But finally, beginning tomorrow with head coach Charlie Weis' opening remarks and then in earnest Saturday with the team's first practice, Notre Dame will take its first step toward a season-opening victory; a successful September; the proving ground of October; and the dangerous stretch run of November.
Media Day in South Bend is tomorrow, so you know what that means? We have time for at least four more columns chock full of meaningless speculation.
We begin with a few thoughts regarding the '09 defense.
Brandon Newman or Sean Cwynar Must ContributeThe Irish defensive lines in 2005 and 2006 featured three top tier college players: Derek Landri and Trevor Laws inside and Victor Abiamiri on the end. And until his injury vs. USC in ‘05, Abiamiri's bookend, senior Chris Frome, played at a higher level than in any of his previous seasons as did backup senior DT Brian Beidatsch. Both young defensive ends Ronald Talley and Justin Brown contributed to an '05 defense that remained solid vs. the run and an '06 defense that was greatly improved (due largely to the team's consistent pressure) against the pass.
In '07, Laws continued to shine, this time as a 3-4 defensive end and Pat Kuntz began a two-year run as a productive but undersized nose tackle/defensive tackle, who could have used a deeper rotation of game-ready teammates to augment his skill set.
The 2009 defensive line has more promise than its Weis-era predecessors and more talent than last year's unit. But it has just as many question marks through the ranks of its depth chart with (at least) four first-time players and a host of veteran backups who've been largely part-time players as collegians.
Enter Newman and Cwynar. Both redshirt freshman (sophomores that did not play in 2008 and therefore could apply for a 5th season of eligibility after the 2011 campaign); both interior defensive linemen that hold the key to late-game and late-season success vs. a set of physical opposing running games.
Nevada, Michigan State, USC, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Navy, Connecticut and Stanford will attack the Irish with their respective running games. That's at least eight opponents (with Michigan ranking as a probable ninth) that will likely feature the ground game (due to powerful offensive lines, running back talent, or traditional program approach to the game) as its chief weapon of attack.
The names Newman and Cwynar have received less pre-season pub than their teammates listed above them on the current depth chart. One (or both) must emerge as a solid, reliable contributor to the interior of the Irish defense or November opponents could once again produce gaudy rushing totals such as 2008's sobering: 178, 167, 178, 170, and 175-yard efforts. The Irish front four is as talented as it is inexperienced - Newman and Cywnar must provide respite to the regulars over a grueling 12-game slate.
Which of course brings us to my "Key to the Irish Defense"…
Defensive Tackle Hafis WilliamsNice to meet you young man – now please win an early season starting job; hold down the defensive interior so your classmate Ethan Johnson can wreak havoc on the end, and by the way, we know you've never faced anything remotely similar to your first opponent's offensive attack in your short football career, but don't let those guys chew up yardage (or the clock) either. No pressure at all…
The top Irish run defenses of the recent past all featured reliable backup defensive tackles: Brian Flannery and Bob Dahl in 1988; Flannery, Eric Jones, and Troy Ridgley in 1989; Jones and Bryant Young in 1990; Oliver Gibson in 1992 and 1993; Greg Pauley in 2002; and Trevor Laws in 2004.
At worst, the Irish defense needs Williams to emerge as the team's No. 3 interior defensive lineman, spelling Johnson and junior nose tackle Ian Williams early and often each week. At best…a Williams and Williams middle could open up a slew of options at defensive end (and all over the defensive line) and allow Hafis' classmates listed above a chance to contribute solid minutes as well.
The more you see Kerry Neal bury the quarterback immediately after he throws, the better off the Irish defense will be this season. Sacks are great, but constant pressure creates turnovers and a short-field for what should be a potent Irish offense.
Part 2 (of 4) will feature three super sophomores, an embarrassment of riches in the secondary, and a battle royal at linebacker (to be posted later this morning).