Three Super SophsRobert Blanton, Darius Fleming, and Ethan Johnson – say hello to the backbone of the Irish defense through 2011. Blanton is in the best situation as a still-developing sophomore: contending for a starting cornerback job (that he's likely to win) with two upperclassmen. Failing that, he'll see ample time as a true backup cornerback as Corwin Brown has shown a propensity to play any cornerback who's earned his stripes. Blanton's possible contributions as a sophomore (whether real or imagined by this writer) include punt return team duties (his skill set would seem to be ideal blocking/covering opposing gunners); versatility in both the nickel and dime packages (detailed below); and as the team's sole cornerback in goal line packages (the assumption here is that the role is between Blanton and senior Darrin Walls).
More will be asked of Johnson than any player on the Irish front seven. In 2008 he was a four-game starter (13-game contributor) that finished with 18 tackles (five for lost yardage) and 3.5 sacks. In 2009, fans, media, and presumably the coaching staff has asked Johnson to take three steps forward and rank as the front line's best defensive player. Most close to the program assume Johnson will play both defensive tackle and defensive end over the course of each game, depending on down/distance, the situation, and the opponent's personnel. That's a lot to ask of a 19-year old defensive lineman, regardless of his potential.
Fleming is my pre-season pick to lead the Irish in sacks – no small feat considering his technical position, strong side linebacker, is rarely one that accumulates gaudy statistics (the SLB generally has to deal with opposing tight ends). But it's the sophomore's versatility and late-season showing as a pass-rusher that fueled the prediction. I'm confident the Irish nickel defense will be the team's best defensive package – one used often in '09 – and that Darius Fleming the nickel defensive end will finish the job when asked to get after the quarterback.
The trio's best years lie ahead – but they each must develop as expected this fall for the Irish to contend for a BCS berth at season's end.
This Isn't Tennis – But Depth is Indeed the KeyWhen I was 17 I took a month of tennis lessons from an excellent local player. It was difficult to explain on the surface why he was such an effective player, he just was. And his first words of wisdom to me: "Tim…depth is the key."
The same holds true for the 2009 Irish linebackers, a unit with no proven star, but plenty of prospects that could take a major step forward in the coming months.
The group boasts a renewed emphasis on speed and aggressiveness, and has a mixture of promising young players with veterans waiting to break out. (For a full review of the 12-man linebacker corps heading into fall camp click here.)
Working on the assumption that (at least) six linebackers will see extended playing time in '09, and allowing that Brian Smith, Toryan Smith, Darius Fleming, Scott Smith, Manti Te'o, and either Steve Filer or Zeke Motta (pending a move to safety) have the initial shot to make up said six, how should we assume the two-deep will play out.
- Starting weakside linebacker: Brian Smith is the listed starter. I think it's a great role for a free-lancing, big-play guy such as Smith and would consider it "bad" news if the junior is moved back to the middle at the end of August. Which means I believe…
- Starting middle linebacker: Toryan Smith will finally see extended duty. The Irish schedule is loaded with run-heavy teams. Smith's niche is taking on blocks and stopping the run. It's time for the senior to make an impact in base sets.
- Starting stronside linebacker: Darius Fleming will begin camp at SLB, drop down to DE in nickel sets, and appears to have a chance at leading the front seven in total playing time (including special teams appearances) as a sophomore.
- Backup weakside linebacker: The post-spring slot belonged to Steve Filer. Backing up Brian Smith would technically limit the sophomore's playing time but he could certainly be cross-trained (or moved) to compete for a role or the starting job (at some point) in the middle.
- Backup middle linebacker: Sophomore (redshirt freshman) David Posluszny occupied the role at the end of Spring. A kid named Te'o could provide stiff competition to both Poz and Toryan Smith from the outset.
- Backup strong side linebacker: 5th year senior Scott Smith brings knowledge of the role, physical play, and game experience to the SLB spot. He'll play a role – unlikely that of a starter, but possibly that of the unit's "swing starter" (or LB No. 4) especially through August and September.
- Nickel Linebackers: Brian Smith has one of these (two) spots locked down. Fleming should drop to defensive end in the nickel package…Filer, Te'o, or possibly freshman Zeke Motta each make sense if they can absorb the defense's requirements. If not, Fleming showed the ability to drop and cover in short zones vs. Hawaii but the D-Line could use his pass rushing skills up front.
- Goal Line Defense Irish Eyes will update the team's goal line package when available through August and weekly during the season. For an early overview of the possibilities, click here.
Casting a Wide NetWith all due respect to the team's top-heavy wide receiver corps (which I ranked No. 1 due to the presence of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd), the Irish defensive backs boast the best combination of talent, starting skill, and proven depth among the team's 11 major position groups. And for the Irish defense to reach its potential, this unit, especially the team's nickel package, has to be every bit the group of difference-makers we've forecasted.
Cornerback could be the team's deepest position with three legitimate starters for two spots in Darrin Walls, Raeshon McNeil, and Robert Blanton; and two backups (for what becomes one spot on the two-deep depth chart) in redshirt freshman Jamoris Slaughter and second-year contributing junior Gary Gray. The nickel role – a key to the '09 secondary's success, will be manned by both senior safety Sergio Brown and McNeil, who if he wins a starting CB job could still move into the slot when the team employs five defensive backs. An additional competitor would be Blanton, whose anticipation, confidence, aggressiveness jumping underneath routes, and pure coverage skills are necessary attributes for a true coverman vs. dangerous slot receivers. A dime package (six defensive backs) has multiple personnel possibilities with the early guess here that four cornerbacks and starting safeties Kyle McCarthy and Harrison Smith make up the dime's six DB set.
Speaking of Harrison Smith – after feasting on the backline of the Irish secondary at times in 2005 and for most of 2006, opponents rarely threw deep with success on the Irish DBs over the last two seasons. It's no coincidence that those 25 games coincide with departed free safety David Bruton's time roaming centerfield.
Few doubt Harrison Smith's ability to re-assimilate to the free safety role (Smith was a high school do-everything safety but played strong side linebacker for the Irish last year). But can he cut off the threat of the deep ball at a level approaching that of his predecessor?
We can safely assume Sergio Brown will make plays near the line of scrimmage; that Blanton, Walls, and McNeil will provide solid coverage, and that SS Kyle McCarthy will again serve as a stout presence vs. the run. It's also reasonable to believe Smith's physical play will match or exceed Bruton's hitting/tackling prowess from recent seasons. But cutting off the deep third; patrolling the back line; and covering the mistakes made in front of him are unproven but necessary aspects of Smith's heading into the season.
Part 3 (of 4) will be posted later this afternoon with a focus on key questions regarding the Irish offense.