Here’s my initial crack at projected the defense. Let me start off by saying, this is 10x harder than projecting the offense since we really aren’t sure what the defense will look like. Weis said the Irish were going to run a “3-4 personnel” as opposed to a traditional “3-4” defense, but didn’t give too much detail as to what that would mean.
Chris Stewart has been rumored to be moving over to defense for the last few weeks and is there a more natural NT for a 3-4 defense on the Notre Dame roster than Stewart? He’s been in the strength and conditioning program for a full year already after enrolling early last year and could be the force in the middle Notre Dame needs. I have Ian Williams backing up Stewart. Weis said they expect him to come in and get right in the mix and as the only true defensive tackle in last year’s class he could back up Stewart.
With Stewart manning the middle, Laws could play to the side of Stewart. Laws is a pretty good fit for a 3-4 defensive tackle as he is not ideal size for a DT in a traditional 4-3, but also doesn’t have the speed to be a DE. For now I have Kuntz penciled in as Laws backup and as a junior he should have enough experience to provide some depth here.
If he is healthy, I think Derrell Hand could start. Like Stewart, Hand had to transform his body once getting to Notre Dame, but after tow full years in the program, he could be ready to make an impact. Hand is another guy who could be a really good 3-4 defensive lineman. Sophomore to be Paddy Mullen should be ready for some playing time and has the quickness to be one of the off tackle positions.
Outside Linebacker/Defensive End
Ryan was a bit undersized for DE this year, but looked pretty good in spot duty. Using the outside linebackers/defensive ends of the Baltimore Ravens as a guide, Ryan fits in here in terms of size, but does he have the speed to play the position? I’m not completely sure, but if the Irish are indeed going to play a “3-4 personnel” as Weis suggested, Ryan is the most natural DE to play this position. An interesting possibility here is Dwight Stephenson. Stephenson has been a tweener almost since he landed at Notre Dame and he looks to be in the OLD/DE mold. Remember, Stephenson was recruited by a bunch of SEC teams, including Florida. Stephenson is my pick for the guy to come out of no where to earn meaningful playing time this year. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Stephenson challenged for a starting spot.
Crum will probably still be playing in the middle of the linebacking corps next year. I still don’t think he is a natural inside linebacker, but he is the most talented and experienced linebacker on the roster. If he is lined up next to a bigger linebacker though, Crum could be a very, very effective linebacker for the Irish again this year. For now I have Scott Smith backing up Crum because he has the size to play on the inside.
I don’t think the Irish coaches will be able to keep Smith off the field this year. Smith is a prototypical inside linebacker and could flourish in Corwin Brown’s defense. Smith saw a good bit of time in goal line and reserve situations last year and should be ready to make an impact on defense this year. The Irish coaches loved Smith when they recruited him and it should be time for him to earn a starting spot. Brockington should be back for a 5th year and will provide experience depth and a hard working mentality on defense.
This is a pretty difficult position to project. I think both Richardson and Neal are perfect fits for the OLB in a 3-4 defense. Both can rush the passer and both have the speed and athleticism to drop back into coverage when need be. Richardson saw some playing time very early last year and showed a lot of speed coming off the edge, but was too small to be very effective from the defensive end position. If Ryan proves to not have the speed and coverage skills to play the other OLB position, I could see both of these guys starting at the OLB positions.
Walls took his lumps early last year, but with a year under his belt, he should step into a starting role. Walls is probably the most talent pure cover corner Notre Dame has had since Bobby Taylor and he should start showing it this coming season. Another talented under classman who should make an impact is Gary Gray. He enrolled early and should challenge for playing time immediately with Leo Ferrine and Raeshon McNeil for nickel coverage playing time.
This is some serious depth chart engineering here, but in an effort to get the most talented players on the field, Lambert could move to free safety and provide the deep coverage skills that the Irish have been severely lacking. Sophomore to be Sergio Brown brings a lot of talent and ability though and could challenge for the starting position here. Notre Dame has the talent and depth at corner back to account for Lambert’s move.
A lot of people speculate that Zbikowski should move to linebacker but I just don’t see it happening. Zibby is a great run stuffing safety and could flourish playing closer to the line with Lambert in deep coverage. Ray Herring and David Bruton would back up Zibby here. The two are pretty similar and would probably battle it out for the backup position through the summer.
Wooden was slowed by injuries last year and lost his starting spot, but heading into the season I thought Wooden was going to become an upper echelon corner in the NCAA. I still think Wooden has the ability to be a top notch corner if he can stay healthy and have another season under Bill Lewis. Raeshon McNeil, however, will be tough to keep off the field and should at least be the nickel corner this year.