Team Preview: Defensive Line

Probably the biggest concern for the Notre Dame football team heading into the 2008 season is defensive line. The Irish somehow have to replace Trevor Laws and his 100-plus tackles from 2007, and there doesn't appear to be a clear candidate to replace the former Irish great and his production.

Replacing Laws and his 112 tackles won't be easy. Replacing the 108 tackles part-time starting linebacker Joe Brockington chipped will be difficult as well. Even though the Irish enjoyed these two outstanding individual performances, they still surrendered over 195 rushing yards per game. That is an alarming stat that needs to be fixed for Notre Dame to have success on the field.

Which Defense?

The Irish are pretty thin on both numbers and experience along the defensive line, and compounding that problem might be a change in defensive philosophy. With the arrival of linebacker coach Jon Tenuta and his blitz schemes, will we see the Irish defense switch to more of a 4-3 look? Last year the Irish played more of a 3-4 look, with three down linemen and four backers, but you just might see the Irish playing more 4-3 defense this fall. If so, where will they find the other players needed?

The Knowns

It's quite surprising that the top returning tackler from 2007 along the defensive line is true sophomore Ian Williams, who chipped in 45 stops as a true freshman in limited minutes at the nose tackle position. Williams was hardly ready to play as a true freshman, but that didn't stop him from turning in a very impressive performance for a first-year player. Starting only two games, Williams was very productive inside with limited strength and technique. One can only imagine how good he can be once he's learned all the proper techniques and is physically strong enough to take on double teams with ease. A staph infection set him back this spring, and hopefully he'll be 100 percent ready by fall. The Irish will need him to be.

Notre Dame's starting nose tackle last year, Pat Kuntz, added 42 stops, but played better than his stats in most games. Kuntz will return for his final year of eligibility, and the Irish need Kuntz to step up much the same way Laws did last season at the defensive end position. Kuntz isn't as quick as Laws, but he's a scrappy player who will give you everything he has on every play. It's doubtful he'll get anywhere close to 112 tackles this year, but he can be an effective force inside with some help from the others along the defensive line.

After these two players, there really are no more "knowns" at this point.

The Unknowns

Senior Justin Brown returns for his final season as a defensive end. Brown started five games last season, logging 30 tackles and one sack. Brown should be physically ready to contribute, but thus far hasn't established himself as a sure starter despite little competition at the position opposite of Kuntz. Brown has good speed combined with solid size (6-foot-3, 275). D-line coach Jappy Oliver says he'd like to see Brown play hard every play, and that's probably what has kept him off the field. He did seem to show more effort this spring, so he could be in line for a big fifth-year season for the Irish.

Sophomore Emeka Nwankwo is another player who will likely factor into the mix. At 6-foot-4, 290 pounds, Nwankwo has good size for the position, but building that size into quality pounds is key. The off-season will likely decide how much Nwankwo plays. If he's in great shape, and he learns more technique, he could push for serious minutes this fall. The word has been that he's a solid worker with good potential.

Junior John Ryan will be learning a new position this season. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive end played outside backer last season logging 39 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Ryan's progress was likely hindered this spring when he sat out most of spring practice with an injury. Ryan is probably a more natural defensive end, so the switch might be a good one, but it's unsure how healthy and physically strong he'll be at the start of the season. Then you have to factor in learning a new position and he has an uphill battle this fall.

Junior Paddy Mullen will also be in the mix. At 6-foot-5, 290-pounds, he's a big body and appears strong, but thus far he hasn't seen much of the field. His name also hasn't come up much as a player making a move up the depth chart. Mullen needs a big fall camp in August to distance himself from the talented incoming freshmen. If he doesn't impress this fall, he may be passed by some underclassmen.

The X Factor

If the Irish do play a lot of 4-3 defense this year names like junior Morrice Richardson and sophomore Kerry Neal will play a lot along the defensive line. Both would be considered undersized for a defensive end, but both bring a wealth of speed and athletic ability to the position. We expect both to play considerable minutes rushing the passer on third down if nothing else.

Richardson was listed at 258 pounds this fall, we're not sure he weighed that much, but it appears he's being groomed for that type of defense considering the weight he's carrying. Neal was listed at 240 this spring, but my guess is he'll be closer or over 250 when the fall roster is released. We expect both players to play a lot in 2008, we're just not exactly sure where.

Brian Smith is a player who is listed at outside linebacker, but we feel if they move to a 4-3 look, Irish fans will likely see the 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker move inside to the middle linebacker position. We started to see signs of this at the end of spring practice.

The Freshmen

Sean Cwynar got a jump on his classmates this fall by enrolling early and participating in spring practice. The 6-foot-4, 283-pound freshman will also benefit from working out with the Irish strength staff for a full winter, spring and summer. He should be in solid shape and physically able to at least see some spot duty in 2008. Can he learn the techniques quickly enough to get on the field? They can certainly use another body.

Ethan Johnson is another defensive end that could see considerable action. At 6-foot-5, and rumored to be 285 pounds, Johnson certainly will have the size. He's also recovering from a knee injury that held him out of his senior season in football. Johnson has said he's 100 percent, and if he is, he just might see considerable minutes. Johnson has a wealth of talent and was Notre Dame's top-ranked defensive player signed in the 2008 recruiting class. Health and technique are probably the only two things that will keep him off the field this year.

6-foot, 300-pound Brandon Newman could certainly see some action as well in 2008. Newman showed he could play with the big boys when lined up against the nation's best talent in the Army All-American game this past January. A naturally strong player, Newman showed some good quickness, and some much-needed nastiness while down in San Antonio. If Newman is in shape there's a good chance he'll see some minutes this year.

Hafis Williams is probably the most unknown player in the Irish recruiting class. Why? Nobody saw film on Williams until very late in the process. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 295 pounds, Williams is also a big body with a lot of potential. Like Newman, conditioning will be a big deciding factor as to how much he'll play this season. Right now, we just don't know enough about Williams to predict much of anything, other than he's a fantastic kid, and many Irish fans are going to pulling for him.

The success of Notre Dame's season could literally depend on the development of a few key defensive linemen. Notre Dame has two solid players in Kuntz and Ian Williams. After that, nobody really knows what to expect. The Irish will need at least five they can count on, and the more the merrier. If they can't find five, this could be a difficult season for the Irish defense.


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