As the Irish prepare to shift philosophies back to a 3-4 defense, no position seems better equipped for the change than the defensive line. With Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ian Williams, and Ethan Johnson, the Irish have three returning starters that played significant minutes, and also fit the physical dimensions needed to play in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s system. With Lewis-Moore and Johnson in their third year of college football and Williams entering his senior year, all three will have had sufficient developmental time physically to make a difference.
More interestingly, defensive line coach Mike Elston will also have a few more weapons at his disposal than any other position coach. Players like Darius Fleming may not be a perfect fit, but he has a skill-set that could greatly benefit the defense if used properly. The change in system could also help a guy like Kerry Neal, who has yet to reach the potential many believe he has.
Returning starters doesn’t necessarily correlate with results, and after last season’s disappointing play in the secondary, nobody can be sure what the widespread system change and returning minutes will bring. Let’s take a closer look at who’s moving on, who’s staying put, and more importantly, who’s stepping up.
The majority of minutes lost by the defensive line come with the departure of defensive end John Ryan. Ryan logged the fifth most minutes of any defensive lineman, so it isn’t a devastating loss by any stretch of the imagination. The St. Ignatius graduate never truly fit into the Irish defensive system, lacking the explosiveness to be an effective 4-3 edge rusher and lacking the mass to play a 3-4 defensive end. Ryan saw the field as a wet-behind-the-ears freshman, logging 36 minutes of playing time and costing himself a much needed redshirt year of development. Morrice Richardson also graduates after playing only eight minutes this season, four years after stepping onto campus as a highly sought-after recruit.
The Irish defense returns more starters than positions. The key will be finding a role for all of them. Inside, the Irish can rely on Ian Williams to anchor the 3-4. Williams has the size and frame necessary to play the nose, and for the Irish front to be better than average, will need Williams to make “the leap” during his final season with the Irish. The future is also now for junior Ethan Johnson. Johnson was an all-everything recruit for Charlie Weis, but has yet to truly be the difference maker colleges all across the country throught he’d become. Johnson never truly fit as an interior defensive lineman, but also lacked the quickness off the edge, so the transition to the 3-4, along with nine months in Paul Longo’s strength program, should have him ready to make good on his potential. Kapron Lewis-Moore also returns for a second season starting at defensive end. KLM surprised people when he went from a redshirt season to the starting lineup, but the previous coaching staff properly identified Lewis-Moore as a guy with a very high ceiling, and he’ll only get better with experience. Darius Fleming also returns as a starter without a position. It’ll be interesting to see what Elston, Diaco and Kelly chose to do with Fleming, who might be the best pure pass-rusher on the team, but also lacks the size of a prototype defensive end or outside linebacker in the new defensive system.
Competition is going to be steep this fall for the defensive front, as only Ian Williams has truly solidified himself as an unquestionable starter among the returning players. Johnson has little in terms of production on Sean Cwynar, who impressed as an undersized 4-3 defensive tackle with his ability to disrupt. On the other side, the choice between Lewis-Moore or Fleming could all come down to individual game plans. Either way, with the new coaching staff’s offensive philosophy of throwing the time-of-possession battle out the window, the Irish will need to develop depth at every spot along the front-line. Here are a few guys that need to make a move this Spring:
The Entire First String: Yeah, it’s a cop-out, but each one of these guys needs to take things to the next level. Williams needs to play to the potential he showed as a scrappy, underdeveloped freshman. Johnson needs to show everyone why he was the most coveted recruit on the West Coast. He disappeared far too often last season. Lewis-Moore needs to take his impressive physical presence and turn it into some impressive on-field production. Darius Fleming has to prove to the coaching staff that he’s too dangerous of a player to keep off the field.
Kerry Neal: Neal was identified early by Bill Lewis and the former coaching staff as a guy that would develop into an elite prospect, and once the recruiting process was over, the staffs at Alabama, Miami, and a ton of other big time schools agreed. Neal played in every game during his freshman year, getting thrown into the fire immediately. With two sacks or less in his first three seasons, Neal hasn’t developed into the threat off the edge that many hoped, but watching him play this season, there were still flashes of the player many hope will develop in this new scheme. It’s up to Neal to make his senior season count.
Tyler Stockton: While Stockton redshirted during his freshman season, expect him to get every chance to get in the rotation with Williams at defensive tackle. People forget just how promising of a prospect this guy was; ESPN had him rated as the third best defensive tackle in the country. We many not know much about Stockton now, but expect to hear a lot from him this season.
Dark Horses: By the end of the season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sean Cwynar in the starting lineup. Brian Kelly recruited Brandon Newman while he was at Cincinnati, so he likely sees promise in the defensive tackle prospect as well. Hafis Williams could also be a guy that get in the rotation. With the lack of depth at defensive end, expect a guy like Justin Utupo or Kona Schwenke to get a chance to see the field as a freshman.