Defense Wins Championships: Notre Dame Football in '09

Jim S.Correspondent IJune 21, 2009

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 13:  Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish including John Ryan #90, Dwight Stephenson #57 and Terrail Lambert #20 are called for a penalty for excessive celebration as they jump on teammate Brian Smith after Smith intercepted a pass and ran for a touchdown against the Boston College Eagles on October 13, 2007 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. Boston College defeated Notre Dame 27-14.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Yes, you read that right.  While many ND fans are cautiously optimistic about this season’s prospects because of the playmaking ability on the offensive side of the ball, it will be Notre Dame’s defense that has them back in championship picture after decades of irrelevance. 

My predictions:

Top 20 in overall defense
Top 10 in pass defense
Top five in turnovers produced
Top three in pass efficiency defense
School record for single season sacks

Everything begins with the Irish secondary, which returns the deepest, most talented group of players I can remember to wear the gold and blue.  ND has four cornerbacks with legitimate NFL aspirations.  Two of them, Darrin Walls and Robert Blanton are certain first day picks in my mind, likely first round.

Walls was baptized by fire as a true freshman in the season opener, more than holding his own against freakishly talented Calvin Johnson.  He continued his development as lonely bright spot in the dismal 2007 campaign, showing glimpses of his playmaking ability with an electrifying touchdown return against Penn St. 

After sitting out last season, all reports are that he has been highly focused, and in great shape, both mentally and physically, ready for a breakout year. 

RJ Blanton burst on to the scene last year as the most exciting corner the Irish have trotted out since Bobby Taylor. 

Indeed, his size, swagger, ball skills, and physicality are eerily reminiscent of Taylor, and while Blanton may or may not be named as a starter, Defensive Backs Coach and Coordinator Corwin Brown will substitute freely, so expect to see RJ as often as any other corner. 

The pudding proof of ND’s intense competition at the corner spot is Raeshon McNeil.  One year removed from his own breakout junior season as the most dependable lock-down corner, Mcneil will be fighting for his own starting position this season.

Part of ND’s best tandem cornerback recruiting effort since Jeff Burris and Tom Carter, Raeshon has yet to show big play ability, but is up to the task of defending most any wide receiver in the nation, honing his skills in practice against two of the best in Michael Floyd and Golden Tate.

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Rounding out the group is Gary Gray, who some might forget was one of the most highly recruited corners in his class, and has shown a great deal of promise since sitting out his freshman year with a broken arm. 

The group is talented enough to play one-on-one press coverage against any team in the nation, and deep enough to do so on nearly every down without risking fatigue.  This security in the secondary will new defensive play caller John Tenuta free to do what he does best:  get after the quarterback.

ND has a bevy of young pass rushing talents in Ethan Johnson, Kerry Neal, Darius Fleming, Brian Smith, and Kapron Lewis-Moore, who should combine to produce the highest single season sack total in ND history.

Add in sack hungry safety Harrison Smith, and this should be the one of the most feared groups of QB crunchers in the nation.  With extreme confidence in his secondary, look for Tenuta to send five or six after the passer on every play.  This should be a fun defense to watch.

Most will concede the Irish talent at corner, and acknowledge Tenuta’s expertise at orchestrating the blitz, but point out the youth and size issues among the front seven, and question ND’s ability stop the run. 

True, the Irish are young, but freakishly talented Ethan Johnson, fiery leader Brian Smith, and big bodied, hard working tackles Ian Williams and Brandon Newman should not be cause for concern. 

Early enrollee Tyler Stockton provides depth at the tackle spot, and by all accounts could be pushing for a starting spot by the end of the year.  Oh, did I forget to mention Uber-Recruit Manti Teo?

At the safety positions, Sure tackling Smith, Kyle McCarthy, and Nickel Back Sergio Brown should keep the number of big plays to an absolute minimum. 

However, there is a trio of players more important than any of these to the run defense, and to breaking the single season sack record. 

Three players so talented, so productive, that they won’t just severely limit opposing team’s ability to run the ball, but eliminate the threat of the run altogether.  I’m speaking of course, of Jimmy Clausen, Michael Floyd, and Golden Tate.

Thanks to these three, Charlie Weis will return Notre Dame to the explosive, big play offensive machine we saw in 2005.  For the first time since then, Weis has an experienced line, an upperclassman Qb with a golden arm, and big play threats on the outside. 

Throw in 6’7” phenom Kyle Rudolph, and ND should be hanging 40 points a game on just about everybody.  Teams will be playing catch-up by the second quarter, forced to abandon the run, and the Irish will take advantage. 

Tenuta will blitz, blitz, and blitz some more, and let Blanton and Walls do their thing.  Expect Qb’s to put balls on the ground, and into the hands of grateful Db’s. 

Looking at ND’s defense, you see something unfamiliar to Irish fans:  Speed and athleticism, at every position.  Look for this to create turnovers and many a defensive touchdown.  Among the defensive players I expect to score this year: H Smith, B Smith, Blanton, Walls, and OLB’s Fleming and Neal. 

Notre Dame’s struggles won’t come in shoot-outs against high powered offenses, but in epic defensive battles.  Only USC has the defense to keep the Irish offense in check, and force the Irish D to play honest. 

Expect a decision in the 24-21 range on that day, going either way.  This could be the year Weis finally gets the “big-game” monkey of his back.  Beat USC, and expect to be overmatched and outclassed by Florida in the National Championship game.

Lose to USC, and hopefully face a pass-happy Big 12 team in the Fiesta Bowl, and win 41-21.  Either way, I predict 12-1 and a top five overall finish.  I await your scornful replies.  Go Irish!

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