Defense could go from liability to asset

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While the recruiting madness has taken over the minds of most college football fans, many wonder if the relatively thin defensive recruiting classes of the past two seasons in the defensive front-seven will come back to haunt the Irish.

If we look back to the heralded 2006 recruiting class, it was Weis’ inability to get a single difference maker along the front seven that ultimately derailed the 2009 Fighting Irish football team. Now, with the 2009 class only bringing in five defensive players and the 2010 class currently listing Prince Shembo and Kendall Moore at linebacker, Justin Utupo at defensive end, and Louis Nix at defensive tackle, the depth chart could start to get perilously thin, especially with a coaching transition usually leading to a few defections after a new staff’s first season.

But before people get concerned, the 2010 edition of Fighting Irish football could be the best defensive unit the Irish put together since Tyrone Willingham’s first season in South Bend. Many of the players that Charlie Weis and staff recruited when building their 3-4 personnel scheme will be upperclassmen and experienced.

In the front-seven alone, the Irish will return the following players with their football eligibility:

DT:       Ian Williams, Sr.
            Brandon Newman, Soph.
            Hafis Williams, Soph.
            Tyler Stockton, Fr.*
            Louis Nix, Fr.

DE:      Kerry Neal, Sr.
            Ethan Johnson, Jr.
            Emeka Nwankwo, Jr.
            Kapron Lewis-Moore, Soph.
            Sean Cwynar, Soph.
            Justin Utupo, Fr.

OLB:    Brian Smith, Sr.
            Steve Filer, Jr.
            Harrison Smith, Jr.
            Darius Fleming, Jr.
            Dan Fox, Soph.
            Zeke Motta, Soph.
            Kendall Moore, Fr.
            Prince Shembo, Fr.

ILB:     Manti Te’o, Soph.
           David Pozluzny, Soph.
           Anthony McDonald, Soph.
           Carlo Calabrese, Fr.*

At first glance, you have to think that Kelly will give Brian Smith every opportunity to win a starting inside-linebacker job, as the lack of veteran depth in the middle is pretty startling, and a good reason why preserving a freshman linebacker’s eligibility instead of using him on special teams isn’t such a bad idea.

(More on this thought later in the week…)

Still, Smith’s struggles in the middle this year, along with Manti Te’o’s ability to play in space put a lot of pressure on the interior of this 3-4 defense this season. While Smith seems to be an easy target for some of the deficiencies in the run defense this year, it’s a hard sell for any linebacker — however gifted they are — to be able to capably shed interior linemen and still be asked to make the play.

What also stands out right now are the incredible edge players Diaco and outside linebackers coach Kerry Cooks have to work with. To think that the Irish can roll Steve Filer, and Darius Fleming through as edge backers in the 3-4 is a pretty appealing proposition, and finding niche rolls for guys like Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta, two guys who may not be suited for safety duty, but certainly bring athleticism to the field has to give a lot of flexibility to the scheme, something that former coordinator Jon Tenuta never seemed to grasp.

For the Irish defense to make the turnaround from mediocre to an asset, the front line will also need to improve. For all the talk of Ethan Johnson in his two years in South Bend, I’m still waiting for him to make the impact that the recruitniks thought he’d make. And for guys like Ian Williams, his final year of eligibility will need to be the year he becomes the classic run-stuffing defensive lineman that the Irish have needed since Trevor Laws graduated. Add to that mix another year of experience for a veteran like Kerry Neal, and rising star Kapron Lewis-Moore, and the Irish could be looking at a seemingly stout group.

There’s no doubting that recruiting deficiencies will catch up to the best of coaches, and the shallow ranks of underclassmen could spell trouble in years three and four of the Kelly regime. But for now the Irish seem to be set for a renaissance that could turn the team’s most troubling liability into one of its strongest assets.