Unit Rankings: Part III

Not surprisingly, our lowest ranked units share a common trait...

This is the final edition of our three-part ranking of Notre Dame's positional units. As the group listed below are the units I've ranked the lowest, the column is naturally more negative than those published previously.

Click here for Part I which examines the team's QB, WR, Field Goal, and TE units.

And here for Part II for a look at the RB, OL, and KR/PR groups.

No. 8 – Defensive Line

IrishEyes Pre-Season Rank: No. 11 The defense as a whole collapsed as did two special teams units (which finished No. 7 and No. 11, below). No. 8 overall is a bit of a default ranking but also addresses a solid six-game effort by the group (resulting in five wins) and the presence of two impact players in Darius Fleming and Kapron Lewis-Moore.

Best Game(s): The group dominated from the outset vs. Washington State, but I tend to grade on a curve. Against team's with a chance to compete the unit was at its best vs. Boston College's ground game and its effort (namely Fleming and Lewis-Moore) against Purdue deserves mention from a big-play standpoint. The unit actually played its best ball of the season in the 2nd half vs. Michigan State in Week Three.

Worst Game: Navy. My God, Navy…though I suppose you could argue Connecticut and Stanford as well.

Why they could rank higher: They can't. This is probably the highest any media member will rank the defensive line unit.

Why they could rank lower: At least six poor games (five losses); a four-game effort in November in which the defense, namely the front seven, allowed more than 1,050 rushing yards but managed just three sacks vs. opposing quarterbacks.

Final Thoughts: The D-Line's six main contributors (Fleming, Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams, Kerry Neal, and John Ryan) totaled 39 of the team's 73 tackles-for-loss and 15 of the team's paltry 20 sacks.

Individually, Kapron Lewis-Moore improved and became one of the team's 15, if not 10 best players and Notre Dame's most impactful front seven player, Darius Fleming, earned his keep as a pass-rushing defensive end (rather than listed position of strong side linebacker). Fleming was the only defender outside of SS Kyle McCarthy to crack our overall Top 10 Players list published earlier.

Ian Williams, Kerry Neal, and Ethan Johnson each played below the level expected of them, though Johnson put forth a fine effort in vain vs. Connecticut while Neal helped seal the overtime win over Washington with a 2nd down sack and all-around strong effort in his best game of the season. Though often moved out of his gap defensively, Williams was a bit underappreciated in his hustle attempts as the junior made three 3rd down stops that keyed Irish comeback efforts (two losses lessened the fanfare after the contests):

  • A 3rd and Goal tackle down the line of Washington QB Jake Locker to limit the Huskies to a field goal and manageable 5-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
  • A hustling downfield tackle of USC RB Joe McKnight that forced a Trojans punt, giving the Irish offense a final chance at victory.
  • A huge 3rd and 1 tackle-for-loss in the 3rd Quarter at Pittsburgh to force a Panthers field goal deep in Irish territory.

Unfortunately, not much consistent depth emerged inside though Sean Cwynar garnered more playing time as the season progressed and John Ryan had his moments staying home as a backside defensive end but he was likely forced into too many snaps.

Steve Filer showed immense potential as an edge rusher but curiously disappeared from the rotation after exploding off the edge vs. Washington State in Week Eight.

Overall, the defensive line endured a lot of criticism, showed mid-season improvement, and ultimately regressed. The group allowed 4.8 yards per carry and 18 rushing touchdowns. It could certainly rank anywhere from No. 7 to No. 9, but ultimately the unit made more plays than did the two other defensive position groups.

No. 9 – Linebackers

IrishEyes Pre-Season Rank: No. 6 Simply put, Irish linebackers struggled to shed blocks. While the defensive line played a major role in those struggles, part of the responsibility of a linebacker is to take on an uncovered offensive lineman, engage him, and shed the block to make the tackle. The unit failed in this regard in 2009.

Best Game(s): Nevada in a landslide, though the tandem of Smith/Te'o excelled vs. Boston College as well.

Worst Game(s): Michigan, Navy, Pittsburgh, UConn, Stanford.

Why they could rank higher: Brian Smith made two huge plays in pass coverage (interceptions vs. Boston College and UConn) and freshman Manti Te'o had a borderline spectacular October, peaking as a freshman in Week Seven in a win over Boston College. To be thorough, the group keyed the defensive effort vs. Nevada in the season opener as both Brian and Toryan Smith played their best games of the season.

The unit was outstanding in three goal line stand efforts vs. Washington.

Why they could rank lower: Irish fans would have a hard time deciding which opposing running back incurred the most damage in '09 as Carlos Polk, Vince Murray, Dion Lewis, Ray Graham, Jordan Todman, Andre Dixon and Toby Gerhart all hammered Notre Dame's second level of defense.

Additionally, the group was helpless in space vs. Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier and though Te'o and Brian Smith were frequent blitzers in defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta's scheme, neither recorded a sack after Week Six. Te'o struggled in pass protection as expected in his first season.

Final Thoughts: Opponents ran the football an aggregate 185 times vs. the Irish in November. Just 18 of those carries resulted in lost yardage and the run-stopping trio of B. Smith, Te'o, and Scott Smith totaled just two of those tackles-for-loss in the month that sealed the team's fate.

The Irish did receive a statistical boost from the addition of Harrison Smith at linebacker as the re-converted free safety notched five tackles-for-loss in the final six weeks. Of the units listed in Part III, this group has the best chance at shooting up the chart for 2010 as Manti Te'o enters his second season and a new defensive staff could make better use of Brian Smith's talents.

No. 10 – Defensive Backs

IrishEyes Pre-Season Rank: No. 2 The Irish finished 81st in pass defense efficiency and 77th in total pass defense (which measures yards allowed). The group intercepted just 12 passes while allowing 17 touchdown passes vs. a schedule that included eight opposing quarterbacks in their first seasons as starters. So, yeah, my "No. 2" prediction was a tad off.

Best Game: Nevada.

Worst Game(s): Take your pick: Michigan (tackling and final drive pass defense), Michigan State (receivers running free as if it were a 7-7 drill), Purdue (tackling the bubble screen), USC (all of the above), BC (Rich Gunnell), Pittsburgh (tackling; playing the football in the air) or Navy (tackling and an epic blown assignment).

Why they could rank higher: The team's Defensive MVP resides on this unit. A secondary is only as good as its pass rush, and the Irish blitz scheme was unsuccessful in 2009.

Why they could rank lower: Though the group certainly struggled to stop opposing receivers (Blair White, Keith Smith, Damian Williams and Anthony McCoy, Rich Gunnell, and Jonathan Baldwin are top examples) the unit's major shortcoming was its inability to tackle. The 2009 defensive backfield ranks among the worst tackling units in program history and outside of 5th-year senior Kyle McCarthy, rarely made a big play against the pass.

Final Thoughts: No group's performance surprised me more than the defensive back's, a unit I thought would rank as the strength of the defense and one that would show unique depth and versatility as the season progressed. I was completely wrong in that assessment.

No. 11 – Kick-off and Punt Coverage Units

IrishEyes Pre-Season Rank: No. 3 Among the litany of issues: poor punting for the majority of the season, the loss of gunner David Bruton to graduation/NFL, inconsistent kick-off depth, kicks rolling out of bounds, poor tackling, and no big plays until Week 12 (see below). It was not a banner year for this formerly formidable unit.

Best Game: Navy, the Irish recovered an onsides kick and notched one of its two touchbacks of the season on kick-offs.

Worst Game(s): Michigan or Pittsburgh (see below)

Final Thoughts: The Notre Dame kick and punt coverage units, groups that ranked as the No. 1 and No. 20 overall in 2008, performed at an unacceptable level in 2009:

    At Michigan: Allowed a 94-yard kick return touchdown and managed just 29 yards on the game's key punt, resulting in excellent field position to set up the Wolverine's game winning drive
  • Purdue: A 33-yard punt returned 31 yards; a 32-yard punt returned 18 yards; a 40-yard punt negated by a Catch Interference Penalty
  • Pittsburgh: Punts of 35, 33, 17, 19, and 20 yards
  • UConn: A 96-yard kick return touchdown and 31-yard punt return (though freshman Ben Turk punted quite well in this game).
  • Stanford: Though Sergio Brown forced a 1st Quarter fumble (recovered by Braxston Cave) to set up Notre Dame's first touchdown, the Irish elected to completely avoid dangerous return man Chris Owusu after the sophomore brought back the opening (short) kickoff 41 yards. Ensuing kicks resulted in the following field position for Stanford: S40-yard line; S40-yard line (out of bounds; S38-yard line; S39-yard line; S19-yard line (successful high kick); S33-yard line (including an offsides penalty on the kicking team.

No coverage unit should have such an adverse impact on its team's season. Notre Dame played 10 games decided close and late…hidden yardage and kicking game errors are as much to blame as any more publicized failings.

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