Ryan is listed as the starting defensive end, but the ascension of junior Kerry Neal to that spot is likely a formality (Neal missed most of Spring Practice due to injury). Richardson ranks a close second behind promising redshirt freshman Kapron Lewis-Moore on the depth chart entering fall camp. The Irish defense will need a contribution from both seniors to remain a sound defense into the fourth quarter over the course of the upcoming 12-game slate.
Inconsistent ImpactMorrice Richardson has, to date, shown more promise than production. He showed flashed his potential as an end coming off the edge at times last season, most notably with an inside burst at North Carolina to stop Tar Heels running back Shaun Draughn for no gain on 2nd and 8 at the ND 15-yard line (the Irish held UNC to a field goal). Richardson added a 3rd and 8 tackle for no gain at Boston College inside the red zone, limiting the Eagles to a (missed) field goal attempt midway through the 3rd Quarter.
And therein lies the rub for Richardson: his best moments remain non-descript – he's played well at times but not well enough to remain a regular, and not consistently enough as a pass-rusher (1.5 career sacks) to rank as an automatic situational sub in passing situations.
As with Richardson, Ryan's best effort last season is largely forgotten, but imagine the plausible impact on the program had Ryan not pressured Aztecs QB Ryan Lindley on 3rd down with 1:47 remaining and the Irish holding a one-score lead (21-13). Or had he not responded at the end of the third quarter, after an Armando Allen fumble, with a pass break-up on 3rd and 10 at the Notre Dame 30-yard line to force a punt when the Irish still trailed 13-7.
Though he tied for the team lead in hits on the quarterback (with Ethan Johnson and Kerry Neal) Ryan's stats were less impressive last year than in 2007 when the sophomore posted solid numbers, starting 10 games and finishing with 39 tackles (five for lost yardage – a total which ranked third on the team behind LB Joe Brockington and DE Trevor Laws) and 2.5 sacks. But he was appropriately criticized for a lack of physical play.
That lack of ballast a the point of attack reared its head at a key moment in last season's loss at Michigan State: with the Irish trailing 16-7 and just under six minutes remaining, a tired defense forced the Spartans into a 2nd and 10 at their own 23-yard line. Ryan was collapsed on an off-tackle run by Javon Ringer…63 yards later the game was no longer in doubt as the Spartans eventually capitalized on a Ringer TD plunge.
Both seniors have made plays to help the Irish win. Both need to harness that ability on a consistent basis in their final season of eligibility.
Role ModelsWe tend to write-off veterans who've had a limited impact, but a senior-year surge by Richardson is not without precedent. At the tail end of the 1991 season, Irish defensive end Karmeeleyah McGill had recorded just 16 tackles in 32 games. He was undersized for an every down player, but had shown flashes of pass rush potential (McGill was a converted tight end).
Potential translated into production for McGill in one of the most memorable wins of the decade as the junior exploded vs. No. 3 Florida in the Sugar Bowl, finishing with six tackles, two sacks and a pass break-up in Notre Dame's 39-28 victory.
McGill parlayed that effort into a 1992 senior season role that yielded 58 total tackles (including the Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M), five sacks, and two forced fumbles.
Ryan's so-far spotty play was mirrored by another 1992 contributor, senior linebacker Brian Ratigan. Ratigan entered his final season with 25 total tackles and two career starts.
By the end of 1992, the versatile OLB had emerged as the team's nickel linebacker, posting 25 more stops, 1.5 sacks, 3 pass break-ups, and a key fumble recovery vs. Penn State in the famous Snow Bowl Senior Day win. (It should be noted, this recovery was one of the better you'll see – check out No. 46 at the 1:30 mark dive/slide into the picture at the last moment for a full-speed recovery in the snow).
Three years after earning playing time as true freshman for the program's second-best team of this decade, both Richardson and Ryan face challenges from younger, likely more talented teammates. But consistent contributions from both would provide key depth to an unproven front seven that will rely on a heavy rotation this fall.