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Defense could go from liability to asset

Jan 27, 2010, 7:30 AM EDT

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.

  1. TLNDMA - Feb 2, 2010 at 5:55 PM

    Don’t read his stuff. It works for me.

  2. robertg - Feb 3, 2010 at 4:09 AM

    1.the welcome back gala for charlie and his staff will take place in south bend well in advance of the 2011 season before purcell, swarbrick, jenkins and kelly and his staff and the vicious media shills at the south bend tribune and at these so called notre dame fan sites can do any more damage to notre dame football and the university of notre dame.
    2. some people will be invited and allowed to attend and others will not.
    3. we do not rewrite history, we make history.
    4. one recent example is our statement posted right here at notre dame central that pete carroll and his staff would be forced to flee usc for the nfl and exactly how we were going to make that happen, along with citations to court cases which we recently won and internet links to those cases.
    5. we got hit with the same vicious posts claiming that petey would never leave usc.
    6. however, petey and his staff have already fled usc for the nfl, just as we predicted.
    7. charlie and his staff had the ability to use petey’s flight to the nfl to bring notre dame another no 1 ranked recruiting class, as they did in the 2008 recruiting cycle.
    8. kelley and his staff have not been able to add even one top notch difference making recruit to notre dame’s 2010 recruiting class because they do not have the trust of recruits and their familes and high school coaches all over the us, as charlie and his staff did and still do.
    9. while the recruits that kelly and his staff have added seem like
    fine intelligent young men with fine characters, not one of them has the athletic ability to be a differnce maker for notre dame on the football field.
    10. our personal favorite is heggie, the de, who leapt at kelly’s offer since he had not received even one offer from any bcs division program in the entire us.
    11.since the attorneys’ fees and costs awarded to us by the us district judge in the enron civil rico cases alone( there have been many other cases which brought in for us higher amounts) were more than $690 million( anyone who wants to can verify that amount online), no, none of us life in studio apartments. we have family estates all over the us and all over the world for the uses of ourselves and our families.
    12. we are doing the things that we know are the correct things for college football and college sports and for notre dame football and for the university of notre dame.
    13. nothing that any of you may think or post is going to slow us down.
    14. petey and usc sure tried every dirty trick in the book to stop us, but petey and his staff have fled usc for the nfl, exactly as we predicted right here at notre dame central.
    GO IRISH!!!

  3. DNR - Feb 3, 2010 at 9:03 AM

    1. robertg, Please Stop.
    2. Editors, can’t anything be done about these endless rantings from robertg? It takes me 5 minutes to scroll past all those posts.
    3. Somewhere, somehow, someone has to be missing an escaped lunatic with access to the internet.

  4. henry - Feb 3, 2010 at 5:33 PM

    Robertg, I love you man. Keep up the good work, if you’re real. If you’re fake, you have a GREAT imagination and I enjoy reading your fiction. My honest vote is that you are real, but I don’t agree with all of your predictions. I too want to see Jenkins go but not because of football, but because I’m pro-life and Catholic. Don’t let me down. Are you pro-life?

  5. purple_hayes - Feb 3, 2010 at 11:10 PM

    I think continued improvement from week to week is the starting point.
    It seems when the Irish lost a crucial game early it was hard to get the mojo back. Towards the end of many seasons it seems the Irish were
    wore down without any positive emotion….’playing with fire’seemed to be lacking especially on defense. The line play has be improved on both sides of the ball….if they progress week to week i think good things will happen.

  6. DJ COLEMAN - Feb 4, 2010 at 10:58 AM


  7. - Feb 5, 2010 at 9:12 PM

    Thanks for posting this. Would be intrested to read more or possibly please contact me by email thank you!

  8. - Feb 5, 2010 at 9:14 PM

    Thanks for posting this. Would be intrested to read more or possibly please contact me by email thank you!

  9. David Price - Feb 17, 2010 at 4:03 PM

    I think your blog is great. I just added you to my Yahoo News Reader. Found it on Google though. I love the suggestions and just trying to wrap my head around it, it’s mind boggling. Thanks

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