Notre Dame, IN (UHND.com) – When the first Notre Dame depth chart was released on Friday, the youth along the Irish defensive line stood out more so than at any other position. Once the Irish get healthy, it’s possible that Notre Dame will start the season without a senior starting along the defensive front largely due to last year’s impressive haul of defensive line recruits.
For the first few years of the Charlie Weis era, Notre Dame had very little success recruiting defensive linemen. The first few years the Irish were left mainly with stories of the ones that got away along the defensive line (see Justin Trattou, Gerald McCoy, Ben Martin). The class of 2008, however, was the major exception. New defensive line coach Randy Hart will have plenty of young talent to work with thanks to Notre Dame signing five defensive linemen last winter – Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Brandon Newman, Hafis Williams, and Sean Cwynar. A year later, it appears as the soon to be sophomores are ready to start making their mark.
The first depth chart features two of last year’s heralded defensive line recruits in starting positions – Lewis-Moore and Johnson – while two others are listed as backups – Newman and Williamns. The fifth member, Sean Cwynar, is one of the numerous “italics” players on the Irish spring depth chart (denoting that he is limited in what he can do this spring) so it’s tough to determine where he would fit in right now. Still, with half of the two deep along the defensive line comprised of sophomores, it’s safe to say that the Irish defensive line is going to be quite young in 2009.
While many expected Ethan Johnson to be in the starting mix after his two sack performance in the Hawaii Bowl, seeing Kapron Lewis-Moore’s name in the first position on the depth chart was a bit of surprise because he did not play a down of football as a true freshman. “There’s a guy who hasn’t played a down yet and we have him listed as a starter,” said he coach Charlie Weis on Friday. He would add, “We think he has a chance of not only starting the spring there, we think he has a chance of ending the spring there. So we’re going to put some pressure on him.”
While Lewis-Moore didn’t play as a rookie last year, it wasn’t because of a lack of talent or effort. When asked about freshman retaining their eligibility last year prior to the Washington game, Weis hinted that Lewis-Moore was ready to play. “He’s a very athletic guy who athletically we could get on the field right now. But is he going to be as good or better than the guys that are already out there playing?” said Weis at the time. “It’s not a question of whether he’d be good enough to play. The question is do we gain anything from that being the case,” he added.
Weis and his defensive coaches decided against burning a year of eligibility for Lewis-Moore and now just a few months removed from his freshman season, he finds himself a top the Notre Dame depth chart at one of the defensive end positions with senior Morrice Richardson right behind him. Richardson has flip flopped back and forth between defensive end and outside linebacker over the last few years, but should settle into a home at defensive end in his final year of eligibility this season, and should give Lewis-Moore plenty of competition.
What makes Lewis-Moore’s quick ascent up the depth chart even more surprising is that he was the last defensive line recruit to commit to the class of 2008 and was overlooked by most because his size at the time dicated some time in the weight room before he’d be ready for the field. In 3-4 defense, Lewis-Moore was seen as a bit of a tweener – too big for outside linebacker and too small for defensive end. With the Irish playing a traditional 4-3 defense once again in 2009 though, Lewis-Moore seems to have found a home at defensive end and has the eye of coaching staff as spring practice gets underway.
Unlike Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson played plenty of football as a true freshman and showed why he garnered five star ratings from both Scout.com and Rivals during last year’s recruiting cycle. Despite not starting last season, Johnson ended up leading the Irish in sacks with 3.5 while playing in all 13 games. What makes his performance in 2008 even more impressive is the fact that he was coming off a sprained ACL injury which cost him almost his entire senior season at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon.
Johnson was used as both a defensive end and defensive tackle last season, but opens the spring listed as a starter at tackle. Weis, however, envisions using Johnson in a similar role again this season in a larger capacity. “Take a guy like Ethan Johnson. Even though he’s listed as a defensive tackle at the 4-3 – and that’s where he’s going to be – if we needed to get a bigger body outside to the defensive end, he’s one of the guys that we’d go ahead and bump out there,” Weis said on Friday. Look for Johnson to be used as an end on obvious running downs when the Irish look to add some more size up the middle and on the inside on passing downs in much the same way the New York Giants have been using former Irish defensive end Justin Tuck.
When Johnson slides outside to get a bigger body in the middle, he will likely be replaced by yet another fellow sophomore. Hafis Williams is currently listed as the backup behind Johnson at defensive tackle and is listed at 296 pounds compared to Johnson’s 275.
The last sophomore on the two deep, Brandon Newman, will start the spring off backing up junior Ian Williams at nose tackle. Williams and Newman are the two biggest defensive linemen on the Irish roster with both checking in at 310 pounds respectively.
Rounding out the first depth chart along the defensive line are senior John Ryan and junior Emeka Nwankwo who are listed first and second at the defensive end position opposite Lewis-Moore and Richardson. Junior Kerry Neal is currently listed third behind Ryan and Nwankwo because he is limited this spring, but is expected to be the starter at the position once he gets healthy.
Once Neal gets healthy, the Irish two deep along the defensive line will be made up two seniors, two juniors, and four sophomores as it stands now. Currently, neither senior is in a starting position either which means if the season were to start today, the line would be made up of two juniors and two sophomores. Hart will have his work cut out for him with all of the young players he will need to prepare for their first extensive playing time in the fall. Luckily for Hart, the players he has to work with have plenty of talent and potential.
Despite the relative youth of the defensive line, Weis expects them to be part of his maturation objective which he outlined last week. “Although the defensive line as a group is young, we’d like to see them become part of that maturation process ,” he said last week.
Last year’s defensive line crop was a heralded group that was expected to contribute quickly if for no other reason than out of necessity, but when sophomores start passing juniors and seniors on the depth chart it becomes clear that they are going to contribute based on their talent as well.