Preview 2009 - Defense
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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.
Tackles: Kyle McCarthy, 110
Sacks: Ethan Johnson, Harrison Smith,
Interceptions: Several with 2
Star of the defense: Senior SS Kyle
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore DE
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
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.
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:
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.