Securing the Edge

With five combined seasons of eligibility remaining between them, junior defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore will key the Irish run defense in 2010 and beyond.

IrishEyes continues its preview of each player and the team's key position groups. Today's edition: Defensive Ends.

Wide Receivers Spring Preview: Wide Open

Tight Ends Spring Preview: In Good Hands

Running Backs Spring Preview: Crowded House

Cornerbacks Spring Preview: Under Siege

Safeties Spring Preview: Taking Applications

Outside Linebackers Spring Preview: Three-headed Monster

Inside Linebackers Spring Preview: Will Youth Be Served?

Three returning defensive ends earned monograms last season: Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Sean Cwynar. Each will be a junior when school begins next fall and both Lewis-Moore and Cwynar have three seasons of eligibility remaining (Johnson, who earned a monogram as a true freshman in '08, has two).

Senior-to-be Emeka Nwankwo did not see action last season after appearing in seven games (each in October and November, as well the Hawaii Bowl) in 2008. He could apply for a fifth season of eligibility following the 2010 season.

Freshmen Justin Utupo and Kona Schwenke are candidates to join this unit next season though both could begin to acclimate to the college game in outside linebacker roles. Incoming freshman Bruce Heggie should debut on either the defensive or offensive line as well.

Playing Time, 2009 – Defensive Ends

  • Ethan Johnson – 262:54 and 51 Special Teams appearances
  • Kapron Lewis-Moore – 227:26 and 51 ST
  • Sean Cwynar – 50:44 and 12 ST
  • Hafis Williams – 9:25 and 2 ST
  • Emeka Nwankwo – DNP

The Elder Statesman – Ethan Johnson

The true junior will play the entire 2010 season as a 20-year old graybeard of the team's youngest position group. Johnson earned playing time as a true freshman in 2008, showing enough to start four games (he played in each of the team's 13 contests including the bowl game and accumulated 18 tackles) while finishing 5 tackles for lost yardage (good for fourth on the team) and 3.5 sacks, tying him for the team lead.

Last season, Johnson nearly doubled his tackle total, led the squad with 4 official sacks, and finished tied for third on the squad with 6.5 tackles for loss.

We Have Questions: Last season I jumped the gun, anointing the 19-year old true sophomore as Notre Dame's next great defensive lineman: can Johnson take that step as a junior in a new scheme? Armchair quarterbacks lamented Johnson's move inside in the team's base 4-3 defense last season: will his expected move to (strong side) defensive end (SDE) in the new 3-4 provide Johnson with more individual matchups on the edge? Can Johnson, coupled with a true OLB presence behind him, set the edge consistently vs. opposing running games this season? How will Johnson adjust to playing in his third defensive scheme in three collegiate seasons?

Hope Springs Eternal: Entering his true junior season, Johnson has already appeared in 25 contests (officially starting 15). He was thrust into early playing time as a teenage defensive lineman; has repeatedly battled 22 and 23-year old men on the opposite side of scrimmage and come through with his share of victories. Though 2011 will likely be his "best" season, Johnson is inarguably a key piece in Notre Dame's new defensive front and ranks as the defensive lineman most likely to significantly improve from last season.

If opposing coaches held a draft of Notre Dame personnel, Johnson would be one of the first five players selected (and off-topic: and luckily for ND fans, none of the five that immediately come to mind are seniors).

Spring Prediction: A starting defensive end role and likely a spot inside in the team's nickel and dime defenses.

Room to Grow – Kapron Lewis-Moore

Lewis-Moore played three full seasons in his 12-game stint as a first-year starter at left defensive end last season:
  • A non-descript trio of contests to begin the season in which he appeared out of position and overwhelmed.
  • A five-game stretch during which he was likely the team's most improved defensive player (and if you remove Golden Tate from the equation, possibly most improved player overall) and registered six of his seven total tackles for loss on the season.
  • A final month of the season in which he registered one tackle for loss (a sack vs. Navy) and finished two of the final three contests with just two assisted tackles to his credit.

Like Johnson before him, Lewis-Moore played most of his first season as a 19-year-old DE, and KLM wore down vs. the veteran offensive lines the Irish encountered late last season.

We Have Questions: Was Lewis-Moore one of the players whose weight loss level reached the 20-pound mark by late last season? Lewis-Moore made several plays as inside in the team's nickel defense: will the new 3-4 base defense better suit his skill set? KLM added nearly 50 pounds to his frame since his true freshman season of 2008: will he top out in the 275-pound range over the next three seasons under the new regime?

Hope Springs Eternal: Lewis-Moore's five-game stretch (from Purdue through the Washington State contest) indicates the future is bright for the redshirt-junior with three years of eligibility remaining. He knifed through gaps, finished tackles, and fought off the opposing right tackle with regularity. Lewis-Moore and Johnson give the Irish a strong 1-2 punch through 2011.

Spring Prediction: The starting DE spot opposite Ethan Johnson and a role in the team's nickel and dime defenses as well.

On the Cusp – Sean Cwynar

Cwynar recorded just three official tackles as a first-year contributor (redshirt-freshman) last season, but he continually impressed as a rotational nose tackle in the first half of contests last season, finally earning a start at Pittsburgh.

From an outsider's perspective (non-coach's perspective), Cwynar appeared to use his hands as well as any defensive linemen in our limited practice viewings last season and other than a few tough snaps vs. All American USC center Kristopher O'Dowd, fared well in most of his matchups last year, while generally winning his gap battle vs. double teams (it should be noted that either Johnson or Lewis-Moore generally received the double-team block when Cwynar subbed in for Ian Williams on the nose).

We Have Questions: Why did the seemingly effective Cwynar see such erratic playing time last season? Will his skill set better suit a defensive end role in the team's base 3-4 this season? If senior Ian Williams stagnates, would Cwynar push him for a starting job as an undersized nose tackle in 2010?

Hope Springs Eternal: Cwynar played well when given the opportunity vs. Boston College (fighting off a double-team block and combining on a tackle-for-loss and creating a similar opportunity for Te'o later in the second half). In much more limited action, Cwynar held his gap more effectively than did starter Ian Williams through mid-season of last year. The first-year contributor made two nice plays vs. USC, creating upfield pressure on an eventual pass break-up by Robert Blanton and again disrupting the Trojans blocking scheme on a one-yard loss by Joe McKnight.

Spring Prediction: The "fourth" starting defensive linemen on a three-man D-Line.

Spring Fling – Hafis Williams

Williams was lauded by former head coach Charlie Weis as one of the players his offensive linemen struggled against last spring. He then fell behind the competition with an undisclosed health issue last August.

Williams saw action in each of the team's first four contests and five of the first six games (he sat vs. USC), then did not play in November.

We Have Questions: Could Williams not have helped as a rotational player on a defensive front that allowed 1,012 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns in the final four contests? Is another question relevant after the first?

Hope Springs Eternal: Through little fault of his own, Williams was the player of whom the previous staff promised the most but delivered the least in 2009 (at least defensively). Former defensive line coach Randy Hart preached the need for a strong rotation in August, and for reasons likely out of his control, that never materialized in the fall. Williams should be champing at the bit and a strong off-season opens the door to playing time next fall.

Williams' OL teammates noted his ability in practice. That, and a one-play effort in the late third quarter goal line stand vs. Washington is all we have to go on at this point. A new regime helps Williams by reason of default, if nothing else.

Spring Prediction: More pre-season plaudits. August will be the proving ground for the junior-to-be with three seasons of eligibility remaining.

A Fresh Start – Emeka Nwankwo

Nwankwo did not see the field last season after recording two tackles and a QB hurry in seven contests during the 2008 campaign.

We Have Questions: Will the 6'4" 275-pound Nwankwo remain at defensive end under the tutelage of new defensive line coach Mike Elston? How deep will the D-Line rotation be next fall and can Nwankwo show enough this spring and next August to earn playing time? Could the former high school offensive lineman switch sides of scrimmage for 2010?

Hope Springs Eternal: Nwankwo has two seasons of eligibility remaining. He could conceivably play the 2011 season as a 23-year-old senior and wouldn't be the first Irish lineman to blossom late in his career. Like Hafis Williams, it's impossible to say that Nwankwo won't have the opportunity to benefit from the staff change.

Spring Prediction: Nwankwo will remain on the D-Line as one of five backups who've seen minimal playing time entering 2010.

Note: Former offensive tackle Lane Clelland will reportedly move to defensive end. Clelland will be a junior next fall with three seasons of eligibility remaining. He logged 6:38 of playing time last season as a tackle and tight end (vs. Washington State) and made 16 special teams appearances.

Notre Dame's nose tackle candidates will receive their own position preview.


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