Over the last 20 years, the Notre Dame Football program has produced several versatile, dependable, and in some cases, dominant interior defensive linemen. But the top Irish defenses of the past rarely featured one, or even just two reliable inside players up front. Schemes and alignments have changed but one truth remains:
It takes a village to build a strong run defense (or at least reliable reinforcements).
Name a tough Irish Run D and invariably there'll be a third inside man who stepped up for major minutes that season. Bryan Flannery, Bob Dahl, Oliver Gibson, Paul Grasmanis, Greg Pauly, Cedric Hilliard, and Trevor Laws all first developed as the defense's third inside presence. A man off the bench that played nearly at the level of the game's official starter.
For the '09 Irish defense to reach its potential, that man has to be sophomore DT Hafis Williams.
Ian Williams and Ethan Johnson are the entrenched starters. Ian Williams enters his third season of action in the middle and while he has the potential to be an imposing figure in '09, he's expected, at the very least, to hold up well at the position – to be an anchor in the middle of the Irish defense.Johnson has been tagged by most followers of the program for a breakout season – a potential All-American in '10 and '11 but a reliable, occasionally game-breaking presence, this year. Neither will likely reach his potential if they're burdened with excessive snaps from September 5 through November. The versatile (Hafis) Williams is the key to 13-game success. He emerged in the spring as the prime backup for Johnson at DT but has been cross-trained for both that and the nose tackle spot. At 295 pounds, Williams is quick enough to move along the line of scrimmage in myriad roles over the course of the season and the first-time player has received nothing but rave reviews from both teammates and the coaching staff for his work ethic and leadership … and that was when he had no hope of seeing the field.
Johnson and Ian Williams offer the '09 Irish a pair of promising defensive linemen – players we as fans and analysts don't have to overly-project for the season as both should reasonably be expected to play at a high level. But while the Irish graduate from "young" to "now or never" a first-year player will be the X-factor up front. And an X-factor on the Notre Dame D-Line often determines whether a Hawaii, Gator, or BCS bowl official makes a late-season visit to the Michiana Regional Airport.
Hafis Williams' Season Projection:My current impression of Williams is that of a player with exceptional quickness for a man his size and one that can be a disruptive presence as an interior tackle. But for that projection to become reality, a first-year player such as Williams needs a rock next to him – a veteran that demands double-team attention from the opposing center and guards. The Irish should have that in Ian Williams on the nose and in Ethan Johnson at tackle ("three-technique"). Hafis can contribute greatly to the Irish defense playing alongside and augmenting the skills of both (it's a luxury Ian Williams didn't have as a true freshman in a 3-4 base defense in '07). Though much has changed in H-Williams' development since he last took a meaningful snap (including countless changes in terms of technique, I'm sure), I nonetheless decided to check my original, bottom-line notes from Williams' high school film review (as follows):
"Seems quick and strong enough to play three positions on the line and by no means is he just an anchor inside … not sure why he's rated lower than the others (incoming DLs) and he appears much more game-ready."
The "game-ready" observation will likely come to fruition on the field on September 5, as Hafis Williams is already perceived as one of the better practice players on the squad (thus it's unlikely he'll be overtaken as the 3rd interior linemen in fall camp). He's put himself in prime position to contribute this fall … just how much is up to him.
Three Keys for Hafis Williams in 2009:
- Embrace the three-technique: It's Johnson's position and it will likely remain his in '09. But the plausible development of Williams and his growth into that role has Irish fans salivating as Johnson could then return to his preferred defensive end position.
- Continue to be a pain when it counts: Head Coach Charlie Weis referred to Williams as "a pain in the butt" for the offensive line in practice. If Williams can bring his chief practice asset into Notre Dame Stadium – a refusal to be or stay blocked – the Irish will have a defense on which they can rely in '09.
- Quality Snaps: In the off-season, both fans and media tend to fall in love with first-year players, especially those that showed promise in the Spring. It's natural – they have no warts, no flaws, or at least none we can yet prove. Williams' development is indeed a key to the team's run and overall defense this season. But he won't yet be a finished product vs. Nevada; in Ann Arbor, or when the green nemesis from up north come calling in late September. He can, however, offer 100 percent effort in relief of the starters: a rare quality in a young backup and one which generally equates to fresh legs (and more 3rd and longs) in the decisive fourth quarter.