Friday, January 25, 2008

Diminishing Depth on the Defensive Line

In the past 2 weeks, the Irish defensive line has suffered 2 significant blows, first with the news that Pat Kuntz is not currently enrolled at ND (though he hopes to return) and second with the news this week that Derell Hand's football career may be over due to a reported spinal condition. With the graduation of dominant DE Trevor Laws and also Dwight Stephenson, there is some reason for concern about the DL going into the spring.

This spring, the Irish will be painfully thin from a depth perspective at DL and even more painfully lacking in experience at this critical position. As it stands now, the Irish will barely be able to field a 2 deep of scholarship players along the DL. At DE, the Irish will have Justin Brown, Paddy Mullen, Emeka Nwankwo, Kallen Wade, and Sean Cwynar. At NG, it is basically just the Ian Williams show. That is 6 scholarship DL on the entire roster!! From a sheer numbers standpoint, that is a very scary situation. What is even scarier, however, is that the 6 guys we are talking about are not experienced, grizzled veterans and 1 of the 6 (Cwynar) is a freshman who will simply be trying to learn the system. Of the 6 listed above, only Justin Brown and to a lesser extent Ian Williams have played extensively. Ouch. Obviously, someone (likely either Nwankwo or Mullen) will have to cross train at both end and NG to provide some depth. I really have no idea what the Irish would do if God forbid Ian Williams were to suffer an injury.

So that is the bad news. You can't sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn't exist. However, I don't subscribe to "the sky is falling" crowd. Why? First, I believe Pat Kuntz will return to ND this summer and will be on the field when the 2008 season kicks off. I cannot overemphasize how important a player he is on so many levels for the 2008 Irish. If he returns, I believe Pat will shift to DE opposite Justin Brown to establish a starting trio of Kuntz-Williams-Brown. Kuntz is also able to shift to NG to spell Ian and to DT when the Irish go with a 4 man front. You can't mask the fact that the Irish will not have numbers on DL next year. That is why guys with positional flexibility who can play at a high level at multiple spots like Kuntz can are invaluable. Second, help is on the way. With this recruiting class, as of now, the Irish have reinforcements coming for the D Line. Sean Cwynar is already at ND as an early enrollee. This summer, Ethan Johnson, Brandon Newman, and Hafis Williams will join the corps. 1, likely 2 of these guys are going to have to be ready to contribute and give the Irish some snaps. A guy like Ethan Johnson is critical because on obvious passing downs, he has the speed and ability to give the Irish production at DE. Third, Corwin Brown and Charlie Weis have a plan. They know they are down numbers at DL. I think you will see a very diverse scheme next season to try to work around the problem. As strange as it sounds after saying the Irish lack numbers, I believe the Irish will show more 4 man fronts next season, with a guy like Kerry Neal sliding to DE to rush the passer occasionally. I also think you will see a lot more aggressive defense next year with much more pressure. Corwin knows he doesn't have the depth to sit back and allow teams to go on long drives. One way or the other, he knows he needs to put pressure on the opposing offense and get his D off the field as quickly as possible. Additionally, it is possible that someone like John Ryan will bulk up and see time at DE.

What does all of this mean? It is way too early to tell and there are way too many variables involved. Will Kuntz return? Will the freshmen be ready to contribute? Will someone like Kallen Wade make huge strides in the offseason? The bottom line is that at this point, the 2008 Irish DL has many of the same issues that faced the 2007 OL. Lack of depth, lack of experience, and guys who will be forced to play key minutes before they are ready. DL has clearly emerged as a big time position to watch as the spring approaches.

NOTE: After signing day, I will be doing a series of articles over a period of days/weeks sharing my thoughts on the Irish recruits by position group.

12 comments:

Ted said...

IG, thanks for the excellent analysis of the defensive line following the news about the questionable status of Kuntz and Hand. I believe the Irish faithful will have to temper our enthusiasm for the coming season to a level of moderate success. As our young team gains in experience and depth, Notre Dame will see excellent seasons.

IrishGlory said...

I agree with you Ted. I think with the talent the Irish have in the secondary and the development of Kerry Neal and Brian Smith, I am fairly confident we can be successful in our pass defense. However, with the issues we have at DL and MLB, can we stop the run and keep our D from wearing down??? I don't know.

Sir John said...

Irish Glory you continually put out excent analysis. A great piece of work

IrishGlory said...

Thank you sj.

Face Mask said...

Outstanding work IG.I also see us getting depth by moving Stewart back to Def.

IrishGlory said...

I could be wrong, but I don't see it happening facemask.

Face Mask said...

IG,if they do go to 4-3,would not that make us even more in need of DLs?If it does where else do we go to get depth?I really only see one guy out of the in coming class seeing much playing time.I could be wrong of course but I think Stewart moving back is an option.

IrishGlory said...

You would think that a 4 man line would require more DL, but the way the irish employ their 34 personnel, a 4 man line actually gives them a lot more flexibility. Guys like Kerry Neal, Mo Richardson, and even Brian Smith are all capable of putting their hands on the ground as DE in a 4 man front. Make no mistake about it, the Irish will still be a 34 team because that is what they are recruiting for, but within that framework, Corwin has the flexibility to show some 4 man fronts.

Face Mask said...

I love talkin that IRISH football.I yeld this point to you as only time will tell.This is a concern of mine as I love Def. much more than OFF.I think that if I were smart enough to fix this for them I'd be an ND alum and be on the payroll.This is the best post so far IG.

IrishGlory said...

Facemask - You would think coming off this past awful season, we would need time away from ND football, but the opposite is true. I am fired up and can't wait for spring ball. The offseason is a killer.

Ted said...

Let's hope that the D-Line '08 recruits will learn quickly in August.
CW admitted he made mistakes last August in how he prepared the young team for the '07season.
I don't believe we will see a repeat of that this Spring or in August.
I have nothing on which to base this, but I just believe Kuntz will be back for next season. His Heart is with ND, and he knows how much he is needed.

Darla said...

Well written article.