This is a great time of year for any football fan. Training camp is taking place at every school right now, which means the season is tantalizingly close to actually becoming a reality again. Optimism is running rampant within college football fans all over the country. Even fans of a school like Indiana feel good about their team at this time of year. (This could be the year...that they finally get to a bowl game!)
Coaches are praising the progress that has been made over the summer. New freshmen finally get to show what they can do. As it stands right now, every program in the nation is currently undefeated. The anticipation of the season is almost as good as when the games are finally played.
There's a ton of exciting things to look forward to if you're a Notre Dame fan as well. Everett Golson is back! DaVaris Daniels is back! We get to see another year of an even better version of Jaylon Smith! Ronnie Stanley! Greg Bryant! Tarean Folston! Sheldon Day! Field turf! Okay, maybe not everyone is excited about the last one.
The excitement exists for me as well, but a little bit of it died inside when I heard the news that defensive tackle Tony Springmann's career is over because of an injury to his back that also forced him to miss the 2013 season. It was an unexpected announcement from Brian Kelly that got the attention of Notre Dame fans, but is sure to be mostly forgotten by the time Notre Dame opens up the season against Rice. There will be too many other stories to follow that involve players who are going to be playing this season to really dwell on the unfortunate news regarding Springmann.
At least that's how it will be for most people. That's because most people might not understand the value of having a player like Springmann available. He might have never started a game during his Notre Dame career, but the snaps he would have played this season are going to be incredibly difficult to replace.
So why should Notre Dame fans be more concerned about the loss of Springmann and what it can mean for this season? There is a whole host of reasons.
Depth at defensive tackle? Not that good
Before Springmann got hurt the depth at the defensive tackle was not good. Now? It's downright horrendous. Behind Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones there aren't any players that have played a significant snap at the position. That means somebody is going to be put on the field against a team like Stanford of Florida State that probably shouldn't be asked to play in that situation.
Depth at defensive line is kind of important
A lot of defensive football is about sub-packages and players who only play in specific situations these days, so depth is important at several positions, but not more so than at defensive line. Defensive linemen just aren't built to play eighty plays on defense. They are the biggest guys on the field on defense and get tired. Tired players are less effective players. Tired players get beat in physical match-ups that they might have won if they were fresh.
Notre Dame's 2012 front seven is arguably the best they have had in the last two decades. A huge reason why is because of the depth at defensive line. The starters were Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, and Kapron Lewis-Moore but players like Springmann, Kona Schwenke, and Sheldon Day all stepped in and were solid when they had to be.
Think back to that Stanford game where Stepfan Taylor got repeatedly stuffed at the goal-line in overtime. That happens because players like Nix, Tuitt, and Lewis-Moore still have something left at that point to help stop that play. If they had to play every snap in the game then Taylor is probably going into the end zone.
Compare that line to Charlie Weis' first Notre Dame team that had a great starting duo at defensive tackle of Trevor Laws and Derek Landri. Those two were very good for the Irish, but they had to play just about every snap and got worn down against teams like Ohio State, LSU and USC. They had to play every snap because there was no one who could step in and be considered reliable behind them. (Thank Ty)
Imagine how good Landri and Laws would have been if they played 15 fewer snaps a game? They would have been a whole lot fresher and that defense would have been better for it.
The players expected to fill in at nose guard for Springmann are both true freshmen
Brian Kelly lists Jarron Jones, Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah as players to help #NotreDame at interior DL with Springmann out.— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) August 1, 2014
Jones was already expected to start at nose guard for Notre Dame this season and there has been talk of either Cage or Mokwuah seeing some snaps this year so this isn't too much of a surprise. Not being a surprise doesn't mean it's something to be excited about though. Cage and Mokwuah are going to be put into a difficult situation this year.
It's tough enough for any true freshman to earn playing time. The transition from high school to major college football is not an easy one, but the hardest position to make the transition from a pure physical standpoint is defensive tackle and, more specifically, nose guard.
These two were playing against physically inferior players last year in high school that they could dominate. Now the players they are going to be going up against are going to be a lot stronger, quicker, and more athletic than anything they are used to. And oh yeah, they are going to be asked to try and eat up double teams the majority of the time as well. They both might be listed at 325, but that's not a good 325. At least not as good as it could be if they were a year or two into the program rather than reporting in June to start their football careers at Notre Dame.
There is a ton of uncertainty and it's unfair to expect either of these two to be able to handle much at their age at the position they play.
We really have no idea if Jarron Jones is going to be a consistent player at nose guard
To me, this is the scariest part of the whole equation. Jones was a non-entity last season before he got thrown to the wolves and ended up playing well against BYU and Stanford. Don't get me wrong, those were two impressive performances from Jones that were completely unexpected. But can Notre Dame now expect him to improve on those performances and be a guy who can hold up at nose guard for a twelve game season?
The arrow appears to be pointing up, but no one knows if that's how it's going to be for Jones in 2014. Right now it's all hope based on a glimpse of what we've seen thus far. That's not very comforting.
With Springmann around, at least the Irish had a decent option to turn to if Jones struggled or got hurt. Now they have two true freshmen that are there if this happens. In other words, we all better hope that Jones plays well and is able to hold up physically the entire season.
There are questions about the players lining up behind Jones as well
Middle linebacker is not a secure position right now either. I am someone who thinks Joe Schmidt can actually be an effective starter at the position, but I won't be sure of that until I see him playing against a power running team like Stanford later in the year. He'll be a lot better against a team like Stanford though if the nose guard playing in front of him is eating up double teams and getting into the backfield.
No one knows if or when Jarrett Grace will be able to come back and be a factor at Mike linebacker this season and asking Niles Morgan to play the Mike as a true freshman is a lot to ask. Can you imagine Morgan lining up behind Cage or Mokwuah this season? Next year that might not sound that bad, but this year this scares the living crap out of me.
I understand why for most people on the outside looking in that the story this season for Notre Dame is going to be about Everett Golson and the offense. It's a sexier story and there's nothing sexy about a story concerning the loss of a backup defensive tackle to most readers.
If you follow Notre Dame closely though, then I hope you realize how big of an impact this could have on the Irish this season. Defensive line depth is critical to a successful defense. It helps a team be better against the run and have a fresher pass rush.
Those two things are pretty important when it comes to playing good defense.