In article after article after article, the "pundits" have been saying that the Fightin' Irish will only go as far this year as their defense will take them - what good is 50 touchdowns by Brady & Co. if the D gives up 60?
So, in my second installment of the Spring Preview, we'll break down the defense going into the 2006-2007 football season.
Because it was the subject of incredible scrutiny, especially after the embarassment that was the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, we'll start with the
We return every starting member of the secondary last year, but the question remains whether this is a good thing or not going into next year. Remember 4th and 9? Or how about the touchdowns of 56, 68, 85 and 60 yards in the Fiesta Bowl?
Ambrose Wooden, Senior
Mike Richardson, Senior
This position has the most potential for improvement from Weis Year 1 to Weis Year 2, as both players have a ton of experience, and Wooden has the talent to be a shut-down corner. Also, a shot of talent from the latest recruiting class should light a fire under their ass (particularly 5-star Top-10 superstar prospect Darrin Walls). The corners played really well last year, as the secondary breakdowns were due in large part (see below) to the safeties' failure to back them up. Once the safeties learn discipline, the potential of the cornerbacks will come to the forefront.
Tom Zbikowski, Senior
Chinedum Ndukwe, Senior
With Tommy Z's announcement that he'll be starting his professional boxing career under the storied lights of Madison Square Garden on June 10, there is little doubt that the safeties in this class aren't afraid to hit people. However, this group is almost entirely resopnsible for Notre Dame missing out on a national championship in 2005-2006, and they have the most to prove in '06-'07.
Against Michigan State, the defensive secondary displayed exactly the type of play that characterized much of the 2005-2006 campaign in the first half, with missed assignments, miscues, and miscommunication. In the second half, the defensive secondary showed the promise that they hold, completely shutting down the MSU offense as Notre Dame mounted their near-historic comeback.
Against USC, with the spot in the national championship game on the line, Tommy Z, as much as I love his heart, was out of position on 4th and 9 against USC, allowing what normally would be a 15-20 yard gain to turn into a 63-yard gain, setting up the drama that would eventually (wrongly) result in USC's go-ahead score. Tommy was positioned in the center of the field, broke late on the pass, then took too shallow of angle to pick up the receiver after he caught the ball. If he is in position and takes the right angle on that play, history would be very different.
Finally, in the Ohio State game, the safeties were repeatedly caught too shallow in their coverage getting absolutely embarassed by the speed of Ted Ginn, Jr. and Santonio Holmes.
If the Notre Dame defense is going to win us a championship in '07, it's going to be this group that does it.
Tommy Z has been rumored (pure rumor, no substance) to be moving to Apache linebacker in the fall to shore up the lack of depth at linebacker (to be discussed later) while allowing the younger depth at safety to see the field. If Coach Weis actually makes this move, it would be one of the boldest moves in Notre Dame history, as Tommy is already being touted as an All-American safety. However, with the likes of David Bruton, JaShaad Gaines, and 4-star recruit Raeshon McNeil in the wings at safety, it might not be a bad move, and should improve the communication between the safeties and the linebackers. We'll see how coach decides to handle this.
Maurice Crum, Jr. - Junior
Joe Brockington - Senior
If their is one area that is riddled with uncertainty going into this year, it is the linebacking corps, which has to replace two of their three starters from last year, including the rock from last year's defense, Brandon Hoyte, who played almost 300 minutes last year, led the team in tackles, and was the team defensive captain. Also gone is Corey Mays, who finished second in tackles. The lone returning starter is Maurice Crum, Jr., who had a solid year at Apache linebacker, but was not a standout. The Irish have produced some talented linebackers over the years, including Bob Crable, Steve Heimkreiter, and the legendary Michael Stonebreaker (what a name!), and almost never have a season without a rock in the linebacking corps. That mantle is being thrust upon Crum this year (barring Weis moving Zibby to Apache), and he has to step it up this year. The rumors swirling around Tommy Z only cloud the depth problem, with players like Joe Brockington and Steve Quinn sitting in the wings, but nobody seems to be seperating themselves as a starter at this point. Stud linebackers Toryan Smith and Morrice Richardson coming in from the '06 recruiting class may get the chance to earn a starting position. Depth and performance from this position will decide how consistent this defense can be, and if this group struggles, it will seriously expose the weaknesses in the secondary and D-line.
Coach Weis has stated repeatedly that the area he expects the most improvement from is not the secondary, and he doesn't seem to be sweating bullets about the linebacking corps. He has focused much of his attention this year on the pass rush, which seemed to have the fewest question marks of any of the positions. However, Coach is far smarter than me, so I'll defer to his far superior football mind. All four starters from last year return:
Victor Abiamiri, Defensive End - Senior
Derek Landri, Defensive Tackle - Senior
Trevor Laws, Defensive Tackle - Senior
Chris Frome, Defensive End - Senior
Abiamiri should finally live up to all of the hype and expectations that came with him as a freshman, and Chris Frome, who was prematurely thrust into the spotlight last year, should be more comfortable with his starting position this year. The interior lineman were solid last year, and I would expect their progression to reslt in an even stingier rush defense than last year's 35th ranked squad.
In 2007, only Trevor Laws will have any remaining eligibility, and the depth of this unit is even worse than the O-line, but the front-line talent could make this unit the strength of the '06-'07 defense. There are a pair of 3-star defensive ends in this year's recruiting class, but no down linemen. I expect this group to be a major focus in recruiting the class of 2007. Early returns show that 5-star DT Marvin Austin is very interested in the Irish, and 5-star DE Kenny Rowe also has the Irish on his short list.
I expect this unit to improve over last year's squad if the linebacking corps can cut the mustard. The defensive secondary, more than any position except quarterback, takes time to develop. Coach Weis in a recent press conference spoke about the difficulties of installing a pro-style defensive scheme, because if the scheme is wel understood and too simple, you run into problems with athletic mismatches (linebackers trying to cover receivers). On the other hand, if the scheme is sufficiently complex to avoid athletic mismatches, the chance of blown coverages increases dramatically. Weis pointed to that as the problem in the Fiesta Bowl coverage, that he had tried to install too much of the defensive scheme, resulting on blown coverages. However, I'm not sure the alternative would have been any better, 'cause although Wooden might have been able to cover Ginn or Holmes 1-on-1, Richardson probably couldn't have.
With another year to learn the scheme, I expect there to be fewer mistakes in the secondary, translating into an improvement from last year's 103rd ranked pass defense to somewhere in the 40s or 50s. If the pass rush develops as well, they could get as high as the 30s. The caliber of opponents, however, will preclude a much higher improvement as to pass defense.
The real question will be the rush defense. If the Irish linebackers can even approach the consistency of last year's squad, the progression of the D-line could result in one of the best rushing defenses in a long while at Notre Dame, which is saying something. On the other hand, without solid linebacker play backing up the D-line, teams with speedier backs could take advantage of this, and result in a dramatic drop in rush defense.
I know that going into the fall, the linebackers will be the squad I watch closest.