Monday, January 28, 2008

Digging deeper down the depth chart | by Pat

After losing nose tackle Pat Kuntz for the semester and possibly longer, the Irish defensive line might be without another big body. Senior-to-be Derrell Hand is looking at a possible end of his football career according to his high school coach.

“He’s not the type of player to complain about injuries and he really never said that his back was hurting him, at least when he played for me,” said Fulk, who coached Hand at West Catholic High School in Philadelphia. “It kind of came out of nowhere for me.”

Hand is expected to get a second opinion but if the initial diagnosis is correct, Fulk said that playing football could severely aggravate the injury and potentially cause long-term problems.

“He’s going to get a second opinion about it,” Fulk said. “But at this point, it doesn’t look real good for him to play football ever again.”
Hopefully Hand is still at a point where he can without too much pain if he stops football now. Back injuries certainly are no fun at all.

If Hand's career is indeed truncated, that will make an already young defensive line even younger in 2008. Hand only played 27 minutes in 2007, but that was good enough for fourth-most out of returning players. His playing time likely would have been even higher if not for a multi-game suspension earlier in the season for his solicitation of an undercover cop.

With both Hand and Kuntz out for the spring, there really is no spring front-runner at this point for one of the starting defensive end spots. Consider this position breakdown heading into spring ball.
5th Year - Justin Brown (DE)
Senior - none
Junior - Paddy Mullen (NT/DE), Kallen Wade (DE)
Sophomore - Ian Williams (NT), Emeka Nwankwo (DE)
Freshman - Sean Cwynar (DE)
Six players to man three positions is barely enough to even field two teams for the Blue-Gold game. Assuming the usual bumps and bruises, ND might be down to walk-ons at some point during the post-winter practices. Then there is the fact, as pointed out by Mike Frank on Irish Eyes, that all of the potential replacements for Kuntz -- Mullen, Wade, Nwankwo, and Cwynar -- combine to have as many career tackles as Jimmy Clausen. In other words, let's really hope that Kuntz is able to make it back into school for the fall.

The cavalry will show up before the first game when Ethan Johnson, Brandon Newman, and Hafis Williams arrive, but even then it's asking a lot for freshmen DL to provide much more than sporadic backup minutes. Johnson has a chance to make a significant impact at defensive end, but even he missed most of his senior year with a knee injury.

One possible workaround to the inexperience and lack of depth would be to have outside linebacker John Ryan transition to a defensive end spot. Towards the end of 2007 he was slowly but surely being replaced in the starting lineup by Kerry Neal and Brian Smith. Ryan did battle through a shoulder injury that limited him at times, but Neal and Smith appear to be better long-term solutions at the outside 'backer spot. Ryan, who saw time at defensive end behind Abiamiri his freshmen year, might go from being a somewhat slower outside linebacker into a suitable defensive end provided he can add some bulk to his 250-ish pound frame.

The major problem with such a move is that once again ND would be robbing Peter to pay Paul on the depth chart. If Ryan is taken away from the outside linebacker spot, that only leaves
Neal, Smith, and Mo Richardson as experienced players at the OLB spot. With more defensive linemen freshmen showing up this fall than outside linebacker freshmen, it might be better for Ryan to stay at the linebacker spot rather than spend all winter, spring, and summer bulking up for the line, just to have to slim back down for linebacker in the fall. The only thing for certain at this point is that the front seven on defense is going to be one of the most interesting things to watch this spring.