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Even with Tuitt gone, Notre Dame defense can evolve and improve

Jan 6, 2014, 4:13 PM EDT

Tuitt Nix

Stephon Tuitt is gone. With the siren song of the NFL, and the ability to provide for his family and play football at the game’s highest level, too alluring to turn away. Tuitt will go early in the NFL Draft. How early? That likely depends on the work Tuitt does between now and the NFL Scouting Combine, where the 6-foot-6, 322-pound physical specimen will have the opportunity to show off his natural talents for all 32 teams to see.

Notre Dame is likely to produce two first round defensive linemen, something unheard of in South Bend. The only tragedy in all of it is the lack of production the Irish got out of Tuitt and Louis Nix in 2013, with Tuitt hampered throughout the beginning of the season and Nix lost for most of the end.

It’ll be a fresh start on defense. The architect of the past four units is gone, with Bob Diaco now leading the UConn football program. And while Brian VanGorder‘s job isn’t yet official, perhaps his time in South Bend comes at the perfect moment, as this is a group that’s going to need a fresh start.

Notre Dame headed to Camp Shiloh to open 2013 looking for a fresh start. Heading into spring practice, they’ll certainly have one. Of the team’s starting front seven, only defensive end Sheldon Day remains. Yet things are hardly as dire as that statement might seem.

The Irish have recruited well along the defensive front, in preparation for the departure of Nix and Tuitt. While they haven’t found a true nose guard (the closest thing they had wanted to stay closer to his grandma), they’ve added a multitude of bodies that can get the job done.

As difficult as it might be to replace Tuitt and Nix’s talent, it might not be as hard to replace their production. After putting up 12 sacks as a sophomore, Tuitt dropped to 7.5 this season, with 1.5 coming against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl. Nix’s numbers were fairly pedestrian as well, with the nose guard’s eight game totals checking in at a shade over three tackles a game. 

In addition to personnel changes, there are likely schematic tweaks in store. We shouldn’t expect to see Brian Kelly do a 180 in his core defensive philosophies, but bringing in VanGorder signals a different direction after Diaco’s emphasis on core competency and conservative play. With an offense that’ll likely be more explosive next season, expect a defense that’s willing to be more aggressive. How that plays into personnel on the field will be one of the fun reveals of spring practice.

Here’s what we (think we) know:

The cupboard isn’t completely bare at nose guard. We saw Jarron Jones step to the forefront during the season’s final month. Lost at defensive end, the jumbo sized Jones found comfort over the nose, his job simplified as he lined up over the football. 

Joining him there should be Tony Springmann. An ACL tear and infection during the healing process slowed down his timeline, but Springmann should be a more than competent player. Let’s set the floor at a more productive Kona Schwenke.

If the Irish shift to a four-man front, sliding Day inside could be a legitimate option. At 6-foot-2, 290, Day has the type of size Trevor Laws or Ian Williams had, and earns rave reviews for his block destruction talents. In VanGorder’s attacking defensive front, Day could be the type of guy that wreaks havoc on the interior, playing more of an Aaron Donald role than the two-gapping block-eater that Nix mastered.

Of course, Day’s shift inside would open up another defensive end job. Does that mean Ishaq Williams slides down and plays there? Or does the staff believe Isaac Rochell can do the job? While he looked like a numbers crunch, perhaps VanGorder can get something out of Justin Utupo, a man without a position in Diaco’s system. Chase Hounshell has an open path to the starting lineup if his balky shoulders let him stay healthy.

At linebacker, things look promising. Jarrett Grace needs to keep rehabbing after breaking his leg against Arizona State, to anchor the inside linebackers. His progress won’t truly be known until August. But Jaylon Smith is a star in the making, with the outside linebacker perhaps one of the biggest beneficiaries of a system change. Guys like Kendall Moore and Joe Schmidt will battle Michael Deeb for reps, while outside backers like Williams, Romeo Okwara and Anthony Rabasa have the first shot at the Cat linebacker job before the freshmen enroll.

If there’s a wild card in all of this it’s the incoming freshman. The Irish will welcome 10 players into the front seven, with an interesting mix of hybrid players, high upside developmental projects and athletes that should immediately infuse speed into the defense.

Up front, any one of Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, Jonathan Bonner or Matt Dickerson could see the field. Likewise, we won’t know where guys like Grant Blankenship or Jhonathon Williams play until they get to campus. Nyles Morgan and Richard Yeargin certainly looked the part at the Army All-American Bowl. But there’s also a reason why Greer Martini was one of the Irish coaching staff’s first inside linebacker targets. Add in intriguing athletes like Kolin Hill and Nile Sykes and the possibilities are endless.

Perhaps that’s what makes the next few months so exciting. After feeling like the deck was stacked against Notre Dame for much of 2013, there’s reason for guarded optimism. Brian Kelly will need to replace key contributors on both sides of the ball, but has a depth chart stacked with hand picked recruits to fill their shoes.

Saying goodbye isn’t always easy. Especially to defensive linemen like Nix and Tuitt. But as the Irish coaching staff moves forward replacing two coordinators, the team on the field will replace leaders and contributors. There was a time when Louis Nix was an unknown quantity, just working his way into shape so he could see the field. Before Stephon Tuitt was being compared to Bain, he was just another freshman doing his best to get on the field.

The pieces, while certainly unproven, appear to be there. Now it’s time for the defense to evolve, pushing a new fleet of contributors to the forefront.

The time for rebuilding is over. After four seasons, we’ll see if the Irish defense can reload.

132 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. rdw71 - Jan 7, 2014 at 6:35 PM

    While we are waiting for Keith to give us something better than Willingham and Hargis to chew on, I came across a post that said Blake Barnett had been named the MVP of California’s Elite 11 regional event and would be going to the finals. Got me wondering about a previous comment made here about DeShone Kizer by a guy who played against him in HS. I thought I remembered that he also got invited to the finals, and that is indeed true, although he didn’t make the final “Elite 11″ list. Golson and Zaire were in the Elite 11 for their years, as were Crist and Zach Frazier: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ESPN_RISE_Elite_11

    So on the one hand it seems a lot of people liked Kizer’s potential: http://www.uhnd.com/articles/recruiting/deshone-kizer-elite-11-finals-14495/ but on the other hand, when you look at the list from previous years, you get a lot of both hits and misses. So he could win the Heisman or he could, as our colleague suggested, never play a down. What seems clear is that Kelly has now built a nucleus of QBs who have high potential and when you get three or four of those guys on the roster, the odds that at least one wlil be really good is pretty high. And yeah, the odds that at least one will pull a Frazier/Crist/Gunner/Hendrix and head to a MAC school are pretty high, too.

    • wisner74 - Jan 7, 2014 at 7:16 PM

      I agree with that.

      But after I decided many years ago to actually pay attention one year to how many of these high school hot-shots panned out at ND (one or two of you may recall my reference to LB Carlos Pierre Antoine several days ago — that was the recruiting class I watched closely), I have decided that for the most part it is not worth the time and effort.

      Sure, we all want ND to bring in a highly-rated class every year, but to try to decipher whether an in-coming Steve Filer was going to be a more productive player than an in-coming Darius Fleming (both LB prospects out of the Chicago Catholic League a few years ago) is kind of a waste of time. Tom Lemming once said that Filer, who was the more well-regarded as a HS player, was a someone that ND had to get, but we all know which one turned out to be the better player.

      • nudeman - Jan 7, 2014 at 8:34 PM

        Agree there, wisner

        It’s a little hard not to follow it at least to some degree, but the time and energy that is put into arguing over # of stars, Rivals rankings, overall team rankings, etc is just ludicrous. I always want to see ND have a good class, don’t get me wrong. But beyond that, it’s meaningless when looked at it at the granular level some geeks take it to.

        I’d love to see an analysis of – for example – all the 4 and 5 star guys from 4 years ago and see how many actually panned out. Probably not what one would expect.

      • irishpuma - Jan 7, 2014 at 10:34 PM

        I agree you two but I am still addicted to knowing who is joining the family and what skillset they bring. I have nothing else to do until September. That said I still get excited for the 5 star almost never misses such as Manti, jimmy, Jaylon etc Legit athletes are Legit athletes. But I agree the 3 star 4 star is a crap shoot, roll of the dice just like drinking anything dickasman gives you. You never know you could be fine or you could wake up in a bathtub full of ice missing a kidney.

      • getsome99 - Jan 7, 2014 at 11:44 PM

        Take a look at our recruiting class from 2012. You will be shockingly underwhelmed although 2 years ago you probably felt pretty good about it. There are still a handful of good players contributing from that class but the Top 3 are all gone. A lot riding on these ’13 and ’14 classes.

      • nudeman - Jan 8, 2014 at 11:06 AM

        irishpuma
        Same boat, dude.
        But gotta’ bust your chops: “I have nothing to do until September”??
        Whoa … disagree
        1) There’s always your favorite pub
        2) Pitchers and catchers report in just a few weeks
        3) This polar vortex thing has us all transfixed; not you?
        4) Playboy has a new issue out every month
        5) There will be Sandra Bullock, probably commando, at the Oscars
        6) See #1
        7) You’re not into the Pro Bowl? 8) Endless threads coming when Lynch slips to the 6th round
        9) There’s gotta’ be another gov’t shutdown coming at some point
        10) Spring Ball, BABY.

      • irishpuma - Jan 9, 2014 at 2:18 AM

        Touche Nudie!! I was waiting for someone to break me off on that.

        Recap
        1) Pub is out, was more of a clubber in my day and don’t drink much as I have the recessive fat guy gene. Ok before I get crushed for this one i preferred to drink while watching scantily clad girls grind on each other and occasionally me over watching a bunch of white guys argue and play darts. Dickasman feels me on this one.
        2)38 days I think til pitchers and catchers huge baseball fan and I still play so I actually started loosening up today
        3)Normally I would be all over the polar vortex but now live in Cali so your weather is quite inconsequential to me….and we are so far removed I thought is was just some sort of midwest brain issue.
        4) Playboy online what do you think I have open in the other tab and I type one handed.
        5)Saw Sandy B tonight at the globes, holding it down for a lady of her age
        6)Ok no pub because I drink myself to sleep at night trying to forget the Rees years
        7)I am on pins and needles waiting for Rice and Prime time to draft their pro bowl teams and ND keeps me distracted from worrying about their selections.
        8)Lynch………bastardo…I would like to know if the girl he ran home for is still in the picture….
        9)I hope not they pay my check
        10) Blue and Gold forever!!!

  2. paulhargis53 - Jan 7, 2014 at 7:08 PM

    Damn the torpedoes? Eh, not much of a Tom Petty fan.

    I don’t care about your wizard the oz reference, its just that you repeatedly use it when it wasn’t funny the first time you used it.

    Bob is posting less and less. That was a goal of mine. He’s a loser and so are you for defending him.

    • wisner74 - Jan 7, 2014 at 7:18 PM

      Losing steam Paulie. Time to move onto the Ohio State site.

    • 1historian - Jan 7, 2014 at 8:04 PM

      You seem to be doing a ‘Benjamin Button’ thing – the more you post the younger you sound, IOW they used to have a certain sophistication, now they’re sounding more than a little sophomoric.

      Maybe you and Dick ought to take a little vacation together.

      Send us a card

      not

  3. wisner74 - Jan 7, 2014 at 7:25 PM

    ND finishes 20th in the AP poll. Not bad, not bad at all, given all of the adversity that this squad faced.

    • irishpuma - Jan 7, 2014 at 10:36 PM

      Disagree 20th is pretty mediocre for ND coming off a BCS NC appearance….I know injuries, Reesus, etc but we really only had 2 losable games on the sched.

  4. 1historian - Jan 7, 2014 at 8:01 PM

    The way I see it next season there will be 4 QBs – the starter, the backup, a preferred walk-on and a redshirt.

    We’ll see how that turns out.

    • mediocrebob - Jan 7, 2014 at 8:12 PM

      They’ll be 4 scholarship qbs in 2 years. Which I though BK was trying to avoid. Maybe he’s counting on a transfer?

      Golson- sr
      Zaire- RS jr
      Kizer- soph (RS?)
      Barnett- frosh

      • heartofgoldandblue - Jan 7, 2014 at 8:37 PM

        I think he wants to avoid four if one of them is Hendrix…those guys are all worth having on the roster especially with one being a senior

      • nudeman - Jan 7, 2014 at 9:46 PM

        Big difference
        His 4 scholarship QBs when he made that statement included Nate Montana, Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix

      • mediocrebob - Jan 7, 2014 at 10:13 PM

        He made that comment this season

      • dsharp86 - Jan 8, 2014 at 11:58 AM

        It was this season, plus Nate Montana was never on scholarship at Notre Dame.

  5. paulhargis53 - Jan 7, 2014 at 8:33 PM

    Again, I’m here for my amusement only. Whether any of you are does not factor into it.

    Fact of the matter is, some of you are still responding. It always amazes me that certain members of a group of people, think they can “shame” a troll into leaving.

    You know what I’m doing here. Why can’t you bring yourself to stop?

    I know Wisner will contine to post to me, I got a feeling he responds to the “Dear Resident” mail delivered by the USPS.

    • wisner74 - Jan 7, 2014 at 9:46 PM

      Move along, Paulie.

    • irishpuma - Jan 7, 2014 at 11:01 PM

      that was good….Wisner you know you totally do that. It might go something like this…

      I know I am not addressed by name in this correspondence, however, I am the current resident and I would like to discuss your offer of free solar power, however, I am not sure solar power is a viable form of alternative energy. If you could perhaps send me the science behind this new technology I could slap my abacus and slide rule on it to kick the tires then I would welcome you over to discuss the potential of your emerging fuel source over tea. It would help if I knew a celebrity and visionary endorsed your solar products. Perhaps does a star athlete back your product such as one
      Tommy Rees? Yes he doe. Sold I will accept your fine offer. Does it matter that I don’t use electricity. I use whale blubber and oils for illumination and fires for a heat source…

  6. ndfenian - Jan 8, 2014 at 1:20 AM

    Who do you all think from the 2013 class is most likely to make a big impact on defense next year? I know it was a top ten class with some great prospects on defense, but besides Jaylon, I haven’t analyzed it too much.

    What about the less strong 2012 class? I think this program needs Jarron Jones to step up if next year is to be a shot at the playoffs. Can Shumate take the next step? Barrati?

    I think Springmann was 2011 class, but I was very disappointed when he got injured in training camp. I really liked what I saw from him in 2012. Do you all think he can be a big-time lineman?

    • mediocrebob - Jan 8, 2014 at 7:54 AM

      First of all, “making the playoffs” just sounds awesome. I’m very excited to move past the BCS era. I see this evolving at some point to maybe 8 teams, but that’s for another day.

      I think someone from last years class that not many people are talking about is Rochell. He was a big get that wasn’t really celebrated bc of the kids nature. He’s a quite guy from what I’ve read, and his recruitment was quiet as well. Big steal from the state of Georgia.

      Springman and Jones are going to need to take the next step for this defense. Whether they’re in a 40 or 30 look. They’ve both shown promise. Hounshell will be key as well. Not many talk about him, but BK and staff stole him from the likes of Florida I believe. If he can stay healthy, that’s another able body up front.

      Lastly, I’m wondering if we see a lot more of I. Williams with his hand in the dirt. I think that’s where he’s comfortable. This team is not without talent up front. Just not proven talent yet.

      • nudeman - Jan 8, 2014 at 9:27 AM

        First, I still do not understand the antipathy toward the BCS. Absolutely every year they got it right in terms of 1 playing against 2. What else matters? Does anyone really care who is rated 3, 4 and 5? Next year there will be a 4 game playoff which will be great TV and fabulous money. So what. Get ready for an immense amount of bitching about the 5, 6, and 7 rated teams that they should have been in there.

        On next year, the guy with the best shot at an impact is IMO Morgan, primarily because ND is so thin at ILB, and his reviews are tremendous. I’d also say the same about Deeb. Sorry, but I don’t have much faith in Ishaq suddenly blossoming at either position. As far as a DE, he only weighs 265 or so and that type of frame doesn’t do well against 320 lb OTs. At this point the best we can hope for is just a functional season from him and probably at OLB.

      • irishpuma - Jan 9, 2014 at 2:24 AM

        Nude agree again this is getting scary…..BCS was fantastic just everyone loved to bitch sure beats the ap poll jobs we took in the 90′s. Did anyone watch the BCS bowl games this year? Every game was a last second nail biter and in my mind it kept the dignity of the bowl games in tact. Can’t wait to watch 3 sec teams play for the third time against each other in the playoffs and FSU.

        I am excited about Morgan as well but wait a second I thought you do not partake in recruit hype and speculation lol……you know I could not let that go.

  7. mediocrebob - Jan 8, 2014 at 10:23 AM

    I didn’t hate the BCS. Just excited about the playoff format. Like I said, I think it will eventually be an 8 team playoff. Top 8 teams makes sense to me.

    Williams could most certainly be a DE , especially when they play in a 4 man front. I’m not ready to throw the towel in on him quite yet.

    • nudeman - Jan 8, 2014 at 10:37 AM

      This idea of Ishaq as a DE has come up every year.
      Last year I remember Tim Prister at Irish Illustrated writing about it and saying that in the spring he couldn’t handle the 320 LB tackles; couldn’t get off the blocks.

      Maybe knowing he has only one more year to make it happen will inspire him. There’s also another possibility too: Maybe he just doesn’t love football. I say that without a hint of criticism, as I’d bet there a lot of guys who play college ball, even some very good ones, whose passion lies elsewhere. Maybe that’s Ishaq. Not a crime at all.

      As far as a 3-4 vs 4-3, I’ve read that Diaco actually played nearly 50% of the snaps as a 4-3 and the 3-4 is just the base defense. But if they’re going to put Ishaq at DE, he’s gonna’ need to put on about 15-20 lbs, unless they just want to bring him in to rush the passer.

      • mediocrebob - Jan 8, 2014 at 11:39 AM

        I feel like the staff must see something in him to continue to give him chances. Never know if it’ll start to click. If not, he’ll have a degree from notre dame. Not too bad.

      • nudeman - Jan 8, 2014 at 12:01 PM

        Well what are they gonna’ do? Cut him?

        He’s at least better than the next guy so he’s starting.
        And although there’s a temptation to label him “total bust”, that’s probably not fair.
        He’s started on/off for 2 years; he’s made a play here and there
        He just hasn’t been the huge impact, 15 sack/year, Clowney-esque guy we hoped for

        Whatever

    • irishpuma - Jan 9, 2014 at 2:26 AM

      I like 8 teams as well Bob but then we are talking about 14 or 15 game season….a little much already I think.

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