Tuesday, August 28, 2007

#6 - Six-Pack

Continuing to size up the key positions and issues as we're now only 5 days away from the return of Notre Dame football...

#6 - A Linebacker Six-Pack

Meet the six men who are going to save Notre Dame's defense.

From left to right: Seniors Maurice Crum, Jr., Joe Brockington, and Anthony Vernaglia, sophomores John Ryan, Morrice Richardson, and Toryan Smith.

If you believe what the outsiders say, linebacker is the position most riddled with questions when it comes to Corwin Brown's new 3-4 scheme. The line may be thin but it still has talent thanks to Trevor Laws, and the secondary still has potential and experience thanks to Tom Zbikowski, Ambrose Wooden, and Terrail Lambert. But linebacker? Only Crum has multiple years of experience at the position. Brockington was a journeyman who couldn't beat out a converted running back (Travis Thomas) until Thomas suffered an injury on the final play of the Michigan State game. Vernaglia has been one of those players who's been "on the verge" of a breakout year for the third straight season now. Ryan and Richardson are learning the position after being defensive ends last year. Smith was kept to special teams and garbage time last season.

Yet there's a reason you should be excited to see these guys on the field - they're leaner, hungrier, faster, and more agitated than ever when it comes to quieting the critics of the Notre Dame defense. Inside Brown's simplified "see ball, attack ball, rip ball-carrier's head off" philosophy, they'll finally get a chance to run wild much the way a steady stream of swift, hard-nosed linebackers have been for a certain NFL team in New England.

In 2006, Notre Dame linebackers accounted for only 18.5 TFL (Tackles for Loss), six of those sacks. That was out of a defense that had 78 TFL and 31 sacks - most of the heavy, penetrating lifting was being done by Laws and departed lineman Derek Landri and Victor Abiamiri. There was all the talk about how vulnerable and unathletic Notre Dame's back four were on defense, but that seemed to deflect some critical eyes from noticing just how ineffective the front seven could be. Caught up in the confusing "stratego" stylings of Rick Minter and his "gap sound" defense, the Irish yielded 3.8 yards per rush and 14.1 yards per catch in 2006; solid against the run, but awful against the pass. Two years ago a lot of people, including this humble blogger, compared Minter's defense with the 3-4 because of it's shifting emphasis was meant to be outside of the standard "run vs. pass" choice most defensive coordinators make on each play. But it seemed to do nothing except confuse the hell out of people.

For the Irish to have success in 2007, those percentages of TFLs and sacks coming from the linebackers (roughly 20% of each in '06) need to go up significantly. Linemen will be keying on Laws as he shifts out to the defensive end spot, and the Irish are perilously thin in the middle with only junior Pat Kuntz and true frosh Ian Williams anywhere close to being ready for the field. But this is what the '3-4 personnel' defense is all about; figuring a way to but your 11 best athletes onto the field, and in that department Brown's linebacker corps is making strides in a hurry. The starting four will be Crum & Brockington on the inside (Brockington has bulked up significantly as he prepares to take on more offensive guards) and Vernaglia filling the role of a standard outside linebacker thanks to his outstanding speed. Ryan is the "hybrid", roving open space much the way Roosevelt Colvin or Adalius Thomas might for New England.

The backbone of the 3-4 as Belichick runs it, as Brown learned it, and as Weis installs it depends on four fluid, versatile linebackers to be on the field at all times. Thanks to diligent recruiting and an insane amount of work over spring and fall, the Irish have a two-deep chart at linebackers which fits the bill. Get to know this six for sure, but keep an eye on: junior Scott Smith as well as freshmen Kerry Neal & Brian Smith, both of whom could be part of the dozen or so first-years on the field Saturday. Here's one particularly "GET PUMPED UP!" quote from the 6-2, 222 lb. Smith, who came to Notre Dame late in last year's recruiting cycle after Brown was hired and he had already committed to Iowa:
There are folks back in Smith's hometown of Overland Park, Kan., who could envision him handing out water at ND rather than playing football. But the son of former ND fullback Chris Smith has played himself out of scout team or water boy duties and should see meaningful playing time at outside linebacker as a freshman.

"That's what makes Brian Smith tick," he said. "All those people who doubt me back home. They didn't think I could play Division I. They didn't think I could make it here. I get a lot of satisfaction out of proving those people wrong."
And starting five days from now, the rest of a deep and hungry linebacker unit gets the chance to do the same.

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