Honeymoon Period

IrishEyes examines the defense at the conclusion of the spring session and offers early plaudits for the still-undefeated coaching staff.

Athletes on the Edge

While defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's group of inside linebackers boasts one a lone veteran (a true sophomore in Manti Te'o) competitor, the team's outside ‘backer unit appears to possess the most quality depth and overall experience of the 2010 position groups.

Can two players such as Steve Filer and Kerry Neal – both pass-rushing defensive ends in 2009 – acclimate to zone coverage in the flat and in short-to-middle zones by September 4?

"Oh good, absolutely," Diaco said specifically of Filer and Neal. "Those guys are what you're looking for. They're tall; they're long (limbed) they play with a ‘long lever' so when they grab you (they can initiate space); they're quick-twitch guys so they can defend in space, re-route wide receivers, break on the ball, be active on outside breaking routes. But they're also physical enough to attack and be ‘combat zone' players and push on tight end and offensive tackles.

Though the enthusiastic Diaco has a knack for accentuating the positive in each of his players, the OLB quintet of Brian Smith and Darius Fleming (the presumed starters heading into August), Filer, Neal, and redshirt freshman Dan Fox does appear to possess the versatility and skill set necessary to succeed in the team's "Base 50" (don't call it a 3-4) defense.

Each of Fleming, Neal, Filer, and Brian Smith has shown the ability to get to the quarterback. Smith has fared well in zone coverage over his career, and Fox, though a bit overmatched in space Saturday vs. Deion Walker and Shaquelle Evans, produced 2-3 QB pressures while also dropping Armando Allen for a loss on a 4th and short carry.

Familiar Face: Back in space where he belongs, Smith received praise from head coach Brian Kelly Saturday evening.

"Brian is very, very good out at that drop position," said Kelly. "We've really helped our pass defense. Both those kids (Te'o included) are really good in 3rd down situations where you don't have to take them off the field."

Its admittedly hearsay until September 4, but the group does seem better equipped to handle the current scheme rather than battling vs. constant engulfment from opposing tackles when lined up head-to-head.

Man in the Middle

He's not close to a finished product, but second-year starter Manti Te'o appears to have improved considerably since November. Facing an offense boasting Kyle Rudolph, Armando Allen, Cierre Wood and Michael Floyd, Te'o made his presence felt Saturday from the outset, drilling Floyd on a slant and later blowing up a "bubble screen" to the talented receiver immediately after the catch. He nailed Wood on a 3rd and 1 screen pass for no gain and cleaning up Allen for no gain on an edge run (after Filer ran him down but overpursued).

Te'o was beaten by Rudolph for a few short gains but also managed to break up two passes intended for the imposing junior in the first half Saturday.

"He was aggressive again; he shows up," Kelly offered of the sophomore MLB. "The thing I like about him the most is he's a Mike (middle) linebacker that can stay on the field. He's not a guy you take off the field on 3rd down, and he's really good in space."

Beaten for a short-post touchdown in an open scrimmage near the end of the spring session, Te'o still appears overmatched vs. Rudolph in coverage. Join the club: he's one of 13 middle ‘backers Rudolph will face between today and Thanksgiving weekend that will be victimized by the future first round pick when isolated in space.

He'll make his share of mistakes as a second-year player next fall, but Te'o has a chance to be Notre Dame's best playmaker inside since Courtney Watson roamed the middle in 2002-03.

Depth is the Key

A team weakness last season, I have measured confidence that the Irish defensive line will be a much stronger unit next fall. Ethan Johnson is a third-year player at defensive end and remains an all-star candidate (at least for 2011); junior Kapron Lewis-Moore a second-year starter on the opposite side was the team's best defensive lineman prior to the November nose-dive last year; and senior nose tackle Ian Williams returns to a position (a two-gap nose tackle) in which he showed promise as an underclassman.

But the underlying key to the trio's success is the emergence of those behind them. 6'4" 280-pound senior Emeka Nwankwo – he of the 12 DNP-CD's last season – was the defensive surprise of the spring. Junior Sean Cwynar is more than capable backing up Williams (though he seemed well on his way as a one-gap nose tackle last season in the team's 4-3 scheme…something to monitor vs. the Boilermakers on September 4).

Hafis Williams was good enough that Kelly moved a competing player (back) to the offensive side of scrimmage and Williams' classmate, Brandon Newman, produced a "sack" (tackling the QB was not allowed) and two pass break-ups Saturday.

Look for a heavier rotation along the DL next fall as the front wall attempts to stay fresh over the 12-game slate.

Backline Back to Basics

"Going back to the most important principles for me were the one-on-one match ups, the competitiveness, the game itself, the execution," stated Kelly of his Blue Gold Game defensive blueprint.

"The way we structured some things, we wanted to see a little bit more work from the corners. I thought we ran downhill from the safety position. They were around the ball all day, Harrison (Smith) and Jamoris Slaughter. I just think, again, from my standpoint, we'll look at the film today, but it'll be more about the individual match ups, how they did getting off blocks and things of that nature. We didn't set it up so anybody would have a banner today day."

A quick review of my game notes shows Darrin Walls beaten by Michael Floyd on a deep post and Tai-ler Jones for an 18-yard corner route touchdown; Robert Blanton faring better, breaking up a pass for Barry Gallup and dropping Rudolph for no gain on an out-route; and Gary Gray picking off a (tipped) pass while making a TD-saving ankle tackle vs. Jonas Gray in the open field.

Slaughter was perhaps the most impressive DB in our viewing throughout the spring, breaking up two Montana deep passes (though one should be considered a dropped interception vs. an ill-advised throw) in the Blue Gold game and showing the ability to close vs. short completions in the friendly confines of the LaBar Practice Complex.

Zeke Motta can hit and if used expertly, will be a fan favorite due to his short zone coverage (down field efforts by Motta are less certain). Smith appears more comfortable near the line (and out of his free safety/defensive quarterback role) while Dan McCarthy brings the toughness Kelly demands.

But to be blunt, any evaluation of the 2010 Irish secondary is merely internet fodder until Purdue lines up for a live series next September. The group just has too much to improve upon after last year's debacle.

(For recent reviews of both the Safety and Cornerback units, click the links below):



Hope Not Entirely Misplaced

The defense was consistently referred to as "ahead of the offense" during the 15-practice spring (little can be gleaned from the unit's hamstrung Blue Gold effort). Not since the 2002 season has the defense carried the program (neither the O nor the D "carried" anything in '03-04). And it's unlikely to do so again next fall.

Coach Kelly likes the unit's backline tackling ability (a major weakness in '09) and noted the overall pass coverage appears improved. From an outsider's perspective, the starting D-Line personnel should be the program's best since the Laws/Landri/Abiamiri grouping of '06 (if they approach that level of play, Notre Dame's defense will remain ahead of its offense and, more importantly, its opponents' collective offenses throughout the fall).

In short, the off-season and April gave Kelly & Staff a chance to mold the 2010 team in the head man's image next August. I couldn't be more impressed with the approach of the new staff and have a relatively high opinion of the talent base it inherited. But no team's fan base believes its squad to be inferior in April when everyone is undefeated.

Don't Mistake Athletes for Football Players

I'm firm in my stance that the pieces appear to be in place, but agree with Kelly that the current roster is nowhere near its apex.

"Uhh…no," Kelly answered, pausing for emphasis when asked if this group was the most talented he'd ever coached. "I mean, that's such a…for me to answer a question in terms of talent, I've had 14, 15 days with them. I like to coach the best teams, and I don't know that the best teams that I've coached always had the best talent."

Kelly wasn't short-changing the talent level as much as the group's personal accountability and development through April 24, 2010. (And in my opinion, reiterating his belief that perceived talent doesn't win football games.)

"As you know, you can look good, you can run fast, you can do all those things," Kelly began in his last press conference of the spring, before adding the telling question: "Can you play the game of football?"

Notre Dame has not played football at an acceptable level since mid-November of 2006. And Kelly knows the tearing down process of his group is ongoing, and that the atmosphere he referred to as "a sense of entitlement and selfishness" must still be eradicated.

(Kelly's quote is telling and worthy of examination: imagine how taken aback you'd be if you took over a team on which no player had a personal W/L record better than one game above .500 in his college career, yet the group carried itself with any semblance of entitlement!)

But even a coach with Kelly's singular focus can admit his new gig is different from any other.

"I will not understate the ‘Wow' factor of coming into this incredible stadium," Kelly later added of his first foray inside Notre Dame Stadium for Saturday's relative game day atmosphere.

Fans have rightfully embraced Kelly, who's pushed all the emotional buttons while simultaneously beginning the process of removing the culture of mediocrity that has infected the Notre Dame Football program over the last (you choose) 3-to-8-to-13-to-16 seasons.

"Now we've to win some games," Kelly correctly concluded. "That makes it really exciting and that's what we'll be looking forward to doing."

Early goodwill aside, that's how they're all judged.

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