Depth on defensive line a welcome surprise

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For Notre Dame fans that have been following the team for the past decade or so, there’s every reason to be confused. That confusion arose again last week, when the Irish accepted the commitment of defensive line prospect Sheldon Day, an Indianapolis native that’s among the nation’s best and most versatile prospects. That the Irish beat SEC powers like LSU for a defensive linemen — even one from in state — has the Notre Dame faithful mystified at their good luck under head coach Brian Kelly, who has seemingly reeled in every big name defensive lineman he’s looked at since arriving in South Bend. In retrospect, maybe we should’ve seen this coming. Kelly (with a big assist from Tony Alford) landed Louis Nix before he even accepted the head coaching job.

But Day’s commitment meant the Irish had to tell four-star defensive tackle Tommy Schutt that the bus is full, a move that had some Irish fans apopleptic that Kelly and his coaching staff (a group that’s spent over 18 months evaluating 2012 defensive line prospects) would have the nerve to turn down a player that recruiting websites had rated higher than Day. (Michigan would tell Schutt the same thing 24 hours later, supporting the claim that Schutt might be overrated by websites like Rivals.)

With the Irish corralling Day to go along with the sizable defensive line haul in the last recruiting cycle, the coaching staff have been able to focus on other positions of need as they balance recruiting with a full 85-man scholarship allotment. (Jordan Prestwood officially became No. 85 last week.) More importantly, for the first time in recent memory, the strength of the defensive roster is a stacked defensive line.

Here’s a quick look at the first official two-deep depth chart along the defensive line for the Irish.

DE: Ethan Johnson: 6-4, 300, Sr.
DE: Aaron Lynch: 6-6, 265, Fr.

NT: Sean Cwynar: 6-4, 285, Jr.
NT: Louis Nix: 6-3, 326, So.
NT: Hafis Williams: 6-1, 295, Sr.

DE: Kapron Lewis Moore: 6-4, 300, Sr.
DE: Kona Schwenke: 6-4, 285, So.

Not listed on that depth chart is the most physically imposing defensive end on the roster, freshman Stephon Tuitt. Also missing is Brandon Newman, a guy that in the past would be anchoring the interior of this defensive line, and freshmen Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell, both of whom have impressed the staff early in camp.

All of that means choices and options for defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and defensive line coach Mike Elston. As you’d expect, Elston tried to dampen the enthusiasm for his two signature freshman defensive ends, Tuitt and Aaron Lynch.

“Even though the kid can sack the quarterback, he’s still going to have to know how to sack the quarterback within our scheme,” Elston said. “If he’s going in the wrong gap and pressuring the quarterback, everbody else around him is in a weak situation. Yeah, we’ve got some guys across the front that could be difference-makers, but they still have so much to learn.”

Nobody can blame Elston for trying to tamp down expectations, but in reality, the Irish have more playmakers in their front seven than they’ve had in a decade. Those options allow Diaco to experiment with odd and even fronts, helping the Irish to get four pass rushers in the game along the defensive line, only to be complemented by guys like Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo, two of the top pass rushers on the roster.

The Irish finished 55th in the country last season in sacks, finishing with 26 in 13 games on the season. Whether Diaco and Elston will admit it or not, there’s every reason to believe that number should sky-rocket in 2011, as the Irish will have a full allotment of options both young and old to choose from.

It might be confusing, but here’s hoping Irish fans can at least enjoy the splendor of good fortunes along the defensive line.