Notre Dame Preview 2006 - Defense
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Posted Aug 7, 2006

Notre Dame Fighting Irish Preview 2006 - ND Defense

What you need to know ... There's plenty of returning experience with nine starters coming back from a defense that struggled way too much last season. The biggest improvement has to come in the secondary with the corners needing to be as strong as the safeties. There were way too many breakdowns on big plays last season, but those should slow down with all four starters returning. The line will be fine if the coaching staff has figured out how to generate more pressure from the ends. Tackles Trevor Laws and Derek Landri should be in for huge seasons. Linebacker will be an issue over the first half of the season with almost no returning experience outside of Maurice Crum, Jr.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Ambrose Wooden, 74
Sacks: Victor Abiamiri, 8
Interceptions: Tom Zbikowski, 5

Star of the defense: Senior FS Tom Zbikowski
Player that has to step up and become a star: Sophomore LB Steve Quinn
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Derrell Hand
Best pro prospect: Senior DE Victor Abiamiri
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Zbikowski, 2)
Abiamiri, 3) DT Derek Landri
Strength of the defense: Safety, tackle
Weakness of the defense:
Outside linebacker experience

Defensive Line
The coaching staff made it a point this off-season to get more pass rushing production from the front four which means the pressure is on for Victor Abiamiri, Ronaldy Talley, Chris Frome, and the rest of the marginally talented ends. The real stars are in the middle where seniors Trevor Laws and Derek Landri form one of the better tandems. The concern is developed depth where promising sophomores Derrell Hand and Pat Kuntz have to come out pushing for time.
The key to the unit: Generate a pass rush against everyone and not just Stanford and develop more options for the inside.

Defensive Line Rating: 7

Projected Starters
- DE Victor Abiamiri, Sr. - 48 tackles, 8 sacks, 15 TFL, 7 quarterback hurries
Abiamiri did a great job of taking over for Justin Tuck turning into the team's best pass rusher. Now he has to be more consistent and use his experience to be a game-in-and-game-out dominator once he returns from a knee surgery that limited him at times this spring. He was decent all season with his stats pumped up by a ten tackle, four sack performance against Stanford, and now he appears on the verge of exploding after being the focus of the coaching staff all off-season. 15 sacks won't be out of the question.

- DT Trevor Laws, Sr. - 33 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3 TFL
A reliable 293-pound run stuffer, Laws is a strong mauler of a defender with the quickness to be expected to do more as a pass rusher. He's a great talent who has the potential to be the team's breakout defensive star with most teams sure to focus on stopping more heralded playmakers like Victor Abiamiri and Derek Landri.

- DT Derek Landri, Sr. - 43 tackles, 3 sacks, 8 TFL, 7 quarterback hurries
While undersized at 6-3 and 263 pounds, he's a top pass rusher with the lateral quickness to make plays anywhere on the line against the run. He has been a steady starter over the last two years while improving his closing ability when he gets into the backfield.

- DE Ronald Talley, Jr. - 23 tackles, 1 sack, 1.5 TFL
A spot starter last season, the 261-pound junior will get the first look at right end where he needs to be more of a pass rusher. He started to come on over the second half of last year with good back-to-back games against USC and BYU before struggling a bit the rest of the way..

Top Backups
- DE Justin Brown, Jr. - 12 tackles, 1 TFL
Still raw and still needing a little more time to develop, the 6-3, 247-pound junior has the potential to explode and become the team's best pass rusher ... in time. He has only played football for three seasons but has the skills and athleticism to be tremendous behind Ronald Talley on the right side.
- DT Derrell Hand, Soph.
The 301-pound sophomore is the biggest player up front and has to grow into a presence as a run stopper. He's a strong presence who should see time right away behind Trevor Laws at right tackle.
- DE Chris Frome, Sr. - 6 tackles, 1 sack
He has the size at 6-5 and 271 pounds and has the experience having played in 18 games with six starts last season , but he has to come back healthy after getting knocked out for the year with a knee injury against USC. He also has to prove he can make plays with only 15 career tackles and one sack.
- DE Dwight Stephenson Jr., Sr. - 9 tackles
The son of the legendary Alabama and Miami Dolphin center  will look to finally make an impact after moving around from linebacker to tackle to end. He'll start out behind Victor Abiamiri on the left side.

This will be the team's biggest question mark going into the fall. Maurice Crum is a rock-solid force moving from the outside in forcing a major battle late this summer to sort out the outside spots with several talented, inexperienced prospects looking to shine after an average spring. Joe Brockington, one of the team's only experienced linebackers, has to come back healthy to push for playing time with Steve Quinn, Anthony Vernaglia, Mitchell Thomas and Scott Smith. All will bet equal chances to replace Crum and leading tackler Brandon Hoyte.
The key to the unit: A good rotation has to develop right away around Maurice Crum. There might not be sure-thing stars out of the gate, so all the prospects on the outside need a chance to show what they can do when the lights are on.
Linebacker Rating: 6.5

Projected Starters
- Steve Quinn, Soph. - 4 tackles
A special teamer last season, the 215-pound sophomore will get the start on the weakside where he'll try to replace leading tackler Brandon Hoyte. He's physical enough to play on the strongside with more than enough speed to be a disruptive force on the weakside. He's not going to be the hitter Hoyte was, at least he won't be right away.

- Maurice Crum Jr., Jr. - 57 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 3 quarterback hurries
The team's only linebacker with any appreciable experience will move from the outside to the middle after finishing sixth on the team in tackles as one of the team's most consistent defenders. He should be a terror using his speed, experience, and skills to be a sideline-to-sideline force and one of the team's top three tacklers.

- Anthony Vernaglia, Jr. - 4 tackles
The former safety saw a little time at linebacker last year and now looks to be a consistent threat at the strongside Apache position. He has the the speed and athleticism to be one of the team's top tacklers once he figures out what he's doing.

Top Backups
- Mitchell Thomas, Sr. - 1 tackle
The 240-pound career special teamer is a far bigger option on the weakside than starter Steve Quinn. He has the size and the sprinter's speed to make an impact, and now he has to put it all together and be good enough to get on the field. If his performances late in spring ball were any indication, he's ready for a big year.
- Kevin Washington, Soph.
A speedy sophomore who's built for the Notre Dame Apache position on the outside, Washington bulked up to 231 pounds and should be able to do a little of everything well as he pushes Anthony Vernaglia for time.
- Joe Brockington, Sr. - 9 tackles
One of the only returning linebackers with any appreciable experience, Brockington has to get healthy after having problems with his back. He's mostly a special teamer with 22 games of experience and will be in the hunt for a starting spot on the outside this fall.
- Scott Smith, Soph. - 3 tackles
Smith was a top recruit last season and grew into an excellent special teams performer. He's not going to move Maurice Crum out of a starting job in the middle, but he's a talented enough prospect to see plenty of time and possible be move to the outside here and there just to get him on the field.

Defensive Backs
This group got flat-out torched all year and didn't all of a sudden get faster this off-season. All four starters return to a group that gave up 265 yards per game and 18 touchdown passes even with games against the challenged air attacks of Navy and Syracuse to make things look better. The strength is at safety where Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe are good enough to challenge any tandem in the nation, but corner is an issue where Mike Richardson and Ambrose Wooden are fantastic tacklers and mediocre covermen. Don't be shocked if incoming freshmen Raeshon McNeil and Darrin Walls end up starting sooner than later.
The key to the unit: Prevent the big play. Opponents averaged a whopping 14.6 yards per catch last season.
Secondary Rating: 7

Projected Starters
- CB Ambrose Wooden, Sr. - 74 tackles, 2 interceptions, 5 broken up passes
The former receiver grew into a fantastic open field tackler leading the team with 61 solo stops and is the team's leading returning tackler. Now he needs to become a more consistent coverman and has to pick off more passes and has to be better against deep passes. He'll continue to have problems with the speed receivers, but he should be physical enough to handle the slower ones.

- SS Chinedum Ndukwe, Sr. - 52 tackles, 2 interceptions, 5 broken up passes
Ndukwe took over the starting role early last year after getting his feet wet in 2004 after moving over from wide receiver. He's a huge 6-2, 219-pound hitter with a nose for the football and an uncanny knack for forcing turnovers. He won't receive the national acclaim of Tom Zbikowski, but he'll be just as effective.

- FS Tom Zbikowski, Sr. - 71 tackles, 5 interceptions, 4 broken up passes, 1 sack
Easily one of the toughest players in America, the part-time boxer and full-time leader of the Irish defense has grown into a whale of a playmaker with 134 tackles over the last two years with six interceptions. He's also an elite punt returner averaging 14 yards per attempt with two touchdowns last season. He brings the attitude to the defense.

- CB Mike Richardson, Sr. - 66 tackles, 3 interceptions, 5 broken up passes, 3 sacks
The senior hits like a corner, but he also covers like one. He has 115 career tackles and turned into a good blitzer, and now he has to be more consistent when the ball is in the air. He'll make big plays here and there and has a knack for getting to the ball, but he'll also give up several big plays.

Top Backups
- CB Terrail Lambert, Jr. - 8 tackles, 1 broken up pass
When you hear complaints about the lack of speed in the Notre Dame secondary, those don't apply to Lambert. One of the team's fastest players, Lambert will see more time this season behind Mike Richardson  after mostly being used on special teams and in dime packages.
- CB Leo Ferrine, Jr. - 22 tackles, 1 interception, 2 TFL
The team's top nickel back will start out behind Ambrose Wooden and could start if needed. He's at his best on special teams and making tackles in the open field. With his experience he should start making more big plays.
- SS David Bruton, Soph. -14 tackles, 1 broken up pass
Mostly a special teamer in his fist season, Bruton flies to the ball and will be groomed to be a star starter next season. He has good range and doesn't miss tackles.
- FS Ray Herring, Soph. - 6 tackles
Able to play cornerback or safety, Herring will use his speed at free safety where he'll see a few plays here and there behind Tom Zbikowski. He has been a great scout teamer and a standout on special teams.

Special Teams
The kicking game won't be all that bad even with the uncertainty at placekicker. Carl Gioia and freshman Ryan Burkhart will battle for the starting job, while new punter Geoff Price appears to be a keeper. Tom Zbikowski is one of the nation's better punt returners, while David Grimes is a solid kickoff returner averaging 22.5 yards per try. The coverage units should once again be decent.
The key to the unit: Reliable, consistent placekicking in place of D.J. Fitzpatrick.
Special Teams Rating: 7

Projected Starters
- PK Carl Gioia, Sr.. 1-1 FGs
Don't get comfortable with the idea of Carl Gioia being the main man for a full season after a shaky spring. D.J. Fitzpatrick wasn't the steadiest placekicker, but he wasn't a liability. If Gioia struggles early on, expect freshman Ryan Burkhart to quickly take over.
- P Geoff Price, Sr.
D.J. Fitzpatrick averaged 40.3 yards per kick and put 12 inside the 20; Price is good enough to equal those numbers. He's a big kicker with a big leg and should put more boom on the ball than Fitzpatrick. Consistency will be his main issue early on.

Related Stories
Notre Dame Preview 2006 - Depth Chart
 -by  Aug 7, 2006
Notre Dame Preview 2006 - Further Analysis
 -by  Aug 7, 2006
Notre Dame Preview 2006 - Offense
 -by  Aug 7, 2006

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