For our No. 1 rated position unit and an explanation of the rankings, click here.
- IrishEyes' 2010 Pre-Camp Rank: No. 6 (behind TE, WR, OLB, RB, FG unit)
- 2009 Pre-Season Ranking: No. 11 (of 11)
- 2009 Post-Season Ranking: No. 8 (ahead of LB, DB, and Kick Coverage)
- Highest ranking I can envision at season's end: In a perfect world, a top 3 finish behind the tight ends and receivers.
- Lowest ranking I can envision at season's end: Pretty low. I watched the last four seasons, too…
Of note: With the exception of two strong opening months in 2008, Notre Dame's run defense has declined over the last six seasons, ranking No. 4 nationally in 2004, dropping to No. 34 in '05, No. 61 in ‘065, No. 96 in '07; spiking up to No. 45 (despite a horrendous November) in '08, and crashing back to No. 89 last year.
The unit's No. 6 ranking represents what I forecast to be the team's most improved position group from last season.
Pre-season National Acclaim: Junior Kapron Lewis-Moore is Phil Steele's No. 28 rated defensive end; classmate Ethan Johnson is Steele's No. 25 ranked defensive tackle; senior Ian Williams is listed as Steele's 16th best defensive tackle. Johnson was named to the 75-player watch list for the 2010 Rotary Lombardi Award, which recognizes the nation's best "down linemen, end-to-end, either on offense or defense, who set up no farther than 10 yards to the left or right of the ball, or linebackers who set up no farther than five yards deep from the line of scrimmage."
Position Coach: Defensive line coach/special teams coordinator Mike Elston. Elston has spent the past 11 seasons tutoring college athletes with a primary focus on the defensive line (he spent one year as a tight end coach and one season as a linebackers coach). Elston coached defensive linemen at Eastern Michigan from 2001-2003 and held the same position at Central Michigan under Brian Kelly in 2004 before a promotion to Co-Defensive Coordinator at CMU in 2005. He spent the last three seasons with Kelly at Cincinnati coaching tight ends, special teams, and the defensive linemen while also serving as Assistant Head Coach last year.
- 6'2" 301-pound senior nose tackle Ian Williams (37 games/17 starts, 124 tackles including 8.5 for loss, ½ sack, 2 pass breakups, 1 interception)
- 6'4" 280-pound junior defensive end Ethan Johnson (25 games/15 starts, 50 tackles including 11.5 for loss, 7.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, 2 pass breakups)
- 6'4" 275-pound junior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore (12 games/9 starts, 46 tackles including 7 for loss, 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery).
- 6'4: 281-pound junior defensive end Sean Cwynar (11 games/1 start, 3 tackles)
- 6'4" 280-pound senior defensive end Emeka Nwankwo (7 games played, all in 2008)
- 6'1" 290-pound junior nose tackle/defensive end Hafis Williams (7 games played)
- 6'0" 290-pound sophomore nose tackle Tyler Stockton (redshirted as true freshman
- 6'0" 297-pound junior nose tackle/defensive end Brandon Newman (1 game played last season)
Incoming Depth: 6'3" 315-pound freshman nose tackle Louis Nix (No. 9 rated defensive tackle by Scout.com); 6'4" 227-pound defensive end Kona Schwenke (No. 9 rated defensive end by Scout.com); 6'4" 240-pound freshman defensive lineman Bruce Heggie (unrated).
Quote to Note: "We had trouble blocking Ethan Johnson today." – Head coach Brian Kelly after an early April scrimmage.
StrengthsIan Williams is familiar with his 3-4 nose guard job, performing in that role as a freshman reserve and part-time starter as a sophomore; Williams led all Irish defensive linemen in total tackles over that two-year span. Always a downfield hustler, Williams has 37 games under his belt in the trenches and ranks as one of my three defensive breakout candidates this season…Fans should not underestimate the physical growth and maturity of true junior Ethan Johnson entering his third season or the career arc of redshirt-junior Kapron Lewis-Moore (entering his second season as a contributor). The pair has yet to appear on any publications list of top tandems but could emerge this fall as the team's most improved duo...Johnson's quickness off the ball and athleticism should serve him well in the 3-4…Lewis-Moore was the team's most improved defender from Week One through Week Eight last season…Hafis Williams has impressed consecutive coaching regimes in the spring with Kelly noting, "He moves his feet very well; doesn't stay blocked; really plays with good pad level."
Brandon Newman looked the part of a spark plug reserve defensive linemen during a late-spring scrimmage viewing last season, earning reps with H-Williams briefly resting due to injury. The redshirt-junior knocked down two passes in April's Blue Gold Game and added a "sack" (QBs weren't tackled) of Dayne Crist…Stockton might be a year away from starting material but could perform in a key reserve role behind I-Williams this fall; he's compact, quick, and showed a knack for the action.
Referred to by his former coach as "a luxury item" last season (a freshman that could contribute, but could benefit from a redshirt-season), Stockton should emerge as the 2010 season progresses and attrition/tired legs hit the DL ranks…Nwankwo served as the surprise veteran of the spring, working his way into what appeared to be the No. 3 defensive end role. He could spell Lewis-Moore to keep the second-year player fresh late into the season. Nwankwo regularly won one-on-one battles during spring ball and spent a good amount of time in the Irish offensive backfield in the second half of the Blue Gold Game.
If Nwankwo ranks as the obvious No. 3 DE behind Lewis-Moore/Johnson, Sean Cwynar appears to be the team's fourth-best and most versatile linemen (Williams, Johnson, Lewis-Moore) entering August. Undersized at nose guard, Cwynar appeared to challenge for the position's backup role throughout April while continuing to cross-train at defensive end (the position for which most pundits and fans have him pegged). Cwynar was IrishEyes' surprise on last fall's practice field and he came through for the Tenuta/Brown defense albeit in limited opportunities last season.
With five backups challenging for roles behind the three accepted starters, none of the trio of incoming freshmen should be needed next fall, though that's a viewpoint we'll need to revisit in late August. Ian Williams will be the only player lost to graduation at season's end. The remaining seven veterans possess an aggregate 16 seasons of eligibility entering 2011.
The addition of an athletic training table and of strength & conditioning coach Paul Longo is expected to provide a major boost for the unit/team this season.
WeaknessesFootball statistics can often be manipulated to support one side of an argument but its hard to find justification for the 1,052 rushing yards and 10 rushing scores the Notre Dame defense allowed in November last season – a run defense begins up front…Johnson intermittently struggled at the point last season as an undersized defensive tackle, admitting to the media in the spring that he had no counter move (lacked strength, not technique) for his veteran opponents when his initial burst of the line was stymied…Lewis-Moore was inconsistent in his first season of college action and joined the rest of the front seven hitting the proverbial wall in November…Williams was the only DL to record a tackle-for-loss in each of the season's final four contests (all losses).
Entering his third season in the program, Newman has yet to receive a meaningful collegiate snap while Hafis Williams played just 9:25 over seven contests last fall…Nwankwo did not play last season (coach's decision) after finding the field in seven contests as a redshirt-sophomore in 2008…Stockton will be an undersized first-year backup nose guard this season – a frightening proposition should Ian Williams suffer an injury, though he could go to Williams for advice, as the senior nose guard performed in that unenviable role as a 2007 true freshman…Cwynar notched just three stops in 50 minutes of action last season. His body type appears to suit that of a 3-4 defensive end but the redshirt-junior remains the team's best interior backup DL as well.
We're in the "weakness" section, thus, there's no avoiding the undeniable truth: the Notre Dame defensive line has been porous over the last three seasons and has not played winning football.
Entering AugustI have the group pegged as the most improved on the Irish roster. The starting trio has 64 games of collegiate experience with 41 starts under its belt. Williams, Johnson, and Lewis-Moore must perform at a veteran level or the defense will struggle again. Their five backups, though largely untested, have been in the program an aggregate 10 seasons entering August camp.
The starting Notre Dame defensive line represents a rarity at the program: it could actually be underrated heading into the season. Brian Kelly won't accept excuses such as youth or attrition as contributors to failure. If defensive line coach Mike Elston can coax three solid months from a quintet of backups, no excuses will be necessary.
Note: Ethan Johnson's Pre-Camp Assessment can be found here.
Assessments for Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ian Williams will appear this month while Sean Cwynar and backup competitors such as H-Williams, Nwankwo, Stockton, and Newman will appear in columns closer to the season.
For a spring column concerning Nwankwo, click the link below.