Spring Forward, Fall Back

Spring is the time of the year for optimists. Soon the grass will be green, leaves will return to the trees, and flowers will bloom. The more important question for people reading this article: Will we have severely strong dudes with bad intentions on the Notre Dame D-line in 2009?

FALL BACK TO 2008 (Goodbye to two seniors)

2008 was an interesting year for the ND defensive line. While Corwin Brown was the Defensive Coordinator and called the defense, he was implementing Jon Tenuta's blitz-happy scheme. There were growing pains along the way, but the improvement was impossible to ignore.

Notre Dame finished 2008 ranked No. 39 in total defense. Not bad, but it could have been better. The same could be said about ND's defensive line. We saw some nice surprises, but also witnessed some stagnation.

I'll be the first to admit, I'm a big Pat Kuntz fan. I saw him play in two State Championship games in high school and he stood out. It's a cliché, but the kid had a great motor. He was a warrior, an overachiever, and he'll be difficult to replace. If the Irish had depth at defensive tackle when Kuntz was a freshman, we would all get to enjoy watching him play for ND again next year. However, that's not the case. Good luck to Pat, I'll miss watching him do something he obviously loved very much. The interior push, the ability to separate, the batted down passes, they will all be missed by the Irish in '09. As a coach, I'd take two Pat Kuntz's at the defensive tackle positions any day. The problem is, there is no way to know which recruits truly have this mindset, and which ones will get burned out at some point. I'm guessing Pat is the kind of guy who will miss the game of football for the rest of his life. That alone earns my eternal respect.

Justin Brown also finished his career with the Irish last fall. Justin never developed into a top notch performer, but he had moments of excellence. It looked like he struggled to disengage with larger, stronger offensive lineman. He made a few great plays in '08, including a big stop on a third-and-one against MSU, and several good QB pressures that led to incompletions, but the stronger running teams ND faced gave him problems.


I'd like to get one issue out of the way right now. I have no use for the 3-4 / 4-3 argument. ND ran a 4-3 Under in 2008. Yes, ND's has a few players that might fit better in a 3-4. But they have others who fit better in a 4-3, and the rest can play either scheme. Great players can play in any scheme. Thanks to a big improvement in recruiting over the past four years, ND is building depth in the front seven.

I read a lot of complaints about Notre Dame's inability to bring in elite defensive linemen. It's a valid concern, as the Irish will always have a difficult time finding top notch kids at this position, due to factors that have been discussed on Irish Eyes over and over. I have a two word response to these complaints: Ethan Johnson.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the Irish need multiple kids like EJ to become dominant. But that won't deter me from praising our resident high school swimming champ. The risk was high when EJ was recruited. He had an injured knee, he missed his senior year of HS football. He rehabbed the knee by joining the swim team at his high school. As I re-watched the 2008 season, I saw three different great swim moves that led to sacks or QB knockdowns. Kind of ironical (that's for you Good Will Hunting fans).

Ethan Johnson has elite talent. He has an innate ability to separate from the offensive lineman attempting to block him. He turned in one of the best defensive plays I saw in '08. In the bowl game, Hawaii ran a screen pass. Either by skill or luck, he was shadowing the intended receiver (a running back). When it was obvious the play wasn't going to be successful, the QB had a moment of indecision. EJ exploded toward him and sacked him for a nice loss. Great players take advantage of moments of indecision by the opposition.

When I first read he was being looked at to play DT in the 4-3 next fall, I was surprised. He possesses all the natural attributes to play the SDE, and out of a 5/7 technique, hold down the strong side of the defense. However, as I re-watched the '08 season, EJ played very well at the DT position. Not only that, he was able to apply pressure to the QB from this position, which is a very difficult task. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Mr. Johnson will be cashing NFL paychecks for many years.

In a 4-3 defense, possibly the most important position is the strong-side defensive end (SDE). Many coaches label this position as "Stud". Playing out of a 5,7, or 9 technique depending on the call, the SDE is responsible for shutting down the C gap to the strong side. Many teams have a strong tendency to run to their strong side. I was surprised to read ND might end up playing "left" and "right" DE's, rather than "strong" and "weak". In my opinion, this means the coaches think they have at least two guys who can play the SDE, or they don't think they have any. Let's hope the former is the case. If the staff decides they only have one guy for the job, I'm betting they scrap the "left/right" scheme and go to a "strong/weak" DE tandem.

Kapron Lewis-Moore (KLM) seems to be penciled in as one of the two DE's. I've heard nothing but good reports on KLM, but he's being thrown to the wolves as a first-time starter at a very difficult position. Off-season reports praise his efforts and improvements in the weight room. A great thing has already happened in his career. He was able to not use up a year of eligibility as a frosh. Superior programs are able to do this. While ND is nowhere near superior now, this is a big factor for the future.

Battling KLM for playing time will be John Ryan, Sean Cwynar and Kallen Wade. While we haven't observed much from Cwynar and Wade, John Ryan is an interesting case study. Due to depth issues, Ryan played quite a bit over the past two seasons. In his defense, he played hurt as a sophomore. Ryan showed a good push upfield several times in '08, but he struggles with disengaging from offensive lineman. I believe he has good instincts, and understands the position, but he needs to improve upon his performance in '08.

Kerry Neal will get the first look at the other defensive end position this spring. Neal far and away leads the returning players in minutes played, but many were disappointed with his production in '08, after the potential he showed as a freshman in '07. Neal is an explosive athlete who struggled with getting washed down on inside stunts in '08, as well as being hooked on outside runs or biting on the play fake and losing contain on boots. However, he is still adjusting to playing with his hand down as a DE, and he has all the talent to put his game together and have two excellent seasons in '09 and '10. I'm still very high on Kerry Neal.

Morrice Richardson will be competing at DE as well. Richardson looked very good last spring at the coaches' clinic, and I was surprised he didn't play more in ‘08. He might be better at SDE rather than WDE, only time will tell. He struggled when he dropped in coverage last season, but Neal did at times as well. Richardson is a senior, so he's on the clock to step up and have a strong final season.

Currently pegged at defensive tackle behind EJ are Emeka Nwankwo and Tyler Stockton. Nwankwo played very well during the two practices we watched last spring at the coaches' clinic, but I'll be the first to say he failed to impress in his limited playing time last fall. He often played too high, and didn't show the ferocity we saw last spring. Other than a nice stop on a running play versus Hawaii, Nwankwo didn't look like the same player from spring ball. Time will tell.

Tyler Stockton will be interesting to watch. Now that ND is committed to the 4-3, there will be less emphasis on weight gain, which should give incoming freshmen a better chance to see the field. However, the strength it takes to play inside defensively in division I football can't be ignored. When a program hits its stride, freshmen should watch, learn, and lift.

Ian Williams is the front runner for the other defensive tackle/nose guard position. Ian flashed some potential in '08, but struggled against the better teams on ND's schedule. He alternated "good push or stalemate" plays with plays he was driven back or swallowed by elite players. As a sophomore, this is understandable. Ian played well against Navy, which underscores my point that he is a talent who needs more strength to take his game to the next level. Another year in the weight room and more experience in the college game should benefit Ian quite a bit.

Hafis Williams, Brandon Newman and Paddy Mullen provide depth at the DT/NG position. Either Hafis or Brandon could come on strong, depending on their development in the weightroom and the quickness hard work could develop. Mullen enters his senior year still looking to play meaningful minutes.


Football coaches have three things to look forward to each year.

1) The first contact practice in the spring. Players have had three months with no football games to improve their strength, speed, quickness and attitude.
2) The first contact practice in the fall. Players have had almost three months to do the same things.
3) The one time each year their wives forget how miserable they are as football coaches' wives, and have a little sparkle in their eyes…

We'll ignore points number two and three, and focus on point number one. Randy Hart comes to Notre Dame with no preconceived opinions on any of these players. He'll surely watch quite a bit of 2008 game film, but each player will have a clean slate this spring. Great teams need competition at every position. I don't believe I'm shocking anyone when I state there was very little competition for positions over the past four to six years. The talent level was down, and the better players could go through the motions and retain their positions. I'm not singling out any players, but it was possible due to the condition of ND football.

Those days are gone. Each and every player now needs to put up or shut up. Excel or sit. If Ethan Johnson dogs it, Tyler Stockton could be the next big thing. And so on and so on.

Coaches are looking for improvements in strength and quickness on the defensive line. Experience will result in improvements in technique, reads and reactions. Hard work in the offseason will result in improvements in strength and quickness. Only the strong survive. Each spring the coaches are looking for players who have matured into leadership roles. Some players (the Pat Kuntz types) are always all in. With others, they need a light bulb to come on. Spring ball shines the light on certain players.


The scheme Jon Tenuta brought in is not a natural fit for certain players. However, it is a perfect fit for others. It also takes time to learn. ND's defense completely dictated the game to several offenses in '08, while not even registering one sack. The opposition could only throw quick passes and attempt to run the ball. While those teams had different levels of success doing those things, that is the goal of ND's defense: Dictate what the offense can do. As the players get better and more experienced in the scheme, the results should be better.

Quality depth is essential on the defensive line. The depth on the Diline has improved greatly over the past few seasons, but there is still a need for more quality defensive linemen. The first time I saw a college program rotating eight players on the DL throughout the game, I disagreed with the strategy. We all know there is a sizeable gap between the talent of a program's top one or two DL and the 7th and 8th best players. But the spark of fresh legs, especially late in games, is hard to ignore. The playing time doesn't have to be 50/50 between the starters and the No. 2 guys at each position. A 70/30 split can prevent the starters from wearing down, and also keep the second stringers involved in the game and developing for future years.

Randy Hart wants his defensive linemen to "strike, disengage, pursue, and tackle". Um, I think he'll fit in fine with what Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta are wanting on defense. Add in Bryant Young, and Notre Dame has the best defensive staff they've had in years. There are many ways to skin a cat. I've seen defenses win with huge, slow DT's who eat up blockers and allow their linebackers to run free, and I've seen defenses succeed by attacking, which is what our current staff has in mind. My final thought: If you were a stud high school defensive lineman, ND's most difficult position to recruit, which type of defense would you prefer?

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