Notre Dame, IN (UHND.com) – Notre Dame is losing three starters from the 2008 defense to graduation this year, but a shift back to a 4-3 defense will put a lot of positions up for grabs this spring. With Jon Tenuta assuming defensive play calling duties, the change will be made to shift back to a 4-3 defense and playing the last two seasons in a 3-4. This shouldn’t be a major shock to anyone as the Irish played a lot of 4-3 defense last year and Tenuta’s defenses of choice is the 4-3.
What this will do, however, is open up a lot of competition this spring and fall for starting positions. Right now Ian Williams, Brian Smith, and Darrin Walls are probably the only locks in the defensive starting lineup potentially creating 8 available starting positions on the defensive side the ball. The good news, however is that there is a lot of talent and for once, quite a bit of experience ready to fill those positions.
Defensive Tackle – One thing we know for sure is that Ian Williams is a sure bet to start at one of the defensive tackle positions. What we don’t know is who will be lining up next to him. Hafis Williams, Brandon Newsman, and Tyler Stockton were recruited to be nose tackles in a 3-4 defense, but in a 4-3, sophomores Ethan Johnson and Sean Cwynar, junior Emeka Nwankwo, and senior Paddy Mullen could all be possibilities at defensive tackle as well.
Johnson played at 275 lbs as a true freshman at defensive end, but will likely shift inside with Notre Dame playing in a 4-3 defense. Johnson emerged in the Hawaii Bowl with 3 sacks against the Warriors and could provide a legit pass rushing threat from the interior defensive line. I expect to see him work at both the inside and outside defensive line positions. His size will allow him to play on the outside on running downs and on the inside on passing downs. The New York Giants use former Notre Dame defensive end Justin Tuck in much the same way. Because of Johnson’s immense talent, Tenuta and Corwin Brown will want to find as many ways as possible to best utilize Johnson’s skills.
Outside of Johnson, it’s really anyone’s guess right now as to who will emerge as a viable option for regular playing time. Newman, Cwynar, and Hafis Williams didn’t play as true freshmen and Mullen and Nwankwo have not played many meaningful minutes up to this point in their careers. Nwankwo played well last spring, but was not able to translate that into much playing time during the 2008 season. Stockton will participate in spring practice as an early enrollee. Will a full off-season training regimen and spring practice be enough to have Stockton ready for playing time in the fall? We’ll know soon enough.
Defensive End – Much like the inside defensive line, there will be a lot of competition at the defensive end positions this spring. Fighting for starting jobs will be seniors Morrice Richardson, Kallen Wade and John Ryan, junior Kerry Neal, and sophomore Kapron Lewis-Moore.
Kerry Neal spent most of last year as a starting outside linebacker but practiced with the defensive ends and will be a defensive end for the Irish this year. Over the past two seasons Neal has logged plenty of minutes and has shown that he has some serious pass rushing skills. He might be a bit on the small side for an every down defensive end, but Tenuta has used smaller defensive ends with very good success in the past. I’d expect Neal to lock down one of the starting defensive end spots by the end of the spring.
I think the other defensive end job ends up getting won by senior Morrice Richardson. Ever since his brief playing time as a freshmen I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Richardson, but he’s never been able to find a comfort level as he’s been bounced back and forth between defensive end and outside linebacker the past three years. The switch to a 4-3 defense will benefit Richardson quite a bit and I believe he’ll start to emerge this spring.
Kapron Lewis-Moore is another player to really watch at defensive end. Like Richardson, he will benefit greatly from a more traditional 4-3 defense because he a bit of a tweener in a 3-4 defense. Lewis-Moore impressed the coaches early on but he did not log any playing time as a true freshman. He could, however, be the wildcard in the group.
John Ryan played a lot early in his career, but his playing time decreased significantly as the 2008 season progressed. It will be difficult for him to be more than role player with some of the young talent coming up behind him. Kallen Wade will be entering his senior season and has yet to play many meaningful downs. His window of opportunity is closing with some younger players rising up the depth chart.
Linebacker – Like the defensive line, the linebackers will like be shaken up a bit by playing a 4-3 defense. Brian Smith will return as the starting middle linebacker but with Maurice Crum’s graduation and Harrison Smtih’s switch back to safety, the other two starting linebacker spots are up for grabs. Tenuta, who also coaches the linebackers, is going to want to get the most athletic group of linebackers on the field that he can and will have some very talented young players to work with.
Unfortunately, most of the depth amongst the linebackers comes at the middle linebacker which Smith has a pretty firm grasp on. Anthony McDonald and Toryan Smith will provide depth behind Smith, but neither is likely to challenge him for the start job.
Steve Filer saw some time one special teams as a freshman, but should push for a starting role in 2009. He’ll start the spring as the favorite to handle the weakside linebacker position over classmate David Poslouzny.
Darius Fleming saw plenty of action towards the end of the season as the backup weakside linebacker behind Kerry Neal. In a 4-3 alignment, however the sophomore Chicago native is likely to line up as the strong side linebacker. Scott Smith is the most likely to challenge Fleming for the starting spot on the strong side this spring.
The wildcard at linebacker will be incoming freshman Manti Te’o who could play both of the outside linebacker positions and will likely challenge Filer and Fleming for a starting role when he arrives in the summer.
Free Safety – David Bruton was a mainstay in the Notre Dame defensive backfield for the past two seasons. His graduation will open up one of as many as three starting jobs in the secondary for Notre Dame in 2009. The most likely candidate to replace Bruton is senior Sergio Brown. Brown spent most of the 2008 season as the nickel back for the Irish and is the most suited to replace Bruton because of his athleticism. As the nickel back, Brown struggled at times turning and locating the ball – he would be in position to make plays but wouldn’t come up with them. He’ll need to improve upon that as Notre Dame’s last line of defense in order to lock down the position.
Dan McCarthy, who didn’t play as a freshman after suffering a neck injury at the end of his senior year at Cardinal Mooney High, will challenge Brown for the free safety spot. Senior Leonard Gordon will also be in the mix at free safety along with Brown and McCarthy.
Strong Safety – Incumbent starter Kyle McCarthy returns for a 5th year in 2009, but with Harrison Smith’s move back to safety, he will have a challenge on his hands to retain that starting role. There is a chance that Brown and Tenuta give Smith a look at free safety, but after playing linebacker in 2008 his game is best suited for strong safety. This will be one of the more interesting position battles this spring because it is the only position where an incumbent will get challenged by a fellow returning starter.
McCarthy was the most fundamentally sound tackler on the 2008 defense, but doesn’t have the same speed or athleticism that Smith brings to the table. Selecting the safeties will be one of the more difficult decisions for the defensive coaching staff this year. Brown can replace Bruton’s athleticism and range the best, and Harrison Smith is one of the more physically gifted players on the team. How do replace a returning starter that was one of your more fundamentally sound players though?
Cornerback – Darrin Walls returns after sitting out 2008 while he was not enrolled at Notre Dame and should be considered a lock to start at corner. It looked as though Walls was headed towards becoming an elite corner before his career took a detour last summer. Spring will be important for Walls to get back up to speed after not playing football last year. He won’t be handed the starting position immediately, but it shouldn’t take long for him to earn it back.
Raeshon McNeil and Robert Blanton will fight it out for the other starting cornerback position. McNeil started every game last season and Blanton started the last four in place of the injured Terrail Lambert. This will be another very interesting battle to watch this spring because both bring a lot of talent to the table and both have starting experience. Blanton played very, very well for a true freshman last year and might possess the best instincts of all of the corners on the roster.
Whoever does not lock down the starting spot will most likely be the nickel back in 2009. I wouldn’t count on this battle being decided in the spring though. McNeil and Blanton will fight it out for the starting spot into fall camp and both will end up logging a lot of minutes in 2009.
There should be plenty to watch on defense this spring and it should be pretty fun to watch the underclassmen develop. There are a lot of young, up and coming players on defense who should start to make their mark this spring, and it’s been a while since Notre Dame has had as much raw talent and athleticism on the defensive side of the ball.
Unlike the offense, the defensive depth chart probably won’t be as settled by the end of spring, but we should get a general idea of where the defense is headed over the next month.