Notre Dame Looking for Pass Rush Answers in ’06

Notre Dame, Ind ( — The second spring practice of the Charlie Weis will come to an end this weekend with the 77th annual Blue-Gold Game as well as with many questions to be answered heading into what many believe will be a championship run.

The biggest question this Spring and for the 2006 season is whether or not the Irish can generate a legit pass rush to take pressure off the secondary. Notre Dame’s inability to get to opposing quarterbacks allowed for too many third and long conversions (see Troy Smith in the fourth quarter of the Fiesta Bowl).

Numbers and lack of experience were major issues for the defensive line in 2005 with Ronald Talley and Justin Brown being the only real backups last season after Travis Leitko left the team in the summer. Brown and Talley were thrust into even larger roles when Chris Frome went down with an injury against USC. Both were sophomores coming off red-shirt years and both showed their inexperience at times.

Frome returns from injury this year which should help, but at the time of his injury he had just 1 sack and was more of a run stuffing defensive end. Talley and Brown have some quickness and could be pass rushers, but both were over powered at times last year. Leitko too could be back. The South Bend Tribune reported that he was accepted for the summer semester, but had not heard about the fall semester.

For the Irish to really improve on their pass rush however its going to take a breakout year from Victor Abiamiri. The senior from Maryland has all the tools and we saw what he can do when he is at the top of his game against Stanford with 3.5 sacks. Abiamiri has two full years as a starter under his belt, but he has yet to really become a dominant pass rusher. He’s had spurts of dominance, but never consistently. If Abiamiri can put it all together in 2006 and become a 12-14 sack kind of defensive end, it will open things up some for the other linemen.

Notre Dame should also receive a boast from some more depth in the interior line. Trevor Laws and Derek Landri had little depth behind them in 2005 with Brian Beidatsch, Dwight Stephenson and true freshman Pat Kuntz and Derrell Hand the only real backups. Stephenson has move back to defensive end, but Kuntz and Hand are back and a year more experienced. Hand received some praise from Jappy Oliver at the beginning of the Spring for the transformation he’s underwent physically since arriving as a freshman.

Landri and Laws will start again this year. Laws, like Abiamiri, has shown some signs of being a dominant interior lineman, but has not done it consistently. Having some more depth behind him should help this year since it will allow Minter to rotate more players in. Laws will need to become a disruptive force up the middle this year for the pass rush to improve. Laws doesn’t need to tally a huge sack total, but if he can get pressure up the middle to force opposing quarterbacks outside the pocket, it will allow the ends and any blitzing linebackers to clean up.

The pass rush isn’t the only question the Irish will be looking to answer, or at least get an idea about however. Major questions remain at the linebacker positions. The injury situation of the linebackers this Spring has been well documented already this Spring, but the issues still remain. Who’s the middle linebacker on this team? Is it Mitchell Thomas who has been the first team middle linebacker much of this Spring? Is it Maurice Crum when he comes back from injury? Is it freshman Toryan Smith who will be coming in this fall?

I still think Smith can come in and start, but right now I think Thomas will be lining up against Tech at that middle linebacker spot. We’ll get a better idea of Thomas’ capabilities Saturday though.

We’ll also get a glimpse of what the wide receiver rotation may look like this year. We know Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight are the starters, but who is going to be the 3rd and 4th receivers in passing situations?

Last Spring there was more curiosity than anything heading into the Spring game and there were too many questions to list heading in. This Spring we have a better idea of what we have with this team and an even better idea of what we don’t have than we did a year ago.

Last Spring was about learning a new system on both sides of the ball. This Spring has been about perfecting those systems and Saturday we’ll find out just how close we are to achieving that perfection. Or perhaps, how far away.

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