison Smith, doesn't necessarily mean he's labeling him as the next All-American.

"Like I said, I'm not trying to turn him into the next thing since sliced bread," he said. "It's just a matter of if you see certain guys making plays, then you kind of want to see how far you can take that. So we tried to put him in different positions, a number of different positions, because you know what you have here, and if you've got something here, and you've got something here, then it starts to be pretty interesting. He's a guy that he's done well. He's a hard-working kid, he's smart, he's tough. I don't want to say too many good things about him cause he'll probably poop in my lunch bucket." Top Stories