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Pre-Spring Depth Chart: Defensive Line

With about three weeks to go until spring practices begin in South Bend, it is time to take a look at the depth chart on the defensive side of the ball for Notre Dame.

First up is the defensive line.

*Denotes fifth year eligibility

Ethan Johnson, Defensive End, Senior
Kapron Lewis-Moore, Defensive End, Senior*
Kona Schwenke, Defensive End, Sophomore
Bruce Heggie, Defensive End, Sophomore*
Aaron Lynch, Defensive End, Freshman
Stephon Tuitt, Defensive End, Freshman
Troy Niklas, Defensive End/Utility, Freshman
Brad Carrico, Defensive End/Utility, Freshman
Tony Springmann, Defensive End/Utility, Freshman

Chase Hounshell, Defensive End/Utility, Freshman

Brandon Newman, Defensive Tackle, Senior*
Sean Cwynar, Defensive Tackle, Senior*
Hafis Williams, Defensive Tackle, Senior*
Tyler Stockton, Defensive Tackle, Junior*
Louis Nix, Defensive Tackle, Sophomore*

There is Quality Veteran Leadership

The defense will miss the performance and leadership of Ian Williams at the nose guard position, but the team played exceptional in his absence due to injury last year, with Sean Cwynar stepping up and providing the Irish with a capable replacement in the middle.

As such, Notre Dame will be returning all three of its late season starting lineup across the defensive line. Additionally, all three players will be entering their fourth year on campus.

The Irish will return 227 career tackles and 16.5 sacks total from the play of Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Sean Cwynar.

In addition to this experience, the Irish will be able to utilize these players’ leadership abilities and properly train and prepare the younger players for college ball.

With the way that the depth chart is set up it seems painfully obvious that Brian Kelly does not want to bring in freshmen and force them to play due to low numbers at the defensive line position. Some younger players (and a couple freshman) might see the field, but don’t hold your breath on anyone starting like Ethan Johnson did out of the gate as a true freshman in 2008.

But There’s Also a Whole Lot of Inexperience

With the competent experience returning in the form of the players mentioned above, the Irish faithful welcome the addition of so many bodies and young players at this position.

On a good year the team was lucky to have decent backups at any and every position along the line. Now, the team heads into spring with a staggering 15 players filling the defensive line depth chart.

In short, Notre Dame has found themselves in a great position along the line.

Normally this amount of inexperience is troubling, but the team only loses Ethan Johnson after 2011 and has the option of bringing back four seniors with eligibility left in their careers.

This means the team is enjoying both the luxury of numbers, but also a comfortable balance of new blood mixed with gritty veteran leadership.

Who Needs to Step Up?

Since both 2010 starting defensive ends are coming back and there are numerous candidates to fill the two-deep at that position, our attention moves to the middle at the nose guard position.

Sean Cwynar was the primary backup in 2010 and started the final four games of the regular season, but there will be a fight for the starting job in 2011 among several players.

The player I would say needs to step up is Louis Nix.

Although the youngest of the group, Nix has earned praise from the coaching staff and looks to be a perfect fit for the nose guard position in the 3-4 alignment. His blend of size, speed and tenacity has many a fan dreaming of a Warren Sapp-like athlete in the middle for Notre Dame.

Due to Nix’s age you would think he won’t make a big impact with four older players stuck at his position, but he’ll likely find his way into two-deep by next fall.

Hafis Williams has been a solid contributor from time to time, yet Brandon Newman and Tyler Stockton have failed to do much with their combined five years on campus.

Nix isn’t a shoe-in to play significant minutes, but he’s been seriously talked about as someone with the talent to start next fall, therefore having him become a quality backup after a redshirt freshman season seems likely at the very minimum.

Either way, it probably won’t take long for Nix to make himself a household name.

What’s the Lineup Going to Look Like?

Until there is news otherwise, a lineup of Ethan Johnson, Sean Cwynar, and Kapron-Lewis Moore should be considered the 2011 starters.

In the middle, I think we’ll see an intense battle ensue between Cwynar and Nix with both likely to play the most minutes out of any of the other nose guards.

The more intriguing battle for playing time will occur on the edges where Brian Kelly now has an abundance of players to work with (especially if you consider the Cat linebacker position that often plays with a hand down on the line).

It will probably take a Herculean effort from someone in order to unseat either Johnson or Lewis-Moore from the starting defensive end spots, but there should be a number of players rotated in throughout 2011.

Since he is an early enrollee, Aaron Lynch will likely see the field in some fashion as a true freshman. If he can bulk up a little bit and be an effective player in controlling his gap, Lynch should be a prime candidate to back up Lewis-Moore at the weak side and come in on third down passing situations.

The other highly touted defensive end, Stephon Tuitt, doesn’t arrive until the fall but should immediately push for playing time regardless. Since he’s more of a power rusher, he could fit in nicely behind Ethan Johnson on the strong side and be a bull in both stopping the run and harassing the quarterback.

Beyond these two freshmen, Kona Schwenke will probably fight for minutes in his second year, but I don’t see anyone else getting into the mix too often.

Bruce Heggie was a bit of a long-term project as the lowest rated prospect from the 2010 class, so I’m not sure he will be ready to make the two-deep just yet.

Brad Carrico has the advantage of being another early enrollee and that might allow him to see some minutes in 2011, but he is one of the collection of players who might be moved around to another position.

Tony Springmann might stay on the defensive side of the ball, but he appears likely to redshirt unless he blows the coaches away in the fall.

Chase Hounshell has offensive lineman written all over him and I’m not sure how long he stays on the defensive side of the ball with so many bodies already there.

Troy Niklas is the one player I could see making a big impact up there with Lynch and Tuitt, but we still don’t know what position he will ultimately play and if he’ll end up staying there for the long-term.

Niklas could be an effective edge rusher and a quality defensive player, but there is still a ton of bodies on the defensive line to predict he’ll be a contributor in 2011.

In my opinion, we’ll see a rotation of Johnson-Cwnyar-KLM backed up by a trio of Tuitt-Nix-Lynch, with some of those players seeing the field more than others. In order to fill Johnson’s shoes after 2011, Schwenke will be another player getting minutes in 2011.

Everyone else will either redshirt, see minimal minutes, or move to another position.

What are your thoughts?