Preview 2007 - Defense
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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
Maurice Crum, 100
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
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
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
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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.
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 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
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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.
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
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
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
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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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 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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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