"The Irish Defense Will Stop the Run"One redshirt freshman at DE; one true sophomore who might have to play more DT than DE; one solid junior on the nose; and either one unproven junior/a senior that's been repeatedly replaced/or converted outside linebacker at the other defensive end spot.
Throw in two redshirt freshman, a completely untested sophomore, and a senior that played 11 minutes last season as your key interior backups, as well as an undersized senior DE who relies on quickness and you have the makings of a fine fantasy football defense, but not one that can be considered a strength on the collegiate level.
The depth along the defensive line at Notre Dame has improved considerably, but outside of junior NT Ian Williams and sophomore future star Ethan Johnson, the majority of the able bodies are unproven or completely untested players. And there's at least a 40% chance we'll look back at 2009 when Johnson's Irish career is complete and realize that the sophomore suffered a bit from playing out of position.
It's not that the young talent won't develop or can't succeed this season, merely that no logical fan can assume they'll win first down on a consistent basis vs. a team that is truly committed to running the football.
The overall play of the Irish defensive line will likely determine the course of the season and the plausible scenarios offer a wide range of possibilities. In fact, the unit could rank anywhere from the team's worst to the team's fourth best at season's end (third might be a stretch, but it's not out of the realm of possibility) – that's not a comfortable pre-season situation for a team's first line of defense.
"There Won't be a Drop-off at Free Safety"Harrison Smith is returning to his natural FS position, and I'm of the belief (along with Irish fans, media, and coaches) that he'll develop into a top-notch player at the position. He was one of the team's best playmakers filling a need as the strong side linebacker in '08 but his athleticism and size will be of even greater value as he transforms into a presence in the secondary.
However, there's a chance, especially in September, that we'll find out exactly how many long completions the departed David Bruton denied; how many mistakes he covered for; and exactly how valuable he was to a blitzing defense that often left Bruton to cover more than his half of the football field.
Harrison Smith's athleticism may match Bruton's (though Bruton's football speed was top-of-the-line). And Smith might one day become a better, more productive football player than was Bruton. But it's unlikely the '09 season will feature anything close to Harrison Smith – the finished product.
Nevada and two old nemeses from the north will be sure to put this theory to a September series of tests.
"We Lost to Syracuse Because We Weren't Mentally Prepared to Play"In a moment of (excessive) honesty, Irish sophomore Golden Tate mentioned, in the wake of the shocking home loss to the Orange and their lame duck coaching staff: "I didn't feel any emotion on the sideline…even I was kind of just, eh." Tate, of course, was the team's sole offensive bright spot in the 24-23 defeat.
Junior offensive tackle, Sam Young, he of the leadership committee, added in a post game interview that: "Bottom line, to be kind of blunt, they wanted it more."
No kidding. Anyone in attendance that day can verify both first-person accounts of what was one of the least excusable defeats of the last fifty years. And though emotion plays a huge role in college football, it's difficult to reason that a team staked to a 13-point second half lead, at home, on Senior Day, lost due to motivation.
A more likely culprit for the debacle was the continuance of what is now a 25-game body of work that shows a lack of physicality along the defensive line coupled with an approximate 36-game sample size of repeated lack of execution and toughness from the five man offensive front.
Both problems have purportedly been addressed in the off-season through coaching changes and developed talent. We'll know for sure by early October if things have changed in the trenches in South Bend.
Look for more Leaps of Faith and the much more optimistic Reasonable Conclusions throughout the summer.