Thursday, August 26, 2010

Notre Dame Position Previews: Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Line

Spotlight: Kapron Lewis-Moore

Also Returning: Sean Cwynar, Ethan Johnson, Brandon Newman, Emeka Nwankwo, Martin Quintana, Christopher Skubis, Hafis Williams, Ian Williams
Lost: Paddy Mullen, Morrice Richardson, John Ryan, Kallen Wade (graduation), Kerry Neal (position change - linebacker)
Gained: John Belcher (walk-on), Tyler Stockton (DNP as freshman), Bruce Heggie, Louis Nix, Kona Schwenke (freshmen)

The Irish back to the 3-4 for the second time in four years, mostly due to depth issues on the line. The good news is that the change gets Notre Dame's three best lineman on the field in their best positions. Ethan Johnson struggled as an undersized defensive tackle, but now he and Kapron Lewis-Moore get to settle in as oversized defensive ends, perfect for the 3-4. Their pass rushing ability will also take pressure off the linebackers, as the Irish should be able to drop an extra 'backer or two into coverage and still get pressure on the opposing QB.

KLM is my favorite defensive lineman, and he may soon be yours, too. Lewis-Moore played his way onto the field in 2009, and finished sixth on the team in tackles and third in sacks. Ethan Johnson struggled in 2009, but again the move back to end should help him repeat the success he saw in 2008. Speaking of past success, Ian Williams' best year in an Irish uniform came as a 3-4 nose tackle in 2007, and he'll now be returning to that role in 2010.

The second team features Hafis Williams and Emeka Nwankwo at end and Sean Cwynar at nose tackle, although Cwynar has the ability to play all three line positions. Everyone on the two-deep at line is at least a junior (Williams and Nwankwo are seniors), so while depth is an issue, experience is not.

Freshman Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke have been working hard and may be able to crack the rotation by the end of the season. Nix especially has been working to remove the stigma of showing up to fall practice overweight.


Spotlight: Steve Filer

Also Returning: Darius Fleming, Anthony McDonald, David Posluszny, Sean Oxley, Brian Smith, Manti Te'o
Lost: Tom Burke, Scott Smith, Toryan Smith (graduation)
Gained: Kerry Neal (position change - defensive end), Steve Paskorz (position change - fullback), Steve Botsford (walk-on), Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox (DNP as freshmen), Kendall Moore, Derek Roback, Prince Shembo, Danny Spond, Justin Utopo (freshman)

Only two spots in the linebacking corps appear to be settled: Manti Te'o on the inside, and Darius Fleming on the outside. Watching the two play, there's no doubt as to why that's the case.

The other inside and outside jobs are up for grabs. Senior mainstay Brian Smith was unseated from his position on the outside recently, and will have to fight to get it back. It was originally thought that Smith would be sharing time with Steve Filer.

Filer, known until now more for his ability to jump out of an inground pool than for his ability on the gridiron, has finally gotten his football priorities in order - or so says Coach Kelly. Of course, as soon as that happened, Kerry Neal joined the battle.

Neal broke out as a freshman outside linebacker in 2007, then struggled as he bounced between linebacker and defensive end the next few years. Neal was originally scheduled to be Darius Fleming's backup, but now his motor and consistency have him slated to start opposite of Fleming.

And people thought the battle for the inside linebacker job would be the most interesting in the front seven. Of course, the inside competition has not been without its drama. The main players were originally Anthony McDonald - a coverage guy who needed to improve his run support, and Carlo Calabrese - a hulking run stopper who needed to improve his coverage skills. McDonald is doubtful for the Purdue game with a knee injury, which moves Calabrese into the starting spot and also forces Dan Fox to slide over from outside to inside for the time being. Calabrese and Fox have yet to play college ball, but both had their names called quite a bit during the spring game.

Te'o's backup is linebacker-turned-fullback-turned-linebacker Steve Paskorz. Paskorz is also dinged up at the moment, which could mean playing time for David Posluszny on the inside as well.

Among the freshman, Prince Shembo and Danny Spond are closest to making the dress list, with Spond getting an added boost for his special teams abilities. Justin Utopo has some trouble with the NCAA clearinghouse, but those issues are expected to be resolved shortly.


Spotlight: Jamoris Slaughter

Also Returning: Dan McCarthy, Zeke Motta, Harrison Smith, Thomas Smith
Lost: Chris Bathon, Sergio Brown, Leonard Gordon, Ray Herring, Kyle McCarthy (graduation)
Gained: Chris Salvi (walk-on)

Notre Dame has seen quite a bit of turnover at safety lately, and this year the Irish will have to replace both of their starters. ND is thin at the position, dressing only four scholarship players. But all four are expected to be in the rotation this season.

Harrison Smith, whose struggles at safety forced him to move back to linebacker last yearyear, will again take his chances in the secondary. Smith has had a good camp, and of all four safeties he is expected to be on the field the most.

Tom Zbikowski saw time as a hybrid linebacker/third safety on passing downs towards the end of his Notre Dame career, and Zeke Motta continued in that role last year. The new coaching staff must have liked what they saw out of Motta in that scheme, because he will continue in that role this year - in addition to seeing time as a more traditional safety, of course.

The spotlight goes to Jamoris Slaughter, who quietly moved from cornerback to safety last year to help with depth. You didn't hear much about Slaughter last year, but that's not always a bad thing for a safety. He's expected to start alongside Smith this season.


Spotlight: Lo Wood
2008 (HS Jr)-3858

Also Returning: Robert Blanton, Michael Garcia, Gary Gray, Nick Lezynski, Andrew Plaska, Ryan Sheehan, Darrin Walls
Lost: Mike Anello, Raeshon McNeil, Joshua Stull (graduation), Jamoris Slaughter (position change - safety), Kael Anderson (former walk-on is not on the roster this year), EJ Banks (still in school, but no longer on the team)
Gained: Barry Gallup (position change - wide receiver), James Redshaw (walk-on)

The loss of EJ Banks made a thin position even thinner. Thankfully, freshman Lo Wood has stepped up in fall practice and looks to be ready for opening day.

The two starters, Gary Gray and Darrin Walls, are very good in their own right. But opponents will be eager to test the depth of the Notre Dame secondary (only nine scholarship players), which is where Wood and Robert Blanton come in. Blanton has shown his ability and desire to make the big play, but needs to improve his consistency in coverage.

To help the numbers game at DB, Barry Gallup has moved to cornerback. The selfless senior is now playing his third position, after bouncing between halfback and wide receiver for the start of his career (in addition to returning kicks).

Given the depth in the secondary, it's surprising that Austin Collinsworth stayed on the offensive side of the ball after seeing time at both receiver and defensive back in high school. That's especially so given the praise Collinsworth has received as a special teams player. But the coaching staff obviously likes what it sees in Collinsworth as a wideout, and is comfortable (for the time) with the depth they have at defensive back.


Spotlight: Ben Turk

Also Returning: David Ruffer, Nick Tausch, Brandon Walker
Lost: Ryan Burkhart (graduation), Eric Maust (graduation/not offered fifth year)
Gained: Mike Greiko (walk-on)

Believe it or not, Notre Dame may have its best kicking game since the Nick Setta/Joey Hildbold days. Nick Tausch returns from a near-perfect season to find himself a preseason Lou Groza Award semifinalist. Tausch will again be backed up by David Ruffer, the walk-on who is said to have a cannon for a leg. Ruffer will likely be the kickoff specialist again this year.

Punting the ball, both Ben Turk and Eric Maust had consistency issues last year. But the coaching staff - or perhaps the administration - is putting their faith in Turk, as Maust was not offered a fifth year of eligibility. If Turk does falter, he'll be backed by Brandon Walker. Walker, the former placekicker, did also punt in high school.