Living in the Backfield

IrishEyes examines the defense and offers four primary candidates in Prediction No. 9 of our summer-long series.

Notre Dame's defense finished with 72 tackles-for-loss last season – the 48th highest total among 120 FBS teams. Of those 72 TFL, only 19 were official quarterback sacks.

Conversely, Brian Kelly's Bearcats – led by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco – finished third nationally with 8.46 TFL per game (110 total including 37 sacks). It was Diaco's first season guiding the Cincinnati defense – one also making the transition from a 4-3 front to a base 3-4 scheme. (Of note: Diaco faced the unenviable task of replacing 10 starters from Cincy's 2008 defense in his first year at the helm.)

You can expect more than 19 sacks from the Irish D this season, and somewhere between the 72 TFL registered by the 2009 Irish and the impressive total of 110 from Diaco's Cincy group.

Which leads us to the next prediction in our summer series:

Prediction No. 9 – Darius Fleming will repeat as the team leader in tackles-for-loss

Sacks are inconsistently scored in the college game, so for the sake of ease, we'll lump sacks and tackles-for-loss into one category.

A complete list of the defense's career TFL/sacks entering 2010:

  • OLB Darius Fleming (20): 24 games/10 starts, 14.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks.
  • DE Ethan Johnson (19): 25 games/15 starts, 11.5 TFL and 7.5 sacks.
  • SS Harrison Smith (18.5): 25 games/21 starts, 15 TFL and 3.5 sacks.
  • OLB Brian Smith (18.5): 34 games/24 starts, 13.5 TFL and 5 sacks.
  • OLB Kerry Neal (15): 37 games/21 starts, 9.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks.
  • DE Kapron Lewis-Moore (9.5): 12 games/9 starts, 7 TFL and 2.5 sacks.
  • NG Ian Williams (9): 37 games/17 starts, 8.5 TFL and 0.5 sacks.
  • ILB Manti Te'o (6.5): 12 games/10 starts, 5.5 TFL and 1 sack.
  • CB Robert Blanton (4): 24 games/12 starts, 4 TFL and no sacks.
  • CB Darrin Walls (3.5): 32 games/21 starts, 3.5 TFL and no sacks.
  • OLB Steve Filer (1.5): 23 games/0 starts, 1.5 sacks (slightly less than 30 minutes of career playing time from scrimmage).
  • SS Zeke Motta (1): 12 games/0 starts, 0.5 sacks.

In 2009, Diaco's defense saw 14 players record between 3.5 and 12.5 TFL. His top playmakers on the opponent's side of scrimmage included two interior tackles, including redshirt-freshman nose guard Derek Wolfe (8) as well as Jon Hughes (6); three defensive ends in (Ricardo Mathews who posted a team-high 12.5), Alex Daniels and Curtis Young (11 apiece); three outside linebackers Walter Stewart (8.5), Brandon Mills (8) and Demetrius Jones (5); and two inside ‘backers Andre Revels (4.5) and JK Schaeffer (5.5). Schaeffer finished second to Revels on the squad with 100 total tackles.

2010 Candidates

110 TFL is a staggering number (no Irish team this decade posted more than 95). And it doesn't necessarily equate to a top 20 defense, though no program that finished among the top 10 in total TFL last season finished in the bottom-half of the FBS' most important category: Scoring Defense.

My expected order of finish for the 2010 Irish is listed below, but first, a look at the NCAA leaders in TFL last season and the overall defensive rank for each:

  1. Rutgers: 113 TFL – Ranked No. 16 nationally in scoring defense.
  2. Middle Tennessee State: 112 TFL – Ranked No. 48 in scoring defense.
  3. Cincinnati: 110 TFL – Ranked No. 44 in scoring defense.
  4. Kent State: 101 TFL – Ranked No. 40 in scoring defense.
  5. UCLA: 106 TFL – Ranked No. 27 in scoring defense.
  6. Penn State: 105 TFL – Ranked No. 3 in scoring defense.
  7. North Carolina: 105 TFL – Ranked No. 13 in scoring defense.
  8. Texas: 112 TFL (in 14 games, rather than the 12 or 13 played by each team above) – Ranked No. 12 in scoring defense.
  9. Pittsburgh: 98 TFL – Ranked No. 19 in scoring defense.
  10. Oklahoma: 98 TFL – Ranked No. 7 in scoring defense.

Tackles-for-loss aren't a panacea, but defense's generally shine when they consistently place the opponent in difficult 2nd or 3rd and long situations.

Darius Fleming: I pegged Fleming for this mantle in early May and though I'm tempted to choose Ethan Johnson, I'll stick with Fleming to lead the team in TFL/sacks due to his versatility and function of playing outside in space in the team's new scheme. Fleming posted just 0.5 TFL in the season's final three outings last fall but still finished as the team leader with 12.5 TFL.

Ethan Johnson: Look for a quick start from Johnson and a dip in his statistics as opponents begin to use an extra shoulder or two to combat Johnson at the line of scrimmage. Fleming has the added advantage of fewer double team blocks over the course of each game, something Johnson will see if he blossoms as a junior DE. Johnson had 1.5 TFL vs. Uconn late last season but none vs. BC, Navy, Pittsburgh or Stanford (the Irish finished 1-3 vs. those peer teams) to finish with 6.5 TFL including a team-best 4 sacks.

Kapron Lewis-Moore: The dark horse candidate among the team's trio of pass rushers, KLM finished second with 7 TFL last year, each occurring between Game Four (Purdue) and Game Nine (Navy). Lewis-Moore is a candidate to remain on the field as a three-down defensive end with the ability to apply an inside pass rush in nickel situations.

Manti Te'o: I'll be surprised if Te'o doesn't record 8-12 double-digit tackles for loss this season, but his pass rushing opportunities will be comparatively limited. Te'o struggled last season as a delayed blitzer off the edge, though the 2010 defensive scheme is completely different than the Irish employed his freshman year.

Brian Smith: Brian Kelly made note of Smith's easy acclimation to the "drop" linebacker position. He'll be an every down player, but Smith won't have quite as many up-the-field opportunities as will his fellow 'backers and the team's defensive ends.

Solid coverage, including a few key 3rd down deflections and an interception or three will be part of Smith's contributions this fall. I still have him pegged as a top 5-6 finisher in the TFL race.

Harrison Smith: You can count the number of big plays Smith has made in the deep secondary on one hand, but positioned close to the line of scrimmage, the senior from Knoxville Catholic can be a difference-maker – an athlete that finishes plays in space and finds the football. Smith posted 4 tackles for loss last November and 5 in final six contests after moving from free safety to a roving nickel linebacker role.

This fall, Smith will man a strong safety position that again places him closer to the line of scrimmage, but the inherent coverage responsibilities of the position will force him to better his game on the perimeter. A top six TFL finish wouldn't surprise me.

Steve Filer: Filer emerged in mid-October last season but was underutilized down the stretch. I don't think he'll beat out Brian Smith or Fleming for a starting role, but he should serve as a key cog in the defense's 15-16 player rotation. Fewer minutes played than those listed above will likely preclude him from taking home the TFL/sack crown, but if you're looking for a "backup" who could register double-digit TFL, Filer's your guy.

Ian Williams: Williams was the only Irish defender to notch a tackle behind the line of scrimmage in each of the team's four November games. Three months played at that pace in 2010 would result in a top tier season for the true nose guard. As mentioned above, I believe KLM (and Johnson) will remain in the game in the team's nickel and dime packages. The Irish staff might consider a few plays off in those down-and-distance situations to save Williams wear and tear after 12 games battling double teams inside.

Kerry Neal: Neal should look much better as an OLB this season after struggling through an inconsistent 2009 with his hand on the ground. Nevertheless, his field time will likely be less than that of Fleming and Brian Smith, and I believe he'll cede nickel snaps to Steve Filer, to boot.

A career-best five sacks is a reasonable goal for Neal, but double-digit TFL would be a major coup for the Irish D. Neal's recorded just 3 TFL in 11 career games played after November 1.

Anthony McDonald: Notre Dame's defense will be a special group if the first-year contributor and present starter next to Te'o inside paces the team in TFL. A more reasonable projection for McDonald?: a top four finish in total tackles would likewise bode well for the 2010 D.

Others: Assuming Jamoris Slaugher remains at free safety, no other Irish player is likely to challenge for the team lead in TFL or sacks, but its interesting that each of Darrin Walls' 3.5 TFL occurred in 2007 (none last year after sitting out 2008).

As well, none of the backup defensive linemen – Emeka Nwankwo, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams or Brandon Newman – have recorded a sack or TFL, while NG/DE Tyler Stockton will make his Irish debut.

Look for Cwynar to pace that group this fall with Nwankwo a close second among the backup defensive linemen.

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