There are a million reasons why Notre Dame fans should be frustrated after watching the team lose three straight games. In my opinion, there is no reason more frustrating than the youth on defense. Like I wrote last week, the cause of this all points back to the recruiting classes of 2011 and 2012.
Unfortunately there is no quick fix. Young players are going to continue to be brilliant one play and bad the next. The Irish defense is what it is because of this. The only way to improve this is for these players to gain more experience and for the Notre Dame coaching staff to ensure that this much youth on defense won't happen again by bringing in more appropriate numbers in recruiting each year.
Notre Dame only signed two defensive linemen in 2013 (thanks Eddie) and then scrambled to make sure they signed seven defensive linemen in 2014. It's a sad fact that Notre Dame needed to sign that many players at defensive line in the last recruiting cycle, but it was definitely necessary.
Fortunately, it looks like Brian Kelly and company want to make sure this year on the defensive line doesn't happen again and have four players currently committed to sign in 2014 to follow up on last year's haul. As much as everyone hopes for an instant impact with recruiting, all four of the commitments are developmental prospects. They all have the potential to be very good players down the road, but aren't going to step on campus and earn a ton of playing time.
The player with the most to improve, and maybe the most potential, out of the group is Micah Dew-Treadway. I broke down the 6'5 275 defensive tackle for OFD around the time he committed back in June and ever since then I have been very interested to watch his senior film to see how he would progress as a player.
I got the chance to watch some of his film this weekend and noticed some very encouraging things from MDT that he improved on from his junior year and some other things that he still needs to work on. Here are some of my observations:
He looks significantly stronger
MDT is one of those players that might be 275, but somehow looks slim. He has a kid build, not a man build. In other words, he has great size but isn't anywhere close to maxing out how big he is going to be.
Last season he looked like a big presence, but not necessarily a strong one based on his size. This season it looks different. He was good at using leverage before, but now you can see him use that leverage to rag doll some opponents at times. Considering that I don't think he is close to how strong he is going to become, this is a really good sign to see from him.
His hands as a pass rusher are even better
It's obvious watching MDT that he has put the work in to get better with his hands to disengage from blockers and rush the passer more effectively. This was something he showed flashes of as a junior and he has taken it to another level this season.
Here's a great example of him using his hands to split a double team.
MDT is lined up as the three technique. That's the position he'll most likely play at Notre Dame.
This is a draw play and after initially being able to get upfield, he feels pressure from the guard. MDT reacts to that pressure by yanking the guard down and performing a quick arm over move to disengage and beat the block.
The play was designed as a draw trap. MDT wasn't originally the player that was meant to be trapped on the play, but he ends up disrupting everything by being in that spot when he should be blocked.
MDT takes advantage of the confusion and finds the football to finish the play with a tackle for loss.
He does this is a lot with feeling pressure against the run and using his length extremely well. He's become even better at knocking hands away and working moves as a pass rusher too. The most encouraging thing I see from him in that area is that there is no quit in him. He might not get as a good of an initial push as you'd like to see, but he keeps working to get to quarterback.
If you watched the Sunday night football game last night and saw Tony Romo sit in the pocket for what seemed like ten minutes on that final drive, you can understand how a player who continues to throw counter moves and keep fighting as a pass rusher is a huge asset to have on defense.
He showed flashes of being more explosive
Everyone wants an explosive player in the interior of their defense and this was something I wasn't sure I was going to see out of MDT ever. I think he just may never be an explosive athlete. But I did see more of an explosive element out of his stance at times where he got very good penetration in the backfield. I didn't really see that at all from him as a junior.
He really needs to work on his snap anticipation and do everything he can to become quicker, but he at least showed signs of improvement in this area.
He's not a defensive end
MDT may have lined up at end on occasion in high school, but that's not where he is going to play at Notre Dame. At least I hope not. Versus the run he can do a good job squeezing down an offensive tackle and being stout with plays run at him, but he is not going to be a threat as an edge rusher.
He's just not a good enough athlete to be an edge player. Right now, a player like Isaac Rochell is playing defensive end out of necessity. He's incredibly strong, but not exactly the guy you want to have out in space versus an athletic quarterback on a zone read play. MDT is the same way. His future is going to be on the inside at Notre Dame and likely as a three technique.
He needs to learn how to finish
There is a lot of positive plays from MDT as a senior where you see him do a great job fighting against pressure and beating blocks as well as getting penetration into the backfield. There are way too many times though that you see him overrun a play and have someone else make the tackle.
No one wants to hear "Good job, but..." during a film session the day after a game. Hopefully this isn't something that is going to continue when he gets his opportunity to play at Notre Dame.
This last observation kind of sums MDT and also the young defensive linemen currently playing at Notre Dame. There are flashes of greatness, but it's obvious you aren't looking at a finished product. Even though there was a lot of good things I saw from MDT as a senior, there is still room for significant improvement.
For him to get there, it's likely not going to happen overnight. It's going to be incremental. If he was forced into playing next year, we all would probably see a lot of similar plays to what we are seeing now from the defensive line. So, yeah, hopefully he is not forced to play next year.
But with all of the players who are going to be ahead of him on the depth chart when he gets to school, he should be able to progress at his own pace and not be put in a position he is not capable of excelling in before he's ready to. If he continues to work and show improvement like he has from last year to this one, then he should be someone that can add to the depth of the interior of the defense when his time comes.