Know Thine Enemy: Notre Dame (2 of 2)

Few noticed, but Notre Dame's defense was one of the strongest units Stanford faced last year. This season, with the offense no longer tripping over its own two feet, it could be the D's time to shine. The secondary is ferocious and the line stout, so the only question is in the middle. Plus, we check in on the Irish's ill-fated 2006 recruiting class.

Third Down: Defense

This defense was handed awful field position all year, and was probably on the field an extra possession or two per game. Yet it put up solid numbers, and with most of its key starters returning, this could be a top-ten defense nationally.

Seven starters return in all, with the biggest losses MVP lineman Trevor Laws (112 tackles as a lineman!) and safety Tom Zbikowski, second and third-round draft picks respectively. But everyone else gains another year of experience, and All-World true frosh linebacker (and one-time Stanford recruit) Steve Filer could create the havoc in the middle the Irish have been lacking.

Between new linebacker coach Jon Tenuta. formerly of Georgia Tech (qualified enough to be a head coach) and defensive coordinator Corwin Brown, formerly of the Jets, the staff is one of the best in the nation. Plus, this year's offense will muster more than 242 yards per game. All told, this D will undoubtedly put up better numbers than last year.

Laws was the most underrated player on the D, hands down. (Zbikowski was the most overrated. The next time NBC tells me he boxes, the television goes through the window.) But the Irish will put senior Justin Brown into Laws' end spot in their 3-4 scheme, and he held up fine (30 tackles in five starts) last season. Add in nose guard Pat Kuntz and end John Ryan (a linebacker in '07), and the three-man Irish line started 25 games in 2007. They should be as good as last year, despite Laws' departure.

The linebackers were the weakest defensive unit last year. How else does Laws post an incredible 112 tackles (most for an Irish lineman since 1975), yet the team still allows 4.3 yards per carry? Back is Maurice Crum, the best of the bunch to my eyes (84 tackles in 2007).Replacing No. 2 tackler Joe Brockington, who racked up stats but never seemed to make the big play, with Flier might be addition by subtraction.

However, two sophomores, Brian Smith and Kerry Neal, should start as the outside backers. While both started a few games as frosh, this unit figures to be the weakest on Notre Dame's defense. Corwin Brown swears by the 3-4 and Tenuta coaches the linebackers, but the Irish might have the personnel better suited for a 4-3 scheme.

Teams were so far ahead on the Irish they rarely passed, running 548 times and passing just 344, which partially explains the D allowing 195 rush yards to only 162 pass yards per game. Still, the secondary was exemplary last year, and with six returners with starting experience, teams would do well not to fall behind the Irish.

Corner Terrail Lambert had a rough 2006, getting beat for multiple touchdowns by USC and Michigan receivers as the Irish's biggest games of the year turned into blowout losses (and snarky football writers, including yours truly, started calling him "Toast" for his propensity to get burnt). Lambert posted a respectable 2007, however, and now enters this season as the unit's strength, a three-year starter and the heart of the secondary. Opposite Lambert at corner is another returning starter, Darrin Walls, a five-star out of high school who broke up a team-high nine passes last season. The only better pair of corners Stanford will battle this year will be the Oregon schools'.

David Bruton, of a 41" vertical and 4.39 speed, holds down free safety, leaving the starting strong safety (likely Kyle McCarthy) the only uncertainty in the secondary. Compounded with the problems the Irish are likely to have at linebacker, the likely struggles at strong safety could well make Notre Dame vulnerable against short, West-Coast style passes in the middle of the field. But anything deep, anything testing the corners, should be shut down, meaning teams will have to try to nickel-and-dime this defense. Good luck.

 

Fourth Down: Extra Points

The schedule is a joke – USC is the only preseason top-20 team on the schedule and Boston College the only other lock to make a bowl. Notre Dame should be favored in its other 10 games. By means of comparison, Stanford plays three preseason top-20 teams and Washington, the Card's opponent the week previous, faces five! A good-but-not-great Pac-10 team, like an Oregon or a Cal, could win 10 or 11 with Notre Dame's schedule.

Speaking of which, my best guess for why Notre Dame is 0-9 in bowls since 1995: the emperor has no clothes! The Irish simply aren't as good as their record would indicate most years, because of their easier schedule. Similar logic also explains Notre Dame's 4-8 record against ranked opponents in the Weis era.

Plus, Notre Dame's national draw gets them into big games in borderline cases, and so you have the Irish regularly overmatched in January (they've been underdogs their last five bowl games), which goes a long way toward explaining their bowl futility.

Notre Dame's recruiting ranked second only to Alabama's 33-man class last season. Considering you can only sign 25 (and Alabama's pulling every trick it can to whittle down its class), Notre Dame probably signed the best recruiting class of 2008. The Irish are well on their way to a top-five class in 2009 as well, having already inked 12 recruits, all three-star or better, plus a kicker and a punter. Stanford is turning heads nationally for this type of a recruiting effort after a 4-8 season. How the heck is Charlie Weis doing it after 3-9?

Then again, Notre Dame's 2006 class is the ultimate cautionary tale into putting too much stock into recruiting rankings. At the time, the class ranked fifth in the nation, with 15 of the 28 commits four- or five-star players. Two years later, eight members of that class are no longer on the team.

Six have transferred to other schools, including Konrad Reuland, now a Stanford tight end. The Notre Dame Scout site claims the transfers had all been beaten out by younger players for playing time. But seeing as those transfers are all at least three-star guys (and Reuland the No. 2 tight end recruit nationally), how is that possible? And if all those guys were beaten out by younger players, then guess the recruiting rankings weren't all that accurate to begin with.

Add in two players no longer with the team due to "personal issues," and Notre Dame's top-five 28-member class is now outside the top 25.

I love tracking recruiting as much as the next guy, but, with oversigning more endemic and transferring more frequent than ever, Notre Dame's '06 class is a good reminder that whoever wins the recruiting national title isn't always winning the actual national titles -- and vice versa. Otherwise, the Irish wouldn't have been returning to glory since 1993.


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