Defensive Blueprint: Part Two

Optimism abounds when discussing the 2008 Irish offense. There are questions, sure, but there appears to be much more confidence about how those questions will be answered and who will do the answering. When talking about the 2008 Notre Dame defense the questions far outnumber the answers.


DEFENSIVE LINE: Without Pat Kuntz, John Ryan, a healthy Ian Williams, and the freshmen it was difficult to get a great feel for the defensive line in the spring. Pat Kuntz is being asked to fill the considerable shoes of Trevor Laws. He doesn't have to be Trevor Laws, but he does need to emerge as the leader of this unit. With his energy, aggressiveness, and instincts he can be a solid player at end, or when he is used inside. Kuntz isn't a nose guard and it showed last fall. Now he will be at a more natural position(s) and hopefully can have a career year. Ian Williams is the best talent of the returners. Before last season I talked about how important it was for him to come in shape and contribute. He did that. Now he must come in shape, healthy, and be ready to become a force inside. While he is only a sophomore Williams has the ability to disrupt opponents inside with his good quickness and strength. If he plays well it makes everyone else around him better. Justin Brown is an enigma. At times he looks quite good. Then he disappears. If he is able to consistently give effort, execute, and fire off the ball he will be a productive player this fall. He doesn't lack talent, he just lacks consistency. Morrice Richardson might be the key piece to this whole defensive line puzzle. Despite being listed at just 258 pounds Richardson is a very stout run defender. He is quick off the ball, has natural leverage, and is very strong for his size. He's bigger than Dwight Stephenson and more athletic. If he can show the kind of playmaking ability he showed in the spring game this unit has the playmaker off the edge is desperately needs. It is imperative that the Notre Dame coaches put him in position to be successful, which means allowing him to use his quickness and leverage.

John Ryan could be a big key to this defense. Due to a nagging shoulder injury that seemed to sap him of his strength Ryan wasn't effective during his sophomore campaign. If he is healthy (he missed the spring) he could be a valuable player on this defense. Is this the year Kallen Wade emerges? If he does it will certainly help the Irish defense. Emeka Nwankwo might still be a year away from being a major contributor. Nwankwo has the size and length that this defense needs. When he knows what he is doing he also shows very good athleticism and quickness off the ball. What he lacks is strength and consistency. If Paddy Mullen doesn't improve at the nose position, where he is needed to provide depth behind Ian Williams, he could quickly see himself losing time to a freshman.

Which, if any, of the freshman defensive linemen will be step up this fall? Ethan Johnson is arguably the best defensive recruit the Irish have signed in a decade. He's got tremendous size, strength, and shows tremendous quickness off the ball. But he missed his senior year with a knee injury. Will he be ready this fall? If so, how soon will he be able to contribute? A healthy and productive Ethan Johnson gives the Irish a future star on the edge. Brandon Newman is a plugger on the inside. He has a good first step, plays with outstanding leverage, and is able to hold up well against bigger players. I have the same questions with him as I did with Ian Williams last fall. Will he come into camp in good enough shape to help out as a freshman? Notre Dame needs him to be. If Newman can fill the role that Ian Williams filled last fall, it makes this unit deeper and more talented. The same can be said for Hafis Williams. Sean Cwynar is another big bodied kid but still has a lot to learn. One thing he has going for him is he got a chance to learn the defense in the spring and spent the winter, spring, and summer in the Notre Dame weight room.

There is talent in this unit. It's undersized and inexperienced but they don't lack talent. The problem is that talent resides in the freshman and sophomore classes. This is still a very inexperienced position with a lot of question marks. A lot of their success will depend on the coaching. Jappy Oliver has shown he can get his players to execute at a high level. But will the schemes design a defense that puts this unit in position to be successful? Will they design a scheme that maximizes their abilities? That remains to be seen.

LINEBACKER: Maurice Crum is back for his fifth year and is one of the captains of this football team. Anyone watching him fly around the field against UCLA has to see that this young man has ability. But as he goes into his fourth year as a starter games like this are far too infrequent. I'm of the belief that if you can do it once you do it all the time. If he can play like that against UCLA why can't he do that every week? I'm not saying he needs to intercept two passes, recover two fumbles, force a fumble, and score a touchdown every week. But what I am asking is why can't he play with that same aggressiveness every week? If he can play each week with that same kind of attitude he could have an outstanding senior season; but until he proves it that's a big if. Notre Dame needs that from Crum.

Who will emerge as the Mike linebacker? This is the second year in a row Toryan Smith has been given the opportunity to seize that position. But he wasn't impressive in the spring or last fall. Will Brian Smith be that player? Last fall Smith was used as an outside linebacker and a defensive end in passing downs. What we haven't seen is whether or not he has the lateral quickness to play be successful as a sideline-to-sideline inside linebacker. One thing is for sure he should be a weapon as a blitzer from the inside. Smith is also one of the better linebackers when it comes to pass coverage. Behind those three players there isn't much experience. Steve Quinn is one of Notre Dame's better special teams players but has never been given much time at linebacker. Steven Filer and Anthony McDonald were Army All-Americans last year as high school seniors. Both players come from well coached programs that employed a 3-4 defense. Filer is a top notch athlete and has outstanding range. McDonald is also a good athlete but makes his living as a hard-nosed run stopper. If these two players are strictly special teams players it means an upperclassmen or two has stepped up inside which is good for the program. But these two youngsters are the future of the position. How will the shift away from a 3-4 defense hinder or help their chances to play early on at Notre Dame.

Assuming Brian Smith stays inside that leaves Kerry Neal and Scott Smith as the only outside linebackers with any experience. Neal showed flashes of big time ability last fall. He's a tremendous athlete and if he stays at linebacker can be used in a variety of ways. He needs to become an every down player this fall. The shift in defensive philosophy might have the biggest impact on Neal. In the spring he was used primarily as a defensive end with his hand on the ground. But that was with Pat Kuntz and John Ryan on the self and Ethan Johnson finishing up high school in Oregon. So it will be interesting to see how the coaches use Neal this fall. If it is with his hand on the ground all four downs I don't see him as being as successful as he could be if the Irish used him in a "hybrid" form where he is used as an end, outside linebacker, and a blitzer. Scott Smith gets almost not hype but he was very solid in the spring. It seemed like he was in on every play. It wouldn't surprise me if he worked himself into a lot of minutes this fall. He is versatile and big enough to play inside or outside. I have the same questions about Darius Fleming as I do about Kerry Neal. How will the coaches use him? I believe Fleming has the athletic ability to play as a freshman, especially when you consider the lack of depth Notre Dame has at the position. But will he be playing with his hand on the ground or used in the "hybrid" fashion he was recruited for. If he is on the ground he won't be as effective. Both he and Neal can still be very solid players as ends, but their upside was greater at the outside linebacker position they were recruited for.

SECONDARY: This is the biggest strength on the Irish defense. It's not even close. David Bruton is the heart and soul of this unit. Bruton is a phenomenal athlete who plays with tremendous energy. Despite emerging as the starting free safety Bruton still dominated on special teams. He's a rangy player who also likes to come up and support the run. Bruton finished the 2007 season with 85 tackles. One area where I'd like to see Bruton make a bigger impact is as a ball hawk. Bruton finished the season with three interceptions, which aren't bad, but only two pass breakups. I'd like to see him be more productive as a coverage guy. I never thought Kyle McCarthy would be a productive football player at Notre Dame. It makes me smile that he proved me absolutely wrong, big time. McCarthy still needs work in coverage but he's a heady player, a good athlete, and isn't afraid to get physical. He will see the field a lot this fall and is the front runner to start opposite Bruton. Will Sergio Brown emerge as the 2008 version of David Bruton? Like Bruton, Brown has been mainly a special teams player his first two seasons. Brown is a very good athlete with good size and has been a guy Notre Dame fans have been waiting to step up as a player. He should get his chance this fall. Jashaad Gaines is the one true free safety I see on the Irish roster. Gaines played a few minutes last fall and like his classmate Brown is a solid athlete. Harrison Smith is the guy to watch out for this fall. Smith is one of the best athletes on the Notre Dame roster. He's got very good size (6'2, 215) is fast, and is extremely athletic. Smith also brings tremendous versatility to the defense. He has the range and instincts (at least he showed them in high school) to play free safety at a high level. He has the size, aggressiveness, and hitting ability to play strong safety/linebacker. With Bruton locked in as the starting free safety I would expect to see Smith playing more strong safety and hybrid/rover this fall. If he is able to become a playmaker for the Irish defense he gives them the one ballhawking type player they did not have in 2006 or 2007.

At cornerback the Irish suffered a big loss this summer when Darrin Walls decided to leave the program for "personal reasons". I hope Walls is able to get everything worked out and come back to Notre Dame for next season. But he won't be on the field for the 2008 season. Cornerback is the one position where the Irish have the talent and depth to replace a starter the caliber of Walls. Terrail Lambert is a very good athlete and has shown flashes of being a very solid cornerback. He needs to be more consistent this fall. Raeshon McNeil and Gary Gray will battle for the starting position vacated by Walls, but both will play quite a bit this fall. McNeil got a bunch of playing time last fall and even made some plays late in the year. He's a better tackler than Walls but not as good in coverage. Not many are. McNeil was asked to match up against some good receivers last fall and held his own. With another year under his belt he is poised for a very good junior season. Gary Gray has outstanding coverage skills for a young player. He should help fill the void in the secondary that Walls left. Gray was impressive during practices last fall prior to his injury and when he returned later in the year. If he doesn't unseat McNeil as the starting cornerback he will certainly see plenty of time in "nickel" situations.

There are two areas where the secondary needs to improve. The first is in the turnover department. More pressure up front will help, but the Irish secondary didn't force many turnovers last fall. The safeties need to do a better job reading and breaking on footballs. The cornerbacks must be more effective and physical in the run game. They got better late last fall. They also performed very well in this regard during the spring. But I still need to see it this fall, as they weren't challenged very much by a poor blocking Irish receiving unit during the spring.


1. Maurice Crum, LB
2. Kerry Neal, DE/OLB
3. Ian Williams, NG
4. Pat Kuntz, DE/DT
5. Harrison Smith, S


1. The Notre Dame offense is the number one key to the Notre Dame defense. If the Irish can move the chains and score points the defense will be better. It's the old adage "the best defense is a good offense". That's for you Terry.

2. The front seven, especially the front three (or four, or five, or whatever they decide to play this fall) becoming a more physical and aggressive unit. This affects the run game and the pass game.

3. Put pressure on the quarterback. The Irish finished the 2007 season with only 19 sacks, five of those coming in the last game against Stanford. With Jon Tenuta now on the Notre Dame football staff we will see a much more blitz happy defense. For better or worse this is the direction the Irish are going. They need to be effective blitzing. But as I discussed earlier they must be able to put some pressure on the quarterback with their front. This puts Kerry Neal, Morrice Richardson, and Ian Williams to step up this fall.

4. The linebackers have to play better. This is where Jon Tenuta should really make his money. If Irish were awful at inside linebacker last fall. If they don't play better and more consistently this fall it doesn't really matter how improved the line is or how talented the secondary is. They won't be very good on defense if the linebackers don't start making plays and being consistent.

5. Force turnovers!!! The Irish only forced 25 turnovers last fall. Seven of those turnovers came in the 20-6 victory over UCLA. More pressure will help but the secondary players need to attack the football more aggressively. Top Stories