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Front four reveals multiple options

Feb 13, 2012, 3:04 PM EDT

aaron lynch Sack

The days of calling Notre Dame a 3-4 defense are over. In fact, you’d have been wrong if you called the Irish a predominantly 3-4 defense last year. While opposing coaches looked to use the Irish’s odd-man front as recruiting ammunition to keep edge rushers from joining Bob Diaco‘s defense in South Bend, the reality — both last season, and likely moving forward — is that the Irish defense will spend more time with four down linemen than three.

Thanks to some impressive work led by friend of the blog and former Blue-Gray Sky contributor Pat Mitsch, a breakdown of every regular season defensive snap is a pretty illuminating look at just how the Irish defensive line operated. The Irish defense played 819 snaps on the regular season. Of those snaps, 453 of them had the Irish in a four-down alignment, or roughly 55 percent of the time.

Digging into those numbers a little bit deeper, a pattern emerges for the Irish defense. First, after a more than disappointing debut against the option in 2010, the Irish defense has kept options teams in check, mainly playing a four-man front. Against Navy, the Irish defense played 63 snaps, but all but one of them was played with four down linemen.

(More interesting, considering how dominant the Irish were in beating up the Midshipmen 56-14, Harrison Smith still played 60 snaps. That goes a long way towards telling you just how important Smith was to keeping the defense aligned.)

Continuing the Irish’s solid play against Air Force, Notre Dame played 84 percent of their snaps in a four-down set, likely only playing more base defense as the Irish developed their second and third string defense in a fourth quarter that saw the Falcons score 17 points.

The key swing player in all of this was Darius Fleming. In a three-man front, Fleming was basically never seen with his hand on the ground. But in four-man fronts, Fleming took the leading amount of snaps at both defensive end positions (48% and 35%), showing a diversity that’ll likely come in handy if he’s to continue playing on Sundays. If you’re looking for Fleming’s replacement as that swing player, it’ll likely be Prince Shembo, who spent the third-most time at both defensive end positions with four-down linemen, ahead of guys like Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, who both played more inside at tackle in a front-four.

The fact that the Irish defense played so well in 2011 without big seasons from Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore gives you an idea of just how talented this young defensive front will be moving forward. Johnson, who was limited with an ankle injury, only played 39 percent of snaps this season. Lewis-Moore, who was lost with a season-ending knee injury, played only 46 percent of snaps, after playing 75 percent of the snaps until his injury.

If you had to speak in generalities, it looks like the Irish prefer to take on traditional pro-style offenses with a three-man front while playing mobile quarterbacks or spread teams with a front-four. Games against Michigan State, Purdue, USC, and Maryland saw the Irish predominantly play three-down linemen. Against teams with mobile quarterbacks (USF, Michigan, Air Force, Navy and Wake Forest), the Irish played heavier with a front-four.

Either way, the Irish got strong play from Mike Elston’s unit along the defensive line, made even more impressive by the fact that major contributors like Lynch (53%), Louis Nix (47%), and Tuitt (34% even while missing three games), all took the first snaps of their college careers in 2011. With the Irish needing to replace four of their top five snap-takers on the defensive side of the ball, it’ll be up to the front line to carry the weight next season. Regardless of how many down linemen are playing.

  1. irishdodger - Feb 13, 2012 at 3:22 PM

    IMO, Kiffin & SC exposed NDs 3-man front this past season. By leaving larger gaps between his OL, he was able to exploit NDs DL at the point of attack. Thus, a team that came into South Bend w/ an anemic run game, left w/ huge day on the ground that basically sealed the victory for Troy.

    • dickasman - Feb 13, 2012 at 3:27 PM

      Yeah, I prefer the Irish play the 4-3 like the Giants. We tried the 3-4 Patriots but it is mediocre at best. They should play more of 43 to truly take advantage of Irish defense strengths which is Teo and D Line. I think Teo could be more of backfield playmaker in 4-3. I like to see him pass/run blitz vs. him out in coverage covering tight rear ends.

  2. dickasman - Feb 13, 2012 at 3:24 PM

    Good ol’ 6-9 buddy ryan defense is my favorite but nobody plays it anymore. Well, then what kind of defense would this be? Let’s just call it 3.5 defense.

    Well everybody plays 43 34 these days about 40-50% of the time don’t they? they’ll start out with 43 or34 with starting line up but then throughout the game, they play both, depending on situation.

    • 9irish - Feb 13, 2012 at 4:07 PM

      I agree with that. There are so many hybrid players now, and they move people around to confuse the offense. Always have to have some serious muscle that is always on the line, and they certainly have that. Not really sure if anybody runs a pure 3-4 or 4-3 anymore.

      • nudeman - Feb 13, 2012 at 4:28 PM

        Agree. 34 or 43 doesn’t really mean that much. No team is “pure” on their approach

        I think we’ve officially entered “dead season” as far as CFB news is concerned.
        There will be a brief respite on the 21st when Davonte Neal announces he’s going to UA, but then a snooze until the spring game.

      • bernhtp - Feb 13, 2012 at 7:23 PM

        Nude: I know your sources say UA for Neal, but this would fly completely against what his father said about graduation being a major criterion. UA ranks at the very bottom of the PAC 12 with a 48% GSR vs. ND’s #1 ranking of 97%.

        http://espn.go.com/blog/pac12/post/_/id/28369/stanford-washington-lead-pac-12-grad-rates

      • dmac4real - Feb 13, 2012 at 8:12 PM

        Bern….We actually have a 100% graduation this years (the coaches informed Neal of this)

      • dickasman - Feb 14, 2012 at 11:47 AM

        Pathetic….48%? Are you kidding me?

        Hey how about ConU I mean UConn? Their basketball team can’t make the NCAA Tournament because not enough guys graduate. Unreal. Garbage like this makes me sick. What a waste.

  3. jerseyshorendfan1 - Feb 13, 2012 at 5:14 PM

    I don’t care what you call it as long as the Lynch mob puts some opposing QBs on their backs. Giants went all the way this year after a mediocre start. What was the difference maker? Tuck, Pierre Paul and Umenyiora establishing their pass rush and wreaking utter havoc with it. How else can you beat Brees, Rodgers and Brady? You make it so they can’t throw accurately, don’t have time to set up, etc. Bobby D better have learned this lesson. I thought he had learned it against FSU but then he let off the gas after halftime. We all know what happened after the half.

    • jerseyshorendfan1 - Feb 13, 2012 at 5:27 PM

      Check that….they didn’t beat Brees but you get my point.

    • 9irish - Feb 13, 2012 at 7:10 PM

      “Lynch mob”….clever, I like that.

      • jerseyshorendfan1 - Feb 14, 2012 at 1:13 AM

        They might leave a lot of receivers hangin’.

  4. sullyp18 - Feb 13, 2012 at 7:29 PM

    What’s the latest on Neal? What I can gather he is a lock for UA. Anyone else have any info

    • nudeman - Feb 13, 2012 at 10:21 PM

      A mirror image of several other high profile 4 or 5 star guys who ND doesn’t get.

      – Parents are the driving force, vs the recruit actually being crazy about ND
      – In Neal’s case, South Bend is a LONGGGG way from home
      – I don’t believe there’s a single AZ player on the ND roster, so no familiar faces
      – BONUS: His former HS coach is at UA

      UA is a decent school. Not like ND but if Neal and his parents are focused on a degree and a good education, there’s nothing that says they can’t get it in Tucson.

      I recently said I thought ND was close to 50/50 on this. For the above reasons I just don’t feel that optimistic now. Probably closer to 30%. I just can’t see it.

      Hope I’m wrong and you guys set a record for thumbs down.

      • papadec - Feb 13, 2012 at 10:32 PM

        nude – the ESP was working. Your post @ 10:21 hit while I was typing mine that hit @ 10:25. You were the one person I thought might have some idea about how Davonte’s mom feels.

      • nudeman - Feb 14, 2012 at 9:02 AM

        I don’t have any insight on his mom. The word is his dad is nuts about ND

        Just guessing here, but a mom always wants her kids nearby, right?
        I’d say – completely unscientifically – that she probably prefers UA.

        Only other thing I’ve read recently is that he has a grandmother in NC, which is one of the 4 finalists. But NC for such a strong football recruit from the southwest?

        Even Grandma’s cooking can’t justify that.

    • papadec - Feb 13, 2012 at 10:25 PM

      Regarding Davonte – we know his father is high on ND. What about his mother? He is making his announcement on her birthday (FEB 21st) – that should be a big clue. I absolutely agree that defense wins championships – CFB & NFL. ND defense played much better when they pressured the QB. Going along with the D-Line pressure HAS to be DBs jamming receivers – that equates to Coverage Sacks.

      • 9irish - Feb 14, 2012 at 11:50 AM

        I agree, but two things on that. Coverage is necessary to get coverage sacks. And even if the QB is chucking the thing up to save his life, the DBs need to know where the damned ball is. I’ll also throw in that when your defense is working, don’t go fiddling with it…make them try to beat it.

  5. kgirish - Feb 13, 2012 at 7:36 PM

    Not sure what kind of defense Alabama plays…..but that’s what wins BCS championships

    • dickasman - Feb 14, 2012 at 11:50 AM

      It’s called Moneyball Defense….Best Defense money can buy.

  6. rambler09 - Feb 13, 2012 at 9:46 PM

    I really miss Blue Gray Sky. What a fantastic ND Blog. Ever since they went down yours has become my first stop, Keith.

    I think that there are a lot of things pointing towards us running more 4-3 sets in the future. First is the fact that we have a cupboard full of very talented defensive lineman as well as some incredible pass rushers at the outside linebacker position. Along the defensive line next year we will have KLM back along with Lynch, Tuitt, Nix, Day, Jones (not to mention Hounshell, Springmann, etc.). At OLB we have Shembo, Williams, and Okwara to get after the passer (as you noted, Keith). It really is incredible how much talent we have along the defensive line.

    I also think it’s worth pointing out that we didn’t take any middle linebackers this year.

    Running a 4-3 should also help us to get more pressure on the passer earlier- which will be crucial with a questionable secondary. If I wasn’t so concerned about our secondary for next year I would be absolutely thrilled with our defense’s prospects.

  7. ct111 - Feb 13, 2012 at 11:58 PM

    Nudeman was right about recruiting this year.

    • jerseyshorendfan1 - Feb 14, 2012 at 1:04 AM

      Hey Nude, don’t let this go to your head…..even a broken clock is right twice a day.

      • nudeman - Feb 14, 2012 at 8:16 PM

        From Pete Sampson, Editor of Irish Illustrated (below)

        jerseyshore, it won’t go to my head simply because I enjoy stirring it up more than the infrequent strokes
        ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
        Just got off the phone with Luke Neal, father of four-star athlete Davonte Neal.
        I’ll be putting together a full story on Neal tonight, but here are the highlights.

        Davonte Neal has made his college decision and is certain of what school he’ll sign with on Feb. 21. The decision was made on Friday and was confirmed last night. Neal has spoken to his father about his destination. Neal plans to start letting the schools know about his decision later this week and will announce it publicly next Tuesday on the 21st.

        Neal will fax his letter of intent on Feb. 21 in the mid-morning, a ceremony starting at around 9:30 a.m. at his elementary school.

        Florida tried to get into the mix in the last couple weeks, but the decision will come down to Notre Dame, Arkansas, North Carolina and Arizona.

        Notre Dame and Arizona have been taking a more measured approach since National Signing Day, letting the Neal family have space to make the decision while Arkansas and North Carolina have been more “aggressive” in their contact. That could be taken a couple different ways, but Luke Neal said one of the ways that could be taken is that Notre Dame and Arizona feel secure in their position while North Carolina and Arkansas have felt the need to make up ground.

      • nudeman - Feb 14, 2012 at 8:40 PM

        Anybody have andy44’s cell #?

      • nudeman - Feb 14, 2012 at 10:29 PM

        still waiting to hear from andy

    • andy44teg - Feb 14, 2012 at 9:59 AM

      “Greenberry: ND, no problem. Houston? In a word “no effing way” .
      Standifer: Signs with ND
      Armstead: UW. Can EE in March; they’re on a quarter system. Good riddance to his circus
      Ekanem: VA Tech. ND gave up on him
      Darby: FSU. Tweet out from Mike Farrell today that he’s eliminated ND. Told you.
      Poole: FL. Not going to decommit from his “dream school”
      Agholor: USC or FL; Since this week’s Official, no encouraging information.
      Neal: UA or ASU; Again, nothing encouraging since Official this week.”

      Yeah….Spot On!

      • nudeman - Feb 14, 2012 at 7:55 PM

        I missed on Greenberry and Standifer.
        Still don’t believe Neal is coming to SB.

        What were YOUR predictions andy?

      • nudeman - Feb 14, 2012 at 8:04 PM

        andy,
        I’ll bet you were one of those who had BOTH Armsteads fitted for his gold helmet and blue jersey.
        Probably drafted them for your fantasy linemen league
        .
        And were YOU the one guy who actually had Greenberry going to Houston?

        Still waiting for your predictions from a month back
        Tapping foot, lighting cigarette, taking sip, still tapping … got all night andy.
        Take your time

        Tick, tick, tick …..

      • andy44teg - Feb 15, 2012 at 10:01 AM

        I do….605-207-0400….sorry i didn’t get back to you right away…i don’t live on my computer…got a wife, and two kids under the age of 5, so when i get home i’ve got shit to do..plus..yesterday was, you know..kind of a woman’s holiday…judging by what time your comments were posted..it was just you and your hand last night

  8. herringbonesports - Feb 14, 2012 at 11:50 AM

    Keith makes some important points in this article that continues to emphasize the way modern football is played – that is by putting your best players on the field in the best position possible. In a modern ND revelation that meant getting the more talented DL onto the field for more snaps and limiting exposure of the middle and back end. NBC can tell us all they want that Jamoris Slaughter was “starting at Linebacker tonight” but he was playing his safety position in a better spot on the field to execute the gameplan. The more hybrids ND recruits, the more you will see the number of guys who play all over the field.

    I think youre going to see this on offense in 2012 as well. ND wasn’t a 3-4 and they weren’t a “spread” either. Alford moving to coach “RB/Slot WR” means we’re destined to more fluidity with the “athletes”, something nonexistent under Kelly so far. It might just look like an entirely different scheme than we’ve seen to this point.

    As for Nude, he posts on my site frequently and I tip my cap to his pretty prophetic recruiting takes. We all thought
    another good

  9. herringbonesports - Feb 14, 2012 at 11:54 AM

    Keith makes some important points in this article that continues to emphasize the way modern football is played – that is by putting your best players on the field in the best position possible. In a modern ND revelation that meant getting the more talented DL onto the field for more snaps and limiting exposure of the middle and back end. NBC can tell us all they want that Jamoris Slaughter was “starting at Linebacker tonight” but he was playing his safety position in a better spot on the field to execute the gameplan. The more hybrids ND recruits, the more you will see the number of guys who play all over the field.

    I think youre going to see this on offense in 2012 as well. ND wasn’t a 3-4 and they weren’t a “spread” either. Alford moving to coach “RB/Slot WR” means we’re destined to more fluidity with the “athletes”, something nonexistent under Kelly so far. It might just look like an entirely different scheme than we’ve seen to this point.

    As for Nude, he posts on my site frequently and I tip my cap to his pretty prophetic recruiting takes. We all thought another good surprise was on the way, so hoping Neal is it. (Dont pump his head up too much. It’d be nice if he layed off the letters Q-B and T-R for a bit.)

    Go Irish!

  10. ct111 - Feb 14, 2012 at 12:15 PM

    Hey Nudeman, I heard that Irish Sports Daily is hiring. You should apply haha

  11. tersignind - Feb 14, 2012 at 3:59 PM

    And the rumor mill on Neal heats up:

    Dion Caputi @nfldraftupdate Reply Retweet Favorite · Open
    I’ve been told by a source close to 4-star WR/CB Davonte Neal that the last available star player “sounds for sure” headed to #NotreDame.

    • nudeman - Feb 14, 2012 at 7:57 PM

      I hope you’re right. Or should I say I hope Dion is right.

      I still don’t believe it though

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