Monday, October 16, 2006

Taking Inventory -- the Defense | by Pat

Okay then, the review of the offense is done, time to move on to the mid-season review of the defense. Protective goggles on, everyone.

MVP - Maurice Crum. This one was a tough call. Victor and Zibby are possibilites, but I think Crum has been the most consistent defensive player -- and that's a credit to his instincts, as he's undersized, and often fighting through traffic at his new middle linebacker position.

Most Improved - Mike Richardson. Spending most of his time as a nickel back covering the slot receiver, Richardson has stuck to his man like glue and has been excellent in run support. He's the best open field tackler on the team. And if Richardson is 1A on the Most Improved List, Terrail Lambert is 1B.

Top Newcomer - Travis Thomas. Does it say more about Travis or the other linebackers that TT was able to slide right into that starting linebacker spot? I'll give Travis the credit for now. His speed and enthusiasm are a big lift for the defense, and the whole unit seemed a step slower when he was out against Purdue and Stanford.

Biggest Surprise - I'll offer two surprises, a positive and negative. On the debit side: the inability of the defensive line to put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks not named Trent Edwards is surprising, especially considering the veteran players on the line. Credit: the sudden development of depth in the secondary -- Lambert, Walls and Herring -- has been a very pleasant surprise.

Now, on to the position reviews...

Defensive Line. A sort of "the whole is less than than the sum of its parts" type of year so far. Victor, despite being double-teamed (and held) like no player I've ever seen is having a great year. Landri, with his ability to penetrate and disrupt, and Laws, with his non-stop motor, have increased their impact on the game by more than doubling their tackle numbers from a year ago. At the right defensive end position, Frome has done a good job keeping contain on some of the mobile QBs and Talley was getting better against the run. But as a whole, the defensive line has been slightly disappointing. There just hasn't been a consistent pass rush from the quartet, and oftentimes the opposing QB has too much time to throw the ball. I do expect that to improve as we face more inferior offensive lines -- the Stanford game is proof enough of that -- but I also think that such talented individuals as we have should be able to make a better overall push. The right defensive end spot is still the big bulleye for the opponent running game, and needs to stop being shoved around and start shoving back.

As far as the backups go, Travis Leitko has quietly been having a solid year moving the pile and getting his hands up into the passing lanes during his limited time on the field. Freshman John Ryan has made a surprise appearance on the depth chart as Victor's backup at defensive end. Ryan really hasn't done much yet this year, but the fact that the coaches trust him enough to send him out there when Victor needs a break is a good sign for his future. Classmate Morrice Richardson has the quickest first step of any of the defensive lineman on the roster, and I really hope he gets more chances this year to duck that shoulder under the reach of the opposing left tackle. With the loss of Talley, it will be interesting to see if Justin Brown and/or Dwight Stephenson will finally get onto the field. Derrell Hand has been M.I.A. so far with injuries. Getting him back and some game time experience would be nice for next year.

Linebackers. A big concern coming into the season and, quite frankly, still a big concern. ND has played the nickel or dime in a vast majority of the defensive snaps this year, with an extra defensive back replacing the third linebacker. That alone says much about the staff's faith in the Irish linebackers. Mo Crum still looks undersized playing in the middle, but is having a very productive year. Travis Thomas's lack of size makes it easy for offensive linemen to run him out of the play, but his speed has been a real asset, especially in blitzes. Mitchell Thomas and Anthony Vernaglia have had some guest appearances as the 3rd linebacker but neither have really shown that much during their time on the field. Vernaglia has been getting some more time lately, which I suppose is a sign the coaches are encouraged by what they see in practice. Hopefully his play late in the Stanford game is the first step towards increased production on the field. With more ground-oriented teams on the horizon he'll have plenty of chances to make an impact. Freshman Toryan Smith has had only a small handful of snaps so he's still a big unknown. Will he get more of a chance in the second half of the season? Or will ND stick mainly with the nickel package and Crum and Travis Thomas as the lone linebackers?

Secondary - The slimmer Ndukwe is definitely faster and he's filling up the stat sheet, but now and again he still finds himself out of position. Up until his injury, Zibby was having a great year. I expect him to return to form against UCLA. Playing as a safety/linebacker hybrid at times, he's been pretty good against the run. Ambrose Wooden is another player slowed down by some injuries. He's been up and down this year mixing some great plays with a few noticeable gaffes. No one on the team went from goat to hero faster than Terrail Lambert. As he gains confidence, I expect a strong second half of the season from him. Darrin Walls has looked like a freshman out there a few times, but you can also see a whole lot of athleticism and potential. Ray Herring also did an admirable job filling in for Zibby and let everyone know that strong safety will be in good hands next year. Backups David Bruton and freshman Raeshon McNeil and Sergio Brown have had some bright moments on special teams, which bodes well for their future.

And a couple of special teams notes...

Punting- Probably the biggest surprise is new starter Geoff Price kicking like an All-American. He bailed out the Irish in the first few games when the offense was shaky. Hopefully he won't have to come off the bench too much during the rest of the season, but it's great knowing he's there if needed.

Kicking game. Six games into the season and the kicking situation is still an unknown. ND is only three of six on field goals and missed a pretty big extra point against Michigan State, even if it didn't ultimately matter. Gioia has struggled on the long kicks; he's 0 for 2 outside of 40 yards, but he's been a fairly solid 3 of 4 inside the 40 yard mark. Bobby Renkes started off the season with some quality kickoffs and now it seems the torch has been officially passed to freshman Ryan Burkhart, who had a few big boots of his own against Stanford.

Bottom Line? It looks like the defense is improving over last year's version, but they still haven't put it all together. The dreaded big play is still a problem, although it is nice to see that the D is being a more aggressive with its blitzes. For the rest of the season, it will be interesting to see how the sudden departure of Ronald Talley affects the line play. And I hope the backup defensive tackles can start to contribute more so that Landri and Laws aren't wiped out by the season finale in L.A. With the strong debut by Herring, I wonder if he will start appearing more in the backfield in a modified dime package that has Zibby moving up into a more linebacker-oriented role. As for those linebackers, Mitchell Thomas and Anthony Vernaglia should have great opportunities to showcase their stuff against the ground attacks of Navy and Air Force. It will be a great test of their discipline and linebacker instincts. The grumblings about the performance of the defense are growing louder but some dominant performances against weaker competition will go a long way to quieting them.

And then there's that November 25th game that should provide a strong test.