Irish Eyes concludes its Pre-Camp Unit Rankings for the team's 11 major position groups with a look at the defensive line. The No. 11 overall ranking is less a pointed criticism than an acknowledgment of the unknown. Even avid Irish fans, but those that are casual observers of the team's year-to-year roster, might not recognize many of the key defensive line contributors heading into the season.
- Four sophomores expected to be regular contributors (part of the defensive line's 8-9 man rotation) this season have never played a college down: DE Kapron Lewis-Moore; DT Hafis Williams; NT Brandon Newman; DT Sean Cwynar.
- Three upperclassmen have played sparingly over the last few seasons: Senior DT Paddy Mullen; senior DE Kallen Wade; junior DE Emeka Nwankwo.
- Two seniors have been intermittently replaced as regulars over the last two seasons: Senior DE John Ryan and senior DE/pass rush specialist Morrice Richardson.
- The unit's expected top dog, sophomore DE/DT Ethan Johnson has four career starts and its X-factor, junior Kerry Neal, is a converted OLB (though probably a better fit here and well-versed playing with his hand on the ground).
- Finally, the unit's established NT, junior Ian Williams, stagnated in his development after a promising freshman year in '07.
Throw in freshman early enrollee Tyler Stockton as part of the NT/DT mix and you're looking at five complete rookies, two newcomers to meaningful game action (Wade, Nwankwo), three part-timers (Ryan, Richardson and Mullen), two tackles (Johnson/Ian Williams) with just 12 career starts between them, and Kerry Neal, currently listed as third-string after missing the entire Spring Practice session.
This pre-season ranking, however likely to be rendered off-base by mid-season, is appropriate.
Irish Eyes Pre-Camp Rank: No. 11.
Pre-season National Acclaim: Ian Williams is ranked as Phil Steele's No. 20 draft eligible defensive tackle. (True sophomore Ethan Johnson is not eligible for the NFL Draft).
Probable Starters: Sophomore (redshirt freshman) DE Kapron Lewis-Moore; sophomore DT Ethan Johnson; junior NT Ian Williams; junior DE Kerry Neal.
Spot Starter: Sophomore (redshirt freshman) DT Hafis Williams.
Veteran Depth (2008 Playing Time): Senior DE Morrice Richardson (53:00); senior DE John Ryan (part-time starter); junior DE Emeka Nwankwo (12:04); senior DE Kallen Wade (3:17). Senior DT Paddy Mullen (11:46) is expected to return after sitting out in the spring.
Rookie Depth: Sophomore (redshirt freshman) NT Brandon Newman; sophomore (redshirt freshman) DT Sean Cwynar; freshman NT Tyler Stockton.
Highest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: No. 5, ahead of any unit with the exception of the WR, DB, Coverage Teams, and QB.
Lowest Team Ranking (of the 11 Units) I Can Fathom at Season's End: No. 11 if there's an injury to Ian Williams or Ethan Johnson.
Strengths: Young talent, especially sophomore DE/DT Ethan Johnson who has All-America potential for 2010. Johnson (along with fellow sophomore Robert Blanton) was one of the few (returning) Irish defenders to look comfortable vs. the Trojans in last November's debacle. He played his way into a starting role late last season and put forth another solid effort in the Christmas Eve domination of Hawaii.
According to Irish coaches (and offensive linemen) redshirt freshmen Hafis Williams and Brandon Newman rank among the team's toughest defensive linemen to block in practice. Williams reportedly has worked his way into the conversation for a starting DT role, a move that would allow Johnson to move to his more natural DE slot.
Junior Ian Williams is an active nose tackle, not just a space-filler. He'll run to the sideline and downfield to make plays and showed awareness in the screen game, sniffing out several traps last season and helping to contain the play (Williams saved two potential large gains/touchdowns in the overtime periods vs. Pittsburgh and running back LeSean McCoy last year). He was up-and-down diagnosing misdirection runs, though that might not be a fair assessment as most of the "down" aspect came against USC and its great interior O-Line play.
John Ryan is experienced on the end, but he hasn't been able to consistently produce to date. He did, however, tie for the team lead in fumble recoveries and QB hits last season and had five tackles for lost yardage and a forced fumble during an inconsistent 2007 campaign.
The player to watch on the outside is Neal – a potential game-changer as a pass rushing end and athletic front four player. He was miscast in a dual role (rusher/OLB) last season and could have a major impact if asked to simply hold up vs. the run and then attack the opposing quarterback.
Weaknesses: The obvious is a lack of experience and seasoning at the college level. We can speculate for two months about how this group might be light years better than last year's (or 2007's) front line, but until development is expressed in meaningful action, we're just playing weekday fantasy football.
I don't doubt the Irish will find four, possibly five quality contributors from this unproven group. But the danger of that number would reveal late in the season…just about the time Boston College comes to town and the Irish travel to Pittsburgh…eventually to Stanford. Last November, the Irish run defense was gouged for 202 carries, 878 rushing yards, and 10 touchdowns in five games (1-4 record). A reliable second-unit never materialized and the starters were unable to hold up over the course of the 12-game/13-week stretch.
Teams that committed to running the ball generally succeeded, such as Michigan State in Week Three (203 yards vs. the Irish, hen a season-ending national ranking of #77 as a rushing offense at 3.3 yards-per-carry). And though this number is likely to change (for the better) in '09, the Irish recorded just 18 sacks in 12 games heading into the bowl matchup. The eight-sack outing vs. Hawaii was enjoyable to watch, but the Warriors surrendered 57 on the season (to illustrate that point: one less than did the Irish in the 2007 train wreck). Exactly half of Notre Dame's sacks last season occurred vs. Hawaii (8) and Stanford (5).
Year-End Prediction and Ranking: There are more questions than answers, at least on July 10. Can Newman fill a two-deep role for 13 weeks. Can Hafis Williams become a starter or successful spot starter (allowing Johnson to play DE in base sets)? And if Johnson is forced to play inside (DT) for an entire season, how will he hold up? Can Neal consistently bring the heat after showing flashes over the last 20-plus games? Will Kapron Lewis-Moore, the probable starter at left defensive end, be an upgrade over departed 5th-year senior Justin Brown?
Will Ian Williams be a noticeable force or just a solid, hustling nose tackle who wins and loses battles depending on the quality of the opposition? Can Morrice Richardson channel his consistent effort from the North Carolina and Boston College games into 13 weeks as a senior? (Richardson, despite his quickness around the edge, has just 1.5 sacks and 18 tackles in 27 games played.) Can John Ryan play more physically? Will Wade or Nwankwo contribute? Can Mullen return to lend a hand in goal-line or short-yardage situaions?
Does Cwynar crack the two-deep for the season's second half, giving the Irish a four-man DT/NT rotation that consists of three redshirt sophomores and (junior) Ian Williams? This youthful look would yield a best-case scenario at defensive end, with Lewis-Moore/Richardson and Johnson/Neal holding down the edges. And can Lewis-Moore successfully slide inside in the nickel defense to help Johnson rush the passer? Can the Irish stop the run well enough to turn loose what could be a dominant secondary?
If your head hurts from too many questions and not enough answers, you're not alone. Meet the 2009 Irish defensive line – where potential suggests that the sky's the limit. Then again, we really have no idea.
Note: These rankings will be updated at the end of August and weekly throughout the season.