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The Maple Street Press Irish Kickoff Series: Part Two (Defense)

Today we continue our series of discussions with Pat Mitsch, editor of the Maple Street Press Irish Kickoff 2011 and former writer for The Blue Gray Sky.

If you missed part one on the offense, click here and get your learn on.

We urge you to pick up this year's magazine and we're not lying when we say it's really, really good.

Also, remember that if you comment on any of these posts we will enter your name in a drawing for a free copy of the magazine.

In part two today we will discuss the Notre Dame defense:


OFD: With the way the Irish defense finished 2010, many are expecting a very tough defense in 2011. With a demanding schedule without any truly terrible teams on it, is it foolish to think that Notre Dame will have a top 20 defense in scoring or total yards?

Mitsch: I think it's possible to crack the top 20 in scoring defense, after all they finished 23rd in the nation in the category last season. But I doubt that ND will finish in the top 20 in total yards thanks mainly to ND's offense. With Kelly not all that worried with controlling time of possession and his preference to run a fast-paced offense, opposing teams should have plenty of snaps per game. So even if ND's defense does a good job holding the per play yards down and keeps teams out of the endzone, the total yards will probably still be high enough to keep ND out of the Top 20. For example, Miami picked up 422 yards of offense against ND, more than all but three 2010 opponents, but most of those yards came when the game was well out of hand.

OFD: There have been precious few quality linebackers in the program for a number of years. Won't Notre Dame need an infusion of highly skilled linebackers in the 3-4 system to get back to playing dominant football on defense, and is it a good sign for the future with players such as Te'o, Fleming, Williams, Shembo, Spond, Councell, and Rabasa on the roster?

Mitsch: One of the curious things about Kelly's recruiting at ND has been the relative lack of inside linebackers recruited. Jarrett Grace was the only one last year (unless they plan to move Rabasa there) and there don't really seem to be many obvious ILB candidates in this year's recruiting cycle.  So while the young and incoming talent at the outside spots seems pretty good (Shembo, Spond, Williams, Councell, Okwara, etc...) the big question mark will be how the inside 'backers look in the post-Te'o years (which could come as soon as 2012 if Manti decides to head to the NFL a year earlier). Hopefully Manti's 2011 season serves as a great ND advertisement for any young elite inside linebacker out there.

OFD: The coaching staff has made a point of getting bigger up front on defense, but do the Irish have the skill and speed to be able to compete with the country's best offenses?

Mitsch: This is one of those big questions that is pretty tough to answer in the summer. Sure, we all agree the ND defense should be pretty effective against the consistently solid, but not spectacular string of 2011 opponents. But what about a potential BCS foe?  Size-wise I think ND is fine considering the size of ND's D-Line (with Nix), but speed and skill are tougher to gauge. Guys like Aaron Lynch will certainly help in both the speed and skill categories, but overall I don't think this is a Top 10 type defense that can hold nearly any offense in check. The very best offenses probably will still be able to put up points on ND, so it will be up to the offense and special teams to put up more.

OFD: What is the strongest position group on the defense: defensive line, linebackers, or secondary?

Mitsch: The good thing is that you can make a case for all three units. Te'o by himself makes the linebackers a formidable unit, not to mention Darius Fleming and some of the younger exciting talent.  In the secondary Smith, Motta, Slaughter, Gray, and Blanton give ND a veteran and physical group of players, although the depth is definitely a concern. I think overall the defensive line is the strongest group. Ethan Johnson and KLM are strong veterans, Cwynar and Hafis Wiliams proved themselves in the last four games last season, and the new contributors like Nix, Schwenke, Lynch, and Tuitt have a ton of potential. The only worry along the DL is if Cwynar's spring injuries turn into the season-long nagging kind that limit his effectiveness.

OFD: Name one player on defense who needs to step up in a crucial way in 2011.

Mitsch: How about Carlo Calabrese, or whomever winds up starting next to Te'o (Dan Fox maybe?). Nearly every other starting defensive position seems pretty locked down, but the inside linebacker spot still seems a bit up in the air and was one of the positions last year that had a revolving cast of contributors (McDonald pre-season to Calabrese to Brian Smith)  Calabrese showed a lot of promise against the run, but teams started to pick on him via the pass. Fox looked active in the spring and hopefully McDonald can stay healthy long enough to push for the starting job too. Assuming Carlo keeps the job, he's one guy teams might try to target, so if he can improve his play (and considering he was only a first time starter last season, it's a very fair assumption he will) all the better for the ND defense.

OFD:  Out of the big three stud freshman defenders, who do you see making the biggest impact and/or playing the most minutes in 2011: Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, or Ishaq Williams?

Mitsch: Aaron Lynch. I wouldn't be surprised to see him in the first series of the USF game. Not as a starter, but a guy coming off the bench in passing situations to try and do what he does best, rush the passer.

OFD: Brian Kelly has made it known that he wants to build a dominant defense in South Bend. Talk about his progress in achieving this goal and whether you believe the Irish might actually have a better defense than offense in 2011 for the first time in forever.

Mitsch: I think any progress towards having a dominant defense is still in the early stages. No doubt the recruiting success in February was great, as was the performance at the end of the season.  But I still think there is some ways to go until ND's defense can be declared "dominant". As for 2011, I do think it is possible that the defense is the better of the two units, but let's hope it's because they are continuing along to dominant status and not because the offense takes
a step backwards.

OFD: What are your expectations for hyped nose tackle Louis Nix in 2011?

Mitsch: I expect Nix to have two or three "wow"  plays a game that really highlight his potential, but overall his conditioning might limit the number of snaps he can handle. Hopefully he shows some of the same development that other players showed last season and he can handle 25+ snaps a game towards the end of the year and has a great bowl game performance that leads to even higher expectations for 2012.

OFD: Name a defender who will enter the national spotlight.

Mitsch: Apparently this Manti Te'o guy is pretty good. He might finally get some attention in 2011. Seriously though, I think two players will get a lot more publicity in 2011. First, I think Harrison Smith will start to earn some national kudos as a top flight safety and play his way to being a contender for some post-season honors. On the other side of the eligibility spectrum, Aaron Lynch is a good bet to make some national first-year player lists.

OFD: Who will be the biggest impact freshman, and will it be anyone other than the "Big Three" mentioned above?

Mitsch: I know I sound like a broken record, but Aaron Lynch. What can I say, the guy was making some of our veteran linemen look like they were the freshmen in the Blue-Gold game. I'm setting the expectations pretty high for him. Looking at an impact defensive freshman other than the Big Three, I'll go with Ben Councell. Depending on how big he is when fall camp starts, it's possible they might try and preserve a year of eligibility and let him bulk up, but I could also see him making an instant impact on special teams and working his way to situational snaps later in the season. A dark horse guess is Jalen Brown. One of the freshmen DBs has a chance to see playing time right away. Brown could be that corner.