The defensive end unit has the potential to shine for Notre Dame Fighting Irish in 2012. Last season, the team had to overcome numerous injuries at the position, and the younger players stepped up in the absence of a veteran presence.
To say Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt were impact players in their first year with the team would be an understatement.
No duo of freshmen defensive ends garnered more attention last year than these two.
Their statistics weren't staggering, but at times, they showed just how good they will eventually be by bursting into opponents backfields or easily overpowering offensive linemen.
Lynch and Tuitt still had a lot of learning to do last year.
It took them some time to understand how exactly to play the position at the college level, which makes what they did all the more impressive. Many of their sacks, quarterback hurries and tackles came from pure talent and will. They finished the season with a combined 7.5 sacks, 66 tackles and 19 quarterback hurries.
With one year of playing time behind them, Lynch and Tuitt will be causing havoc in opponents' backfields and giving quarterbacks nightmares on the regular.
While all signs point to Lynch staying at his natural position of defensive end, Tuitt could end up moving inside or playing there more often due to his massive, growing 6'7", 295-pound frame (he played defensive tackle at times in 2011 as well).
However, the defensive end position won't solely be about Lynch and Tuitt.
Prospective fifth-year candidate, Kapron Lewis-Moore, is severely needed in order to inject the unit with savvy and experience. If he returns, Lewis-Moore will be starting along with Tuitt (Tuitt will have the "or" designation beside his name on the two-deep).
Lewis-Moore won't be returning in order to simply teach the younger players, either. Any wisdom that he can impart will be important to the younger guy's progression, but Lewis-Moore was having a fantastic year before detaching the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in South Bend against USC.
In seven games, Lewis-Moore posted 32 tackles (four for loss), two sacks, two pass breakups, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble.
The Texas standout continued to improve each season he saw the field for the Irish, and he finally found his groove in 2011 showing off his unique combination of speed, height, reach, strength (and burst he seemed to lack in prior seasons). If Lewis-Moore can return to the team near full strength, he will be a huge asset.
Chase Hounshell and Kona Schwenke will see the field quite a bit as reserves.
Hounshell came out of nowhere last year, seeing playing time as a defensive end and a defensive tackle (even though he was listed as just 265 pounds). He played in seven games last season and recorded three solo and one assisted tackle versus Air Force.
Coach Brian Kelly loves Hounshell's skill set, so fans shouldn't be surprised if he gets even more playing time in 2012.
However, if one player eats into Hounshell's time on the field, it will be Schwenke. Coach Kelly tried to preserve Schwenke's red-shirt status last season, but after Ethan Johnson and Lewis-Moore were injured, Schwenke saw the field (in just three games).
Schwenke is 6'4", 285 pounds and still has room to grow. He came to Notre Dame at a lean 215 pounds. Incredibly, he has lost little to no speed after gaining 70 pounds of muscle. Schwenke could easily become a fan favorite after he sees substantial time on the field in 2012.
Aside from the five players mentioned, another three incoming freshmen could possibly end up seeing time at defensive end.
Romeo Okwara has the prototypical frame for a defensive end, and he has the skills to become an excellent pass-rusher for the Irish. He is 6'5", but until he gains some weight (he is currently at 240 pounds), he isn't likely to see much time on the defensive line.
Brian Kelly will probably want to save Okwara for a fifth year, but if he does see the field in any capacity, it will be as an outside rusher in a 4-3 defensive scheme.
Unlike Okwara, incoming freshmen Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day have the size to play on the defensive line immediately (6'7", 308 pounds and 6'2", 286 pounds, respectively). Jones has the potential to play on either side of the line, but I would be surprised if he ends up anywhere but on the defensive line.
Day and Jones will be designated as defensive linemen because of their versatility, and they should see time at both defensive end and defensive tackle in their first year with Notre Dame.
Jones may be a little tall for a college defensive tackle (in a 3-4), but he wouldn't be the first defensive tackle over 6'5" to flourish in that position.
Either way, both players should contribute to the depth at defensive end in 2012.
The defensive line has become one of the most important positions in football, and the Fighting Irish look to be in good hands at defensive end with the players they currently have on the roster.