Time is running short before the first game, so I will try to get out the last couple of parts of my preseason preview done today and tomorrow, so that I can get my Georgia Tech Preview post ready by Thursday. So, without further ado, here is
Part V - Defensive Line
The defensive line last year struggled getting consistent pressure on the passer, hanging our secondary out to dry and causing many of our passing woes last year. In particular, this group struggled containing mobile quarterbacks. This year, this group must improve its play if we expect to keep the likes of Reggie Ball and Drew Stanton from running wild.
Victor Abiamiri, Senior, Defensive End (4 year starter)
Vic was a stud coming out of high school, and was expected to be a great pass rusher with lots of brute strength and surprising quickness off of the corner. Alas, to date he has fallen short of expectations.
The pass rush on the defensive line begins and ends with Abiamiri. If he is effective, teams will be forced to double team him, leaving our other talented lineman in one-on-one battles. If he can't prove this year that he can consistently beat his blockers one-on-one, our pass rush won't go anywhere, as the offensive line will be able to more effectively pick up blitzes.
All that said, the stars seem aligned this year for Abiamiri to finally show that he was deserving of the hype early in his career. I expect him to have a similar breakout season to what Maurice Stovall did last year. He is all over the preseason lists, and despite underpreforming to his potential, has been quietly sneaking up the all-time lists at Notre Dame for sacks and tackles. If he lives up to his potential this season, he can punch himself a top 10 pick in the NFL draft and single handedly improve this unit into a championship-caliber defense.
Trevor Laws, Senior, Defensive Tackle (2 year starter)
Laws is probably the most improved member of this unit this year, and had awesome off-season conditioning improvements. He is bigger and stronger than last year, and hasn't lost a step. At 283 lbs, he is finally big enough to be the run-stuffer up the middle that we need from our defensive tackles. As a matter of fact, with the weaknesses on our linebacking corps, Laws (and Landri) will have to pick up the slack on the run defense. Laws has looked impressive in practice, getting great penetration into the backfield, disrupting the offense. If he can force teams to run at the strong side of the defense, rather than the weak side, he will make our linebacking corps look much better, as Travis Thomas will not get caught up by inside blockers as often, and can use his athleticism to make plays.
Derek Landri, Senior (RS), Defensive Tackle (3 year starter)
While Trevor Laws is the star of the interior line, Derek Landri has more experience, and actually had more tackles than Laws last year. Landri hasn't improved as much as Laws in the offseason, but he has quietly become one of the best defensive tackles in the country, while still flying under most team's radar. I expect him to have a similar season this year as last year (which is still quite impressive), but with the improvement around him, the entire unit will look much better.
Ronald Talley, Junior, Defensive End (2 year starter)
Talley took over for an injured Chris Frome last year, and despite Frome returning for injury, has really improved himself and held onto the starting job. While Talley isn't near the pass rusher that Abiamiri is, at the strong side end he has the physical tools to beat one-on-one blocking and get pressure on the QB. If Abiamiri can command double-teams on the other side, expect Talley to wreak havoc in the backfield. He will likely split time with Chris Frome to some extent.
Chris Frome, Senior, Defensive End (1 year starter)
Frome was the starter at the beginning of last season, and if not for an injury, he would probably have been the incumbent starter coming into this season. However, Talley took hold of the opportunity to start and stepped up his game considerably. Frome is healthy again, and has been improving steadily through the offseason. He is right on the heels of Talley, and Coach Weis will probably rotate him in quite a bit to keep both of them fresh, adding to the pressure put on opposing offensive lines late in the game.
Don't be surprised if Frome supplants Talley as the starter later in the season, or if they start alternating starts. Frome has more quickness than Talley, but hasn't completely regained his strength from before his injury.
John Ryan, Freshman, and Justin Brown, Junior
Listed together on the two deep behind Abiamiri, they are two different kinds of players. Ryan needs to develop more physically and mentally to push for starting time, but has loads of potential. Brown, the more veteran player, is the kind of player that doesn't have the natural ability of some of his more heralded teammates, but has worked his ass off, and developed his technique to the point that the coaches feel comfortable with him as a solid backup going into the season. Really, though, the #4 defensive end spot is Ryan's to take.
Travis Leitko, Senior, Defensive Tackle
One of the great stories on this Notre Dame team, Leitko will be the subject of several tear-jerking features on television networks this season. In Ty's last year, Leitko appeared to be the heir apparent to the defensive end position. He had to deal with some severe personal issues, and left the team last year. (I'll do a feature on him later this season) He returned this year, and had to walk-on, having lost his scholarship. He busted his ass, and was rewarded with a scholarship at the end of training camp. He is the clear #3 defensive tackle right now, and has defensive end speed to go with his defensive tackle size. He will have a significant impact on special teams, and will probably be used liberally to give Laws and Landri breathers.
Pat Kuntz, Sophomore, Defensive Tackle
An Indiana boy, Kuntz right now is the heir apparent to the interior of the defensive line, and as much as I like this kid, that's not good news. He is a very good defensive tackle, but does not have the physical tools to anchor a defensive line. He would be a good #2 defensive lineman, and is an excellent #4 guy going into this year.
Next year, however, Coach Weis needs to hit some home runs with his defensive tackle prospects. Marvin Austin, the stud of the incoming class, isn't too high on Notre Dame right now, but would be an instant impact player if the Irish could land him. And the Irish desperately need a defensive tackle of his stature in next year's class.
This group is the deepest, most talented defensive line in the country - on paper.
However, at this point, they are no more than a middling group based upon their performance on the field. If this group meets their full potential, they can wreak havoc on opposing backfields. However, Vic Abiamiri hasn't played with the kind of motor a top-flight defensive end needs on every play to this point. Laws finally has the size to go with his speed, but needs to show he can get consistent penetration into opposing backfields before he can be called an NFL prospect. Coach Holtz used to say something along the lines of, if you have two players that are dead-even for the starting position, then what you have are two backups. Talley and Frome are basically dead even right now, and neither one has really stepped up and taken over the starting position, which shows me that neither one WANTS it more.
Much like the linebackers, this group has the potential to be great, but I'll believe it when I see it.