Before we get to the defensive depth chart, let me take a look at the additions to the offense since National Signing Day.
For a look at Notre Dame’s Pre-Spring chart for offense, click here.
Luke Massa (Fr. 3-star)
Adding Massa late in the recruiting cycle was not completely unexpected, but it does have some people scratching their heads that Kelly has used three scholarships on quarterbacks in this 2010 class.
With Crist slowly becoming the unquestioned leader at this position, Massa’s arrival doesn’t do much but change the depth from decent to good. Time will tell how talented the three freshmen are as they get more experience in Brian Kelly’s system.
Bruce Heggie (Fr. 2-star)
Right now Heggie is listed as a tight end, but it is expected he will fill out and switch to either the defensive or offensive line. That means no changes to the depth chart, experience and skill at this position for the time being.
Matt James (Fr. 4-star)
Adding James to the team on National Signing Day should put a lot of the problems to rest surrounding the offensive line. With James, Notre Dame added two excellent prospects who have great potential to be three-year starters. Even more, the depth chart has now swelled to a total of 15 players at O-line position!
And now, let’s take a look at the Notre Dame defensive depth chart as it will look heading into spring practice in a couple months:
Ethan Johnson (Jr.)
Ian Williams (Sr.)
Kapron Lewis-Moore (Jr.)
Hafis Williams (Jr.)
Sean Cwynar (Jr.)
Tyler Stockton (So.)
Emeka Nwankwo (Sr.)
Brandon Newman (Jr.)
Louis Nix (Fr. 4-star)
Justin Utupo (Fr. 3-star)
Kona Schwenke (Fr. 3-star)
The biggest problem for Notre Dame at the defensive line position is a lack of playmaking ability. Ethan Johnson stands as the most talented veteran of the group and a likely switch back to defensive end will make him more effective in 2010.
Ian Williams has admirably overachieved in his career but he can be neutralized without being flanked by great pass rushers. So, the key in 2010 will be to mold another great pass rusher or two. As it stands, Kapron Lewis-Moore is the only experienced guy who fits the bill as a pass rusher, so it may be his job to lose.
However, Utupo could turn some heads immediately and become a steady member of the two-deep at defensive end. Schwenke was a nice pick-up from the island of Hawaii, and the coaching staff would love for him to turn into a great pass rusher down the road.
Also, there is the possibility that any number of linebackers on the roster, specifically Darius Fleming and Steve Filer, could see plenty of action at defensive end.
At the tackle position, the Irish are surprisingly strong and primed for the future. Backing up Ian Williams could be any number of players but expect highly recruited players Cwynar, Stockton and incoming freshman Nix to contribute significantly in 2010.
With an abundance of big-bodied tackles and a lack of quick pass rushers, Kelly could have the option of putting three massive players with their hand on the ground, backed up by quick and athletic pass rushing linebackers. But more than anything, Notre Dame needs to have the older players without much playing time in their career step up and build solid depth at this position.
Manti Te’o (So.)
Darius Fleming (Jr.)
Steve Filer (Jr.)
Brian Smith (Sr.)
Harrison Smith (Sr.)
Kerry Neal (Sr.)
Zeke Motta (So.)
Carlo Calabrese (So.)
Anthony McDonald (Jr.)
David Posluszny (Jr.)
Dan Fox (So.)
Prince Shembo (Fr. 4-star)
Kendall Moore (Fr. 4-star)
The 2010 linebacker corps has a great mixture of experience, leadership and emerging talent. This means the linebackers should be the anchor of the defense when the fall season rolls around.
Obviously, the time has come for Manti Te’o to shine and he will undoubtedly be on the field in every situation possible. Whoever grabs the other three starting positions is a bit of a mystery and we will have to wait and see how the spring and summer practices play out and how Kelly shifts players to different positions.
However, do not be surprised to see a lot of youth at linebacker right from the beginning of the season. Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta may transition to safety and that may give someone like Fox, Calabrese or one of the freshmen a chance to play.
Brian Smith, Harrison Smith and Kerry Neal are all seniors with a ton of experience, but their playing time could be reduced with physically mature prospects in Shembo and Moore ready to make an impact.
It is just as likely that Moore and especially Shembo could move to defensive end. If that happens, look for Te’o, Fleming, Filer and one senior to grab the starting spots at linebacker.
Darrin Walls (Sr.)
Gary Gray (Sr.)
Robert Blanton (Jr.)
Jamoris Slaughter (Jr.)
E.J. Banks (So.)
Spencer Boyd (Fr. 3-star)
Lo Wood (Fr. 3-star)
The entire defensive backfield is dangerously thin and it is somewhat surprising that more effort wasn’t put into recruiting these positions by Charlie Weis. It seems apparent that Brian Kelly will have to move players around on the roster to build depth and also go after a good number of defensive backs for the 2011 class.
Nevertheless, Notre Dame has three really strong corners to anchor their defense in 2010, but everyone knows they are all coming off pretty dismal campaigns. If the Irish defense is to improve, Blanton needs to return to his freshman form and continue improving, while Walls and Gray have to live up to their potential as guys you don’t want to throw the ball at.
Behind this trio it is a bit dismal, with Banks and Slaughter being decent recruits with only Slaughter seeing some action last season. Even worse, the two recruits at corner will have to bulk up and become much stronger to sniff any playing time in the near future.
This position is fairly strong for 2010, but the depth is a major concern after that.
Dan McCarthy (Jr.)
Leonard Gordon (Sr.)
Chris Badger (Fr. 3-star)
Austin Collinsworth (Fr. 3-star)
Without a doubt, safety is the position of most need heading into 2010. Going into spring practice, the Irish will have only two safety’s on the roster, and both have little experience.
This position will be a wild card and one that Kelly will most likely experiment with over the coming months. It is very possible that Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta will drop back into this depth chart, but both are built more to be linebackers.
A very likely scenario would be to move someone from the offensive side of the ball to safety, either from the receiving or running back corps. The Irish desperately need someone with great speed and coverage skills to man the last line of defense and some of the athletes on offense may be the answer. Right now, RB Cierre Wood may be the likely man to move, while WR Deion Walker could be another candidate.
Danny Spond (Fr. 4-star)
Derek Roback (Fr. 3-star)
Two more wildcards off the recruiting trail give Brian Kelly a little more flexibility on his first Irish roster. In an ideal world, it would be beneficial to move one or both of these players to safety, but both are already pushing the size and weight limits for that position.
Nevertheless, Spond is an incredibly versatile athlete who could do wonders under the training of Kelly and Company, while Roback has the size and speed that is desperately needed at Notre Dame.
Over time, both of these players will probably fall into the linebacker depth chart and contribute on the field two years from now, if not sooner.
Conclusion for Offense & Defense
It seems obvious that the offensive side of the ball is much more stable and talented, so a lot of the work in the off-season should be focused on molding a cohesive defensive unit. However, a good portion of spring ball could be devoted to trying different guys out at different positions all over the field.
The offense has its share of issues such as:
Will Crist be 100 percent healthy?
Who will start at the tackle spots?
Who will emerge as the second and third receiving options?
While replacing two offensive linemen is serious, I believe there is enough quality depth at the position to overcome that loss. In the big picture, the offense is sitting pretty and Irish fans have to love that Kelly will have an abundance of talent to work with in his first year at Notre Dame.
On defense, a lot of questions will remain until long after spring practices commence. The good news is that the Irish should have a pretty formidable front seven and they added some really nice depth at these positions with the likes of Nix, Utupo, Shembo and Moore.
However, the defensive backfield is such a concern that it is hard to believe that Kelly won’t focus a ton of energy trying to build depth at corner and molding two players to take over the reigns at the safety positions.
One of the main things to watch for over the coming months should be how Kelly moves players around (in Holtzian fashion) to fill these needs.