Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly promised the media and fans that new coordinator Bob Diaco’s defense would not stand out during Saturday’s Blue-Gold game at Notre Dame Stadium. The primary focus for Kelly was seeing how his new spread offense would function under the direction of quarterback Dayne Crist and the various weapons at his disposal.
While Kelly was pleased with the progress the offense has made — calling Saturday’s 27-19 Gold victory the best day of practice this spring — every Fighting Irish fan knows that improvement in the win-loss column in 2010 will not be possible unless Diaco’s unit plays much more sound and disciplined than in the previous disappointing regimes.
With the installation of the 3-4 defense, Notre Dame will certainly look different from a scheme perspective. It should be noted, however, that an outside linebacker will walk up to the line quite often next season to create a four-man front — making it look less like a 3-4 and more like a traditional 4-3 scheme.
The pressing question is will the Irish have enough playmakers on that side of the ball? Or, more simply, will it be able to stop the run and the pass more consistently?
Manti Te'o, one of the most highly recruited defensive players in the country in 2009, is the face of the new scheme. The 6-2, 250-pounder will man the middle linebacker spot after playing on the outside in space during his freshman campaign. Te'o, who finished with eight tackles and an interception on Saturday, played inside of a 3-4 defense while in high school, so the familiarity can only bode well for the Irish. And despite making 63 tackles in a solid first season in South Bend, Te’o is driven to become a more consistent defender. All expectations are that Te'o takes a huge step in his second season.
He’s confident in his progress under the new system, as is Kelly.
“He is, in his own mind, and our coaches and myself, living up to maybe some of the expectations that everybody had coming in as one of the top, premier high school players in the country,” Kelly boasted.
“He can be a great player. He's got a chance, and he's showing some signs of that. His recognition, his leadership, it's exciting to watch him grow. He's really growing quickly in a short period of time.”
While Te’o garners the most individual attention, his fellow defenders will need to step up their performance, as well, after the Irish surrendered 397.8 yards per game — the worst defensive performance in school history.
It makes one wonder whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that most of the core players from last year return next season.
The returnees, however, are confident that they have improved enough to make the unit a team strength and not a weakness. Perhaps the switch to Jon Tenuta’s 4-3 scheme last year — after many of the players were recruited to play Corwin Brown’s 3-4 — proved too much to overcome.
The defensive front of Ian Williams, Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore must be stout next fall, while Brian Smith, Darius Fleming and Kerry Neal have the talent to excel at the outside linebacker/defensive end spot. Linebacker Steve Filer also should provide insurance after leading all players with 12 tackles on Saturday, including two tackles for loss.
Continuing to develop solid depth will be crucial for the Irish to have any significant improvement on the defensive side of the ball. Fresh bodies will be needed for an effective defense, as Kelly’s Cincinnati offense was last in time of possession last season, meaning the defense spent a lot of time on the field — a distinct possibility for any team whose offense runs the spread.
What’s certain is that whoever is on the field on Saturdays will contribute. Remember former Irish quarterback Demetrius Jones? After transferring to Northern Illinois, he landed with Kelly at Cincinnati. His position? Linebacker. Did you ever expect to see that?
Prepare for the unexpected in South Bend. Maybe even a formidable defense.
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