#4 Ian Williams – Nose TackleThe senior pivot of the three-man defensive line is viewed by his peers as its lone given. A veteran at least one step ahead of his line mates, due both to his '07 experience in the base 3-4 and in terms of physical maturity.
Fans' recent memories of Williams include a home finale benching vs. UConn preceded by his infamous "We were out-schemed" comments following another humbling loss to Navy. (Incidentally, they were indeed out-schemed, but Williams failed to add ‘out-hustled, out-toughed, and out-played' to his post-game assessment of the debacle.)
Despite the team's late-season losing skid, Williams posted a tackle-for-loss in the schedule's final five contests – no other defensive lineman recorded more than one during November's four-game swoon.
And despite recording a career-low number of tackles as 4-3 nose tackle (39 with just 14 of the solo variety), Williams posted a career-best number of stops behind the line (6). He bounced back from sub par efforts vs. Nevada and Michigan to play his best 30 minutes of football in more than a year vs. Michigan State in the game's decisive 2nd half.
He bounced back from an ill-advised (and likely false) penalty at the tail end of a goal line stand vs. Washington to hold the point for an unlikely second 4-play stop – the defensive highlight of a defenseless season.
Three seasons later, Williams is back in the role in which he showed promise as a true freshman thrown to the wolves in 2007.
Scheme is no longer a viable (or at least an allowable verbalized) excuse. It's time to produce.
#3 Dayne Crist – QuarterbackHe'd rank No. 1 with a bullet if not for his continued recovery from ACL surgery from last November.
His new Irish coaches and a 12-game slate of opponents won't, but Notre Dame's fan base will likely cut Crist some September slack. There's no chance he'll be at full strength 10 months removed from surgery, which means there's little chance Crist will enjoy that state of health again until the start of spring practice 2011 (players don't tend to "get healthy" competing from August through January).
Ready or not, Crist will become one of the nation's highest profile players when he steps back into the shotgun for his first snap on September 4. His speed and mobility may be less than ideal, but his accuracy, command of the offense, leadership, and toughness must be on point from moment one.
Pat Dillingham won his first start as an Irish quarterback. So did Arnaz Battle, Gary Godsey and Matt Lovecchio...in the same season (2000). In other words, a former top-recruit, current team leader, and ultra-talented athlete will use up most of his allotted good will with an opening-game loss to in-state rival Purdue next fall.
I expect a huge effort from Crist and the offense on September 4. The true test will occur one week later when the team from up north travels to South Bend for the semi-annual classic that's made more than a few Irish signal-callers into legends.
Technically, Crist has three years to prove himself, but admit it: a lasting impression will indelibly etch in your mind next September when Crist and Co. faces a collection of mid-tier Big 10 teams and traditional rivals in the season's first three weeks.
#2 Manti Te'o – Middle LinebackerWe may never learn. The search for the next big thing; the next Irish legend; the next name in the program's lore, has passed on to yet another promising underclassmen. Unless you're a football coach, or have closely watched last season's film, Manti Te'o likely has few warts. And if you're either, but also an ardent Irish fan, you're probably willing to overlook any that surface.
The kid can hit. He's instinctive, he's humble, he's studious and already in a position of leadership among his peers…did I mention he can really hit?
Head coach Brian Kelly added fuel to the fans' fire when he commented on Te'o's improved pass defense (an obvious weakness last season) over the course of the spring. Te'o looked like a new man – or 19-year-old big kid – in scrimmages and during the Blue Gold Game: a confident, downhill, absolute punisher at linebacker that blew up inside screens and stuck to Kyle Rudolph's hip like an annoying kid brother.
He'll receive more hokey NBC pre-game coverage than anyone this side of the Samardzija/Zbikowski duo of 2005-06 (Did you know Zbikowski boxed?) We'll see comparisons to great linebackers past (any bets on Junior Seau?). If he makes a few big plays vs. Purdue, the Michigan game broadcast will be All-Te'o, all-the-time.
For crying out loud, sophomore wide receiver Robby Toma's going to have to score 15 collegiate touchdowns before he loses the moniker of "Te'o's high school teammate."
With Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate moving on; with Michael Floyd returning from injury, and with a tight end likely serving as the face of the offense early next fall, Te'o is the obvious storyline of choice.
It's unfortunate, because we're asking a lot of a true sophomore playing in his second scheme for his second staff in his second season.
If the defense significantly improves next fall the hype surrounding Te'o will know no bounds – and I actually think he could live up to it
There we go again…
#1 Bob Diaco – Defensive CoordinatorHe preaches the "Base 50" (3-4 in layman's terms) defense – Change No. 1 from last season.
He preaches a disciplined, gap control approach rather than one intended to wreak havoc in opposing backfields – Change No. 2 (incidentally, Diaco's Cincinnati defense finished 3rd nationally in tackles-for-loss last season. Notre Dame finished 48th.)
He's friendly, engaging, and affable with the media – (Insert joke here) Change No. 3.
But no one will care about Changes 1, 2 and 3 if Change No. 4 doesn't occur: Notre Dame's defense must stop surrendering more points than its offense produces.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit will serve as part of the whole that is Brian Kelly's football team (not unlike coach Bill Yoast's defense did for head coach Herman Boone's in the Disney Classic Remember the Titans).
Kelly's comments in our first 4-on-1 meeting with the coach last December hinted at that fact:
"I really (don't) concern myself more with how we win; I don't care how. And if you look at our schedule (at Cincinnati) carefully, and really go through it, you'll see that we won one game 28-7. That we won another 21-14. So you'll see some low-scoring games in there and some of it was tactical, in how we played offense, to get the win that day.
"When you have what we had at Cincinnati, a prolific offense and one that could score on anybody, you don't put your defense in a good position when you play that way. But having said that, it wasn't about our defense, it was about winning."
"So we'll carefully evaluate (how to approach games next season). But you can't win 34 and lose 6 (Kelly's record at Cincinnati) if your defense is lousy. You have to find a way to play good enough defense, in the times that you need it…I think as a head coach who's a play-caller; I have a lot to do with how those games shape up.
"To win here at Notre Dame, you have to play good defense. No question."
Diaco designs and will call the defense. If the unit remains ahead of the offense entering the final week of August camp, Kelly will design a game plan that relies heavily on Diaco's troops. If the gap is narrowed, or the offense surpasses the level of the defense as it did last season in Cincinnati, fans are likely to see the 2010 Irish defense allow more yards and/or points than deemed acceptable.
But Kelly will be judged by the number of notches on the left side of the W/L ledger.
In 2010, Bob Diaco will be as well.