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2009 Notre Dame Preview - Defense
Notre Dame FS Harrison Smith
Notre Dame FS Harrison Smith
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 14, 2009


CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Notre Dame Fighting Irish Defense

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Preview 2009 - Defense


- 2009 CFN Notre Dame Preview | 2009 Notre Dame Offense
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2009 Notre Dame Depth Chart
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2008 ND Preview | 2007 ND Preview | 2006 ND Preview 


What you need to know:
Blitz ... BLITTTTTTZ! Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta tried to bring the pressure last year with moderate success, but this year he has experience, the talent, and the options to start sending everyone in the front seven into the backfield. More importantly, the secondary is in place to handle being on an island to pick up the slack. This has the potential to be the best defense in the Charlie Weis era by far with the expected emergence of a super group of underclassmen. From potential pass rushing terror Kapron Lewis-Moore and end/tackle Ethan Johnson on the line, to Robert Blanton and Steve Flier in the back seven, to super-recruit linebackers Manti Te'o and Zeke Motta, the D is more athletic and far more talented than it's been in years. There must be more takeaways, more stops in crunch time, and more of a pass rush. Expect more of all three.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Kyle McCarthy, 110
Sacks: Ethan Johnson, Harrison Smith, 3.5
Interceptions: Several with 2

Star of the defense: Senior SS Kyle McCarthy
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore DE Kapron Lewis-Moore
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE/DT Ethan Johnson
Best pro prospect: Junior DT Ian Williams
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McCarthy, 2) FS Harrison Smith, 3) Williams
Strength of the defense: Experience, Linebacker
Weakness of the defense: Pass rush, Big plays

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: There's no coincidence that the Irish defensive front got a lot better as Ian Williams improved. The 6-2, 310-pound junior is a rock on the nose making 40 tackles with two tackles for loss, and while he's not going to be a pass rusher, and he's not going to collapse the pocket, he's the team's anchor to work around with tremendous strength and just enough lateral quickness to eat up everything on the inside. A starter from day one, he's expected to make an even bigger leap in production.

While Williams is the leader of the line, sophomore Ethan Johnson might be the best player. The 6-5, 275-pounder can play either end or tackle, starting out on the inside this year. As a true freshman, he made 18 tackles with 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss, along with two broken up passes, as he turned into a star by the end of the year. While he'll bounce around positions to where he's needed, he'll make a huge impact as an interior pass rusher and he appears ready to become the star of the defensive front.

One of the keys to the line is the play of Hafis Williams at tackle. The 6-1, 295-pound sophomore was strong enough this spring to allow Ethan Johnson move outside to end. While he's better suited to the nose, he can play either inside spot with great strength and just enough quickness to potentially become a factor into the backfield. He's extremely active.

6-4, 265-pound sophomore Kapron Lewis-Moore didn't play last year, but he ripped it up in practices and is about to be unleashed. With tremendous size and a blur of a first step, he has all the tools to be a great all-around playmaker for the line used either as a big end or a quick interior pass rusher. The coaching staff loves his potential.
 

Projected Top Reserves:
Junior Kerry Neal has moved back and forth from linebacker to end throughout last year depending on the alignment, he has 16 starts for the defensive front and will be used on the outside to be a steady pass rusher. The 6-2, 246-pounder made 25 tackles and two sacks and four tackles for loss, and once he's healthy after being out this spring he should be more of a force. He's too athletic and too promising to not do more.

Working behind Lewis-Moore at one end is sophomore Sean Cwynar, a 6-4, 282-pound 3-4 end who was the Illinois Mr. Football and has limitless upside. He'll move around where needed and he's expected to grow into a key player with tremendous quickness to go along with his size.

6-2, 255-pound senior Morrice Richardson wasn't able to do much in the old 3-4 alignment, making 11 tackles and half a sack, but with excellent speed and a pass rusher's mentality, he'll play a far bigger role in the rotation on the end in the 4-3. 

Watch Out For ... Johnson. Lewis-Moore might turn out to be the flashy new star because of his pass rushing skills, but it's Johnson who could turn out to be the one who makes the scouts drool either inside or out. He's a special talent.
Strength
:
Upside. While most of the national hype will be focused on the emergence of all the young prospects blowing up on offense, and maybe the true freshmen in the linebacking corps, but the defensive line might come up with the biggest improvement with the emergence of some top young players. Lewis-Moore, Johnson, and Cwynar are fantastic.
Weakness
: Plays in the backfield. The Irish, as a team, came up with a pathetic 60 tackles for loss and a mediocre 26 sacks. That'll change with the new defense thanks to the linebackers, but the more the line can do, the better.
Outlook: The defense was fine two years ago, but the line stunk. There was a big improvement last year and there should be a night-and-day change for the positive this season. Ian Williams and Ethan Johnson are NFL-caliber players who should come up with big years, while Kapron Lewis-Moore is about to become a key pass rusher. There need to be more plays in the backfield and more consistency against the run, but overall, the line will be better than it's been in years.
Rating: 7

Linebackers

Projected Starters: There will be plenty of changes in the linebacking corps depending on the emergence of the star freshmen and the alignment used, but junior Brian Smith appears to have one job locked up. A 6-3, 245-pound inside defender last year, starting in nine games and finishing with 54 tackles and two sacks, he'll move to the weakside where he'll get to use his smarts and his decent athleticism to become more of a pass rusher. Versatile, he can play any of the three spots and produce.

One of the biggest positives of the offseason was the emergence of Toryan Smith in the middle. Originally considered a possible backup after making 18 tackles, the 6-1, 244-pound senior was fantastic in spring ball and proved he was good enough to handle the position. He's been around long enough to know what he's doing, and he's a tough tackler, but he'll have to keep on producing to hold off all the good new prospects.

Getting the first look on the strongside, at least going into fall practices, will be Scott Smith, a fifth year senior who has been a decent backup where needed. He can play anywhere in the linebacking corps, and will likely end up being a key reserve at all three spots, but the 6-3, 235-pounder is a good tackler who won't make any mistakes. He made 18 tackles with a sack last season.

Projected Top Reserves: It's not a question of if, but when true sophomore Steve Flier becomes a major playmaker. A phenomenal 6-3, 236-pound athlete, he's an ideal weakside linebacker with the speed to get into the backfield on a regular basis and the toughness to be an intimidating hitter. He made just one tackle last year, but when he figures out what he's doing and can be consistent, he's going to be fantastic. 

Originally, the idea was for Darius Fleming to be considered for the defensive line in the new 4-3, but unlike John Ryan, who'll be a starter on the end, Fleming will remain in the linebacking corps after being unable to do much in spring ball with a shoulder problem. A good all-around playmaker, the 6-1, 236-pound sophomore made 24 tackles and 2.5 sacks in his first year.

While he didn't get as much hype as Manti Te'o, Zeke Motta is a top recruit who could be a starter before the season is over. Originally getting a look on the strongside, the 6-2, 215-pounder can play anywhere in the linebacking corps and is a perfect fit for the new style. Arguably the most athletic linebacker in Notre Dame has had in the Charlie Weis era, he can move, really move, and he's as smooth as silk.

In one of the big shockers of the recruiting season, Manti Te'o, everyone's No. 1, can't-miss linebacker recruit, put on the Notre Dame hat instead of going to USC. 6-2, 225 pounds, and with a rock-solid head on his shoulders, he's the type of true freshman who can come in and be an instant leader and can change around the program. With unlimited range and huge, huge hitting ability, the hype is through the roof ... and rightly so.

Watch Out For ... the freshmen. Forget about the depth chart coming out of spring ball. Once the bullets start flying and the coaching staff wants the most talented players on the field at all times, Motta and Te'o will be out there and everyone will live through the mistakes.
Strength
:
Jon Tenuta. The defensive coordinator started to show off what he'd like his linebackers to do last year, but now he has the players to actually do it. The linebackers are going to be the stars, and even though the switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 will keep several good players on the bench, there won't be any problems finding good playmakers.
Weakness
:
Big plays. There's a reason Tenuta was brought in last season. Coming up with big plays has been a major problem for the linebacking corps over the last several years with few forced turnovers and not enough things happening behind the line. Tenuta should change that, but it'll likely take a few young, relatively inexperienced players to make it happen..
Outlook: The linebackers started to do more in last year's defense under Jon Tenuta, and now they should be far more disruptive with several excellent veterans to go along with a few ultra-athletic uber-talents in Manti Te'o and Zeke Motta. This was one of team's most improved areas last season, and it should be even better now.
Rating: 8

Secondary

Projected Starters: Gone is David Bruton, the tremendously athletic free safety who was second on the team in tackles, and in comes Harrison Smith, an a former Tennessee Mr. Football and an outside linebacker who finished fourth on the team with 57 tackles and 3.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. A tremendous athlete, the 6-2, 212-pound junior, who played safety in high school, should do even more and he should be one of the defense's key players since he'll be on an island while the linebackers are being sent into the backfield.

Senior Kyle McCarthy stepped in for Tom Zbikowski at strong safety and turned into a whale of a defender. The 6-1, 203-pounder led the team with 110 tackles, a team-record for defensive backs, with two interceptions and 3.5 tackles for loss, and while he didn't do enough to come up with big plays when the ball was in the air, he didn't miss any stops against the run and he was all over the field. While he's not the tone-setting hitter that Zbikowski was, he's a steadier player.

6-1, 180-pound sophomore Robert Blanton is a big-time talent who came through with a strong first year making 33 tackles, two picks, three broken up passes and three tackles for loss. Able to play any spot in the secondary, he's a good tackler with tremendous athleticism that makes him tough to work against for bigger receivers.

While he's not the team's most talented corner, 6-0, 190-pound senior Raeshon McNeil has turned into one of team's steadiest along with being one of the most experienced defensive backs. He made 41 tackles last season with two interceptions and a team-leading 11 broken up passes. With good speed to go along with all his other intangibles, he's a good No. 1 corner.

Projected Top Reserves: Senior Darrin Walls wasn't on the team last year due to personal issues, but he's back and he should be the team's best corner. The 6-0, 190-pound speedster is a game-changing athlete who came up with nine broken up passes and a pick when teams went after him in 2007. He'll have to battle to get his starting spot back on the left side, but his presence makes the secondary far better.

When the Irish go to five defensive backs in a nickel set, 6-2, 205-pound senior Sergio Brown will likely be the main man. The big strong safety made 28 tackles with six broken up passes, serving mostly as a nickel defender with six starts. A great athlete to go along with his size and experience, he's a good, reliable veteran.

Back as a solid backup corner and a folk-hero of a special teamer is Mike Anello, a 5-10, 170-pound senior who made 23 tackles with a broken up pass before suffering a broken leg against USC. While he'll see time in the secondary once he's back and healthy, he's more important as a gunner for the kick coverage teams.

Watch Out For ... Smith. He was fine as a linebacker but he'll be a natural in the secondary. He might not be Bruton, but he's a solid last line of defense who'll clean up plenty of messes.
Strength
:
Experience. This was a veteran secondary last year and now it's experienced and deeper with Smith moving into the mix, the return of Walls, and with several options to play around with.
Weakness
:
Interceptions. The secondary came up with a paltry nine last year and the team made 14 last year. The best pickoff man was David Bruton with four, and he's gone. This will be a good, athletic secondary that has to come up with more game-changing plays.
Outlook: The Irish secondary finished second in the nation in 2007, but it was a mirage considering the teams on the schedule that could throw, did. Last year's pass defense was 43rd in the nation allowing 195 yards per game, but it was better, and now this year's secondary will be the best in the Charlie Weis era by far. The great prospects brought in over the last few years are about to emerge as strong veterans, helped by the addition of former linebacker Harrison Smith at free safety. The better passing teams will still be able to produce, but the mediocre ones will face a stonewall.
Rating: 8

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Junior Brandon Walker came off a rough freshman season, when he hit just 6-of-12 field goals and connected on just one from beyond 30 yards, to be decent last year hitting 14-of-24 with seven of the misses coming from beyond 40. He has a bigger leg that he has shown, but the left-footer has to be far, far more consistent. 

Senior Eric Maust is a solid, reliable punter averaging over 41 yards per kick over the last two years while putting 16 inside the 20 last season. He has been a better directional punter and he's decent at hanging it up high, but he could stand to come up with a few bigger blasts.

The return game has been good with Golden Tate averaging 20 yards per try and Armando Allen averaging 25.9 yards per attempt. Tate was the main man last year, but Allen will likely be the No. 1 option this season. Tate will be the main punt return option after averaging 8.3 yards per try, but Allen, who averaged 9.4 yards per attempt, will see plenty of work.

Watch Out For ... more of the same. The special teams were hardly a liability last year, but they weren't exactly a strength. With all the key parts coming back, there won't be too much to worry about.
Strength
:
Coverage teams. The Irish have been good in kickoff coverage over the last few years, but they were particularly fantastic last year allowing a mere 16.5 yards per return. The punt coverage team gave up just six yards per try.
Weakness
:
Walker. Can the team really rely on him to hit the big kick? He hit four field goals against Pitt, but missed the fifth in the multi-overtime loss. He missed three in the loss to Syracuse, but to be fair, the one he missed at the end of the one-point loss was a 53-yarder.
Outlook: The special teams are solid, but not necessarily spectacular. Everyone is back and there should be a little bit of improvement overall, especially from the return game. Eric Maust is a good punter, but for the special teams to be better, PK Brandon Walker has to be more consistent.
Rating: 7