Prediction #26: Kyle McCarthy Will Repeat as the Team's Tackle Leader
This isn't necessarily bad news for the 2009 defense. "Bad" news would be if the team's strong safety (McCarthy) and the new free safety starter, Harrison Smith, again rank 1-2 on the squad as did McCarthy and third-round NFL pick David Bruton did last season as a safety combo.
And its not an indictment of the linebacker corps, either. Aside from Brian Smith, I don't think any Irish linebacker will play 13 games as an every-down ‘backer this season (others could come develop into that role later in the year).
McCarthy posted 110 total tackles last season which ranked as A.) the third highest single-season tackle total of the decade, and B.) the sixth highest single-season total since linebacker Tony Furjanic's 147 in 1985. Let's take a look at the process of elimination that led to my selection of a McCarthy repeat:
- Darius Fleming: Fleming will play strong side linebacker in base sets and likely move to an edge-rusher role in obvious passing situations or simply in Notre Dame's nickel defense. This movement doesn't take Fleming off the field – he'll likely finish among the front seven's leaders in playing time – rather, a strong side linebacker generally doesn't post high tackle totals, at least not game to game (Fantasy Football Note: this is true in the NFL as well). Fleming will have to contend with the opponent's tight end (as a SLB) and won't have as many opportunities for tackles when he drops down into an edge rushing role (DE).
- Toryan Smith: I think Smith will win the early season middle linebacker role, but there's little chance he wins a consistent role in the team's nickel defense. He won't be on the field enough to lead the squad in total tackles. Smith will also face stiff competition for playing time from a young, athletic linebacker corps as the season progresses.
- Ethan Johnson: Likely too big of a one-year leap (18 total tackles last season in 13 games and 4 starts) though this would be good news for an Irish defense…and for Johnson, who'd receive immediate All America consideration as a true sophomore if he were able to pace a successful team's defense. In fact, if Johnson were to come close to this pace he'd likely become the victim of constant double-team blocks – again, a situation that would greatly improve the Irish front seven and run defense.
- Manti Te'o or Steve Filer or David Poslusnzy or any young linebacker: They could eventually win starting roles…Kyle McCarthy will pile up tackles while these and other young ‘backers fight for a spot on the field through November.
- Any Cornerback: Bad News – you don't want Robert Blanton or Darrin Walls to lead the Irish in total tackles.
The Case Against Harrison Smith: Over the program's storied history, only nine defensive backs have appeared among the single-season tackle leaders (top two tacklers):
- McCarthy and Bruton in 2008
- S Glen Earl (second to LB Courtney Watson in 2002)
- S Tony Driver (second to LB Anthony Denman in 2000)
- S A'Jani Sanders (led the team in '99 with LB Denman ranking second)
- S Brian Magee in 1994 (with LB Jeremy Sample ranking No. 2)
- CB Rod Smith in 1991 (with LB Demetrius Dubose nearly doubling his tackle total)
- S Greg Davis in 1990 (with LB Michael Stonebreaker nearly doubling his tackle total as well)
- The list is then populated by linebackers and defensive linemen anytime prior to 1989 (eras that emphasized power and option running games in college football).
Smith has a leg up on his predecessors in that A.) Bruton piled up more than 90 tackles at the free safety position last season; B.) Smith played linebacker (SLB) last season and is certainly better equipped to support the run than most safeties, and finally C.) He's shown the ability to succeed near the line of scrimmage and could be used as a blitzer in Co-Defensive Coordinator Jon Tenuta's zone-blitz scheme.
But McCarthy doesn't occasionally move closer to the line in zone blitz situations...he makes his living there as an extra run defender in the box outside of long-yardage situations. Smith should finish a distant third in 2009.
The Case Against Brian Smith: Smith is McCarthy's main competition, and it would be better for the overall health of the Irish defense if the junior linebacker were to step up and lead the Irish in total tackles (with a number around 85-90) this season. However:
- Inconsistent Tackle Totals: In Smith's defense he played slightly out-of-position last season (as the team's MLB). Nonetheless, the sophomore finished a close third behind senior captain Mo Crum and Harrison Smith in total minutes played at LB - despite missing two games. (He would have led the unit had he not missed the Syracuse and USC games due to injury). Regardless, here are the every-down linebacker's tackle totals (solo-assist) in 2008: 4-0; 2-4; 4-6; 1-4; 3-3; 3-0; 2-2; 3-2; 8-0; DNP; DNP; 1-0 (though not fully healthy vs. Hawaii). McCarthy, on the other hand, posted more solo tackles than Smith did total stops in seven of the 11 games in which both played last season.
- Smith will be a jack-of-all-trades: What Smith may lack as a stout, run-stuffing linebacker that takes on blocks and forces the action he makes up for as a playmaking athlete. And those skills should be on display in this, his third season in the program and second in the Tenuta/Brown scheme. The move to the weak side will allow Smith to play in space – to blitz, to drop, to freelance a bit and as a result, he has a chance to be the defense's MVP and to post career-best tackle totals (he recorded 54 tackles last year in 10 games plus limited action vs. Hawaii).
But Kyle McCarthy will again set the tackle pace for the Irish defense…let's hope with a significantly lower number than 110 in 2009.
Prediction #27: The 2009 Irish Will Play Eight "Close and Late"
A detailed breakdown of "Close and Late" and how the last four coaching staffs have fared in such situations can be found here in June's Breaks of the Game column. Admittedly, readers' definition of "close" and "late" may vary, but if we all apply football logic and simply ask: "Was the game reasonably decided (win or lose for either side) by events during the fourth quarter?" we can have a basis of understanding for the prediction.
And though I have eight opponents in mind to fit this criteria, there's no chance I'll be 100 percent accurate on those choices. Which is fine – at least one of the lower rung opponents will send a scare down the spines of Irish fans in '09.
A look at the Close and Late candidates for the upcoming season:
- Nevada: A potent offensive opponent that will rack up yardage if not points. The Irish will need to convert red zone chances into touchdowns to put away the Wolf Pack in the season-opener.
- Michigan: Until recently, both words defined the series. But four of the last six have been one-sided affairs. I'm in the camp of longtime Irish fans that expects this matchup to be a bit difficult in Ann Arbor.
- Michigan State: The most likely candidate for Close and Late on the list. It would be a major surprise if either team is in complete control for the entire final period.
- Purdue: This has the dreaded "Backdoor Cover" written all over it: That is, a night road game in which the Irish jump out to an early lead and thus rely on the running game to close out the fourth quarter. Don't be surprised if a comfortable margin is threatened midway through the final period.
- Washington: A likely blowout but a battle-tested Washington team could roll up points at this point in their schedule as well.
- USC: Yes. Close and Late. I guarantee it.
- Boston College: Notre Dame might handle Boston College this season, but if this matchup isn't on your pre-season list of "Close and Late" well, you must have missed the last 16 years.
- Washington State: The least likely opponent on the list to play the Irish close or give them a scare at any point in the fourth quarter.
- Navy: The Midshipmen bleed the clock and have played the Irish to a Close and Late situation in six of the last 12 meetings since Lou Holtz's departure.
- Pittsburgh: The third most likely candidate for close and late behind MSU and USC – a blowout by the pass-heavy Irish in Pittsburgh in mid-November (with a possible night kick-off) seems unlikely. And the Panthers don't have the horses to jump on and subsequently bury the Irish for 60 minutes.
- Connecticut: Senior Day has produced nine Close and Late scenarios in the last 20 seasons (and you could argue for a 10th). It's late November, the Irish should have visions of January Bowls dancing in their collective heads and in no way should this roster lose to this Big East foe, or be threatened by such a limited offense. Sound familiar?
- Stanford: In ideal Close and Late candidate and a game most Irish fans now recognize as a potential trap, regardless of the team's record or bowl hopes.
Why eight rather than seven? (my initial thought). The Irish don't have the ground game or front four depth to consistently keep enough opponents at bay, even after laying the initial haymakers through the air. Eight close and late would put the Irish coaching staff to the test in 2009.