Notre Dame 2011 Preview: The Defense (Part 2 of 2)
Defensive Line –
As a group the 1st-string front line has the skill and capability to smash teams in the mouth. Starters Kapron Lewis-Moore (6’4” 300, Sr.), Sean Cwynar (6’4” 300, Sr.), and Ethan Johnson (6’4” 300, Sr.) can dictate play and re-establish the line of scrimmage early and often. Fast starts by the offense will play right into this group’s strengths when starters take a breather. The line, typically the earliest and most subbed-out group on the field, has a 2nd and 3rd string that is significantly lighter and more dangerous in the pass rush. Kona Schwenke (6’4” 290, Soph.) is the first sub I expect to see. After him the younger, lighter (can’t say smaller- Lynch is 6’6” and Tuitt 6’7”) ends will take the field. If the Irish are winning early- awesome. If they’re close or down in the 2nd quarter you’re going to see opposing offenses start to make headway on the ground while spreading out the edge of the defense. Lynch and Tuitt are both 5-star recruits, but simply might be too young and light to maintain their gaps like the scheme is designed. The 2nd-string DT is a wild-card (according to me) – the massive Louis Nix III (6’3” 340, Soph.) is expected to sub in early and often. I’m holding judgment out on him until I see more. A lot more. (see below). At the very least I expect him to maintain the strength up the middle while keeping blockers off Te’o. He also needs to be a vital cog on short-yardage and goal-line. This group can and will hold a firm line early in games, but their effectiveness when it matters will be dictated by the score and adjustment to D-I football by the youngsters.
Outside LB - Both of the starting OLB are considered pass-rush specialists and have a lot to prove in stopping the run. Since we can’t (shouldn’t – see Tenuta, John) blitz both on every down - something’s gotta give. Shembo had 4.5 sacks in very limited playing time in 2010 but didn’t get the opportunities needed for a full grade on anything else. I’ve noticed Fleming so little during his two full years as a starter I’ve thought of giving up on him (like Nix, see below). Teams that run and use play-action later in the game may find some mismatches with these two or their young/inexperienced back-ups. OLB is the biggest question mark for the Notre Dame defense heading into the 2011 season. Early lead and opponent passing = good. Close game late and opponent rushing = “?”. (There is a reason Kelly signed 7 guys who could end up here in the 2011 recruiting class.)
Inside LB - Te’o is the top Inside Linebacker in America. He does everything well and some things at an “above-elite” level. His pass and run defense are both above-average – he should never come off the field. Dan Fox was a mild surprise being named the other starting ILB for the opener. I think he splits time 50/50 with last season’s starter Carlo Calabrese. Calabrese was notably strong in stuffing the run at the point of attack – he gets plenty of opportunities to do that again. Since we haven’t seen much of Fox, I must rely on what I read. His ascension past Calabrese is due to his increased physicality in fall camp (per Brian Kelly), so I must assume the converted OLB was more comfortable in pass drops prior. I had few issues with Carlo in 2010; I can only hope the two converge as the perfect complement to Te’o. If Fox is only slightly better than Calabrese in pass coverage -it piles onto the problem of being tailored to stop the short game early, and becoming a more vulnerable defense as games wear on.
As a group, this is where I can most clearly get my point across. This group’s hard-hitting ways might play early, but they were all drawn in too far at some point during play-action and double moves. Harrison Smith’s blunder at USC could have changed the mood of the entire season and off-season. We’ll take the luck of the Irish on that one, but he’s got to be better in one-on-one coverage for the secondary to remain successful.
Cornerback – Gary Gray is the hidden All-America candidate for ND. Another solid season by him could, no exaggeration, find him in the “First Round NFL Draft Pick” conversation. Herring Bone’s most underrated player on the 2011 team. He’s the most complete player in the secondary. He’s absolutely relentless against the run. He blows up screen plays and slants with pure instinct. As far as one-on-one coverage he’s far superior to anyone on the team. He has a chance to be very special. Robert Blanton is a bit of tweener and always has been. He’s been playing significant minutes since his freshman year and has a little bit of corner, safety, and linebacker in him. As mentioned in Part 1, he’s fantastic near the line of scrimmage and has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He’s okay in one-on-one, but can be beaten by a well-thrown deep ball. Blanton is very good overall, but he needs to lockdown on receivers down the field to truly be dominant. (I’d bet he ends up as a long time NFL special teamer/nickel back - he’s always making plays). The other contributors look to be Lo Wood and converted WR Bennet Jackson; one will be pressed into a significant role at some point; I’m hoping Wood is ready to step up big time and be the next lockdown corner for the Irish.
Safety – Harrison Smith has grabbed a ton of headlines this preseason. He intercepted 3 passes in the bowl game and has become a great story of perseverance through adversity. He’s also a very good safety and is expected to be a big-time playmaker for Bob Diaco. Last, he’s the sole captain of the 2011 University of Notre Dame Football Team – his leadership is now expected. Great athleticism allows Smith to make a lot of plays from sideline to sideline - he’s another guy with a nose for the ball. That said, he’s made some crucial coverage mistakes during his career. He’s vulnerable in the deep passing game and he might need to play with a little more caution to avoid the “big play” throughout the season. The co-starters opposite Smith are Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta. Both had multiple starts in 2010. Motta showed flashes of his top-notch athleticism, but he’s similar to Smith in look and deficiencies. He can be picked on when one-on-one and can lose a step on deep passes. Slaughter, who was injured much of 2010, seems to have all the qualities you want in a free safety. He loves getting his nose dirty when necessary while rarely looking to be lost in deep zones. If it all plays out as planned, then Slaughter plays most of the snaps at free while Motta gets a ton of playing time in the nickel – an aggressive position that best suits his skills.
Having five guys with extensive playing time in the secondary is a luxury, but having none past that might be a problem. The summary for this group is that their style can get the team off to a fast start through aggressive plays and forced three and outs. When they get a lead they can back off a bit and let the deep pass rushing group wreak havoc while waiting for bad throws; more importantly they can’t let receivers get past the safeties. If required to stay within their base 3-4 defense for four quarters this unit can get more and more vulnerable. Injuries to Te’o or any of the top five in the secondary could doom a game or the season.
Long Article I Know. We Have A Lot to Cover. Take a Break and Enjoy a Manti Te’o Preview You Might Have Missed:
(Apologies to those on Droid (Like ME), but NBC and Hulu.com aren’t supported…perfect for an ND/Saturday Night Live Blog)
One of the most functional aspects of this “mirror” 3-4 defense is the multitude of options with personnel. Plenty of guys will get opportunities to maximize their best attributes outside “traditional 3-4 alignments”. Bob Diaco will be playing multiple fronts to exploit match-ups. A 5-2 that gets Nix and Tuitt on the field vs. power rushes sounds pretty intimidating, while a 3-2-6 that has Fleming, Shembo, and Lynch with their hands on the ground is going to create significant mis-matches along the front in 3rd and long.
Figuring out the personnel jigsaw puzzle will ultimately tell if this is a good defense or a great defense.
All Hype Team (Non-Freshman): Darius Fleming & Louis Nix III
Fleming is a guy who’s headlines and press clippings far outnumber the memorable plays he’s made in a game. He made a tackle for loss last October and I momentarily thought “Who is that?”- I simply didn’t recognize his number. He’d been a starter for almost 20 games at that point. He tends to turn invisible out there for too many long stretches; with a huge, hyped freshman class at DE/OLB he better make something happen early this fall before he actually disappears from the depth chart. (I give credit where credit is due – he finished strong with 7 tackles vs. USC and 2 tackles for loss in the Sun Bowl. Let’s keep it going forty-five.)
Nix has also garnered a lot of headlines for different reasons. He surprisingly committed between Charlie Weis being fired and Kelly being hired. He then showed up to 2010 fall camp approximately 30-40 lbs. overweight. He’s nicknamed himself “Irish Chocolate”. He’s even a DT wearing #9. Between the social media fodder ND’s football media has heaped mounds of praise on this kid that could lead the naïve to think a Warren Sapp reincarnate was riding the pine in 2010. I, for one, am uncomfortable putting large stock into a young kid with significant weight and conditioning issues, especially for four grueling months. The fluff you’ll read about Nix, Tuitt, Lynch, Ishaq Williams, and Niklas has a similar conclusion - we need ”Irish Chocolate” to stomp onto the field on Saturday and do something that makes us say “Whoa!” before I pencil him in as a 3-year starter and Lombardi Award-Winner.
How I’d Attack If I Was an Opposing Offensive Coordinator:
I think the I’ve pointed out that playing close and attacking the heart of this defense is risky. Going deep early and often might be your best mode of transit. My game plan would include a lot of shotgun and play-action pass. I want to find my TEs and RBs one-on-one with Fleming or Shembo. I’m also having my WR on double-moves in the middle of the field. I want the linebackers and secondary in “back-off” mode as soon as possible. An accurate passer with time will find open receivers.
Fortunately for Notre Dame, the schedule is light on seasoned passers. Guys with the ability to throw deep might be few, but it will only take 2-3 losses to knock ND out of the BCS picture. The toughest tests will be: Michigan St. (Kirk Cousins – VERY underrated), USC (Matt Barkley), and Stanford (Andrew Luck). If these teams take leads - watch out. The secondary will have to show improvement to hold these future NFL signal-callers in check.
Only a little less concerning are mobile quarterbacks like B.J. Daniels (S. Florida) and Denard Robinson (Michigan). The Irish might be able to out physical them inside; when these two get outside the pocket can Smith, Blanton, and Motta maintain coverage on extended plays? Are starting DEs Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson fast enough to pursue these quarterbacks back into the teeth of the defense? Do you run Cover 2 with your CBs spying close and less qualified DBs roaming the entire 3rd level? I’m not totally sure. If I’m coaching either USF or Big Blue I will be calling roll-outs all day and reading Moore and Fleming for check-downs. Wide receivers on these teams are going to break free deep 1-2 times each game, but these guys must make quality passes.
You know what I’m NOT doing? Throwing a screen pass - EVER. Manti’s skill cannot be underrated in this aspect of the game. Screens proliferate the college landscape in 2011. Keep it in the playbook if you want your receivers and backs healthy for next week.
Finally - The 2011 Notre Dame defense has all the pieces to be a dominant, awe-inspiring unit. They are leap years ahead of squads that trotted out the tunnel in recent falls in respect to size, speed, and athleticism. Most importantly they better not be reading all this pre-season praise in cyberspace. Nothing is guaranteed for them – they need to earn it every week, on every down.
9.8 and 63
So when you’re getting ready for the season - Please think of those numbers and keep your expectations in check.
- Herring Bone
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