If there is one position group with a razor-thin margin for error, it’s the defensive lineman. The good news for Irish coach Mike Elston is that he’ll only need to find three guys that can play on the field at once as the Irish are shifting from four to three down linemen, and all three projected starters are returning. In the middle, Ian Williams will start at tackle. After a promising opening salvo to his career, Williams will be looked upon to become a dominant run-stuffing force on the inside of the 3-4 defense, allowing linebacker Manti Te’o (and whoever wins the job next to him) to get after the ball carrier and make plays.
On the outside of the 3-4, the Irish have two player cut from the proper cloth to play on the edges of the defensive line. Now a junior, Ethan Johnson will have to finally play up to the prestigious recruiting ranking to avoid being labeled a major disappointment. Too small to play on the inside and not quick enough to dominate as an edge rusher in the 4-3, Johnson just hasn’t made enough plays in two seasons for the Irish, but also played out of position last season after being rushed onto the field as a freshman. Kapron Lewis-Moore saved a year of eligibility his freshman year, but ascended to the top of the defensive end depth chart last season, leading Irish defensive lineman in tackles, and finishing second on the team in tackles for loss. A year in the weight room with Paul Longo and a second season of playing time should bode well for KLM, who has ideal size to play on the end of a 3-4 front.
Behind this trio, things get a bit scary for the Irish, especially at defensive end. In recruiting, Brian Kelly took a chance on Bruce Heggie, an unknown recruit who fit the profile of what the staff is looking for in a big-bodied end. They also made a late offer to Kona Schwenke, who will immediately look to make a dent in the two-deep depth chart. But for the Irish defense to succeed up front, they’ll need players like Emeka Nwankwo and Tyler Stockton to put things together quickly, and from the sounds of it, both had very productive springs. For the first time in a long time, the Irish are rock solid at defensive tackle, with Brandon Newman, Hafis Williams, and Sean Cwynar all pushing into the rotation. With an offense that’ll push the pace, Elston will need to get a rock-solid rotation of defensive linemen ready to see the field. Let’s take a look at the players that’ll get that done.
DEFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART
2010: Ian Williams (DT)
2011: Emeka Nwankwo (DE), Ethan Johnson (DE)
2012: Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE), Sean Cwynar (DT/DE), Hafis Williams (DT),
Brandon Newman (DT)
2013: Tyler Stockton (DE/DT)
2014: Bruce Heggie (DE), Kona Schwenke (DE), Louis Nix (DT)
The senior class’s lone representative is Ian Williams, one of only two players to have played in every game since joining the Irish. Williams will anchor the inside of the defensive line, playing a position in the system he was originally recruited to play. If you’re looking for a reason to believe Ethan Johnson is ready to explode on the scene, look to the squat rack. After playing light in the lower-half for the first two seasons, Johnson will spend the majority of the summer working on leg strength to help him along the line of scrimmage. One of the better stories out of spring practice was the play of Emeka Nwankwo, who was a healthy scratch for all of the 2009 season. Having only played in seven games in three seasons, Elston praised Nwankwo for his dedication to the game and working his way into the rotation.
While Lewis-Moore will open fall camp as the starting defensive end, Cwynar is the kind of player that continues to show up on game film. Another tweener in a 4-3 defense, he’ll thrive as a high-motor, physical defensive end, especially playing limited snaps. Speaking of game film, Brandon Newman’s Blue-Gold game tape had to make Irish coaches happy, as the defensive tackle was disruptive at the line of scrimmage, knocking down multiple passes and showing a great burst as well. Hafis Williams, another defensive tackle, had a nice spring for the Irish, and will compete with Newman for the role of spelling Ian Williams.
Tyler Stockton didn’t play a snap last season and also physically profiles as a defensive tackle, but spent some time playing on the edge of the defense as well in Bob Diaco’s new system. He’ll enter fall camp with four years of eligibility, just like defensive ends Bruce Heggie, an under-the-radar recruit from Florida, Hawaiian defensive end Kona Schwenke, and defensive tackle Louis Nix. Both defensive ends will need to spend some time adding mass to their frames before they’re able to compete up front, but the lack of depth at the position is alarming. As for Louis Nix, he’ll join a crowded depth chart for defensive tackles, but was a critical recruit for Notre Dame, committing to assistant coach Tony Alford even when the Irish were without a head coach.