I think if we put it to a vote, there is no doubt that the biggest surprise of Notre Dame's 6-0 start this season would be the play of the defense.
Not allowing Michigan to reach the red zone? Holding Stanford to their lowest yards per play average since pre-Harbaugh? Anyone who says they predicted this kind of production from an extremely young defense is either a liar or Biff Tannen.
Last week against North Carolina was a bit more of what everyone expected from Notre Dame: Everett Golson and the offense having to outscore our opponent to win. It's not exactly how it went down with the turnovers from Golson contributing greatly to the Tar Heels early success, but the defense giving up over 500 yards of offense can't be blamed simply on the turnovers or the tempo of UNC's offense. A lot of it had to do with Notre Dame's lack of a pass rush on Marquise Williams.
The Irish had to play more vanilla on defense and could not create pressure through blitzes nearly as much as they have in previous weeks. The Irish rushed four quite a bit and it really stood out how there is no dynamic pass rush presence from any of our edge rushers.
That makes it almost ironic that defensive end Bo Wallace committed to Notre Dame this weekend. He flashes the potential to be an explosive edge defender and the game on Saturday demonstrated how badly the Irish are in need of a player like that. (You can find my scouting report on Wallace here)
The thing about Wallace right now is that it's exactly like I said. He flashes an explosive first step where you can see that potential, but does not always play explosive. It's not an effort thing. It's just consistency. If he can gain that consistency at the next level, he can develop into an awesome pass rusher.
One of the physical traits that suggest that Wallace can be a great pass rusher is his length. He has long arms that he hasn't even really learned how to fully utilize yet when rushing the passer, but he still shows some natural ability to use them.
Here's an example:
Wallace is basically in a "wide nine" technique outside of the tackle in a clear pass rush situation.
Because Wallace was out so wide and because got upfield so fast, he forced the offensive tackle to commit and that tackle is now in a terrible position because of his footwork. You can see that the tackle has his body completely turned trying to catch up to Wallace.
Because the tackle over-committed, Wallace was able to use his momentum to pull a hump move to get off the block on the inside.
The end result is a sack on the play.
I know that might seem like a simple move to execute, but not everyone is Reggie White. I'm not even sure if Wallace was taught to do that. It was his speed to caused that play to open up for him and it's a great counter move for a speed rusher like Wallace to have in his arsenal. If he can continue to develop that as a counter, then he's going to be incredibly tough to block.
Like most speed rushers, the most important thing for a player like Wallace is to be able to be an athlete and get around the edge and bend. Players that are stiff struggle with this, but Wallace has shown he is able to bend naturally which is another important trait for an edge defender to have.
All of this sounds great about Wallace, but there is a reason he is rated as a 3 star player. He has the frame to add weight and get to an ideal weight for his position but he only currently weighs around 215. He's likely not going to be physically ready to play a significant role in his freshman season and is going to need time to develop physically. That's in addition to having to improve on his technique, like all freshman have to do, and becoming more consistently explosive with his first step.
The good news for Notre Dame is that they have players with similar potential as pass rushers already in the program in Andrew Trumbetti, Kolin HIll, and Jhonny Williams. If those players progress like everyone expects them to, then that should allow Wallace the time he needs to develop.
The North Carolina game just emphasized how important getting a four man pass rush is to a defensive unit. There were some good performances by players like Stephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo rushing the passer in 2012 and 2013, but it's been a long time since Notre Dame has been able to send waves of pass rushers after opponents that can disrupt the pocket. Adding a player like Wallace to the recruiting class was an essential pickup for the Irish if they hope to establish the kind of pass rush that helps make giving up 43 points to a team like North Carolina a far less likely occurrence.