Two positives emerged from the lost season of 2007: 1.) Notre Dame fans, from South Bend to Staten Island to Sacramento learned the essential truth of the sport: the game is won up front, on the offensive and defensive lines, and 2.) Ian Williams emerged as a promising freshman interior tackle – a possible anchor around which the Irish defense could build for the next three seasons.
Williams was fine in the trenches as a sophomore last season – certainly not the problem but not a difference-maker, either. He hustled, he battled, and he showed football smarts; an awareness of how opponents try to attack the defense. Now a junior, the team needs him to emerge as a rock in the middle of the team's front seven.
The Irish defense, like Williams, was "fine" in 2008, holding SD State, Michigan, Stanford, UNC, Washington, Pittsburgh, Navy, and Hawaii to less than four yards per carry (a solid benchmark); yet it gave up crucial, game-changing runs in both the UNC and Pittsburgh games. The run D showed grit through frustration (the offense wasn't going to score if the game lasted six quarters) vs. Boston College but was bludgeoned by Syracuse and USC…games played within a one-month span.
Williams was not to blame for the front seven's shortcomings…but he was unable to impose his will consistently to avoid them.
Williams' Season Outlook:Notre Dame's team defense has been up-and-down this decade, but the nose and defensive tackle positions have been well-represented (names such as Lance Legree, Cedric Hilliard, Darrell Campbell, Greg Pauly, Derek Landri, and Trevor Laws have all shined on the Irish interior since the turn-of-the-century). And from 2001-2005, the Irish run defense, led by the aforementioned anchors, ranked 39, 10, 29, 4, and 34. That ranking slipped to 61 in 2006 and bottomed out at 96 in 2007 (46th last season).
Williams, now the defensive line's graybeard, is the key to another top 30 finish or higher in '09. He'll not only be asked to join his predecessors as a difference-maker in the middle, but to continue to make plays down the line and eventually, to impose his will on the man in front of him, as he looked occasionally overmatched vs. the nation's best last season (more on that in the bullet points below).
Williams does not yet demand double-team attention – the necessary next step in his evolution from promising underclassmen to run-stopping force. He and emerging sophomore Ethan Johnson were prominently featured in a previous column that highlighted the team's most indispensable players heading into the season. Both must remain healthy and continue to improve for the Irish to challenge college football's top tier this season. If Williams' plateaus as a junior, if he simply remains solid, Irish fans will likely spend two or three Sunday mornings trying to figure out how the ND offense never seemed to possess the ball in the fourth quarter or where running backs such as Vai Taua and Toby Gerhart came from…and how those names decided the Irish would spend the Holidays in San Francisco or Jacksonville, rather than Miami or Glendale or New Orleans.
By the Numbers:Williams has 85 career tackles (45 in '07 and 40 last year) in 25 games but just eight career starts. A more productive season as a full-time player could yield 50-55 total tackles, giving him approximately 140 in three seasons. I point this out not because total tackles are the mark of a nose tackle, but because Williams would then have an outside chance at cracking the program's all-time top 10 tackle list for defensive lineman: 204 total tackles ranks at No. 10 with Scott Zetek '80 and Jim Stock '75. Not bad for a player thrust into action as a freshman on a poor team in 2007.
Williams' Best Moments of 2008:
- Michigan State: The Irish defense was gashed off-tackle by a (then) hot running back, Javon Ringer. But Williams competed with six tackles, two for no gain (including a 3rd and 1 stop that forced a 2nd Quarter punt), and two others that held Ringer to gains of two and three yards on first down.
- Pittsburgh: With Notre Dame leading 17-10 late in the 3rd Quarter, Williams keyed a 3rd and 4 stop on a pass to backup TE Nate Byham, forcing a Panthers punt. Later, in the game's first overtime, Williams stayed home on 2nd and Goal to deny RB LeSean McCoy a cut back lane after a toss-right, dropping him for a loss of three yards. In the second overtime, Williams hustled downfield to limit McCoy for a 7-yard gain on a middle screen, setting up 3rd and 1 from the Irish 16-yard line. The Irish defense stopped McCoy on 3rd down forcing a Panthers field goal.
- Navy: Williams posted seven total tackles, allowing the following yardage: no gain, 2 yards, 2 yards, 1 yard, 2 yards, 1 yard, 4 yards. None resulted in a Navy first down.
Williams' Moments to Forget in 2008:
- Syracuse: Eight assisted tackles appears solid, but Williams, along with the rest of the Irish defensive line, struggled to control the line of scrimmage (each of Williams' eight assists occurred after gains of two to eight yards) and the Irish gave up 170 yards and two rushing TD (and five rushing first downs in the 4th Quarter) to the nation's 114th-ranked rushing offense.
- USC: Williams' toughest game of the season as he was intermittently overmatched in one-on-one situations vs. Trojans center Kristopher O'Dowd and guards Alex Parsons and Jeff Byers. Williams stood his ground on several plays (and even hustled downfield for a tackle from behind on RB C.J. Gable after a holding call), but lost the key one-on-one battles, including being stood up by O'Dowd on a 55-yard TD left side run by Joe McKnight; being ushered out of the middle for two easy cutback first downs; and finally being shoved out of the play by Parsons for an easy walk-in touchdown from Stafon Johnson. Williams never quit on plays, tipping two passes (one on 3rd down to force a punt when the Irish trailed by just 7) and sliding down the line to hold both Gable and FB Stanley Havili for no gain. But for each stop of just one or two yards, Williams was equally unlikely to get off a solo block from O'Dowd (one of the nation's best). Williams will need to win more of these battles if the Irish are to finally take down the Trojans this October (every USC player listed above returns for 2009). li>