A baseball team is often judged by its strength up the middle. Look at any great ball club and you’ll usually find a strong catcher behind the plate, a shortstop with range and a centerfielder that can run down just about anything.
When you look at the uneven performance coming from the Irish football team through three games, my head wanders back to my baseball days, riding the pines and chewing bubble gum at Eck Stadium. Strength up the middle is paramount for an elite baseball team. And that’s where this football team needs to find its focus as well.
There’s no better anchor point to build from than Louis Nix. While it’s hard for a nose guard to fill a stat sheet, Nix has looked the part of everybody’s All-American this season, constantly double-teamed as he takes on the interior of an offensive line. But if you’re wondering why this defense doesn’t look like the one that was on the field last season, keep looking up the middle, where two position groups are still in the middle of getting sorted.
Inside linebacker seems to be improving, though many hoped Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox would flourish when given the chance to play next to each other. The jury is still out, but neither Fox nor Calabrese look like the player they were when playing next to Te’o last season. Joining them in the rotation has been Jarrett Grace, who has looked like a guy getting heavy snaps for the first time in his career.
A season after being dominant against screen passes and short underneath throws thanks to Manti Te’o’s instincts, this defense is getting beat underneath too often. Call it dinking and dunking, but more accurately it’s called moving the chains, and the Irish are having a hard time getting off the field. Add to that struggles in the red zone after being so dominant there a season ago, and that’s why this group sits at No. 57 in scoring defense after playing two teams ranked outside the Top 100 in scoring offense.
Part of that comes from the instability at safety. Many assumed Matthias Farley was ready to step in and be a dominant player in the back end of the defense. That hasn’t been the case, with the former wide receiver still looking like a player growing into his position. After hoping that Elijah Shumate was going to step in and use his athleticism to effect the game at safety, the sophomore hasn’t been heard from, except when getting beat in pass coverage. Austin Collinsworth seems to be a guy the coaching staff can trust, but he hasn’t been a game changer. And the Irish’s most dynamic option, freshman Max Redfield, seems to be in the middle of a learning curve that still hasn’t gotten him onto the field.
The up the middle struggles aren’t just on defense. After having two running backs that knew exactly what was asked of them, the Irish ground game seems to be stuck in neutral. How much of that is on the guys toting the rock remains to be seen, but if you watched Brian Kelly’s interactions with the running backs, there are cutback lanes and alleys that haven’t been hit in the Irish’s zone blocking scheme.
Up the middle of the field, just about everybody is new. A five-headed running back monster where guys are learning on the job. A quarterback that took reps as a situational reliever last season. A new center. A trio of linebackers trying to replace the national defensive player of the year. And two safeties, one who sat out all last season with an injury.
There’s a reason Kelly continues to preach patience, and with a four game stretch that’ll likely define the season, now is the time to make sure the pieces come together.
“We know there’s going to be an evolution of getting those players in the right position, developing them. That’s going to take a little time,” Kelly said.
Well with the No. 1 defensive in the country coming to town and ranked Oklahoma and Arizona State squads before USC, time is of the essence.