Defensive Preview: The Challenge Ahead for Corwin Brown

Thanks to FunkDoctorSpock and RevueParty, my post recruiting writing has been minimal. This is FunkDoctorSpock’s excellent post on Rock’s House. Enjoy.

He (Brown) actually does have some experienced, talented players to build around this season. Yes, there are holes, big ones, and question marks all over the place but if he can get his group to play well in 2007, very bright times are ahead.

It will come down to the answers he is able to come up with along the defensive line. Because I believe that ND will be better, and deeper, in both the secondary and at linebacker in 2007.

A lot of this is best guess stuff because with the shift in defensive scheme, guys will probably end up playing at different spots than what I project. Anyway, since the good Lord has seen us through LOI Day, I wanted to focus on the spring and the fall.

DEFENSIVE LINE
The obvious place to start is with Trevor Laws. He is without question the most important returning player among the 5th year guys. He is the rock around which the DL will be built. Well thought out positions have been put forth suggesting he would fit at either NT or DE. I’m not a coach, so I can’t say. But I do know that of the three guys that will have their hands down on any given snap, he will be one of them. The hope is that he can have a year similar to the one that Landri just had. Laws did improve significantly from 2005 to 2006.

Beyond Laws, it really starts to become a guessing game. Pat Kuntz is the kind of player we all should root for because he really does seem to love football, ND, and plays the game with everything that he has. That being said, he was on roller skates against LSU. If he can get himself up to about 280 pounds (last year he was listed at 270) I think he can be a servicable rotation player in the mold of Brian Beidatsch a few years back. Regardless, I will be rooting for Kuntz to make the most out of all the talents that God gave him.

John Ryan was probably the biggest suprise among the incoming freshmen. He was a backup from Day One last year. Ryan is the kind of player that teams like Boston College and Wisconsin live off of. He likely was able to come in and contribute right away because he was well coached in high school. St. Ignatius is one of the better high school programs in the country, and Ohio high school football is a great training ground for success. Ryan is someone that I hope puts a mattress in the Gug and basically moves in with Mendoza. At 6’5 240 he looked skinny out there last year.

Seeing as how this isn’t the steroid age in college football anymore, my hope is that Ryan can get up to about 255-260. He still probably won’t be big or strong enough to hold down his spot without help, but the kid does have a chance to be a very productive player in the mold of Kyle Budinscak, etc.

This is where we jump into the great unknown(s). Derrell Hand has been beset by injuries for the first two years of his career at ND. One positive is that the kid did show enough dedication to completely reshape his body during his first year at ND.

The next great unknown is Paddy Mullen. On the positive side of the equation, he was indeed recruited to play DE by the likes of Nebraska, Missouri, etc. His play on defense during his junior year of high school is what first got him noticed by college coaches. Mullen ended last season at about 6’5 270 pounds. It’s not unrealistic to think he could be in the 280 pound range by August. In no way shape or form do I expect him to be the second coming of Chris Zorich. But I am hopeful that he can be a part of an effective rotation along the DL.

The biggest mystery is Chris Stewart. On paper, his potential move to NG looks like it could be successful. Stewart’s biggest problem as an OL was his almost complete lack of experience in pass blocking. I remember watching video from last years All American Game and seeing Stewart and Gerald McCoy going against each other. It was a complete deadlock. You could see that both were extremely powerful young men. Often times, players like Stewart, Nawankwo, and even Ian Williams are asked in high school to play the position that will be most helpful to their team. And in each case, none likely had the physical stamina to play both ways. One thing is for certain – Stewart is in significantly better shape now than he was a year ago. There are too many things that I don’t know about him to be able to predict success or failure as a NG. Temperment, current physical condition, etc. But again, the hope is that this 6’5 330-340 giant has the ability to hold down his gap and creative some havoc for opposing offenses.

I don’t know where to slot either Justin Brown, Kallen Wade or Dwight Stephenson. Of the three, Brown has played much more. He has 1 start and about 100 minutes of career playing time. In my mind, the biggest problem with Brown is that he likely still considers himself a basketball player who happens to play football. I’ve seen flashes of significant talent from Brown over the last two years. He actually played some of his best football towards the end of last year after he got back in the mix with the defection of Talley. Wade is a complete unknown. But even an optimist like me isn’t expecting any of these guys to be the second coming of Frank Stams. Solid contributors would be just fine, thank you very much.

As for the incoming freshmen, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Ian Williams having much of an impact. And even then, I don’t expect him to challenge for a starting position.

LINEBACKER
As I said, I think ND can, and will, be better at linebacker in 2007. First and foremost, everyone is back. Perhaps thats damning with faint praise. But so be it. Travis Thomas, though, looks like he is going back to being a full time running back.

The headliner in this group is Maurice Crum. I don’t see how anyone can’t be a big fan of this guy. He’s started the last 25 games for ND. During that time he had major back surgery, changed positions, and still managed to lead the team with 100 tackles last year. I don’t know where he will line up for Corwin Brown, but I know he will be out there. I’m encouraged by the fact that Crum is healthy enough this year to go through winter conditioning and go full speed during spring practice. I still shake my head at the fact that the three players that ended up being ND’s main linebackers last year (Crum, Brockington, and T. Thomas) didn’t take one live snap at the position during spring practice.

But getting back to Crum. It’s often pointed out that he didn’t get pursued by the Big Three in Florida coming out of high school. But he did get offers from teams like Georgia Tech and Tennessee. How many teams in the country have guys from Florida like that who end up being very good players? Hell, even Rutgers does it. It wouldn’t suprise me to see Crum at up around 230 or so next fall. He’ll never be the biggest, fastest, guy on the field, but he is a good football player that has the chance to be very good.

Joe Brockington is another player that isn’t flashy, highly touted, etc. I highly doubt the NFL is in his future. What I do know is that he ended up starting the last 9 games at LB last year and did so weighing no more than what was likely 215-220 pounds. Like Crum, Brockington had major surgery on his back last year. I can’t even begin to imagine how much size and strength he lost in the process. I am hopeful that Brockington can stay healthy and build himself back up to legitimate LB size – 230 or so. This season will likely be his last go round playing football, and for a guy that has had to overcome so much, I’m hoping he can put together a good year.

Like Brockington, Toryan Smith got the majority of his first minutes of playing time coming in as the extra linebacker in goal line situations. Smith is interesting in that he is what I am finding out is quite common down South – a “3 star” player that has an offer list that jumps out at you and makes you wonder how he could be rated so “low”. Simply put, there are too many good to great players down in Florida, Georgia, etc., and given the political nature of these rankings, at a certain point I think guys that are very good players don’t make the “star” cut.

What I do know about Smith is that he had offers from Florida, Michigan, Alabama, Oklahoma, etc. What I do know is that he is a LB that this staff targeted very early on in the recruiting process. Toryan needs to be a defensive version of Darius Walker. By that I mean a guy from Georgia that, despite having excellent offers, was only a consensus 3 star recruit but who ended up having an extremely productive career at ND.

The first place he can start is helping ND get better against the run. For all the talk about the blown coverages last season, what really made me sick about our defense was the fact that teams ran on us. A lot. ND finished last year ranked 61st in Rushing Defense. That is beyond unacceptable at Notre Dame.

Anthony Vernaglia has had a rough few years in terms of his football career. To borrow a phrase from my friends down in Texas, so far he has been “all hat and no cattle”. Pete Carroll obviously saw something in him because he chased him to the bitter end. One thing about Vernaglia is that he is an excellent athlete and with two years of eligibility left, be it on defense, offense, or wherever, I hope the staff finds a place where he can shine.

Again, we take a step into the unknown. Morrice Richardson was a DE last year but I think he will be an OLB in this system. What worries me the most about Richardson is the fact that I don’t know how much more weight his frame can handle. He’s 6’2 225-230. He’s got excellent straight line speed. The worry with Richardson coming out of high school was that he was a classic ‘tweener. But stop me if you’ve heard this one before – he’s the type of player that the other schools that recruited him – Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Florida, etc. – find a place for.

Kerry Neal is the great hope for all of us in front seven among the incoming freshmen. To me, he represents all that has been good with ND’s recruiting on defense over the last two years. Again, perhaps that is damning with faint prase. But Neal was a guy that ND was in on before anyone else. Not suprisingly, credit goes to Bill Lewis, who seems to have an excellent network of resources down south, which isnt suprising given the years he spent at Georgia, Georgia Tech, East Carolina, and with the Dolphins. ND got to Neal first, and held off teams like Miami, Florida, Alabama, Nebraska, North Carolina, etc. Neal is the most highly ranked, decorated, whatever you want to call it, front seven recruit for ND since Victor Abiamiri. I don’t know if he will be strong enough to be an every down player for ND as a freshmen, but he has the potential to get in create some havoc for opposing QBs.

I have no idea what to expect from Steve Quinn, Steve Smith, or Kevin Washington. Of the three, Quinn has made a nice impact on special teams. Frankly, getting anything significant in terms of production from any of them at LB would be a nice suprise. The same could be said for Nagel, Paskorz and Brian Smith.

SECONDARY
This is the place where ND has the best mix of experience and recruiting success. To start, ND would be much better off if Zbikowski can look more like the 2005 version of himself as opposed to the 2006 version. Zibby had five picks two years ago. Last year he had none. This is the money making year for him – without question he probably saw his draft stock plummet after the year that he had. I’d like to think that a future in football is important to him, because if it isn’t, then he should have called it a day and moved on with his boxing career. Zibby is a returning captain and starter and needs to play his best football in 2007.

Ambrose Wooden was also beset by shoulder and knee problems last year. But he is a very experienced player that has had his fair share of big moments, both good and bad, for ND. There is no doubting his physical ability. Wooden is another 5th year player that needs to realize that if he wants to keep playing football, it’s now or never to go and prove it.

Terrail Lambert was the most improved player, bar none, last season. He went from being a bust in some peoples eyes to playing more minutes than anyone last year and leading the team in interceptions. He’s still too inconsistent but has the physical talent to succeed, either at corner, or even at free safety.

Darrin Walls probably has more potential than any DB on ND’s roster. Before he got hurt during his senior year of high school, he was ranked by many as being the #1 CB prospect in the country. ND beat out Michigan, Florida, and just about everyone else for this kid. Walls certainly had a tough freshmen season. Welcome to college football kid, enjoy matching up with Calvin Johnson and the Bowe kid from LSU. Walls needs to build himself up in the next few months. He was painfully skinny, and likely weak, due to the shoulder operation that he had before he got to ND. With the combination of Bill Lewis, Corwin Brown, and Ruben Mendoza guiding him, the sky truly is the limit for Walls.

Also in the mix at corner will be Gary Gray, Raeshon McNeil and Leo Ferrine. Gray will benefit as much as anyone from being an EE. It amazes me that he made his reputation as being a bump and run corner, and for being physical (I hope you all caught his goaline tackle of Ryan Mallet in the AA Bowl) and being about 165 pounds and painfully lacking in the strengtth department. McNeil was just as highly touted as Walls and Gray coming out of high school. As for Ferrine, he’s just a guy that despite not having any hype, has managed to play major minutes and start a few games over the last few years. It wouldn’t suprise me to see him get passed by some of the younger guys, but he is a veteran that will be in the mix.

Then there are our young safeties. Herring and David Bruton have played the most minutes at both S and on special teams. Sergio Brown played mostly on special teams. Kyle McCarthy actually managed 82 minutes of playing time but that was on special teams. The wild cards are twofold – one, where will Lambert, or perhaps another corner like McNeil, end up? It wouldn’t be shocking to see one of them slide over to FS. And the other is Harrison Smith. Again, on paper, he is the best safety prospect ND has signed since probably Gerome Sapp. It warms my heart when ND can beat out Tennessee, Auburn, and most of the rest of the SEC for a skill position player. The kid is a freakish athlete – he ran a 4.38 at the same Rivals combine at which Eric Berry – one of the premier corner prospects in the country who signed with Tennessee – ran a 4.33. And more importantly, if you watch Smith play, he looks smooth and experienced as a safety. He won’t be playing the position for the first time in his life when he steps foot on campus.

CONCLUSION
But here is the most important thing to remember, and why Brown’s first year is so important. Only a handful of players on defense are in their final year of eligibility – Zibby, Wooden, Brockington, and Laws being the foremost on that list. If, and it’s a big if, Brown can get this group to make strides in 2007, he will have a significant core of experienced players coming back, and he will likely be able to attract the top flight recruits ND has missed out on.

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