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

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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.