by John Vannie
Tom Zbikowski recently said that Notre Dame will go as far in 2006 as its defense can take it. I happen to agree with this, and spent some time thinking about how we can extract improvement from this much-maligned unit.
Nine starters will return this season, and it’s doubtful that an incoming freshman will become anything more than a second teamer. Wholesale position switches aren’t likely, either. Therefore, our defensive improvement is going to have to come from the current players.
The 2005 squad had several deficiencies, and it’s not clear just how they will be overcome during a single off-season with few personnel changes. On paper, the pass rush looks to be anemic, we are undersized and lack depth at DT, two experienced LBs must be replaced by players with limited experience and the entire front seven lacks speed. The corners generally played well in 2005, but not at a championship level. The safeties competed hard and made some plays, but they also gave up far too many.
So, then, where is the improvement going to come from?
The defensive line will start Chris Frome and Victor Abiamiri. In a perfect world, Frome will fully recover from his knee surgery and move to the strong side. Abiamiri will overcome the leg injury that slowed him last season and finally reach his tremendous potential as the pass rusher he was recruited to be. Ronald Talley should be a reliable third option, but it’s not clear who will be the fourth man.
At tackle, Trevor Laws and Derek Landri should improve with another year of weight training under their belts, but the staff will need to develop depth. The candidates are all question marks, including Dwight Stephenson, Justin Brown, Patrick Kuntz and Derrell Hand.
Once we get past the starters and Talley, the DL situation is downright scary and the pass rush is still wishful thinking. It’s up to the coaches to extract the maximum from the starters and get some of these Willingham recruits to develop as competent reserves. Difference making reinforcements won’t necessarily arrive in 2007, either.
At linebacker, the rumored move of Maurice Crum to the middle would be a bad sign. It’s a mystery to me that the physically gifted Mitchell Thomas has been unable to make his presence felt, and a repeat of that failure in 2006 would be an indictment of both the player and the coaches. Although I do not think MLB should be manned by a freshman, we could see Toryan Smith taking snaps there this season. Other candidates are Scott Smith, Nick Borseti and Steve Quinn, but there is no clear favorite right now. To me, the development of a quality starter at this position will be a litmus test for Rick Minter.
There are a few options at outside linebacker, where a combination of speed and toughness is required. Joe Brockington and Anthony Vernaglia have some of the former but we’ll have to wait and see about the latter. Incoming freshman Morrice Richardson in an intriguing prospect, but he spent his high school career at defensive end and it may be 2007 before his best college position is clear.
Unless Mitchell Thomas is suddenly ready for prime time, this is a lackluster group on paper.
The secondary is the one area where I expect to see measurable improvement. Mike Richardson and Ambrose Wooden will get better under Bill Lewis, and both Zibby and Chinedum Ndukwe cannot help but improve their ball skills. If I were Charlie Weis, I would order Brady Quinn to throw a ton of play-action passes in practice.
Unlike the defensive line and linebacker situations, there are a number of talented kids that can push the starters and add quality depth to this secondary. It’s also not a stretch to add the names of the freshman corners to that list. Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil jump in the mix with Terrail Lambert, Leo Ferrine, Ray Herring, Kyle McCarthy and David Bruton to provide a solid talent base of interchangeable parts. If that’s the good news, the bad news is the secondary will indeed have to be better because the pass rush still figures to suck.
In total, the defense can be improved in 2006, but much depends on the individual strides made by key players Abiamiri, Thomas, Wooden, and both safeties. Minter must find a pass rusher, depth along the DL and a MLB if the Irish plan to be legitimate championship contenders in 2007.