Yesterday we took a look at five questions facing the Notre Dame offense in 2009. Today we’ll take a look at five questions facing the young but talented Irish defense.
1. Will the young DL hold up?
Like on the offensive side of the ball, the biggest question mark on defense for 2009 is the line. The Irish will be working in two new starters and two new coaches along the defensive line this season. Notre Dame brought in a new defensive line coach in Randy Hart after last season. Notre Dame also brought in former Irish great Bryant Young as a defensive graduate assistant this spring, and the early returns on both have been very positive.
Notre Dame will also feature two new starters with sophomores Ethan Johnson at defensive tackle and Kapron Lewis-Moore at defensive end. Junior Kerry Neal will also be making the transition from outside linebacker/rush end to a traditional defensive end. In fact, Ian Williams is the only returning starter on the line playing exactly the same position as he did a year ago.
Across the board the Irish have more depth and talent on the defensive line than they’ve had in a while, but it is, for the most part, largely unproven and inexperienced. Ethan Johnson had a breakout game in the Hawaii Bowl, but Lewis-Moore didn’t play a single snap as a freshman in 2008 and Kerry Neal has yet to show he can consistently be a force defending the run despite making 16 career starts.
A season ago the Notre dame defense line wore down through the course of games and was very susceptible against the run late in the final quarters. The Michigan State game is a prime example. Notre Dame bottled up Javon Ringer for most of the game until he ran wild in the fourth quarter when the Spartans put the game away.
Can the young Irish defensive line hold up against the run all game long, all season long? The talent is definitely there, but there are still a lot of question marks. Lewis-Moore has made significant gains in the weight room, but it’s uncertain how he’ll hold up throughout the season after putting on 50 pounds since arriving on campus. Kerry Neal is a bit undersized and has struggled against the run. Will this be the year he puts it all together and becomes as strong against the run as he is against the pass?
Notre Dame can move Ethan Johnson to defensive end on running downs with Hafis Williams or Brandon Newman coming in to provide some more bulk in the middle. Despite the increase in size up front, such a package would still be very short on experience.
Behind the starters there is even less proven depth. Sophomore interior linemen Brandon Newman, Hafis Williams, and Sean Cwynar have all had their moments in practice but none have had any game experience to this point. On the ends, Emeka Nwankwo and Morrice Richardson have some experience but have yet to make much of an impact in games. The talent is there on the defensive line this year. The big question will be whether or not the young linemen will be ready to step up.
2. How much will Manti Te’o play?
Manti Te’o is easily the most hyped defensive recruit to come to Notre Dame in over a decade and the early practice reports suggest that he will be playing quite a bit. The first depth chart of the season listed Te’o as the #2 WILL behind junior Brian Smith, but there’s a real chance Smith slides over to MIKE with Te’o stepping in as the starter on the weak side as soon as he is ready.
Everything Charlie Weis has said so far this summer has suggested that Te’o will play early and often in the opener. He’s been limited by a minor injury in camp, but it isn’t expected to make him miss any time and he was seen moving around very well at Tuesday’s practice.
Te’o has the kind of game changing, play making ability that Notre Dame has largely been lacking at the linebacker position over the last few years. At the very least, he should start the season off as one of the nickel linebackers along with Brian Smith. It would surprise no one though if Te’o was on the field for the first defensive snap of the season and never looked back.
3. Can ND get to the QB?
When Notre Dame hired Jon Tenuta as a linebackers coach last year, Notre Dame fans had visions of an attacking, blitz happy defense harassing opposing quarterbacks much the way Tenuta’s Georgia Tech defense harassed the Irish in the 2007 opener. While the Irish pass rush was improved last year, it was a still a very middle of the road defense in terms of generating quarterback sacks.
Tenuta’s role on the staff has changed this year. Weis made Tenuta the co-defensiver coordinator in the spring and the Irish switched from the “3-4 personnel” defensive alignment they used the past two seasons to Tenuta’s more familiar 4-3 front.
Year two with Tenuta on staff should yield some better results as the players begin to master Tenuta’s aggressive blitz schemes. He’ll have a host of pass rushers to use to get after the quarterbacks with athletic linebackers like Darius Fleming, Brian Smith, Manti Te’o, and Steve Filer. Weis mentioned on Monday that both Fleming and Filer will be used as rush ends at times in the nickel package.
With the talent Notre Dame has in the secondary, Tenuta should be able to send blitzers liberally. Notre Dame blitzed pretty liberally last year too though. The question is whether or not the Irish defense can get to the quarterback more frequently when they do blitz.
4. How will Darius Fleming adjust to LB?
Darius Fleming spent last year as a third down, pass rushing specialist. This year Fleming will be the starting SAM linebacker and will be asked to drop back in coverage. In high school Fleming played with his hand on the ground as a defensive end so the transition to strong side linebacker could have some bumps along the road.
Fleming will still be able to showcase his pass rushing skills as Weis has said that Fleming and classmate Steve Filer will be used as pass rushing ends in the nickel package this season.
If Notre Dame is going to really improve on its sack total in 2009, Fleming could be a big reason for that. Weis has described him as Notre Dame’s most dynamic pass rusher. He’ll have to show that he has the ability to drop back in coverage from time to time as well.
5. Can Notre Dame create at least as many turnovers as they did in 2009?
Notre Dame was tied for 42nd in the country in creating turnovers in 2008 with 25 – 11 fumble recoveries and 14 interceptions. Those are pretty solid totals. Had the Irish offense been able to do more with the opportunities the defense gave them, Notre Dame wouldn’t have lost 6 games last year. In losses to USC, Pitt, and Syracuse, the Irish defense forced 8 turnovers including picking of USC three times. The offense couldn’t capitalize on the opportunities in the close losses to Pitt and Syracuse and couldn’t do anything at all against USC.
If the offense is as improved as most think it will be in 2009, having the defense generate at least as many turnovers would be a huge boost. Ideally, the defense would improve on those numbers as well with an experienced secondary and an attacking defensive philosophy. Darrin Walls and Robert Blanton could give Notre Dame its best pair of starting corners since the Bobby Taylor-Shawn Wooden combination in 1994. If the pass rush can force opposing quarterbacks to get rid of the ball too early, they will have an opportunity to improve on the 14 intecerptions the Irish had in 2008.