Jun 2, 2011, 12:49 AM EDT
There are plenty of good things you can say about Bob Diaco’s Fighting Irish defense from 2010. Playing in a new system with virtually the same guys that were part of a historically bad outfit, the unit grew to be one of the strengths of the team, playing sufficating football down the stretch as the Irish didn’t lose a game after Tulsa.
But if you’re looking for one important statistical category where the Irish didn’t match up, it was making plays behind the line of scrimmage. The Irish defense finished a mediocre 76th in tackles for loss (TFLs), putting up 68 on the season, an average of just over five a game.
The 2009 Irish, while finishing a woeful 86th in total defense managed to finish 55th in TFLs, making 73 in the last year of Charlie Weis/Jon Tenuta, leading you to wonder if the fundamental differences in CW & BK’s systems might have contributed to the lack of plays made behind the line of scrimmage. But that theory’s all but proven bunk when you consider Brian Kelly’s Cincinnati defense that was directed by Diaco finished 4th in the country with 110 TFLs in 2009, all with an incredibly inexperienced unit.
You can argue about the philosophies of defensive coordinators until you’re blue in the face. But one thing is certain after looking at the top dozen teams in college football. Each had someone that made more plays behind the line of scrimmage than Notre Dame, who was led by Darius Fleming and his 11 TFLs.
Here’s a quick look at the top 12 teams from 2010, looking at their TFLs and leading defensive playmaker:
No. 1 Auburn: 99 Total TFLs (DT Nick Fairley — 24.0)
No. 2 TCU: 75 Total TFLs (DE Wayne Daniels — 14.0)
No. 3 Oregon: 97 Total TFLs (DE Kenny Rowe — 16.5)
No. 4 Stanford: 71 Total TFLs (LB Chase Thomas — 11.5)
No. 5 Ohio State: 75 Total TFLs (DT Cameron Heyward — 13.0)
No. 6 Oklahoma: 106 Total TFLs (DE Jeremy Beal — 19.0)
No. 7 Wisconsin: 66 Total TFLs (DE J.J. Watt — 21.0)
No. 8 LSU: 88 Total TFLs (DT Drake Nevis — 13.0)
No. 9 Boise State: 109 Total TFLs (Two players tied at 13.5)
No. 10 Alabama: 75 Total TFLs (LB Courtney Upshaw — 14.5)
No. 11 Nevada: 87 Total TFLs (LB Dontay Moch — 22.0)
No. 12 Arkansas: 95 Total TFLs (LB Jerry Franklin — 13.0)
Only Wisconsin finished with less TFLs than the Irish, and they had J.J. Watt, one of the Big Ten’s most dynamic players and a total defense that finished in the country’s top 20.
As Darius Fleming finds himself more comfortable in the Irish defense, expect Diaco to make more plays behind the line of scrimmage. This is the same system that gave a converted tight end in Connor Barwin the chance to flourish at a similar position to the one Fleming plays. Barwin’s 12 sacks during his final season in Cincinnati rocketed him up draft boards, turning into a second round pick. Can that be Fleming’s fate?
Notre Dame’s done a very good job of adding size and speed to the edges of their defense. The Irish will have an opportunity to confuse and attack
defenses offenses with freshman Aaron Lynch ready to make his presence known as a pass-rusher.
More importantly, Diaco will have at his disposal a variety of very good stand-up edge players, with guys like Steve Filer being joined by young players like Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams. Danny Spond also has a chance to make a ton of plays behind the line of scrimmage.
The Irish finished essentially middle-of-the-road in sacks, a category that all but tells the same story. With a secondary better versed for Chuck Martin’s system and a defensive line that’s older and wiser, Diaco should be able to take a defense struggling to get by in remedial classes last season and dial things up to an AP Level this year.
If the Irish can do that, expect everybody to graduate with honors.