My last article focused on the talent and depth in the Notre Dame secondary, one of the best in the country. Walls, Blanton, Smith, and McCarthy might be the best defensive backfield Irish fans have ever seen. Factor in the extremely talented depth behind them, and you have the beginnings of a very special defense.
However, a great secondary does not make a great defense. Fans will worry, and haters will hate against, the ability to stop the run.
Indeed, ND has had trouble stopping the run the past two years, and the graduation of long-time linebacker mainstay Maurice Crum Jr., and fiery DT Pat Kuntz leaves more holes to be plugged with young, unproven talent. How then will this year be any better?
The key to this year, the puzzle piece that finally fits, is of course, a Smith. Not Brian though. Not Harrison Either. Toryan Smith. I'll say it now, and you can take it to the bank, and in January either throw it in my face, or finally admit my omniscience when it comes to ND football: The key to the Irish defense, to the entire '09 season, is the play of Toryan Smith.
How can that be, you say?
To understand to solution, you have to see the problem for what it is. Most point to youth and size issues along the defensive line. That is a part of it. Another part is the identity crisis the defense has faced, with two chefs in the defensive kitchen in Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta.
A 3-4 with 4-3 personnel, or the other way around, was Charlie's best effort to put the best football players on the field and build a "Brownuta" hybrid system around them, to produce the best opportunity for success.
ND had the wrong D-line personnel to run a true 3-4, and the wrong linebackers to run a true 4-3. Not anymore.
The past three years, Irish coaches and fans hoped and prayed for the highly touted prospect from Georgia to emerge as a player, and lock down a starting spot.
Finally, Toryan broke out against Navy, filling in at the Mike linebacker spot for the injured Brian Smith, recording a career best 11 tackles.
This April, coaches rejoiced as he was finally able to hold down the position over the spring. Toryan's presence gives the ND defense that crucial piece it has lacked since mean-ass Brandon Hoyte graduated: A battering ram in the middle to blow up the point of attack.
Consider our linebacker groupings from the past two years (using 4-3 terminology).
'07: (Sam) Joe Brockington (Mike) Crum Jr. (Will) B. Smith
Brockington was a lanky 227, and God bless Mo Crum, and the leadership and reliability he provided over the past three years, but he's always gotten pushed around when playing inside. Brian Smith was the only one playing a natural position, and it showed on the field.
'08: (S) Crum Jr. (M) B. Smith (W)H. Smith
Extremely undersized again. You know my thoughts on Mo. Brian Smith is a competitor and a playmaker, which is why the coaches deemed him the best option to play inside, despite the completely wrong body type.
With B. moved to the middle, the only option athletic enough to play the weakside was safety Harrison Smith, at all of 210 pounds. For comparisons sake, ND's linebackers averaged 6'1.75", 220 pounds. USC's: 6'3.75", 245 pounds.
Obviously, USC's was a special group, but the Irish were undersized relative to any D-1 school that doesn't require 4 years of service after graduation.
Game film from the past two years clearly shows the problem. Defensive linemen are getting stood up and driven back because opposing O-lines do not have to fight off a linebacker at the point of attack.
Our linebackers move laterally, trying to dodge and shed blockers. As a result, tackles are first attempted when the back reaches the linebacker, instead of the other way around.
Trying to tackle a running back moving full speed ahead while your moving side to side generally doesn't bode too well, and means Safety Kyle McCarthy leads the team in tackles.
This year, we have it all. Ian Williams returns to form that made him a Freshman All-American in '07. Hafis Williams and Brandon Newman had great springs, and phenomenal early enrollee Tyler Stockton should be pushing for minutes by mid-season.
If none of those three asserts themselves, Weis will have no problem moving future superstar and top-ten draft pick (You can write that down too) Ethan Johnson inside full time, as he already figures to do on passing downs.
Outside, the options are plentiful. Kerry Neal and Darius Fleming have both shown flashes of brilliance in their young careers, and redshirt freshman Kapron Lewis-Moore has been the surprise of the spring, locking down one end spot. Morrice Richardson and John Ryan both have starting experience, and provide quality veteran depth.
It's the trio of Smith's though, Toryan, Brian and Harrison finally taking over their natural positions that will let this defense truly shine. Toryan is the proverbial battering ram in the middle. His production won't necessarily be measured in tackles, but rather the number of plays that end in 15 people on the ground within a yard of the LOS.
The kind we never saw last year.
His emergence frees Brian up to move outside, where he is cut out of stone to play the Willy spot. I think we all remember Phillip Wheeler.
B. Smith is licking his chops at the opportunity to have that much freedom to make plays. Brian reclaiming the Will position lets Harrison move back to the secondary. He played admirably as a linebacker, but wait until you see him at safety. Think Zibikowski with mad coverage skills.
The Sam linebacker spot is still up for grabs. Steve Filer was a huge recruit from the Chicago area who made some noise last year, and is a good bet to win the spot, or at least contribute meaningful minutes.
Zeke Motta appears to be this year's Brian Smith. He has that it factor that Smith, Smith, and Robert Blanton have, that just makes him believe he can crush anyone on the field. Not a bad trait for a linebacker.
And, as if anyone could forget the impending arrival of the most anticipated recruit in memory, Manti Teo will don a gold helmet this year, and will absolutely have an impact on that competition.
Teo is already every bit of 6'2" 240 lbs, and athletic enough to play any linebacker spot, giving the Irish depth at every position. Even if he earns the starting Sam spot, we have the right bodies behind him to let him move around and spell the other backers, or fill in for injuries.
To sum up, for the first time since 1993, we have star talent at nearly every position, and enough bodies to ensure someone emerges at spots of need. This years defense is going to be scary.
Even scarier: Only McNeil, McCarthy, and T. Smith will exhaust their eligibility this year, and the depth behind them is well documented. This may be the best two year defense in ND history.