2007 Notre Dame Preview - Defense

Posted Jul 11, 2007

Preview 2007 Notre Dame Fighting Irish Defense

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Preview 2007 - Defense

- 2007 Notre Dame Preview | 2007 Notre Dame Offense Preview
- 2007 Notre Dame Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Notre Dame Preview

What you need to know:
Charlie Weis is trying to improve a defense that was fine against the mediocre, but lousy when it came to stopping the better offenses. Gone is defensive coordinator Rick Minter, and in comes Corwin Brown, who installed a 3-4 scheme to try to generate more big plays and get more speed and athleticism on the field. The line will be the issue early on as two steady starters are needed to help out Trevor Laws. Maurice Crum leads a promising linebacking corps that should shine in the new defense. The big problem could again be the secondary. It has experience, but it won't get as much help from the pass rush, like it did last year, and needs the young corner prospects to push the unspectacular veterans for time.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Maurice Crum, 100
Sacks: Maurice Crum, 4
Interceptions: Terrail Lamber, 3

Star of the defense: Senior FS Tom Zbikowski
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior DT Pat Kuntz
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Toryan Smith
Best pro prospect: Zbikowski
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Zbikowski, 2) DE Trevor Laws, 3) LB Maurice Crum
Strength of the defense: Safety, inside linebacker
Weakness of the defense:
Pass coverage, defensive line

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Only one starter returns, but he's a good on. 6-1, 295-pound senior Trevor Laws is a tackle who'll play end in the new 3-4 scheme, and he appears ready to blow up and become a defensive superstar. He's already good, with 63 tackles and 3.5 sacks last year with 9.5 tackles for loss, and now he'll be even more of a pass rusher. Expect him to have an All-America caliber season.

In the new 3-4 scheme, the onus is on the nose tackle to be the anchor, meaning 6-2, 272-pound junior Pat Kuntz has as much pressure as anyone on the team. While he's active and has a great motor, he doesn't have the bulk to be a full-time starter for a full season and will need to end up as part of a rotation. He made seven tackles with a fumble recovery in a limited role.

6-3, 255-pound junior Justin Brown will get the starting end job, but he'll have to shine right away to keep it. He made six tackles with 1.5 sacks after making 12 stops as a sophomore, and now he's expected to play up to his potential. He has the smarts, the athleticism and the skills, but he's an unknown.

Projected Top Reserves: Needing to become a star early on is 6-5, 340-pound redshirt freshman Chris Stewart, the huge body the defenses desperately needs on the nose. The problem, besides his lack of experience, is his health, after having problems staying in one piece this spring. The super-strong, former offensive lineman will be a key part of the rotation if he doesn't take over the starting job.

Backing up Laws, and possibly the starter on the other side, is 6-2, 257-pound senior Dwight Stephenson, the son of the former NFL superstar center of the same name. He's been moved around from end to tackle, but he's been a big disappointment with just one career tackle.

6-3, 295-pound true freshman Ian Williams will likely play a role on the nose early on. An ultra-productive all-around defender, he was one of the team's top recruits and could've gone anywhere. He'll be a starter early in his career.

Watch Out For ... the coaching staff to do something to manufacture a pass rush from somewhere other than the line. Outside of Laws, there's no one else up front the team can count on to get into the backfield on a regular basis.
Laws. The line has its star to build around, and Laws should shine no matter what the rest of the front three does. He's a sure thing who'll take the pressure off everyone else.
The rest of the line outside of Laws. There's a woeful lack of proven players to rely on, and the depth, even in the new scheme, isn't there. Some unknowns like Brown and Stewart will have to be stars right away.
Outlook: The line wasn't any big deal last year, but it got into the backfield. This year's front wall will be appreciably worse unless several new players are better than expected. Trevor Laws can't do everything by himself in the new 3-4 scheme, but he might have to for a little while. Being more physical will be a must, but finding ways to get to the quarterback will also be vital.
Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters: In the new 3-4 alignment, the Irish has good experience on the inside, and will have to work on the outside. The star in the middle will be 6-0, 225-pound senior Maurice Crum, a tremendous talent who led the team with 100 tackles to go along with four sacks and ten tackles for loss. With the speed to play on the outside, which he did as a sophomore, he has the range and the nose for the ball to be all over the field. Now he has to do a better job of using his experience and talent to make more meaningful plays and not just be a stat-sheet filler.

Also back on the inside is 6-2, 235-pound senior Joe Brockington, who made 59 tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss. Back problems were an issue early in his career, but he was fine throughout last year as he grew into a steady producer. While he's not spectacular, he should be a solid run stopper in the new scheme.

Taking over one of the spots on the outside will be sophomore John Ryan after a steady spring. He saw a little bit of time as a reserve making four tackles, and at 6-5 and 244 pounds has the size to be like a hybrid of linebacker and defensive end in the 3-4.

The other outside job is still up in the air, but it'll likely go to 6-2, 235-pound sophomore Morrice Richardson, who's one of the team's fastest linebackers. Originally considered an undersized defensive end, he'll eventually be turned loose as a pass rusher if he hangs on to the starting spot.

Projected Top Reserves: One of the big surprises this spring was 6-1, 244-pound sophomore Toryan Smith, a tough tackler who made a slew of plays throughout the spring. Possibly a starter, pushing Brockington to the outside or to a backup role, Smith was too good to keep off the field. He saw a little bit of time as a freshman with nine tackles as a backup linebacker and special teamer.

Battling with Richardson for the outside job is sophomore Kevin Washington, a 240-pound hitter with the speed to be a true linebacker and the strength to be like a defensive end. He was expected to see time last year and grow into a role early on, but it didn't happen. He'll be a factor this year.

Also looking for outside time will be 6-3, 233-pound junior Anthony Vernaglia after making a tackle in a limited role. The former safety has the the speed and athleticism to eventually become a player behind Ryan if he doesn't take over for Richardson.

Watch Out For ... Toryan Smith. Will he really force out Brockington? Maybe not, but with four spots to be filled in the corps, Smith will find a job and will be on the field right away against Georgia Tech.
Promise. There are five good sophomores to build around for the future, while Crum and Brockington are good senior veterans to be steady on the inside.
Big plays. Crum might make a lot of tackles and he might get into the backfield, but he's often out of position and needs to be steadier. Everyone else might be spending so much time trying to figure out what they're doing that they're not going to be able to fully maximize their potential right away.
Outlook: This should be the strength of the defense, and it needs to be considering the foursome in the 3-4 scheme has to shine. Maurice Crum will be the team's leading tackler again, or at least in the top three, while defensive ends John Ryan and Morrice Richardson will be in their perfect positions on the outside. Toryan Smith, Kevin Washington and Anthony Vernaglia are all promising players who'll provide good depth while challenging for starting jobs.
Rating: 7

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: The secondary should be a little bit better, and it has a star to build around in 6-0, 210-pound senior Tom Zbikowski. Extremely fast to begin with, he went from being a bulky boxer to a lean, mean, pure defensive back, and the new frame appeared to pay off big this spring. A huge hitter and an intimidating force, making 79 tackles last year and 220 in his career, he should be all over the field even more, now that he's even quicker, and he needs to be better against the pass after breaking up just two passes and failing to come up with an interception. He's also a star punt returner.

The other returning starter is 5-11, 191-pound junior Terrail Lambert after having an inconsistent year. He made 40 tackles and picked off three passes, but he got beaten way too often. One of the team's fastest players, now he has to use his speed and his experience to be more of a playmaker and grow into a number one cover-corner.

While not technically listed as a returning starter, 5-11, 190-pound senior Ambrose Wooden has 15 career starts and now has to be a steadier defender. The former receiver is a strong tackler, making 74 stops as a sophomore and 21 last year, but he didn't come up with any interceptions and only broke up two passes in 2006. Handling the speed receivers deep has been a problem, and he has to be more consistent against the short to midrange routes.

Getting the starting nod at free safety will be 6-2, 202-pound junior David Bruton after making 18 tackles as a reserve. A great special teamer so far, he has a good nose for the ball and should be one of the team's leading tacklers with the increased role.

Projected Top Reserves: While he might not push Wooden out of a starting job, 6-0, 180-pound sophomore Darrin Walls is a talented corner who could quickly find his way into an increased role after making four stops. A potentially strong kick returner, he upgrades the overall athleticism and speed of the secondary and could end up as a key nickel back.

Also looking for time will be sophomore Raeshon McNeil after seeing a little bit of time making four tackles as a freshman. A top recruits a few years ago, he has the speed and skill to grow into a possible number one corner over the next few years.

It's hard to see time behind Zbikowski, but junior Ray Herring has seen plenty of action with 18 tackles and a fumble recovery last year. While still working on his pass coverage, he can hit, and can step in and start at either safety spot if needed. He has the speed to play corner in an emergency.

Watch Out For ... the backup corners. The coaching staff will stick with Lambert and Wooden because of their experience, but Walls, McNeil, Leo Ferrine, and even freshman Gary Gray are all good enough to see big roles. The problems in pass coverage should change after a while. It might take a year, but improvement is on the way.
Zbikowski. He's an All-America caliber defender who should have his best season yet. He was always in shape, and now he's in shape in a different way. Faster than ever, he'll clean up everyone's mess.
Interceptions. The Irish picked off just 11 passes as a team, with the secondary coming up with ten of them. The secondary has been nice against average receiving corps, but has had problems with the better ones. It'll play lots of those "better ones" over the first half of the year.
Outlook: The coaching staff is certainly trying to remedy the situation, trying to upgrade the speed and athleticism while looking to get more from the corners. Unfortunately, the nation's 90th ranked pass efficiency defense will take another step back early on, only to get better as the year goes on as the defensive front seven provides more of a pass rush and the young backup defensive backs figure out their roles. Tom Zbikowski, Terrail Lambert and Ambrose Wooden have experience, but they all have to be better when the ball is in the air.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters: The Irish special teams will be a strength if a reliable placekicker is found. That means sophomores Ryan Burkhart and Nate Whitaker will have to be steady after Carl Gioia hit just eight of 13 kicks. Burkhart was expected to come in and take the job by the horns last year, but it didn't happen. Now, Whitaker is neck-and-neck for the position going into the fall.

Senior punter Geoff Price had a nice year blasting the ball, averaging a whopping 45.4 yards per kick, but he only forced nine fair catches and put 12 inside the 20. He's one of the best punters in the school's history, and he could grow into an All-American if he's better at pinning teams deep.

Watch Out For ... the placekicking to be an issue. It didn't matter much last year when the kicking game wasn't reliable, but the offense will bog down far more this season and will need to close out drives with field goals. A few misses here and there will be costly.
Tom Zbikowski. He's a good punt returner, averaging nine yards per try last year, and a threat to go the distance every time he gets the ball in his hands.
Besides a reliable placekicker, punt coverage. Yeah, Price blasted the tar out of the ball, but he often outkicked the coverage. The Irish allowed 11.5 yards per punt return.
Outlook: If the kicking job between Ryan Burkart and Nate Whitaker can be sorted out, the special teams will be a strength. Tom Zbikowski and David Grimes are top return men, while Geoff Price, with a little tweaking, can be an elite punter.
Rating: 7.5


Related Stories
2007 Notre Dame Preview - Offense
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 11, 2007
2007 Notre Dame Preview - Depth Chart
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 11, 2007
2007 Notre Dame Preview
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 11, 2007

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