2010 Notre Dame Preview – Defense
Notre Dame DE Trevor Robinson
CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - Notre Dame Fighting Irish Defense
Preview 2010 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: This isn't going to be a rock of a defense, but it'll be better. It's not like the Irish completely ignored the defense under Charlie Weis, but it wasn't exactly the full-time focus. On the plus side, Weis and his staff brought in plenty of nice talents with a good upgrade in athleticism and speed, but it didn't really come together. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might have just enough tweaks and massages to make this veteran group produce, and the 3-4 might be the answer. The line is big but it doesn't have any dangerous pass rushing talent, so the outside linebackers should be the stars like they were for the Cincinnati defense over the last few years. The Bearcats were rocks against the run and they had problems against teams that bombed away to keep up in shootouts (sound familiar?), but they also finished third in the nation in tackles for loss and tenth in sacks. The Irish have the linebacking corps to be disruptive and get into the backfield on a regular basis, and it has a burgeoning superstar on the inside in Manti Te'o. The secondary is full of disappointing talents who have the potential to do far more, and the line has some decent NFL prospects who could blossom now that they're in the right scheme.
Star of the defense: Junior LB Manti Te'o
Tackles: Brian Smith, 71
Sacks: Ethan Johnson, 4
Interceptions: Brian Smith, 2
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior CB Gary Gray
Unsung star on the rise: Junior LB Darius Fleming
Best pro prospect: Te'o
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Te'o, 2) NT Ian Williams, 3) FS Harrison Smith
Strength of the defense: Experience, Front Seven
Weakness of the defense: Corner, Consistent Production
Projected Starters: It's not that Ian Williams has been a disappointment, he hasn't, but he hasn't been the consistently dominant force he should be. The 6-2, 301-pounder is a rock on the nose, and he'll have more responsibility than ever in the 3-4 scheme. He has the NFL strength and the quickness to shoot either gap and clog things up on the inside, but he has to bring it each and every week. While the senior's tackle production dropped off a bit making 39 stops, he was a bit better at getting into the backfield with six tackles for loss. Even so, he's not necessarily a pocket-collapser and will be most important as an anchor, and a vocal leader, to work around.
Junior Ethan Johnson might finally be in the right position in the right scheme. First he wasn't quite right as a 4-3 end, then he was a bit light to be a tackle, and now he's up to 280 pounds filling out his 6-4 frame and should shine as a 3-4 end. Even though he didn't come up with a big year, he was still the team's top pass rusher making four sacks with 6.5 tackles for loss, to go along with 32 stops, and now his job will be to hold up more against the run while shooting the one-gap to get to the quarterback. The tools are there to be the star of the defensive front, and now he has to use them.
Junior Kapron Lewis-Moore got bigger and stronger, and now should be far better as a 3-4 end. Not necessarily a pure pass rusher in the 4-3, he was good, but not a terror after ripping it up in 2009 preseason practices. While he finished with 46 tackles, he only came up with 2.5 sacks with 7.5 tackles for loss. The potential is there to be a special player with great athleticism and the size to be a strong all-around playmaker, but now he has to be used to his weight after bulking up very quickly over the last two years.
Projected Top Reserves: Expected to blossom under the new coaching staff, 6-4, 280-pound senior Emeka Nwankwo didn't get on the field last year after making just two tackles as a backup in 2009. He has the size and the strength to be a good interior presence, but he's not necessarily a pass rusher and will be far better without having to fly into the backfield on every play. He's aggressive, but he'll be strongest as a one gap run stopper.
6-1, 290-pound Hafis Williams was supposed to play a bigger role after a strong 2009 offseason, but he was a limited backup seeing most of his time on special teams and failing to register a tackle. Very active and with the right body type for a tackle, the junior has to show he can be disruptive as a big end working in a rotation with Kapron Lewis-Moore on the end. It'll be a must to become a strong interior pass rusher right away.
Junior Sean Cwynar has great upside, is very smart, has a high motor, and he'll always give a major-league effort on the inside. Now the former Illinois Mr. Football has to produce as a run stopper in the rotation on the nose. A key backup who stepped in and got a start in place of Ian Williams when the coaching staff was trying to send a message, he finished the year with a mere three tackles. At 6-4 and 281 pounds he's not built like a nose tackle and could be moved around a bit to take advantage of his quickness.
6-3, 315-pound Louis Nix is one of the team's top recruits, and he might get a shot to see time at tackle right away to get his girth on the field. Very active for his size, he was a top sacker in high school and has the potential to be used as a huge end or in the nose rotation. One of the nation's best tackle prospects, he got out of Florida and needs to be an anchor in the near future.
Watch Out For … Johnson. He was supposed to be a breakthrough NFL-like talent last year, and it didn't happen. He has the size and the raw tools to get a long look by the next level types, and now he'll get two years to show what he can do in a scheme that should be perfect for him.
Strength: Experience and upside. Three key starters are back while Cwynar has a game of starting experience. This group has been through the adversity trying to figure out how to consistently produce in a scheme that didn't seem to fit the talents. Now the scheme is right and the experience is there to take advantage.
Weakness: Production. The proverbial Looks Like Tarzan, Plays Like Jane line, Williams, Johnson, and Lewis-Moore have NFL upside and potential, but they have to bring the effort for a full sixty minutes and they have to be far, far more consistent against the run. This group needs to have a fire lit under its feet.
Outlook: There are no excuses this year for a line that has shown flashes of greatness without doing nearly enough to play up to the talent level. If the 3-4 scheme doesn't work for Johnson, and if Lewis-Moore can't be more of a dangerous presence, and if Williams can't be a steady anchor, then it'll be time to start from scratch. This is a smart, vocal group that has to stop someone. Under the new coaching staff, it will.
Unit Rating: 7.5
Projected Starters: It's like many forgot that Manti Te'o was a true freshman and were disappointed that he wasn't Ray Lewis right away. Arguably the best defensive prospect brought in during the Charlie Weis era, Te'o got on the field early on and finished fourth on the team with 63 tackles with a sack and 5.5 tackles for loss, but he didn't do much in pass coverage and he wasn't consistent. Again … true freshman. The 6-2, 250-pound sophomore is a pure middle linebacker who'll be a sideline to sideline playmaker and will be used as a pass rusher from the inside. A next level talent with all the tools including leadership ability, quickness, and huge, huge hitting skills, he'll build on his strong first year and should be a more complete player.
Depending on where he's used, junior Darius Fleming could be in for a huge season. The 6-2, 245-pounder will likely start on the outside, and he's so quick and so athletic that he could become a pass rushing superstar no matter where he plays. He made 29 tackles with three sacks and 12 tackles for loss, to go along with seven quarterback hurries, and now the coaching staff is planning on turning him loose. He has seen time as a 4-3 defensive end starting five times last year up front and twice as a strongside linebacker, and now it'll be interesting to see how he handles his new responsibilities.
Manti Te'o is going to be the leader of the Notre Dame linebacking corps, but senior Brian Smith talks like the one who's in charge. A high-octane player with a great motor and excellent talent, Smith finished second on the team with 71 tackles with 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, and 5.5 tackles for loss. Now the 6-3, 245-pound veteran has to use his experience and his energy to produce on the outside where he should come up with a nice statistical season. While the sacks and tackles will come, he needs to do even more against the pass despite the two picks he came up with in 2009.
With the new position added to the 3-4 scheme, junior Anthony McDonald will get a chance at a starting role. Able to work inside or out, the 6-2, 230-pound will move around where needed after making ten tackles last year as a key backup and special teamer. He's a nice open-field tackler and was a good recruit for the program, but he has yet to show much in game action. He'll get his chances this year as more than just a top player on the coverage teams.
Projected Top Reserves: Junior Steve Flier was one of the team's top special teamers and grew into a backup linebacker role making 18 tackles on the year with 1.5 tackles for loss. The 6-2, 235-pounder will work as the understudy behind Brian Smith at right outside linebacker. He got over a shoulder problem to turn into a productive playmaker when he got on the field, and he's more than ready to see more action to shed the disappointment tag. He was a top recruit who hasn't shown off his skills.
A strong backup throughout his career, senior Kerry Neal has seen time in every game making 25 tackles with 1.5 sacks and six quarterback hurries, and now the 6-2, 244-pounder could be a pass rushing specialist either inside or out. He'll work with Darius Fleming on the outside and he should put up huge numbers in his final year.
Junior David Posluszny got away from Penn State, where his brother Paul was a superstar, but he has yet to play up to his prep hype making just three tackles seeing most of his time on special teams. He's not his brother by any stretch, and at 6-0 and 225 pounds he's a lot smaller, but he's feisty and will tackle anything he can get to on the inside.
Watch Out For … the outside linebacker. Cincinnati's defensive stars were on the outside being used as pass rushers who put up monster numbers. Fleming and Smith have to be drooling at the possibilities, while Flier and Neal could blow up when they get their chances.
Strength: Te'o. Yeah, he's not a finished product and he's still about a year away from reaching his full potential as a collegian, but he's really, really, good and will be a steadying force on the inside while everyone else gets to fly around. The experience is there throughout the corps to be far better.
Weakness: Run defense. Far, far too many plays were made down the field, and those teams that could run on a regular basis went ballistic against this group. The production got worse as the year went on with Navy, Pitt, UConn and Stanford running wild.
Outlook: There's excitement across the board on the defensive front seven with the change in scheme, and the linebackers have to like what they saw from Cincinnati game tapes with the ability to run around more and the potential to be more aggressive. They were allowed to blitz and fly around last year, but the ability and experience are there to actually make it all work this season.
Unit Rating: 7
Projected Starters: Senior Harrison Smith started out last year at free safety before being moved to strongside linebacker. It didn't work. The 6-2, 212-pounder is physical and he isn't afraid to stick his nose in against the run, but he's a far better safety and is better with space to move. He finished third on the team with 69 tackles with four broken up passes and 6.5 tackles for loss, but he can do far more. A phenomenal athlete, the former Tennessee Mr. Football should finish his career as a top playmaker in a fulltime free safety role.
6-0, 195-pound junior Jamoris Slaughter has seen time in a variety of areas working at corner and getting a start at free safety against Washington State. Now he's locked in at strong safety in place of leading tackler Kyle McCarthy, and he should be a good one. While it's asking a lot to replace the all-around playmaking ability of McCarthy, Slaughter has the track star speed to be all over the field and the upside to be a top tackler after making 12 stops last year.
Senior Darrin Walls started for most of last year but only made 27 tackles with an interception and a team-leading six broken up passes. The 6-0, 185-pounder is a game-changing type of speedster who's still trying to find his groove after missing the 2008 season due to personal reasons, and now the spotlight will be on to see if he can become a playmaker on the outside. The raw tools are there along with the experience, but he has to be more than just consistently decent.
Senior Gary Gray gets one final shot to shed the bust tag. A superstar recruit who was supposed to lock down one side of the field from the moment he stepped on the field as a freshman, he suffered a shoulder injury early on and hasn't done enough to live up to the hype even though he's coming off his best season with 28 tackles and an interception. The 5-11, 190-pounder is fast, quick, and experienced, but he has to finally put it all together.
Projected Top Reserves: Junior Robert Blanton is like a fifth starter able to work at corner, where he started three times over the second half of last year, and as a key nickel and dime defender making 38 tackles with two interceptions and two broken up passes. He has the attitude of a No. 1 corner and confidence isn't a problem. He should be a good piece to the overall puzzle no matter how he's used. At 6-1 and 190 pounds he has decent size and is physical enough to handle a variety of roles.
While Zeke Motta got lost in the hype over Manti Te'o during last year's recruiting period, he was considered an elite linebacker prospect, too. The 6-2, 210-pounder saw time in every game making 12 tackles after moving to safety, and he's a great athlete who showed this offseason that he'll be good enough to become special. A star on special teams, he'll get his chances on the coverage teams again as well as work at free safety behind Harrison Smith. Smooth as silk and with great tackling ability, he'll be too good to get off the field. Expect him to be one of the team's top three tacklers in 2011.
Sophomore E.J. Banks was a good recruit out of Pittsburgh and he could quickly take over a starting job if Darrin Walls doesn't improve. The 5-11, 180-pound athlete was wooed by a variety of schools for a variety of spots from receiver to safety, but he's a corner who should be a key part of the rotation.
Watch Out For … Smith. While he has had a nice career, he hasn't quite been the all-around playmaker he probably should be considering his athleticism and upside. The move to linebacker wasn't a disaster, but it didn't work and now he should come up with a great final year with the new coaching staff emphatically stating that he's sticking at safety.
Strength: Untapped potential. It's not like there isn't speed and upside in the secondary. While there aren't the big-time talents there are in the front seven, Gray was a superstar recruit, Smith and Motta can move, and there are athletes across the board. It might be a case where a few minor adjustments could bring tremendous results.
Weakness: Pass defense. A mega-disappointment in a year when the talent was supposed to shine through, the Irish gave up way too many yards to middling passing games. Teams that tried to keep up with the Irish passing game were able to, the big plays were at a minimum, and those who really wanted to throw, did.
Outlook: The Irish has talent in the secondary, but defensive backs coach Chuck Martin has to come through to coax production from all the experience and all the prospects. The fact might be that this group simply isn't that good, but it hasn't exactly been properly developed over the last few years. More interceptions would be nice, but simply coming up with more third down stops would be a big improvement.
Unit Rating: 6.5
Projected Starters: Sophomore Nick Tausch turned in a great first season connecting on 14-of-17 field goals, with many coming in tight games and with five field goals against Washington. After whiffing on a 24-yarder against Michigan, he hit an Irish record 14 straight and showed decent range with a 46 yarder against Michigan State, but he missed two key attempts against Navy and he was knocked out for the season the following week after pulling up lame in warm-ups before the Pitt game. Still in the hunt for the job will be David Ruffer , a junior who connected on all five of his attempts after Tausch went down. A walk-on with no football experience whatsoever before last year, he looked the part with two 42-yarders and three short shots against UConn.
It took just over half of last year, but the light went on for Ben Turk and he came up with a strong finishing kick to provide hope that he might be the answer over the next three years. The sophomore averaged a mere 38.2 yards per pop, but he forced 13 fair catches and put nine inside the 20.
All-around offensive prospect Theo Reddick might purely be a kickoff return specialist after averaging 22.9 yards per try last year. Extremely quick and very productive, he set the Notre Dame record for the most return yards in a season, and he should do even more considering the new coaching staff puts a premium on the return game. Cincinnati finished second in the nation last year averaging 28.52 yards per try. br />
Gone is Golden Tate, who averaged 14.2 yards per punt return, but John Goodman wasn't a bad second option averaging 11.2 yards on his five tries. He's great at making the first man miss, and like the kickoff return game, the coaching staff puts an emphasis on production as Cincinnati led the Big East in punt returns.
Watch Out For … the return game to be even stronger. The new coaching staff wants even more from the veteran returners, and while the Irish weren't bad last year on kickoff returns and were great on punt returns, the potential is there to do even more.
Strength: Tausch. The Navy game notwithstanding, he became a reliable rock who should be more than fine from 45 yards and in. If the Irish play in several close games again, they'll have an advantage.
Weakness: Punting. Yeah, Turk got better late last year, but the Irish overall struggled with the coverage team allowing 12.8 yards per try. The punting game averaged 37.2 yards per try and has to get over the 40 mark.
Outlook: The special teams had some nice pieces with the placekicking improving and a good return game, but the coverage teams have to be far better and this has to be an area of focus. The Irish played ten games decided by a touchdown or less and they can't afford not to dominate here.
Unit Rating: 7
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