Welcome to the 2011 Irish Depth Analysis discussion at One Foot Down. Every August I like to take a good look at the roster in an attempt to identify team strengths and weaknesses. With a casual glance at the starters it is often easy to assume that at team might be ready to make a run. But in reality it is often depth that makes the difference between a good season and a great one. Every scholarship counts and those 2's and 3's have to be able to spell the starters. You can't put a price on the ability to keep those starters fresh and getting those backups to benefit from valuable game experience.
So I will jump right in to take a look at what the Fighting Irish have under the hood this year. This will be a six part series of posts broken up by position group. We will take a look at the defense this week, then look at the offense next week leading up to the South Florida game.Coach Brian Kelly shared some of his thoughts about overall depth with us on Media Day.
"As I said, our weaknesses are in depth. I'll put my 22 against anybody else. But the game's not played with 22. You got to have other guys right to go. We think we have some areas we need to address that give us more depth. But we're confident in our 22 against anybody in the country."
Coach Kelly also had this to say.
"We’re going to play between, a minimum of six, as many as ten freshmen this year," acknowledged Kelly. "The kind of schedule we play and the teams that we play, special teams can help you win games. So, if a freshman can come in and impact- I think we saw that last year with Daniel Smith and Bennett Jackson, Austin Collinsworth- all of them were significant players in special teams for us. If they can help us win, we’re going to play them."
Those comments sound a bit concerning on the surface but as we dig into this I think we are going to find that this roster is actually in pretty good shape heading into the 2011 season.
For this first installment we are going to start in where quality depth arguably matters the most. On the Defensive Line.
For the first time since 2006 the Fighting Irish will be playing the exact same defense for the second consecutive season. That means that seniors Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore were able to just concentrate on getting better this summer without the added distraction of learning new responsibilities. While that should improve the overall defense I think this group could actually benefit the most. We all know how critical the defensive line is in the 3-4 front. These guys have to own the point of attack and I expect them to be up to the challenge.
9 Louis Nix 6'3" 326 (Sophomore*) Nix has become quite the cult hero among the ND faithful over the last couple of years and the most impressive part is that he pulled that off without ever making an actual game appearance. The fact that Nix is a physical specimen with a ton of personality seems to be doing the trick. Nix reported for camp at 350lbs last year and has been working hard on his conditioning ever since. Nix is a beast of a man that is poised for a breakout season this fall. If that isn't enough Nix has taken to calling himself "Irish Chocolate."
98 Sean Cwynar 6'4" 285 (Senior*) Cwynar did an admirable job of filling in for senior Nose Tackle Ian Williams when he went down with an injury last season and returns to anchor the defense again this fall. While I expect to see Nix take more than half of the reps at NT this fall we will still see plenty of Cwynar while Nix continues to work on his stamina. Cwynar is more than capable of filling that role and I expect him to do very well with it.
94 Hafis Williams 6'1" 295 (Senior*) Hafis has been a contributor the last couple of seasons from the Defensive End position. Making appearances as the #3 NT in camp this fall could mean his role as a defensive end has been assumed by the influx of younger talent. It will be interesting to see where, when and if he makes any appearances this fall. His situation is indicative of the overall increase in depth along the defensive line.
92 Tyler Stockton 6'0" 290 (Junior*) Stockton didn't see the field as a freshman in 2009 and I can't say that I really remember him seeing it last season either. I was pretty excited about Stockton when he arrived on campus but it would appear that he is going to go another season without cracking the two deep. Is he a flop or is the defensive line that good? I am sure that the answer is somewhere in between.
99 Brandon Newman 6'0" 303 (Senior*) Newman is entering his fourth year in the program and at different times during his career he has been mentioned by the coaching staff as a potential up and comer. Despite this it hasn't ever seemed to pan out for him and it would appear that he will round out his senior season on the same note.
69 Tony Springmann 6'5" 280 (Freshman) The word on the street is that Springmann is battling with Hafis Williams for the #3 NT spot which confirms that Stockton and Newman are buried on the depth chart. While it is a great sign that Springmann is pushing these older players I still expect him to retain a year of eligibility this fall and bulk up some more.
90 Ethan Johnson 6'4" 300 (Senior) EJ packed on 15 lbs during the offseason and reportedly has a bit of a chip on his shoulder heading into his final season. Expectations were high for Johnson out of high school but the ever changing system, and in his case the ever changing position, have contributed to a lack of sizzle despite playing a ton of minutes over his career. Coach Kelly has called EJ a "leader" in camp and I expect that he will finally break out this season and spend the fall of 11' in full beast mode. As a side note EJ is the only defensive lineman that will exhaust his eligibility this fall.
89 Kapron Lewis-Moore 6'4" 300 (Senior*) KLM also packed on another 15lbs in the offseason and was recently described by Coach Kelly as "a different football player." Kelly also noted that both EJ and KLM will benefit from an occasional breather that will be available due to the increased depth on the DL this fall. I like it. KLM has two years of eligibility remaining and I expect to see him wreaking plenty of havoc in the trenches throughout both of them.
96 Kona Schwenke 6'4 285 (Sophomore) Schwenke reported to fall camp at 245lbs last season. Next thing you know he was showing up in games and making a play here and there. 40lbs later Kona is a viable member of the DE rotation entering his sophomore season. I expect to see #96 making plenty of appearances this fall despite being sandwiched between EJ, KLM and the talented freshmen.
19 Aaron Lynch 6'6" 265 (Freshman) Lynch instantly turned into a fan favorite after the spring game, and could end up being part of the most dynamic DE duo that Notre Dame has seen in many years. I expect to see Lynch in the rotation this fall and specifically making situational appearances where he can rush the passer and cause some problems off of the edge.
7 Stephon Tuitt 6'6" 295 (Freshman) Lynch beat Tuitt to the punch in terms of hype but Stephon showed up on campus a few weeks ago and quickly reminded everyone that Lynch wasn't the only elite Defensive Lineman that the Irish signed last spring. This kid is an absolute beast that will also find his way onto the field this fall. I am really excited about watching Tuitt and Lynch develop over the next couple of years.
Coach Kelly himself has described Nix, Lynch, Tuitt and freshman OLB Troy Niklas as "physically imposing." They do look impressive, especially Tuitt. Just a minute ago I was all fired up about EJ and KLM busting 3 bills. This kid just got to the party and he's just about there. Knowing that the 2014 DL could still feature Lynch, Nix and Tuitt is pretty damn exciting.
50 Chase Hounshell 6'4" 265 (Freshman) Under normal circumstances I would be a lot more fired up about Hounshell but with his beastly fellow freshman in the lineup he is easy to overlook. The staff has mentioned Hounshell as a very hard worker which is always promising in terms of potential development. I expect Hounshell to retain a year of eligibility this fall while he bulks up and hones his skills.
Mike Elston and Bob Diaco have a great group of players to work with here and I expect them to make the most of it. Just thinking about the fact that KLM, Nix and EJ will be bringing more than 900 pounds of man to the front lines of the fight is exciting. Sprinkle in a healthy rotation of Schwenke, Lynch, Cwynar and Tuitt and we should see a very effective front three that owns the trenches and causes major headaches for opposing offensive coordinators. I can't wait to watch these guys play this fall.
What do you think?
*If you haven't done it in a while I would suggest also taking a look at the basics of the 3-4 defense as explained to us by LB Coach.
Chalk talk: The ND 3-4 Transition Part 5 (Links to parts 1-4 are at the top of the post)