Final Grades: Defense/Special Teams

Irish Eyes hands out final grades for the Notre Dame defensive and special teams units. Find out how Notre Dame's position units graded out following the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl.

Defensive Line: C+

Like the defensive unit as a whole, the defensive line played good enough to win every game of the second half save USC, but the offense did not hold up its end of the bargain.

The defensive line had dominant performances against Washington, allowing just 26 rushing yards along with four sacks, and Navy, at least while the first-stringers were in. The defensive line helped bottle up the Midshipmen's vaunted ground game, allowing just 178 rushing yards and 242 total yards. The front three, or four depending how you look at it, took it to Boston College, but the Eagles scored on an interception return and the Irish offense got nothing.

But just like the rest of the unit, when the offense did place the defense in tough spots, the line showed signs of wearing down. Pittsburgh running back LeSean McCoy gained 101 of his 169 rushing yards after the third quarter as the Panthers came from behind to beat the Irish in overtime. The Irish lost another seemingly comfortable lead to Syracuse when freshman running back Antwon Bailey led the Orange to two fourth-quarter scores to pull out the victory.

Notre Dame loses defensive ends Pat Kuntz and Justin Brown to graduation, but the Irish bring back a host of talented underclassmen including Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ian Williams and Hafis Williams.

Midterm Grade: C+-

Regular season:
24 tackles, 4.5 for a loss, 1 fumble recovery
Hawai'i Bowl: 0 tackles

Regular season:
16 tackles, 3 for a loss, 1.5 sacks
Hawai'i Bowl: 2 tackles, 2 for a loss, 2 sacks

Regular season:
40 tackles, 8 for a loss, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 fumble recovery
Hawai'i Bowl: 1 tackle

Morrice Richardson
Regular season:
9 tackles, .5 for a loss, .5 sacks
Hawai'i Bowl: 2 tackles

Ian Williams
Regular season:
40 tackles, 2 for a loss
Hawai'i Bowl: 0 tackles


The linebacker corps was similar to the defensive line production-wise. Maurice Crum and company helped keep the Irish in just about every game, but were unable to make plays to clinch games even if they should have never had to.

The addition of Jon Tenuta as linebackers coach was expected to produce a group of attacking linebackers and while they were aggressive, but they managed just 19 sacks in 12 regular season games, tied for 81st in the country. But the Irish got home in the Hawai'i Bowl with seven of the nine sacks coming from linebackers.

Crum was the leader of his unit, his defense and his team, but his graduation makes room for Brian Smith to step into that role and Smith's future looks bright whether he stays in the middle or moves back outside. With Harrison Smith expected to move back to the secondary next season, there will be plenty of opportunities for young players like Steve Filer and Anthony McDonald.

Midterm Grade: C

Regular season:
63 tackles, 4.5 for a loss, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Hawai'i Bowl: 2 tackles, 1 for a loss, 1 sack

Darius Fleming
Regular season:
21 tackles, 1.5 for a loss, 1.5 sacks
Hawai'i Bowl: 3 tackles, 1 sack

Kerry Neal
Regular season:
23 tackles, 3 for a loss, 1 sack, 1 INT
Hawai'i Bowl: 2 tackles, 1 for a loss, 1 sack

Steve Quinn
Regular season:
9 tackles, 1 for a loss, 1 sack
Hawai'i Bowl: 5 tackles, 2 for a loss, 2 sacks

John Ryan
Regular season:
7 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries
Hawai'i Bowl: 0 tackles

Brian Smith
Regular season:
53 tackles, 4 for a loss, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries
Hawai'i Bowl: 1 tackle

Harrison Smith
Regular season:
52 tackles, 8.5 for a loss, 3.5 sacks
Hawai'i Bowl: 5 tackles

Scott Smith
Regular season:
11 tackles, 1 forced fumble
Hawai'i Bowl: 1 tackle, 1 for a loss, 1 sack

Toryan Smith
Regular season:
18 tackles, 1 fumble recovery
Hawai'i Bowl: 0 tackles


After facing the majority of its passing opponents in the first half of the season, the Irish secondary was able to rise up the pass defense rankings in the final six games. The Irish did not allow a single quarterback, outside of USC's Mark Sanchez, to have any consistent success against them over the second half. The Irish allowed an average of 111.2 passing yards in games against Washington, Pittsburgh, Boston College, Navy and Syracuse.

Notre Dame finished the year 30th in pass defense (184.83 yards) and 18th in pass efficiency defense (105.79). The Irish did give up 326 yards through the air against Hawai'i, but many of those yards came when the game was out of reach. The Irish caused just 23 turnovers on the season and had two against the Warriors.

If the front seven is able to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks with another year in the scheme, the turnover numbers should increase and since the Irish have already been blitzing a bunch, success through the air should only go down.

The Irish lose cornerback Terrail Lambert and free safety David Bruton, but Kyle McCarthy is expected to return for a fifth season and they will add linebacker Harrison Smith as a safety and bring back cornerback Darrin Walls, who was not enrolled this semester.

Throw in returning cornerbacks Raeshon McNeil and Robert Blanton and Notre Dame's secondary figures to be the strength of the defense again in 2009.

Regular season:
29 tackles, 2 INTs, 3 breakups
Hawai'i Bowl: 4 tackles

Sergio Brown
Regular season:
22 tackles, 1 sack, 5 breakups, 1 fumble recovery
Hawai'i Bowl: 6 tackles, 1 breakup

Regular season:
93 tackles, 1.5 for a loss, 3 INTs, 6 breakups, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
Hawai'i Bowl: 4 tackles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 INT

Regular season:
15 tackles, 2 INTs, 2 breakups
Hawai'i Bowl: n/a

Ray Herring
Regular season:
15 tackles, 1 breakup
Hawai'i Bowl: 2 tackles

Regular season:
33 tackles, 4 breakups
Hawai'i Bowl: 0 tackles

Regular season:
103 tackles, 3.5 for a loss, 2 INTs
Hawai'i Bowl: 7 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 breakup

Regular season:
37 tackles, 2 INTs, 10 breakups
Hawai'i Bowl: 4 tackles, 1 breakup


The Notre Dame special teams units enjoyed varying degrees of success. While the Irish led the country by allowing under 17 yards per kickoff return and limited opponents to 6.33 yards per punt return, Notre Dame was 86th nationally in returning kicks and 52nd in the nation in bringing back punts.

Notre Dame's longest punt return of the season was a 42-yarder by Golden Tate and its longest kick return was 53 yards by Armando Allen, but the Irish never truly displayed their home run ability until the bowl game. Allen brought back a kick 96 yards to cap Notre Dame's scoring summary and while Tate's dazzling 50-yard punt return for a score in the third quarter was called back, it was one of the top plays of the year.

Brandon Walker's struggles were well documented, but he finished the season by making 13 of his final 17 field goals. Walker was a perfect 32 for 32 on extra points this season and while his four misses in the second half of the season came in super slim losses to Pittsburgh and Syracuse, Walker turned in to one of the Irish's most consistent weapons.

Punter Eric Maust had two punts blocked, but the Irish got credit for two blocked punts of their own and disrupted several more.

Notre Dame will bring back all of its specialists for the 2009 season and should get boosts from underclassmen and incoming freshmen in the return game.

Regular season:
FGs: 14-24, Long 48. PATs: 32-32
Hawai'i Bowl: FGs: 0-0. PATs: 7-7

Regular season:
49 punts, 1,999 yards (40.8 average), Long 54, 2 touchbacks, 15 inside the 20
Hawai'i Bowl: 5 punts, 219 yards (43.8 average), Long 51, 2 touchbacks, 1 inside the 20 Top Stories