Also Returning: Ethan Johnson, Paddy Mullen, Andrew Nuss, Emeka Nwankwo, Martin Quintana, Morrice Richardson, John Ryan, Ian Williams
Lost: Dorian Inzunza, Pat Kuntz
Gained: Kallen Wade (position change - linebacker), Christopher Skubis (walk-on), Sean Cwynar, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Brandon Newman, Hafis Williams (DNP as freshmen), Tyler Stockton (freshman)
As Notre Dame transitions back into a 4-3 defense, each starter has a claim to the spotlight. Kapron Lewis-Moore did not play as a freshman, but a drastic bulking up (220-pounds as a freshman to 270 as a sophomore) and impressive displays in practice have made him a starting defensive end.
Ian Williams is looking to rebound from a disappointing sophomore season after a breakout freshman performance. Ethan Johnson moves from a 3-4 defensive end as a freshman to a 4-3 tackle as a sophomore.
And then there's Kerry Neal. Neal burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2007, playing opposite Brian Smith at outside linebacker. Neal's 2008 numbers were nearly identical to those he put up the previous season, which is disappointing considering the increased playing time.
Now, he will attempt to play defensive end, despite still playing at a linebacker's size (6'2", 250-pounds). Presumably, Ethan Johnson will slide over to defensive end on obvious rushing downs, but what does that mean for Neal? In other years, he may have slid back to outside linebacker. But as the Irish linebacking corps improves, Neal may find himself on the sidelines when the situation calls for a big stop on the ground.
While many eyes will be on Jimmy Clausen, or the offensive line, or the running game to make or break the season, it may be the defensive line that dictates how the season will play out. The Irish face a slew of productive and diverse rushing attacks this season. To prevail, Notre Dame will need to rely on defensive line starters that are talented but young, and backups that have failed to live up to the hype.
After the starting four, the depth chart is riddled with players who came in with rich accolades, but have yet to do much while wearing blue and gold. As their years of eligibility tick away or come to an end, names like Morrice Richardson, Emeka Nwankwo, Paddy Mullen (currently the fourth-string nose tackle as a senior), John Ryan, and Kallen Wade will need to prove their worth on the field, or give way to newcomers Sean Cwynar, Brandon Newman, Hafis Williams, and Tyler Stockton—all of whom are ready to produce this year.