For the first time in awhile, now Irish fans will get to see some talent combined with attitude and solid play, and that usually means good things are on the way. Youth could be the problem for Notre Dame next year, but the defense should be very athletic and make a lot of spectacular plays…..something that has been missing for awhile.
There are a few questions about Notre Dame's defense moving forward. Will the Irish remain with a base 3-4 look defense? Will players be switching positions? We can only guess at the answers at this time, but let's assume Notre Dame sticks with what they're currently doing.
The Irish appear to have plenty of bodies at the nose tackle position currently. Junior-to-be Ian Williams should return as starter for the Irish, but he'll have plenty of competition coming from two current freshmen in Hafis Williams and Brandon Newman. Both Newman and Hafis Williams have size, but were lacking ideal strength to see action last season. Another winter in the weight room should give them the strength they need to compete. Hafis Williams probably would be the guy most likely to challenge Ian Williams at this point, as he's said to have a non-stop motor, but don't count out Brandon Newman, who has shown he can get nasty when he needs to as well.
Also in the mix would be senior-to-be Paddy Mullen, who has plenty of size and strength to give the Irish some solid minutes inside. The nose tackle position last year wasn't very productive for Notre Dame. They'll need a guy (actually two) who can command double teams inside to help stop the problems the Irish defense has against the run. Notre Dame allowed 142 yards rushing per game in 2008, and a good defense would like to keep that number less than 100 yards per game.
br> The Irish have talent inside. They just need to build some strength and get some experience for Hafis Williams and Brandon Newman. They may struggle a bit early, but by midyear they should be pretty solid at nose tackle.
The Irish have a lot of defensive ends on the roster, but not many of them have a lot of experience heading into 2009. Also, not many of them would be considered large or overly strong. Senior-to-be Morrice Richardson and soon-to-be sophomore Ethan Johnson have the most experience heading into 2009. Neither was a starter last year, and Johnson played the most minutes out of any of the returning ends…..not a good sign.
In fact, the Irish return two players who have experience, and their combined numbers are 25 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. That's not a lot of experience or production.
Joining those two will be sophomores Sean Cwynar, junior Emeka Nwankwo and sophomore Kapron Lewis-Moore. Also, early enrollee and freshman Tyler Stockton will be added to this mix.
There is a lot of talent and quickness in this group, and recently I've heard very good things about both Cwynar and Lewis-Moore, so this unit has some athleticism. What they don't have is a lot of strength and experience. That could really hinder Notre Dame's defense next season, but their quickness should result in a lot of negative plays, which would certainly help this unit along. Keep an eye on this group during the spring and fall. If they can develop quickly, this could be a fairly good defense in 2009.
The linebacker position will also be an interesting storyline this spring. Head coach Charlie Weis has said starting SAM linebacker Harrison Smith will likely move back to safety this spring. If true, there will be quite a battle for spots this spring among a lot of positions at linebacker for the 2009 defense.
Currently among the linebackers, the one thing that we're certain of is Brian Smith will be playing somewhere—most likely at MIKE again. I don't believe MIKE is the best position for Smith, but I don't think ND currently has anyone who can step into his role and play at a high level at this point. Maybe that will change this spring, but I think Smith will be forced to play inside again next season even though many feel he's a better player playing outside.
Backing up Smith at MIKE would probably be Toryan Smith, Anthony McDonald, and freshman Carlo Calabrese. Smith has solid experience and should add some quality depth, but McDonald or Calabrese would be the future. What will be interesting to watch here is if McDonald or Calabrese can secure the No. 2 spot at MIKE.
The JACK position will also be an interesting battle. Sophomores Steve Filer and David Posluszny will likely battle senior Scott Smith for this position. Senior Kevin Washington will likely also be in the mix, but Washington and Smith could play either spot inside, and Smith has also played outside. ND is probably hoping for Filer to win this position this spring and realize his vast potential.
The WILL position should be manned by junior Kerry Neal, who will be backed up by senior John Ryan. Neal has shown glimpses of being a great player at this position, but he's been undersized most of his career. Another year in the weight room will certainly help Neal become more effective, and the Irish do need more production out of this position. Freshman Dan Fox will likely line up in this position as well.
SAM should be manned by sophomore Darius Fleming. Fleming had his moments on defense in 2008 making a number of impressive plays, but what was obvious in watching him was his athleticism and effort. Fleming wants to be good, and he will be. He just needs to add some strength to his 6-foo-1, 240-pound frame. Backing up Fleming could be a true freshman in Zeke Motta, or a number of people could slide over to add some depth, but it appears SAM is Fleming spot at this point.
The Irish appear loaded in the secondary at this point with both numbers and talent. I can't remember the last time I was able to say that.
At corner the Irish will have four players who have played a lot of minutes in Darrin Walls, Raeshon McNeil, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray. The return of Walls is important as he played very well for the Irish before being suspended last season. Adding to that mix is sophomore Jamoris Slaughter, who I have heard has just as much talent (if not more) than some of the four mentioned above. All five should play considerable minutes, and the competition between the five should make all of them much better players. The Irish should be very strong in the back end next season.
The competition at safety could also be fierce with the addition of Harrison Smith. Where Smith will line up could be interesting. Is he fast enough to cover the entire field at free safety? I'm not sure. My guess is he'll line up at strong safety, which will make for an interesting competition between he and returning starter Kyle McCarthy.
At free safety look for senior Sergio Brown to land the spot. He'll be pushed by sophomore Danny McCarthy and senior Leonard Gordon. He may also have some competition from incoming freshman and early enrollee E.J. Banks. Banks is being recruited as a corner, and could stay there, but he has a better shot to play early at free safety based on the depth chart.
When you look at a potential depth chart one realizes that the Irish will be both young but talented on defense. The inexperience will certainly show, but so will the athleticism. It should be a fun defense to watch next season, and defensive coaches Corwin Brown and John Tenuta are building quite an impressive group to go to battle with.
Below is my best guess at a depth chart next season.
DE: Ethan Johnson, Sean Cwynar
NT: Ian Williams, Hafis Williams
DE: Kapron Lewis-Moore, Morrice Richardson
SAM: Darius Fleming, Zeke Motta
MIKE: Brian Smith, Toryan Smith
JACK: Steve Filer, Anthony McDonald
WILL: Kerry Neal, John Ryan
LC: Darrin Walls, Jamoris Slaughter, Gary Gray
FS: Sergio Brown, Dan McCarthy
SS: Harrison Smith, Kyle McCarthy
RC: Robert Blanton, Raeshon McNeil
When you look at my potential depth chart, six sophomores would be starting, three juniors and two seniors on defense. That's a lot of youth, but also a lot of eligibility left on the field. This unit should be a joy to watch develop over the season as they have very solid coaching on that side of the ball.