Defense could go from liability to asset


While the recruiting madness has taken over the minds of most college football fans, many wonder if the relatively thin defensive recruiting classes of the past two seasons in the defensive front-seven will come back to haunt the Irish.

If we look back to the heralded 2006 recruiting class, it was Weis’ inability to get a single difference maker along the front seven that ultimately derailed the 2009 Fighting Irish football team. Now, with the 2009 class only bringing in five defensive players and the 2010 class currently listing Prince Shembo and Kendall Moore at linebacker, Justin Utupo at defensive end, and Louis Nix at defensive tackle, the depth chart could start to get perilously thin, especially with a coaching transition usually leading to a few defections after a new staff’s first season.

But before people get concerned, the 2010 edition of Fighting Irish football could be the best defensive unit the Irish put together since Tyrone Willingham’s first season in South Bend. Many of the players that Charlie Weis and staff recruited when building their 3-4 personnel scheme will be upperclassmen and experienced.

In the front-seven alone, the Irish will return the following players with their football eligibility:

DT:       Ian Williams, Sr.
            Brandon Newman, Soph.
            Hafis Williams, Soph.
            Tyler Stockton, Fr.*
            Louis Nix, Fr.

DE:      Kerry Neal, Sr.
            Ethan Johnson, Jr.
            Emeka Nwankwo, Jr.
            Kapron Lewis-Moore, Soph.
            Sean Cwynar, Soph.
            Justin Utupo, Fr.

OLB:    Brian Smith, Sr.
            Steve Filer, Jr.
            Harrison Smith, Jr.
            Darius Fleming, Jr.
            Dan Fox, Soph.
            Zeke Motta, Soph.
            Kendall Moore, Fr.
            Prince Shembo, Fr.

ILB:     Manti Te’o, Soph.
           David Pozluzny, Soph.
           Anthony McDonald, Soph.
           Carlo Calabrese, Fr.*

At first glance, you have to think that Kelly will give Brian Smith every opportunity to win a starting inside-linebacker job, as the lack of veteran depth in the middle is pretty startling, and a good reason why preserving a freshman linebacker’s eligibility instead of using him on special teams isn’t such a bad idea.

(More on this thought later in the week…)

Still, Smith’s struggles in the middle this year, along with Manti Te’o’s ability to play in space put a lot of pressure on the interior of this 3-4 defense this season. While Smith seems to be an easy target for some of the deficiencies in the run defense this year, it’s a hard sell for any linebacker — however gifted they are — to be able to capably shed interior linemen and still be asked to make the play.

What also stands out right now are the incredible edge players Diaco and outside linebackers coach Kerry Cooks have to work with. To think that the Irish can roll Steve Filer, and Darius Fleming through as edge backers in the 3-4 is a pretty appealing proposition, and finding niche rolls for guys like Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta, two guys who may not be suited for safety duty, but certainly bring athleticism to the field has to give a lot of flexibility to the scheme, something that former coordinator Jon Tenuta never seemed to grasp.

For the Irish defense to make the turnaround from mediocre to an asset, the front line will also need to improve. For all the talk of Ethan Johnson in his two years in South Bend, I’m still waiting for him to make the impact that the recruitniks thought he’d make. And for guys like Ian Williams, his final year of eligibility will need to be the year he becomes the classic run-stuffing defensive lineman that the Irish have needed since Trevor Laws graduated. Add to that mix another year of experience for a veteran like Kerry Neal, and rising star Kapron Lewis-Moore, and the Irish could be looking at a seemingly stout group.

There’s no doubting that recruiting deficiencies will catch up to the best of coaches, and the shallow ranks of underclassmen could spell trouble in years three and four of the Kelly regime. But for now the Irish seem to be set for a renaissance that could turn the team’s most troubling liability into one of its strongest assets.

Even amidst chaos, Kelly expecting USC’s best

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rocky Hayes, Blaise Taylor

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired on Monday, with interim head coach Clay Helton taking the reins of the Trojan program during tumultuous times. Helton will be the fourth different USC head coach to face Notre Dame in as many years, illustrative of the chaos that’s shaken up Heritage Hall in the years since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.

All eyes are on the SC program, with heat on athletic director Pat Haden and the ensuing media circus that only Los Angeles can provide. But Brian Kelly doesn’t expect anything but their best when USC boards a plane to take on the Irish in South Bend.

While the majority of Notre Dame’s focus will be inward this week, Kelly did take the time on Sunday and Monday to talk with his team about the changes atop the Trojan program, and how they’ll likely impact the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

“We talked about there would be an interim coach, and what that means,” Kelly said. “Teams come together under those circumstances and they’re going to play their very best. And I just reminded them of that.”

While nobody on this Notre Dame roster has experienced a coaching change, they’ve seen their share of scrutiny. The Irish managed to spring an upset not many saw coming against LSU last year in the Music City Bowl after a humiliating defeat against the Trojans and amidst the chaos of a quarterbacking controversy. And just last week, we saw Charlie Strong’s team spring an upset against arch rival Oklahoma when just about everybody left the Longhorns for dead.

“I think you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I expect USC to respond the same way, so we’re going to have to play extremely well.”

Outside of the head coaching departure, it’s difficult to know if there’ll be any significant difference between a team lead by Sarkisian or the one that Helton will lead into battle. The offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach has been at USC for six years, and has already held the title of interim head coach when he led the Trojans to a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl title after Lane Kiffin was fired and Ed Orgeron left the program after he wasn’t given the full time position.

Helton will likely call plays, a role he partially handled even when Sarkisian was on the sideline. The defense will still be run by Justin Wilcox. And more importantly, the game plan will be executed by a group of players that are among the most talented in the country.

“They have some of the finest athletes in the country. I’ve recruited a lot of them, and they have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride,” Kelly said. “So they will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there is no question about that.”

Irish add commitment from CB Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn

Notre Dame’s recruiting class grew on Monday. And in adding 6-foot-3 Memphis cornerback Donte Vaughn, it grew considerably.

The Irish added another jumbo-sized skill player in Vaughn, beating out a slew of SEC offers for the intriguing cover man. Vaughn picked Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M among others.

He made the announcement on Monday, his 18th birthday:

It remains to be seen if Vaughn can run like a true cornerback. But his length certainly gives him a skill-set that doesn’t currently exist on the Notre Dame roster.

Interestingly enough, Vaughn’s commitment comes a cycle after Brian VanGorder made news by going after out-of-profile coverman Shaun Crawford, immediately offering the 5-foot-9 cornerback after taking over for Bob Diaco, who passed because of Crawford’s size. An ACL injury cut short Crawford’s freshman season before it got started, but not before Crawford already proved he’ll be a valuable piece of the Irish secondary for years to come.

Vaughn is another freaky athlete in a class that already features British Columbia’s Chase Claypool. With a safety depth chart that’s likely turning over quite a bit in the next two seasons, Vaughn can clearly shift over if that’s needed, though Notre Dame adding length like Vaughn clearly points to some of the shifting trends after Richard Sherman went from an average wide receiver to one of the best cornerbacks in football, and Vaughn will be asked to play on the outside.

Vaughn is the 15th member of Notre Dame’s 2016 signing class. He is the fifth defensive back, joining safeties D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry along with cornerback Julian Love. The Irish project to take one more.

With Notre Dame expecting another huge recruiting weekend with USC coming to town, it’ll be very interesting to see how the Irish staff close out this recruiting class.