It's no secret that Jon Tenuta is a 4-3 guy. He likes the 4-3 defense, and that's been the type of defense he's worked with and has been comfortable with for many years. I expect we'll be seeing more of a 4-3 defense than the 3-4 look defense Irish fans have been accustomed to over the past few years. Actually, ND played a lot of 4-3 last year anyway. I expect you'll see more of the same this season.
If true, and the Irish are playing a 4-3 next year, this means some players will be playing different positions than previous or were expected to play. Where might some of these guys end up? I'll take a stab at it, and this is to the best of my knowledge.
With a 4-3, the Irish will be moving to four down linemen in their base set. That means some who were once outside backers will now be asked to play defensive end. The real question is will Notre Dame play a strong side and weak side defensive end, or will they play left-right? I'm not certain on this, but if memory serves me, I believe Tenuta played left-right at previous places, so that would be my guess.
What does that mean? In a strong side-weak side front the defensive ends would be jumping from the left side of the line to right side depending on which side on offense is considered strong and weak, usually decided by which side the tight end lines up. In a left-right situation, the defensive ends will always line up on the left side or the right side. I won't begin to try to explain the advantages of doing either as I'd likely make myself look silly doing so. However, I did want to differentiate between the two so people can understand what all of this means.
Moving to a 4-3 means the Irish will have to have two interior players instead of one previously. The good news is the Irish have a number of candidates to play inside. The most likely scenario would be sophomore Ethan Johnson starting playing defensive tackle, and Ian Williams starting at nose guard. Junior Emeka Nwankwo would likely be a defensive tackle in this situation, where sophomores Hafis Williams and Brandon Newman would likely end up at nose. However, one of Williams or Newman could flip-flop between both positions. The Irish also have senior Paddy Mullen who can be added to the mix. Nobody is sure where freshman Tyler Stockton will land, but my best guess is inside, and probably at defensive tackle.
On the outside at defensive end look for sophomore Kapron Lewis-Moore to push for one starting spot while junior Kerry Neal being the likely starter at the other defensive end position. Sophomore Sean Cwynar will likely start the spring at defensive end, but could move inside to help at tackle if that appears to be more of a natural position for him. Senior Morrice Richardson will likely compete with Kerry Neal for a starting spot. Adding to depth will be seniors John Ryan and Kallen Wade.
Linebacker becomes an interesting position heading into spring because the Irish will eliminate one position if they do indeed switch to a 4-3 defense. Who starts? My best guess is Darius Fleming at SAM, Brian Smith at MIKE and Steve Filer at WILL. Having said that, I expect competition, especially at the WILL spot with Filer competing with freshman phenom Manti Te'o. Senior Scott Smith and sophomore David Posluszny could also be in the mix at WILL.
At SAM Fleming appears to be the overwhelming frontrunner. Smith could end up there as well, but freshmen Zeke Motta and Dan Fox would likely be the future at that position.
The MIKE position will have a good number of players competing, but it's unlikely anyone can unseat Brian Smith. Senior Toryan Smith should suffice as a quality backup. However, some talented younger players might push for playing time in sophomore Anthony McDonald and freshman Carlo Calabrese.
The corner position will get a boost with the return of the very talented Darrin Walls. Walls should nail down one spot with Raeshon McNeil and R.J. Blanton competing for the other position. Sophomore Jamoris Slaughter will also be in the mix, and the Irish staff is very high on his potential. If Gary Gray returns next season he'll also be in the mix, but he may find it hard to see considerable playing time until the following season.
Safety should be one heck of an interesting battle this spring and fall. With junior Harrison Smith moving back to safety, and seniors Sergio Brown and Kyle McCarthy returning, one of those players is going to have to sit. My understanding is that the ND safeties are "interchangeable," meaning they could play either of what would be considered a strong or free safety position, so we could see all three playing either position throughout the year. All three will play, but only two can play at one time. Senior Leonard Gordon and sophomore Dan McCarthy should add some quality depth. I've heard the staff is very high on the younger McCarthy.
The nickel and dime back situation should also be a fierce competition. The loser of the McNeil/Blanton battle will likely be the nickel, however the Irish would have a talented and experienced safety sitting, which means the nickel could end up being a safety. Regardless, I expect one corner to be the nickel and one safety to be the dime.
The above is to best of my knowledge, and once spring football starts things can and probably will change somewhat. It should be fun to follow, and even more exciting once some of the freshmen arrive. I'll post a depth chart below to make it easier to look at.
Sergio Brown OR
Harrison Smith OR
Changes on the Horizon?
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