Season Preview ’08: Defensive Line

The one position where Notre Dame will experience the biggest depth concerns in 2008 will be along the defensive line. Notre Dame will only be replacing one starter along the defensive front, but that one starter, Trevor Laws, accounted for 112 tackles and 4 sacks  in 2007.   What is most alarming for the Irish this year along the line, however, is that they will need several freshmen to contribute early.

The two areas where you generally do not want to count on freshmen to play are along the offensive and defensive lines. The difference in strength on the college level is much more noticeable along the lines. For that reason, you generally want to ease your linemen into playing time unless they are just freakish athletes and can’t be kept off the field – Anthony Weaver comes to mind.

Notre Dame’s lack of depth along the defensive line, however, will have the Irish hoping that at least a couple of the five heralded freshmen defensive linemen can step in and contribute right away.
Even if the Irish weren’t hoping freshmen could provide some depth at the position, there are plenty of reasons to be worried about the starters. The defensive line was not a strength of the defense a year ago and without Trevor Laws’s Herculean effort, it would have been about as effective as the offensive line.

The good news is that there appears to quite a bit of talent. The bad news is that the talent might not be ready for extensive action this fall.

The Starters
Pat Kuntz was not enrolled this spring, but was back when the Irish reported for camp this summer. Kuntz started 10 games at nose tackle last year and performed admirably in a position he was vastly under-sized for. In 10 games, Kuntz had 9 pass deflections at the line and showed a real knack for knowing exactly when to get his hands in the air. He won’t be playing NT this fall though. The emergence of Ian Williams at the end of the season has allowed Kuntz to move back outside to one of the defensive end positions.

Speaking of Ian Williams, the sophomore nose tackle broke out in a big way at the end of last season with 45 tackles – three more than Kuntz – despite starting just two games. Williams was probably still a year away from seeing extensive playing time, but luckily his two starts came against Duke and Stanford – teams that didn’t offer stout offensive lines. A year in the weight room and a full spring should do wonders for him. Williams was a Freshman All American last year and will be counted on heavily for the Irish line to hold up this year.

Rounding out the starting line appears to be Morrice Richardson. Richardson may be a bit under-sized to play end in a 3-4, at 255, but he has got some real pass rushing ability.  The kind of pass rushing ability  that Notre Dame has been lacking at the end position for a while. Since it’s likely that the Irish will be playing with a lot of four man fronts this year with the WILL linebacker coming down and playing with his hand on the ground, Richardson’s size shouldn’t be a major issue.

The one thing that Richardson has shown whenever he has been on the field is that he can get after the quarterback. He showed flashes of it, albeit very briefly, as a true freshman DE in 2006 and then again as an OLB in 2007. Richardson has been a bit banged up recently with a foot injury, but Weis has said the injury should not limit his availability for the opener.

The Reserves
In looking at the two deep along the defensive line, you will notice two true freshmen, Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, a fifth year senior with some starting experience, Justin Brown, and a junior who hasn’t made much of an impact yet, Paddy Mullen.

Ethan Johnson has received some rave reviews from the Irish coaching staff so far this summer. The five star recruit from Oregon is listed at 275 pounds on the official roster and certainly doesn’t look like your average true freshman. Johnson missed most of his senior season with an ACL sprain making fall camp the first action he’s seen on the field in some time. Despite the injury suffered last year, though, he was not restricted at all once he arrived on campus and is currently listed as the backup to Kuntz at defensive end.

Justin Brown started five games at defensive end last year and recorded 30 tackles and 1 sack. Brown fought with Richardson through the spring and into fall camp for the starting spot and while he is currently listed as an “OR” along with Richardson on the depth chart that probably has more to do with Richardson being dinged up. Brown will provide some solid depth at the end position, but has just 2.5 career sacks heading into his fifth season.

Paddy Mullen was originally recruited as a tight end by the Irish, but when Notre Dame struck out on defensive tackles in Weis’s first full class, Mullen was switched over to defense and has been trying to make his mark on that side of the ball ever since. He saw action in just three games and registered only a single tackle in his first bit of playing time last year, but will be counted on to give Ian Williams some breathers at nose tackle this year.

The final reserve currently listed on the depth chart is true freshman Kapron Lewis-Moore. Moore is listed at just 257 pounds right now, but has the frame to add on a lot more weight. Right now he looks like a tall, lanky defensive end much like Justin Tuck did when he was a freshman. It’s tough to gauge how much he will be able to give the Irish defensive line this year, but he has shown a lot of promise for the future so far in camp.

Others who could provide some depth include freshmen defensive tackles Brandon Newman and Hafis Williams, freshmen defensive end Sean Cwynar, and sophomore defensive end Emeka Nwankwo. I’m sure the staff would love for either Newman or Williams to be ready for some playing time to help keep the NT’s fresh, but both are probably at least a year away from serious playing time. Cwynar came in at the mid-term and might be able to provide some depth if called upon.

Nwankwo is the wildcard in this group. At times in the spring, he was running with the first team, but was left off the latest depth chart. Nwankwo was recruited as an offensive linemen by many schools, but showed some promise in the spring. Strength was his biggest problem as a true freshman. He reported to Notre Dame with plenty of size, but didn’t have the strength to contribute. The experience he got in the spring should come in handy if he is called up to provide some depth at the end positions.

How It Should Play Out
In order for a defensive line to be effective, it needs a lot of players rotating in and out to keep them fresh. The more defensive linemen you have capable of logging real minutes in crunch time, the fresher your line is in the fourth quarter. For Notre Dame in 2008, the question of how many defensive linemen they will have capable of logging those crunch time minutes will be one of the biggest questions they will have to answer.

Ian Williams looks ready to become a pretty good defensive lineman, but as a true sophomore how many snaps can he be counted on playing a game? Either Paddy Mullen will have to be able to spell Williams or Pat Kuntz will need to be able to play both tackle and end this year with reserves such as Ethan Johnson and Emeka Nwankwo filling in at end if/when Kuntz moves inside.

It will be interesting to see how many three and four man fronts the Irish use this year with the addition of Jon Tenuta to the defensive staff. Most expect the Irish defense to resemble more of a “3-4 personnel” look as opposed to a more traditional “3-4” defense like we saw that year. That would mean a lot more 4 man fronts with the WILL linebacker playing with his hand on the ground and rushing the quarterback. If that’s the case, having an undersized defensive end like Richardson won’t matter all that much.

Depth, however, will still be the biggest concern along the defensive line. Right now the Irish have a few question marks in the starting lineup with a few question marks backing them up. Jappy Oliver did a lot with a little along the defensive line last year and Jon Tenuta’s blitz schemes should help mask some of the deficiencies up front, but there should still be some cause for concern here for Notre Dame in 2008.

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