Make no mistake; Notre Dame is going to really miss Shane Walton, Gerome Sapp and Ryan Roberts. Walton was the backbone of this defense. Sapp played a huge role and made many big plays for this defense and Robert's leadership and spirited play helped this team through the early part of this season. All three players will be missed.
With these key losses, some guys are going have to step up and make some plays. Not only will their replacements need to step up but also depth is a major concern. Notre Dame should have a very solid defense but if any of the starters get injured, they will have some problems unless some players surface.
Notre Dame has had a very unlucky streak lately with defensive linemen. They either can't land them or when they do, they somehow get injured before they report to Notre Dame. Greg Pauly, Derek Landri and Jason Sapp certainly fit the mold. These three basically had to sit out a year before their careers ever got started. Had Pauly or Landri been healthy, I don't think you would see the lack of depth within the interior defensive line.
Cedric Hilliard and Darrell Campbell had breakout years for Notre Dame. These two players can be difference makers and dominating players next year. The step each player took this year was drastic and if both players improve as much as they did this year, the Irish should be very tough inside next year.
Where the problem exists is with the depth. Greg Pauly gave Hilliard and Campbell a breather and played some quality minutes. He is not quite the same player as Campbell or Hilliard but that is to be expected because he is younger and was injured for a full year before beginning his career. The off season should give Greg the time to develop more strength, quickness and technique and hopefully he will make the same jump as Hilliard and Campbell did. After Pauly, they have little experience. Kyle Budinscak does slide inside now and again to provide more depth and probably should play inside but they need him at defensive end because that position lacks depth.
Brian Beidatsch did get some minutes this year and appears to be developing into a player who can give quality minutes. He will also need to get bigger and stronger but he could add some depth. With the move of Jeff Thompson to offensive line, Notre Dame will have to rely on Landri and Santucci for the #3 slots. Landri was the bell cow of the last recruiting class and has all the tools to be a great player at Notre Dame. His injury will put his development behind schedule but he is a hard worker and should be ready to play a little next year. Santucci might be the surprise of his class. I have heard a lot of good things about Dan Santucci.
Coach Mattison is going to have to get Pauly and Beidatsch ready to give quality minutes. These big boys need some rest and Pauly and Beidatsch will be counted on to give that rest. If Landri and Santucci and develop their bodies and technique, Notre Dame should be in good shape at the interior spots for a while.
Defensive end also lacks quality depth. Justin Tuck proved he could rush the passer this year but didn't create the pressure needed against the best teams. He played very well against the run for a young guy. He needs to get stronger while keeping his quickness and he should be a great player for Notre Dame. Kyle Budinsack is a solid player who is probably best suited to play inside. The lack of depth forces him to play defensive end. He does a solid job at defensive end but the Irish could use more pressure from the corner.
Jerome Collins will likely move to defensive end this year. At 6-5, 255 pounds and 4.6 speed, he clearly has all the tools to be a great defensive end. Can he adjust to playing with a hand down and will he accept the position switch? We have to hope that Jerome Collins develops because his physical skills rival the best pass rushers in the country. One player who impressed me during fall camp was Jason Sapp. Sapp was injured for two full years so he is just learning how to play defensive end. Sapp is undersized but he has quickness and a nice tenacity that all coaches like to see.
Behind Collins and Sapp, the Irish have two current freshmen in Travis Leitko and Chris Frome. Leitko was a big name in recruiting last year and it a 100% effort guy. He should develop into a quality strong side defensive end. Frome is a tall (6-5), lanky kid who has some quickness and physical skills. Some project he will end up at offensive tackle at some point.
As with defensive line, coach Mattison is going to have to find two quality reserve players that can give Tuck and Budinscak a breather. Collins has all the physical tools to do that. We don't know enough about Sapp to know what he can do. Defensive end recruiting is vital this year and a speed rusher is needed.
Notre Dame should have the most talented linebacker unit they have had in a long time next year. Courtney Watson, Mike Goolsby and Derek Curry will all return. Brandon Hoyte will step in for Watson the following year and is clearly a solid #2, let's call him a #1A. We haven't seen a lot of Corey Mays other than on special teams. I am reminded of a Vontez Duff return where Mays is running stride for stride with him, that is a good sign. The problem is they have little depth. Joe Thomas and Pat Ryan can return for a 5th year but I don't expect them back. Thomas is the most likely because he would be the #2 behind Derek Curry if he did come back. With Thomas, the Irish can field a solid 2-deep. Obviously, linebacker recruiting is vital this year.
Coach Simmons will probably have the easiest job in college football next year. Just let the big dogs hunt and get the pups ready to fill in. The pups need to be ready because as of now, there isn't an alternative.
This Irish defense will miss Gerome Sapp more than you think. Strong safety is a vital position because the strong safety has to bring a lot of run support while also being able to defend the pass. Gerome Sapp was very good at both and his presence was clearly missed in the Navy game. Garron Bible and Lionel Bolen will battle it out for the starting spot. Bible really took a step forward this year and played well in the dime package. Lionel Bolen is bigger and is probably one of the best athletes on the team. This should be an interesting battle. Glenn Earl will be back for what should be a fantastic final season. Glenn has been a solid player and a big hitter. Behind Earl, someone has to step up because he will be gone soon. Quentin Burrell is the most likely and Burrell has also played some minutes this year. Jake Carney can play either position and he will hit you. I have heard that current wide receiver Carlos Campbell will move to safety next year as well.
Coach Walters will have to develop two quality starters and then two players for reserves. The third starter will likely be the dime back and will see a lot of minutes. Notre Dame will likely play a lot of zone again next year so 6 defensive backs will be asked to blanket receivers and 6 will be needed to play a lot of minutes.
How do they replace Shane Walton? I don't see anyone replacing Shane Walton but Vontez Duff could take over his role. Who will take over Duff's role? We should be very happy to see Jason Beckstrom back on the field. He has played very well most of his career at Notre Dame and he should be hungry to take the other starting corner spot. Preston Jackson is a gamer but he needs to play the ball and not the man. I think Preston will take that next step this year. Mike Richardson sure looked good in fall camp and I have heard he continued to look good and improve throughout the year. He could press for the nickel back or even a starting spot. Dwight Ellick has all the speed necessary; he just hasn't quite put it all together yet.
Coach Walters will have to get two guys ready to start this year. He did wonders with Walton, Duff, Sapp and Earl this year so I hope we can expect the same next year. He then needs to build some quality depth and get the reserves ready to step in after injury or graduation.
The defensive coaches will have it a little easier than the offensive coaches will in spring and fall. Greg Mattison needs to find 3 quality guys to add depth on the defensive line. Bob Simmons needs to develop the young players to be ready to play at any time and develop 2 quality reserves. Trent Walters probably has the toughest job because he needs to get 4 players ready to play a lot of minutes and develop two quality reserves. This Irish defense needs 11 players to step forward to be a quality defense and to be able to withstand injuries. I think this staff can do that.
As for recruiting and filling needs, the Irish have a nice start but need a very strong finish. Trevor Laws will be the second bell cow to play right next to Landri in the future. Freddie Parish has star written all over him and should be a starter in the secondary very early. Isaiah Gardner is a former tailback with 4.4 speed and should have the hips to play corner. Joe Brockington is rumored to be in the same mold as Brandon Hoyte. Nick Borseti is the nasty inside linebacker with good quickness and instincts.
To finish out the class, the Irish need to land at least one, if not two speed rushing defensive ends (Victor Abiamiri and Emmanuel Awofadeju). They would love to sign two fast linebackers (Wesley Jefferson, Mitchell Thomas, Mark Washington and Dwight Stephenson). The must land two quality defensive backs (Ambrose Wooden, Tommy Zbikowski and LaBrose Hedgemon). To consider this a successful class, the Irish must land 5-6 of these defensive players. Preferably, two from each group would be nice.
As for the scheme, I didn't see anything to complain about. I think Notre Dame ran the correct scheme and they were very successful for most of the year. They need to improve in the pass rush area the most. They should be very strong against the run but until the front 4 can create a pass rush on their own, Notre Dame will struggle against the pass. Somehow, they need to find a pass rush for this to be a top 5 defense.
If I am Willingham, I don't think twice about taking both Abiamiri and Awofadeju if both want to come. The have to land at least one great linebacker and one top corner prospect. The numbers are small so they will have to hit for a high average. I willl guess some new names will surface.