Apr 26, 2012, 3:26 PM EDT
Two guys expected to push their way into the starting defensive lineup instead pushed their way out of town. With Aaron Lynch and Tee Shepard both leaving the Irish football team before spring practice concluded, Notre Dame will have to win with the players they have on the roster, and see if any incoming freshmen have the ability to come in this June and fight their way onto the field.
After watching the positional battles play out during 15 spring practices, here’s the way too early defensive depth chart, heading into unofficial workouts.
The loss of Lynch will certainly sting, but there’s plenty of depth here and it’s not like the Irish will be piecing things together. Rarely does a four-year starter get overlooked, but expect Kapron Lewis-Moore to step his game up during his final season in South Bend, and hold down one defensive end spot. Stephon Tuitt, who had a promising freshman season held back by some early immaturity and then a bout with mono, looks like a future star across from him.
The talk of spring practice was Kona Schwenke. Named the most improved defensive player of the spring, Schwenke pushed Louis Nix at nose guard, running with the first team while Nix battled his fitness and the coaching staff motivated him.
With Chase Hounshell limited and Tony Springmann out for the spring, early-enrollee Sheldon Day impressed during his first work with the team. If the season started tomorrow, Day would likely be in the rotation, though that might not be the case next fall. Tyler Stockton, undersized for the Irish system, but an effort player during spring drills, will also try to work his way into the rotation.
Early projections for opening day:
Thoughts: Dropping Nix back to the second-team was motivation 101 for a defensive tackle that looked to add a few unwanted pounds in the months between the season and spring ball. While the pass rush undoubtedly is hurt with the loss of Lynch, the Irish still feel like the front seven of this team is its strength, and it’ll be interesting to see the step forward made by guys like Hounshell, who played last year, and Springmann, who didn’t, but has a ton of promise.
This group is the strength of the defense. Headlined by All-American candidate Manti Te’o, who took off 10 pounds in the offseason and looks better than ever, there’s a ton of versatile talent across the line. While Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese split time next to Te’o last season, expect to hear from guys like Jarrett Grace and Kendall Moore. Both Anthony Rabasa and Justin Utupo impressed during spring drills, and walk-on Joe Schmidt is a guy that’s going to help the team win as well.
On the outside, Prince Shembo suffered a turf toe injury that required surgery. The injury pushed Ishaq Williams to the forefront, and the rising sophomore took command of the position. Danny Spond and Ben Councell will battle for the dog linebacker job, with Councell looking to gain the edge by the end of spring practice. There’s not a ton of depth here, especially with Troy Niklas switching to tight end, though Romeo Okwara will enter the outside linebacking group come summer.
Early projections for opening day:
Prince Shembo, OLB
Manti Te’o, ILB
Dan Fox, ILB
Ben Councell, OLB
Thoughts: I think Williams and Shembo will be on the field together plenty, so saying Prince beats out Ishaq for the job isn’t truly reality. Last season, we saw Fox and Calabrese split time and they’ll likely do the same again this year, with Jarrett Grace fighting to get in the mix as well. You can’t call the season Manti Te’o put together last year disappointing, but I expect to see a man on fire next season. Visibly lighter and moving quicker, he’ll be among the best defenders in college football. I also think the future behind him is bright with Kendall Moore. All he seems to do is make plays when given the chance. The dog linebacker position is one to watch. Ben Councell’s physicality was impressive, but he’ll be taking his first real snaps next season. The strengths of this defense could put the unit in more three-linebacker sets, with Shembo putting a hand on the ground in pass rushing situations.
This might as well be an open casting call, after regulars Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray depart after holding down jobs for multiple seasons. There’s no question that cornerback is a question mark on this roster. But don’t think Bennett Jackson is part of that conversation. Privately, the coaching staff thinks they might have a first round talent playing the boundary corner, where Jackson’s size, physicality and speed make an intriguing player.
Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson will likely battle for the field corner job. The winner will be the guy who can do the least wrong, as nobody wants to field a defense that gives up the play over the top. Wood doesn’t have the upside of Atkinson, but he’s put in workmanlike hours, and if he keeps things in front of him, he’ll be okay. Jalen Brown looks the part of a starting cornerback, but he’s got to do a better job covering receivers if the staff is going to feel like they can count on him. (When the UND.com videos even show you getting beat, that’s not good…) New addition to the mix Cam McDaniel proved to the staff that he’s a good football player, moving to corner after Tee Shepard left South Bend, and impressing with his ability to get up to speed.
At safety, the staff feels good about Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta and Austin Collinsworth. Slaughter has the ability to make “the leap” this year, building on a season that saw him turn into one of the Irish’s true impact defenders. It’s also the end of the road for Motta, who certainly passes the eyeball test as an athlete and safety. Former walk-on Chris Salvi was brought back on scholarship and will headline the special teams, and Matthias Farley and Eilar Hardy found their footing this spring. The Irish will also welcome reinforcements this summer with Nick Baratti, CJ Prosise, Elijah Shumate, and John Turner. (Thanks to the readers that reminded me that Chris Badger will return to the Irish after missing two years after his Mormon Mission. Depth chart adjusted)
Early projections for opening day:
Thoughts: We’ll likely see a lot of the top six guys in the secondary, and it’ll be up to Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott to get the guys up to speed. This defense will be as good as the secondary lets them be, and Elliott has made a great impact wherever he’s been. You’ve got to wonder if any of the safeties recruited can slide into the cornerback mix. My guess? CJ Prosise will get a chance, which helps explain why we’ve heard some rumblings about Prosise trying to cut weight.
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