2011 Notre Dame Preview – Defense
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Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: The defense made the strides the new coaching staff were hoping for. It wasn't a rock of a D, but it did enough to get by finishing 50th in the nation in yards allowed and 23rd in scoring defense. Improving as the season went on, things started to click over the second half allowing just 39 points over the final four games – and against real teams, too – giving up more than 20 points just twice over the final eight outings. Now the defense should be even better with the 3-4 getting an infusion of superior talent up front to go along with a strong group of veterans. Manti Te'o might be the best linebacker in America, and he's flanked by a nice array of talents with good pass rushers on the outside to go along with tough inside presences. The secondary had a few night-and-day transformations, and now it's a good, sound, veteran defensive backfield that should keep the mistakes to a minimum.
Star of the defense: Junior LB Manti Te'o
Tackles: Manti Te'o, 133
Sacks: Darius Fleming, 6
Interceptions: Harrison Smith, 7
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior NT Hafis Williams
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Prince Shembo
Best pro prospect: Te'o
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Te'o, 2) S Harrison Smith, 3) DE Ethan Johnson
Strength of the defense: Experience, Te'o & Smith
Weakness of the defense: Lockdown Corner, Consistent Run Defense
State of the Unit: The defensive line that was such a problem area at times a few years ago and was so mediocre at times at getting into the backfield last year could become fantastic. Ian Williams, a rock of a nose guard, is gone from the front three, but the two starting ends are back and the superstars are on their way. The returning veterans are good; the incoming freshmen are better.
By far, the strength of a terrific recruiting class was the defensive ends (counting a few tweener/hybrid types in the equation), and they all might play roles right away. Aaron Lynch was the star of the excellent class and he showed why in spring ball. The 6-6, 260-pounder got to school early and was a flash into the backfield from the moment he set foot on the field. He abused veteran guard Trevor Robinson and others in the spring game showing a scary first step and the motor that always gets him in on ever play. While he needs polish and technique work, by the time he leaves South Bend he'll be a 275-pound NFL 3-4 dream end. He's joined by fellow classmate Stephon Tuitt, who's expected to be equally as dangerous once he gets to school. All but certain to go to Georgia Tech, he flip-flopped back to Notre Dame to end one of the wildest battles of the recruiting season. He's 6-5, 252 pounds, and fast, fast, fast. While he'll need a little time and technique work, he could be thrown into the mix as a situational pass rusher and be a terror from Day One.
While all the attention and spotlight will go to the new ends, the old ones aren't going to give up their jobs without a fight. At 6-4 and 300 pounds, and with good quickness, senior Ethan Johnson is a near-perfect fit for the Irish 3-4 defense. He wasn't right for the old 4-3 alignment, mainly because he's not an outside pass rusher and isn't great as a tackle, but he found a role last year finishing with 34 tackles with five sacks. Most importantly, he grew into a strong run defender who handled the double teams surprisingly well. For the time being, he'll be backed up by 6-4, 285-pound sophomore Kona Schwenke , a good-sized pass rusher who was sixty pounds lighter last year and hit the weights very, very hard. He made two tackles with a recovered fumble in his limited time.
Back on the other side is senior Kapron Lewis-Moore , a 6-4, 296-pound mainstay who, like Johnson, found his fit with the new system. While he's not a pure pass rusher, he was all over the place against the run finishing fourth on the team with 62 tackles with two sacks. The athleticism and size are there, and now he should do even more with the year of experience in the system. Lynch will be his primary backup early on.
Taking over for Ian Williams on the nose will be Hafis Williams , a versatile defender who can play anywhere up front. He saw time as an end in the 4-3 but at 6-1 and 285 pounds has the base and the frame to sit in the middle of the line. He has a great motor and is tough, but he doesn't have that much experience making just 11 tackles in his backup role.
Also working in the rotation in the middle is senior Sean Cwynar , a 6-4, 280-pound veteran who stepped in for an injured Ian Williams and started four games late in the season finishing with 33 tackles and three tackles for loss. Out this offseason after suffering a foot injury in the Sun Bowl, the former Mr. Illinois Football will have to prove he's back to form right away this fall with sophomore Louis Nix fighting for time. The 6-3, 340-pounder is just the big body the line needs to clog things up, and while he was one of 2010's top recruits, and he's not going to be shoved around, he has to get in better overall shape to be a regular in the middle.
Watch Out For … who else? The freshmen. Even if Kelly and his staff didn't bring aboard so many top-flight talents the Irish line would still be strong. Lynch and Tuitt would start right away for most teams, and they still might get the nod for the Irish at some point.
Strength: The rotation. Only using a three man front, there are too many good players to get on the field. With a massive body like Nix as a run-stuffing backup, and with size and talent to burn among the good-sized ends, keeping everyone fresh won't be a problem.
Weakness: Pass rush. The linebackers are supposed to fly into the backfield and be the speed rushers in the equation, but it would be nice if the front three could do a bit more. Again, that's where the freshmen come in, but last year, outside of Johnson, the line didn't do enough to get to the quarterback. That has to change.
Outlook: It'll be tempting to go to a 4-3 from time to time to get all the talent on the field. This won't always be a brick wall of a front line, but there are so many good prospects and so much experience to count on that this can't help but be a special line. If the freshmen are as good as the hype, look out.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: The linebackers are the stars in the 3-4 alignment, and the Irish have a nice corps returning led by one of the nation's top talents on the inside, speed on the outside, and more help on the way. This group was decent last year, but it didn't do enough against the flashier running teams – Navy ate the Notre Dame linebackers' lunch inside and out – and it has the potential to do far more. With an improved line up front, the Irish middle four should be in for a great year.
It's time for junior Manti Te'o to go from good to Butkus. The team's leading tackler made 133 stops with a sack and 9.5 tackles for loss, but the best defensive prospect recruited by Charlie Weis can do even more. There are few more instinctive linebackers in college football and no one brings as much thump as the 6-2, 255-pounder, but he needs to be a bit more patient. Yeah, he came up with 13 tackles against Navy and he made 21 against Stanford, but he overran plays here and there. That's about it for the nitpicking considering he's a peerless sideline-to-sideline playmaker, will run about a 4.6 at the Combine, and has huge, huge hitting skills. He won't make too many plays in the backfield, but that won't be his job this year with the line doing more of the work.
Joining Te'o on the inside will be veteran Carlo Calabrese , a 6-1, 245-pound junior who quietly had a nice year making 60 stops with 2.5 sack and five tackles for loss. A starter for the first eight games, he struggled through a hamstring injury and wasn't quite the same down the stretch. While he's not going to be Te'o as a tackler or a playmaker, and he won't do anything in pass coverage, but he won't miss anything that comes his way.
Flying in from the outside will be senior Darius Fleming , a 6-2, 250-pound flash who made 49 tackles with a team-leading six sacks and 11 tackles for loss. While he's great at getting into the backfield as a hybrid pass rusher, he doesn't use his quickness and athleticism enough on a regular basis in pass coverage. He broke up five passes on the year and got better, but he struggled early on. Whether he's a 4-3 end or a 3-4 outside linebacker, he's a playmaker who figured out what he was doing and was a force late, highlighted by a seven-tackle day against USC.
Working on the other side of Fleming will be sophomore Prince Shembo , a talented pass rusher who only made 15 tackles as a reserve and forced himself into the backfield with 4.5 sacks. The 6-2, 250-pounder can play inside or out, but he'll spend his time on the short side of the field looking to hold up well on a regular basis against the run.
Combining forces as the main backups on the inside are two promising defenders in 6-2, 230-pound junior Dan Fox and 6-0, 235-pound senior David Posluszny . Fox is a more athletic option than Calabrese, but he's not as tough at the point of attack. He finished with 20 tackles and will see his share of time in the rotation, while Posluszny, former Penn State star Paul's brother, will look to make an impact after making just one tackle working mostly as a special teamer. He's clearly the fourth man in the inside rotation, at least, but he's feisty and will do whatever is needed.
On the way is super-recruit Ishaq Williams , a pure hybrid who can be a smallish defensive end, once he fills out his frame a little more, or as an outside pass rusher. The 6-5, 242-pound true freshman is long athletic, and very, very fast. He brings the A effort on every play and will push hard for time in the rotation. However, senior Steve Flier will try to make more of an impact and will try to keep the backup outside job after coming up with 14 tackles. He's not disruptive, but the 6-3, 235-pounder needs to start making some big plays or he'll quickly get lost in the shuffle.
Watch Out For … Shembo. He'll be asked to fill in the role on the outside that Fleming struggled with early on last year. Fleming is better when he's able to pin his ears back and fly into the backfield, and while Shembo will do that, too, he should beat up ball carriers on a regular basis with more room to move on the Field side.
Strength: Te'o. The Irish have several good linebackers to what should be an improved corps, but it's all about Te'o. He's the signature star and he's the future NFL millionaire that'll be in on every play.
Weakness: Great ground games. The overall results weren't too bad, but don't be too fooled by a great performance against Boston College and stuffing performances late against USC and Miami teams that couldn't power the ball a lick. Navy ran wild, Sanford was effective, and Michigan and Michigan State did what they wanted. Yes, things improved late in the year, but it'll be interesting over the first half of the season to see how the Irish foursome reacts to teams like Air Force, Pitt, and Michigan.
Outlook: The Irish linebackers needed a little while to adjust to the 3-4 scheme, but they eventually did and they started to rock down the stretch. Now with an All-America talent in Te'o on the inside, and a nice blend of talent, athleticism, and experience on the outside, this is a good enough corps to win with. It might not be consistent, and it might need some tinkering, but as long as Te'o is being Te'o, all will be fine.
Unit Rating: 7.5
State of the Unit: The Irish secondary should be decent with a little bit of time and work, but for the most part, its success will depend largely on whether or not the pass rush is consistent. The pass defense finished 54th in the nation and was 25th in the country in pass efficiency defense, but playing against Navy and Army helped the cause. Eight teams threw for 220 yards or more, with Tulsa throwing for 196 and Utah throwing for 187. If USC receivers didn't have a case of the dropsies, the Trojans would've blown past the 200-yard mark, finishing with 187. The defensive backs did a good job of picking off passes, especially late in the year, and they'll be sound, but they can be beaten by the stronger quarterbacks on the slate.
The leader of the secondary is Harrison Smith , a senior who started out his career at free safety, moved to strongside linebacker, and finally settled in at safety last year finishing second on the team with 93 tackles with seven picks and 14 broken up passes. While the 6-2, 214-pounder was good, he was the equivalent of a boxer who had a rocky round before winning it with a great flurry at the end. Smith had no problems putting up the tackling stats with 11 stops against Stanford and 11 more against Pitt, and then the picks started to come late with three against Miami in the bowl and one against USC. Five of the former Tennessee Mr. Football's seven interceptions came in the final four games.
Working as more of a strong safety in the other spot is junior Zeke Motta , a veteran who started eight times and finished with 50 tackles with a pick. While he's not huge at 6-2 and 215 pounds, he can be used like an extra linebacker from time to time and is strong against the run. Now, with the significant time under his belt, he has to start making more of an impact to better utilize his great athleticism and hard-hitting ability.
Back at one corner is senior Gary Gray , a 5-11, 195-pound veteran who finished third on the team with 66 tackles with a pick and seven broken up passes. Good at getting into the backfield, he made five tackles for loss to go along with the rest of his stats as he finally started to shed the bust label. A superstar recruit, he was supposed to lock down one side of the field as a freshman, suffered a shoulder injury early on, and didn't do too much until Brian Kelly took over. With the coaching change came the production as Gray became night-and-day better showing off his great speed despite working through a foot injury, but he was at his best at stopping the run.
While Gray underwent a nice transformation, the difference for senior Robert Blanton was truly remarkable. While he was mostly a backup and a nickel and dime defender, the 6-1, 196-pounder came up with 52 tackles with a sack, seven tackles for loss, two picks, and seven broken up passes as he did a little of everything. The size and physical play is there, and he's ultra-confident, and now he has the proof that he can play the position after an inconsistent first part of his career. He'll be backed up by sophomore Lo Wood , one of the team's top recruits last year who was thrown into the first early making three tackles as a special teamer. The 5-10, 182-pounder is a speedster who can get all over the field and could end up making Blanton a full-time nickel back. The potential is there to be the team's best pure cover-corner.
The key to the defense could be the healthy return of Jamoris Slaughter , a 6-0, 198-pound senior who can do a little of everything for the secondary. He has the speed to play corner and the toughness to be a safety, and while he'll have to battle with Motta to get his job back, he's one of the team's best defensive backs when he's right. He started off and on last year finishing with 31 tackles with a pick and a broken up pass, but he couldn't get past an ankle injury. He has the track speed to be all over the field.
Also back in the safety mix is senior Dan McCarthy , a career special teamer who made five tackles before injuring his shoulder and knocking himself out for the year. The 2007 Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year hasn't lived up to his billing partially because of a neck injury suffered in high school that kicked off a consistently banged up career, but he'll be needed as a key backup.
Watch Out For … Slaughter. Motta is a strong run defender and has grown into a nice safety, but Slaughter is a playmaker who can make big things happen both against the pass and the run … when he's healthy. If nothing else, he'll be a versatile star who'll be a jack-of-all-trades.
Strength: Experience. Smith is a lock for one safety spot, and Gray isn't going to be moved out of a corner job, but there's enough experience and enough talent to shuffle things up as needed. Blanton can be a strong nickel and dime defender if he's not a starting corner, and Slaughter can play anywhere.
Weakness: Lockdown corners. Gray was supposed to be one, and isn't. He's a tremendous run supporter, and Blanton is serviceable, but teams with great receivers should be able to produce unless Wood is the star coverman he has the potential to become.
Outlook: It was like everyone came into their own when the new coaching staff arrived. Whether or not the success was an indictment on the old coaches, or if the production came from the key parts maturing, players like Smith, Gray, and Blanton underwent the transformation needed. This isn't a loaded defensive backfield, and this should be the weakest unit of the secondary, but it's hardly going to be a problem.
Unit Rating: 7
State of the Unit: Senior David Ruffer got his feet wet in 2009 hitting all five of his attempts, and then the former walk-on with no football experience whatsoever became one of the best kickers in America. He hit 18-of-19 field goal attempt with the lone miss a 36-yarder in the bowl win over Miami, and he even showed off some impressive range nailing a 50-yarder against Pitt and another against the Canes. The Lou Groza finalist is among the most reliable kickers in America, while former starter Nick Tausch , a junior, has connected on 15-of-18 career field goals including a then-record 14 straight makes in 2009. In a Wally Pip situation, he pulled up lame in warm-ups before the Pitt game two years ago, Ruffer stepped in, and the rest was history.
The punting game was hardly anything special, but junior Ben Turk showed off terrific accuracy putting 26 inside the 20 and forcing 22 fair catches. While he only averaged 38.3 yards kick and didn't show off a huge leg, he only put three kicks in the end zone.
Receiver John Goodman has to be better. The veteran average a miserable 1.3 yards per punt return, but he'll get another shot, while RB Cierre Wood will get the first shot at the top kickoff return job after averaging 20 yards per try.
Watch Out For … More of an emphasis on the return game. The kicking game is solid and the coverage teams are strong, so now it's time to get more out of the return game that struggled so much last year. The Irish got next to nothing out of the returners.
Strength: Ruffin. Tausch is as good a backup kicker as any in America, but it's Ruffin who's the star and a likely difference maker in at least two wins this year.
Weakness: Punt returns. The kick return game was bad, finishing 75th in the nation, but the punt return game was far worse finishing 100th. Goodman finished four games with negative punt return yards.
Outlook: The special teams will be tremendous in the kicking game, even if Turk doesn't get too much blast on the ball, and the coverage teams are fantastic, allowing 19.4 yards per kickoff and just 5.2 yards per punt return. If the Irish can get anything out of the return game, the special teams will be among the best in America.
Unit Rating: 7.5
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- Notre Dame Previews 2010