Coupled with the energy of new position coach, Randy Hart, the front four could see an increase in production from last year's numbers. However, there is still a great amount of uncertainty and inexperience along the unit that could show some growing pains along the way. Despite all this youth, coach Hart wanted to make one aspect clear upon his arrival at Notre Dame — speed and quickness would be an integral part of his defensive line.
"Fast," Hart said of the tempo he expects out of his group. "It's critical. You play the way you practice. To play with tempo, you've got to practice with tempo. We by no means have it figured out yet, but we're trying and that's going to be our emphasis."
This increase in tempo is a feature that Hart's players noticed as soon as he arrived on campus. Ethan Johnson, one of the more promising youths on the defensive line with potential to be a difference maker in the pass rush this year, had one word to describe the new Irish philosophy upfront.
"Attack, attack, attack," Johnson said. "I think we're going to be in the backfield a lot more, than we were last year. I'm excited. I think we'll get some sacks right away this year rather than a couple games down the road, and come out and really get going."
When the Notre Dame coaching staff came out with the spring depth chart in late March, a few names came as surprises in terms of players getting starting nods. Because of his valuable playing experience last season, Johnson was penciled in as a starter at defensive tackle. Playing alongside the freshman will be sophomore nose tackle, Ian Williams, who has quickly become one of the most experienced players of the group.
At one of the end spots, coach Charlie Weis opted to place red-shirt freshman Kapron Lewis-Moore as a spring starter. Having heard reports of the freshman's progress, it will be interesting to see how he has developed after sitting out his rookie year to learn the system. By all accounts, the freshman's work ethic is unparalleled, and Irish coaches and fans alike are eager to see what Lewis-Moore is capable of on the field. For the defensive end, it was a wake-up call letting him know that his time would come sooner rather than later.
"When I saw that, number one, I knew that I had to step up to the plate," he said. "I knew kind of towards the end of the season that I will have to be a player that's going to have to step up. I'm not a freshman anymore."
CHARTING DEPTH: One maneuver that will grant coach Weis some depth along the defensive line is the movement of Johnson and Lewis-Moore to the interior tackle spots in the defense's nickel packages. Throughout spring practice, both Johnson and Lewis-Moore had been running with the first team as the defensive ends in the squad's base packages. However, Weis feels that once he introduces his nickel scheme, he can bring in fresh speed rushers off the end that will rush the quarterback into making ill-advised throws. Although he has been limited throughout the spring, Kerry Neal is a name certain to come up at one of these nickel defensive end spots.
"This is the first week we've put him out there in base defense, but in nickel he moves inside anyway," Weis said of Johnson's move to the interior. "So both he and Kapron, I don't know if you noticed but the first nickel, he and Kapron were the first inside guys, so they are both playing defensive end in base but when we go to nickel, we get them inside both potential three techniques and then get more edge pressure when we get speed rushers in there."
In terms of next year's depth, 2009 looks to be an opportunity for several players to make a name for themselves. Which of these players will emerge to prominence remains to be seen. However, it's young, inexperienced players like defensive tackles Hafis Williams, Brandon Newman and Sean Cwynar that will need to establish themselves as contributors off of the bench. This should allow early enrollee Tyler Stockton to soak up the playbook and work on redistributing his weight, rather than being concerned with finding the field early.
At defensive end, players like John Ryan and Morrice Richardson can provide some experience and leadership to the program's younger players, like Emeka Nwankwo, who remains as a name with some intrigue as to his progress within the defensive line.
If the unit can remain healthy heading into next fall, the competition for starting and reserve spots should bring out the best in each player, as the picture begins to become clearer at defensive line.
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR: Although they have already been mentioned, Lewis-Moore and Hafis Williams are the most popular names being thrown around by Irish coaches this spring. Since their public exposure has been limited, there is still some mystery as to their talents and how they fit into coach Jon Tenuta's revamped 4-3 scheme. According to Weis, the emergence of Williams has even aided in the flexibility and versatility of the line as a whole.
"As you looked out there today, you probably saw Ethan moved out to end and Hafis running in there with the first group," Weis said after a spring practice in late March. "I think there have been guys who have put themselves in a position that has given us a little flexibility to move some people around. I'll cite Hafis as one of them. Hafis isn't a big name around here but he has been one of the guys in practice for the last week that just keeps on showing up which, if that is the case, allows you to get bigger by putting Ethan out at end. Now all of a sudden you have a bigger guy out there — an athletic, big guy out there — that can really help us in base defenses."
A pair of dark horse names that could contribute for the Irish as reserves are Cwynar and Nwankwo. Both have had their share of nagging injuries, but it will be essential for both to focus on their personal improvement if they are to see the field. Nwankwo played in seven games last season, while Cwynar did not see the field at all his freshman year.
INJURIES, ETC.: The defensive line has been suffering through a series of small, nagging injuries, although no one has had any major setbacks. Neal, Cwynar and Ryan are the players who have been limited the most thus far in spring practice.