Notre Dame 2006 Position Analysis: Defensive Line

Victor Abiamiri- 6’4, 260- Senior (DE)
Victor was a highly touted recruit coming out of Maryland, rated a 5 star defensive end by many recruiting websites and magazines. He really busted out in his first year as a full time starter last season, recording 8 sacks and 46 tackles. In the game against Stanford last season he had 4 quarterback sacks, 2 of which came on the last 2 Stanford offensive plays of the game, assuring the Irish of a victory and a BCS bowl berth. Abiamiri jumps out at some as a pass rusher, but in reality, he is a complete defensive end, as he can turn make backs turn inside when running to his side, and not allowing many runners turn the corner against him.

All that being said, there is plenty of room for Victor to improve. While he did have 8 sacks, I also mentioned how half of them came in 1 game. He was also manhandled by USC tackle Winston Justice on 10/15. Was he good for the Irish last season? Yes…some may say he was very good. But he was a guy that was expected to come in and dominate, and he hasn’t done that… yet.

With the depth the Irish have along the defensive line, opposing offenses won’t be able to key on Victor as much as they could a year ago.  Another year under Rick Minter should also do Abiamiri well.  He’s always had All American talent, and this should be the year we see that All American talent turn into All American production.  Abiamiri has the tools to be an NFL player, and with a good year in 2006 in which he is expected to start all of the games again.

Justin Brown-6’3, 247- Junior (DE)

Justin Brown will be another key piece to the Notre Dame defensive line this season and should help out the defensive end rotation with his pure athletic ability and some fresh, quick legs off the bench. He started 1 game at defensive end last year against Stanford and recorded 4 solo tackles. He saw action in all 11 games recording 12 tackles throughout the season. Brown has good size and has been hitting the weights hard this off-season, committed to make the Irish’s weak pass rush better. Justin will be a key reserve for the Irish this coming season, and could be an unsung hero for them if the pass rush improves.

Casey Cullen-6’1, 238- Senior (DT)
Casey Cullen is not the most glorified defensive lineman on the Irish, and he doesn’t make many highlight reels, but when the Irish needed a silent assassin to give them a lift, especially on special teams, Cullen was there to do the dirty work. In week 1 against Pitt he helped the Irish with a forced fumble on special teams during their rapid fire scoring spree of 28 points in the 2nd quarter. As a result of his strong play on special teams in week 1, he was named the special teams captain the following week against Michigan, a game the Irish also won. Cullen, a Texas native, is known for his hard work and blue-collar attitude, knowing he must earn everything that he gets. Because of this commitment and dedication, he was given a scholarship before last season.

Going into his senior year, it is known that Cullen will definitely be a contributor on special teams as he was all last season, logging183 appearances. What he does prior to the season however will determine how much playing time he will get at defensive tackle.
Chris Frome-6’5, 368- Senior (DE)
Chris Frome started for the Irish for the first 6 games of the 2005 campaign before suffering a season ending injury during the historic Notre Dame-USC game on October 15th of last year. Although replays show Chris turned his foot in a nasty way, and he knew it was probably the end of his season, he was still urging the crowed on while being helped off the field. Frome’s presence may not be felt on the stat sheet as he recorded just 1 sack and 6 total tackles in his sic starts in 2005, but it’s felt on the field.  Frome is a very strong, very big defensive end that is more of a power rusher than a speed rusher who showed signs of having some play making ability prior to his injury.  Many think that because of his size, he might be better suited at the defensive tackle position.  While it’s likely Frome gets a look at the inside this summer, we will see him the most on the outside this year.  2006 will be Frome’s last season at Notre Dame, and hopefully he can be part of a very effective defensive line.

Derrell Hand-6’3, 290- sophomore (DT)

Hand, who did not see any action as a freshman in 2005, was said to be a very hard worker during practices, providing a challenge for the Irish players that did see extended playing time. Derrell is a Philadelphia native, and known as a guy that can be a premier run stuffer on the Irish when the time comes. As a senior at West Philadelphia Catholic, he recorded 85 tackles and 5 and a half sacks. He also had a GPA of 3.1, showing that he has the knowledge and dedication to succeed in football and in everyday life. He is said to be in great shape coming into this year, slimming down from the 300+ pound frame he came into Notre Dame with and replacing it with a lean, 290-pound frame. This should help his agility and make him more of a complete player. Hand was a recruit that a lot of Irish fans were excited over, and before his tenure with the Irish is over, we’ll be glad he was brought in.

Hand figured to be right in the thick of things in the defensive tackle rotation, but a foot injury early camp could sideline him for the entire camp which could hurt his chances for meaningful playing time this year.
Pat Kuntz-6’2, 270- sophomore (DT)
Pat didn’t see too much time as a freshman last year for Notre Dame’s squad, but he did see some time on special teams that will benefit him down the road. As a junior and a senior he was named to the Indiana All-State team and he piled up 25.5 sacks in his 3 years as a starter at Roncalli high school. Pat gets a very good push and does a great job of collapsing the pocket, which has the potential to help Notre Dame in the future big time. Imagine the quarterback dropping back to throw, looking to one side and seeing Kallen Wade flying towards him, and then looking to the other side and seeing John Ryan steam rolling after him, and then looking for a receiver just to have the huge hands of Pat Kuntz in his face…pairing Pat with the upcoming class of Freshmen in the future could have some very good results for the pass rush.

Derek Landri-6’3, 285- Senior (DT)
An 11 game starter at defensive tackle for the Irish, Landri finished 2nd behind Abiamiri in tackles on the defensive line with 37. Derek has started every game for Notre Dame the past 2 seasons, giving him 22 consecutive starts on the defensive line. He rose to the occasion against USC when he made career high 7 tackles against the Trojans, only to match that career high the next week against BYU. He gets off the ball quicker than any Notre Dame defensive lineman in years. He has also bulked up over the off-season, having gained nearly 20 pounds of muscle. Pair that new found size with his cat-like quickness and pure dedication and commitment to get to the quarterback, and you have a defensive lineman that will be living in opponent’s backfield. Landri will start in every game for the Irish again this season barring injury, and when you pair him with Trevor Laws, you have a sick tackle tandem that will give offensive lines trouble this coming season.

The knock on Landri has always been his size.  Last year he played around 266 lbs and relied on quickness rather than strength.  With the added weight gain look for Landri to make his presence felt more than ever along the defensive line for the Irish.

Trevor Laws-6’1, 293- Senior (DT)
Here is Derek Landri’s running mate. Trevor Laws along with Landri started all 11 games last season at defensive tackle recording 32 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He is also the one that put thoughts of an upset into our heads when he sacked USC quarterback Matt Leinart on 2nd and 10, bringing up a 3rd down and 20…and well…you know the rest. Laws is a guy that likes to pin his ears back and go after the quarterback, and he moves extremely well for a guy at 293. He is also a guy that can help stuff the run, something that the Irish did very well last season. Laws will have to be better as far as getting to the quarterback though. He has the skills to be a great pass rusher but has only been mediocre at best in that department. The Irish secondary which was criticized often last season will only get better with a better pass rush, and Laws has the talent to help make that pass rush a great one.

Laws, like Abiamiri came in with a lot of accolades from high school and has shown glimpses of being a dominant player.  For the defensive line to really improve this year, both Laws and Abiamiri will need to start playing with some more consistency.

Travis Leitko- 6’6, 268- Senior (DE)
Travis Leitko is a very interesting person. Expected to make a big time impact for the Irish defensive line last season, Leitko left the team to attend to his ailing parents as well as his academics.  He was a highly sought after recruit…a defensive end with quickness and a pretty good pass rusher. He was a 4 star recruit who had many Irish fans smiling, thinking he was going to be the next big Irish defensive stud. Many think he would have started at defensive end this year had he played. He turned down offers from Michigan and Texas to play football for the Irish  and ended up being the highest rated recruit out of the whole 2002 Irish class.

It is unknown what role Leitko will play this year for the Irish; he has been working both at defensive end and on the inside at tackle. It is not even known if Leitko will end up back on scholarship by the beginning of the season.  Weis has said Leitko must earn that scholarship back, but did also give him some praises early on in camp.  His flexibility should definitely help him in his quest for playing time this year.  Thus far in camp, Leitko has been working on the inside and could be a primary backup at tackle.

Paddy Mullen-6’5, 265- Freshman (DT)
Paddy was recruited as a tight end by many NCAA teams, but because of the lack of depth the Irish have on the line, and because of the potential the Irish staff sees in Mullen as a defensive tackle, he was recruited for the defensive line. This position will not be different for Mullen though; he played there in high school, where coaches had nothing but good things to say about him. In his junior year, he played the first 7 ball games with a broken hand at the tackle position. This didn’t affect him however, as he recorded 7 sacks that season. Paddy is a guy who is known to be very quick off the ball, almost like fellow defensive tackle Derek Landri. He should be a very important player for the Irish defensive line in the next few years, and who knows, some injuries can occur and he may get some time at tight end.

John Ryan-6’5, 240- Freshman (DE)
John is a guy that just gets after it. He is a pass-rushing specialist that can get to the quarterback on any given down. His technique is something that the college scouts drooled over when he was in high school, and his intensity is something that you just can’t coach, but he has plenty of it anyway. As a junior in high school he recorded 10 sacks, the most on his high school team. Grades don’t look like an issue either; his GPA is 3.5 and he scored a 1570 on his SAT. The knock against Ryan is that he has a little bit of trouble against the run like many pass rushers do, but during camp this season the coaches have been very impressed with him in that department. Because of his strong camp, Ryan can have a shot at contributing immediately to the Irish defensive line. He obviously won’t start but the line can use all the depth it can get…last season it looked like the starters started to wear down as the season went on and you could see that during the Fiesta Bowl. John has the potential to be a very important reserve for Notre Dame and should help out on a line that will be key to the Irish’s overall success this fall.

Dwight Stephenson-6’2, 248- Senior (DT)
Dwight’s football career has been very tough for him. It seems like coaches can never have him settling in just 1 position. In high school he played some middle linebacker early on, but he also worked in as a defensive end. He was recruited as both coming out of high school as well. His first few years at South Bend it seemed like he finally found his spot as a defensive end for the squad, but during last year’s spring practices he was moved inside to defensive tackle. I don’t care how bright a kid is or how fast he can pick up a system, when you’re learning a new position almost every year, you are at a disadvantage. It really is a shame too, because Stephenson has the tools to be a terrific something at the college level. He is a terrific pass rusher and has real big hands that he uses to shed blockers and make his way into the backfield. All you have to do is look at his senior year at Pope John Paul to notice his abilities; he had 27 sacks that year. So far in practice he is impressing coaches with his agility, and with 2 seasons left in South Bend, an impact season isn’t out of the question for him.

Ronald Talley- 6’4, 261- Junior (DE)
Talley played a very key role as a reserve for the Irish defensive line in 2005 before starting the last 4 games of the season due to Chris Frome’s injury. He is a very up and coming defensive end, with a huge wingspan, long arms, and huge hands he is able to disrupt the quarterbacks view when he is not able to sack him himself. Coaches like Talley’s aggressive play on the line, and he has a mean streak in him that brings attitude to the Irish defense. The Michigan boy only had 1 sack last season, but as his playing time progresses this season, that sack number will as well.

One thing that could keep Talley from being a top NCAA defensive end is his lack of agility. This was a glaring weakness for him when Ted Ginn burned him on the reverse during the Fiesta Bowl, despite Talley seeing the play coming.  Look for Talley to be used more as a run stopping defensive end with Justin Brown coming in for passing downs at times.

Kallen Wade-6’5, 240- Freshman (DE)
Wade was a hot commodity in Ohio this year.  Kallen excites me as much as any freshman coming in this year for the Irish. With 6’5 size, a 4.5 40 time, a giant wingspan, and the ability to chase running backs down from behind, he reminds me of Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive end and a recruit Notre Dame just missed on signing years back, Jevon Kearse. Wade is the total package at defensive end, an above average run stuffer and a polished pass rusher. He has an amazing burst out of his stance and an arsenal of moves that makes offensive tackles extremely nervous to face him.

Wade will start for the Irish at defensive end very, very soon, but he still has much improvement to make. If you had a chance to catch the Big 33 game, Wade was overpowered by many of the better lineman in High School ball. Because of this, he probably won’t see too much time this season, but the sky is the limit overall for Wade. His ceiling is very high and he has the potential to be a very good defensive end for the Irish in next couple of years.

Overall, the talent is here and this year the depth is a bit better for the Irish to have a really strong defensive line.  Juniors Justin Brown and Ronald Talley took their lumps last year as first time contributors and that experience will pay dividends this year.  Throw into the mix the returns of Chris Frome and Travis Leitko and the Irish do not face the same uphill battle they did last year along the line when depth was a major issue.
Any questions, concerns, or feedback, e-mail me…[email protected]…I will get back to all of your e-mails.

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