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Restocking: Defensive Line

Mar 5, 2013, 11:54 AM EDT

Notre Dame defensive players Tuitt, Nix III, and Te'O celebrate after breaking up a play in the fourth quarter during their win over USC in their NCAA college football game at the Coliseum in Los Angeles

Brian Kelly has instilled plenty of changes in the Notre Dame football program. But perhaps none is more surprising than the success this Irish coaching staff has had recruiting defensive linemen.

For the longest time, Irish coaches swung and missed trying to land key front-line defensive players, getting to the point where recruitniks started to resemble Ahab chasing the white whale, only to be driven mad at near misses on promising players like Omar Hunter, Gerald McCoy, Justin Trattou, and many others.

When Brian Kelly announced his plan to play a 3-4 defense, some expected the difficulty to land defensive linemen was a factor in choosing a system that only required three down linemen. But in reality, Kelly’s system has put a premium on finding bigger, stronger and more versatile linemen, raising the bar of the recruiting profile needed to succeed in his multiple front defense.

And succeed this staff has done. Kelly’s ability to quickly transform the two-deep depth chart along the front has been impressive. Let’s take a look back at how he’s done it:

Sean Cwynar — Played as a key reserve before turning down a fifth year of eligibility.
Ethan Johnson — Saw the field immediately and spent four years as a regular.
Kapron Lewis-Moore — Redshirted, then started four years at defensive end.
Brandon Newman — Reserve player for Irish, finished eligibility at Ball State.
Hafis Williams — Reserve player for Irish, started seven games for UMass this season.

Tyler Stockton — Reserve defensive lineman won’t likely see a fifth year at Notre Dame.

Kona Schwenke — Late addition to recruiting class backed up Louis Nix at DT in 2012.
Louis Nix — Chose ND during coaching transition. All-American candidate in ’13.
Justin Utupo — Mostly reserve player that’s a tough fit in current ND defensive scheme.
Bruce Heggie — Late addition to class transition from DL to OL. Now reserve center.

Brad Carrico — Switched from DE to OL before a foot injury ended his career.
Aaron Lynch — Freshman All-American before quitting team during spring drills.
Anthony Rabasa — Reserve linebacker with pass rush skills. Yet to break into rotation.
Tony Springmann — Redshirted in ’11 before playing key reserve minutes in ’12.
Stephon Tuitt — Exploded during sophomore season with 12 sacks from DE and DT.
Ishaq Williams — Versatile player saw time in both ’11 and ’12. Needs breakout ’13.

Romeo Okwara — Saw time at outside linebacker as a 17-year-old freshman in ’12.
Sheldon Day — Had an impressive season rotating along the Irish defensive line.
Jarron Jones — Saved a year of eligibility. Expected to compete at DE.

Isaac Rochell — Georgia DE had elite offers from SEC schools before choosing ND.
Eddie Vanderdoes — Heir apparent to Nix will likely contribute immediately.

Way too early spring projection

There’s no reason the Irish defensive front doesn’t take a step forward this season. Against Alabama, it was clear there was work to be done. And after a few months to get the bad taste out of their mouths, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and company will get back to work.

The battle to replace KLM won’t likely be won by one player, but expect Sheldon Day to step into the lineup immediately. Day’s impressive freshman season will be one to build on, and even though he lacks the prototype size, he’s disruptive enough to play both inside and out. It’ll also be interesting to see what Jarron Jones brings this spring, as he’s got the bulk and height Bob Diaco and Mike Elston like in their defensive linemen.

How the Irish used Ishaq Williams will be interesting. He isn’t likely to beat out Prince Shembo at Cat linebacker, but he’ll definitely be one of the Irish’s top front seven players, and a four man defensive front, with Tuitt sliding inside, could be a lot for opposing offenses to handle.


  1. whisk3yjack - Mar 5, 2013 at 12:58 PM

    You forgot Matuska, Keith.

    • dudeacow - Mar 5, 2013 at 1:39 PM

      Keith may have been thinking of Matuska as a TE. However, the coaches really like him as a DE.

  2. dudeacow - Mar 5, 2013 at 1:51 PM

    I am REALLY excited for this position. Tuitt and Nix are probable top-5 draft picks, with one of them possibly being taken at no. 1 depending on Clowney’s year. But at the other side, we have a) Sheldon Day, former 5 star recruit that recorded 2 sacks his freshman year. Last ND frosh to do that? No one special, just Stephon Tuitt. b) Jarron Jones, who Kelly was raving about because he was unblockable during practice, is tall and can jump so was blocking passes and will block a FG or two this year. c) Ishaq Williams, who I hope moves to his more natural DE position and lets Jaylon take his OLB spot. Ishaq showed flashes of brilliance last year, but was way too inconsistent. If he can lock down his consistency, the starting spot is his. d) Eddie Vanderdoes, who I am so excited about. He’s Nix/Lynch 2.0. I’m not sure if he’ll switch to DE or not, but there is a reason he is the no. 6 player in the nation.

  3. irishgabe - Mar 5, 2013 at 1:59 PM

    Chase Hounshell could also be a solid back-up player (if healthy).

  4. bernhtp - Mar 5, 2013 at 2:17 PM

    I’m worried about replacing KLM, even by multiple players. Kap was a fifth-year player with a real man’s body that was a significant contributor to the great defense the Irish had last year. Day is a good player as a fill-in, but don’t expect him to be anywhere near Kap’s level as a sophomore. While Jarron Jones is apparently talented, he also is very young. Ditto for the prodigious Vanderdoes. Maybe having Ishaq in the DE mix makes sense given that he played the position in HS and has the physical profile (assuming he keeps on putting on weight).

    Replacing Kap and Manti will be the big challenges for the D. Neither will be easy and I hope platooning the younger/developing talent will be enough. An improved/developed OLB and DB corps will help alleviate some of the pressure.

    BTW, everyone seems to be assuming that this is Tuitt’s last year. I give at least a 50-50 that he will stay another to graduate ala Floyd, Te’o and Eifert. However, Kap’s injury will weigh on those with an early opportunity for the big payday.

  5. mediocrebob - Mar 5, 2013 at 2:56 PM

    Matuska is being overlooked by pretty much everybody. Living in Columbus, I was able to watch the young man a few times ( bball and football). Underrated athlete. Has a mean streak. Doesn’t quite fit the mold of a TE at ND though.

    I too would like to see Ishaq with his hand in the ground a little more but I think BD and BK will have a good plan for him.

    Day was impressive. And Springman held his own as well. A lot of big bodies that have gotten some experience. I feel pretty good about the next few seasons up front. It would be great if Tuitt came back for his last season as well. Only time will tell. Go Irish

  6. gmenfan1982 - Mar 5, 2013 at 10:13 PM

    I can’t wait to see what this season holds with all these top recruits in the fold. But I gotta say, sure is going to be weird and a bit sad not seeing Manti Te’o out there.

  7. 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 6, 2013 at 10:14 AM

    They definitely have the horses for a great year. I’m looking for Diaco to get in the lads’ heads and get them playing angry, like some of the classic ND defenses of yore. Not dirty, just angry. BC should sit them down and show them some clips of Ned Bolcar, Jim Flanigan and Zibby and talk about playing through the echo of the whistle. Last year, the defense was a very pleasant surprise, and I can’t argue with the success of the bend-but-don’t-break approach. This year, I want to see a defensive unit that has swagger and that looks across the line and knows its going to win the individual match ups. Say what you want about Calabrese being too slow and bad in coverage, but the guy plays with a mean-on, like the ballcarrier was the bully who used to steal his lunch money. This is the kind of meanness that has been missing for some time.

    • dudeacow - Mar 6, 2013 at 12:52 PM

      I agree, swag and confidence is almost as important as talent. You know all of the Alabama SWAG shirts? Well, the Alabama players believe it. Even when they were coming out of the tunnel you could tell that they knew they were going to win. ND looked intimidated. We’re getting there, though.

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 6, 2013 at 3:32 PM

        There is that saying “Act as if…” Just about all year long, Alabama was acting as if they already were nat’l champions (and so was Oregon for that matter), and most of the year ND looked like it was just ecstatic to be in close games, and especially so to win those games.

        I’ve said it before, and here it is again, when a guy makes a big play and just gets up and goes back to the huddle, that is what scares opponents. A guy gets a sack, makes a pick or even hauls in a long pass or a long run, and just reacts like it was no big deal because it was a play he knew he was going to make all along, rather than jumping around like a yahoo and making it look like he was surprised to make the play. A playmaker who is blase about a big play is terrifying to opponents because it says “i am ready to do my job. i can do it. i know going to do it and you know that i’m going to do it too, so let’s get on with it.”

      • irish4006 - Mar 6, 2013 at 6:08 PM

        Very good point, 4horsemen, but it is not just about acting. When you have the confidence that you can do what you just did over and over and over, it is only then you are not surprised and go about your business casually.

        It is easy for some teams more than some other to build that level of confidence. When you are going up against top competition even in practice day in and day out (can only happen if you are pitting your best guys on a loaded team against each other every now and then), you already kind of know your limit. With the depth ND is building all around, I believe we will be there sooner rather than later.

  8. irish13pa - Mar 6, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    Lets hope Diaco is better at adjusting during the game this year. I personally think he does not blitz enough. With the talent ND’s defence had last year and will have again this year, I hope he becomes the most aggressive def cordinator in college football. This defensive line will be solid, but if you only send those 3 or 4, the opposing QB will have way too much time… and we all know what happens then. Blitz Blitz and Blitz some more Mr. Diaco.
    Go Irish

    • dudeacow - Mar 6, 2013 at 12:53 PM

      That is the one thing I don’t like about Diaco. You have plenty of pass rushing talent in the LB corps! Use it! But I guess I can’t complain about the no. 2 scoring defense.

  9. irish13pa - Mar 6, 2013 at 2:09 PM

    I agree Dude, it is hard to complain about the #2 scoring defense. Still trying to drag my brain out of the Charlie Weiss style of play…. “lets out score everyone… then only need an average defense”

  10. 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 6, 2013 at 3:04 PM

    From what I’ve heard and read, Diaco’s rare use of blitzes was due in large part to some of the front seven’s strengths and also the anemic offense. Put differently, Diaco and BK knew the offense wasn’t going to hang up 30 per game, and that if the defense gave up points, it would have to be from long, sustained, clock-eating drives. Not all offenses can string 8-10 play drives together without a penalty or turnover, so Diaco begged teams to beat him with long drives, rather than give them lots of chances to make big plays on man-to-man coverage where they blitzed. It was frustrating to watch, but you can’t argue (too much) with the outcomes.

    That being said, with a more productive offense (which is my prediction), a more experienced secondary (better able to pick up slack on blitzes and prevent the big-gain play) and a front seven that is as good (or better as I predict) than last year’s, blitzes will be easier and less dangerous for Diaco to run, and could even be a way to hide some of the vulnerability at middle linebacker, and you just know Diaco has some exotic blitz packages in his arsenal. Maybe even throw in some real funky stuff, like having down linemen drop in coverage, while turning loose a linebacker two, it could be a fun defense to watch.

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