Thursday, January 24, 2008

D-Line Depth Trying to Avoid Getting Deep-Sixed

The first loss was a hypothetical one, as Notre Dame had to move past the decision of high school senior Omar Hunter to remove himself from the list of Irish pledges before finally, to the absolute shock of everyone, picking Florida.

The second was a complete stunner, when last week it was announced that starting nose tackle Pat Kuntz (seen here sacking UCLA's walk-on quarterback) was not enrolled for the spring semester. Neither Kuntz nor ND officials would elaborate, except to confirm that the senior-to-be was studying in Indianapolis, at Ivy Tech, for "personal reasons". If the football thing doesn't pan out, Kuntz may at least have a calling to play Douglas MacArthur in a future biopic about the famous general, defiantly stating 'I shall return' when contacted by the AP:
No matter what I'm going to be back there. I'm going to have one more year to play and I'm going to graduate from Notre Dame.
The early rite of football fan spring known as DCE (depth chart engineering) speculated that Kuntz would move to defensive end given the emergence of Williams and the loss of Trevor Laws to graduation. So his absence, while regrettable, has now opened up a chance for little-used second and third year players like Derrell Hand, Kallen Wade, & Paddy Mullen to establish themselves opposite the freshman All-American and returning fifth-year end Justin Brown. Only now it looks like the Irish won't have Hand's services either, this time for medical reasons:
Hand’s football career is likely over because of a hereditary disease in his spinal cord, Hand’s former high school coach, Brian Fulk, explained.

“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.”

A Notre Dame spokesman declined specific comment on Hand’s status, citing confidentiality laws.
Assuming Hand can no longer play, that leaves Notre Dame with just six healthy defensive lineman during spring drills - Brown, Williams, Wade, Mullen, rising freshman Emeka Nwankwo & early-enrollee frosh Sean Cwynar. As pronounced a problem as that may seem, just imagine if the Irish were still running with four down-lineman as part of their regular defense.

So how do the Irish resupply themselves along the defensive line? One interesting possibility is offering an offensive lineman a crack at the depth chart across the line of scrimmage. The Irish tried this a year ago with Chris Stewart, but that pretty much was over before it began and Stewart came thisclose to transferring in the fall before starting to assert himself in the rotation at right tackle. Andrew Nuss was recruited as an offensive lineman, told he'd be switched to defense as recruiting came to a close last season (an announcement that came on the heels of some high-profile misses in the high schooler sweepstakes, most notably Martez Wilson), and is still officially listed as a defensive end, although Coach Weis included him when discussing the prospects of Matt Romine & Taylor Dever along the o-line depth chart.

And speaking of depth in that area, several reports floating through the blogosphere indicate that Bartley Webb could be finished with football as the result of a lingering shoulder injury.

The most likely option in both instances will be to solve the depth problem with the ever-popular "wait for the cavalry" plan. Barring any really last-minute changes of heart, the Irish will sign  four top defensive lineman in 11 days (Cwynar, Hafis Williams, Brandon Newman, and Ethan Johnson - though Johnson will be in recovery mode from a broken leg that wiped out his senior season). Out on the trail, the Irish were high on the list of Kapron Lewis-Moore (who came away raving about his official visit last weekend), but a few plot twists ended with Moore decommitting from Texas A&M, A&M subsequently revoking his scholarship offer, and finally Moore's announcement today that he's sticking with the Aggies. Another potential late switcher on defense, tackle Mike Martin, seems pretty solid in his Michigan commitment now and cancelled a planned visit to South Bend, so if the Irish are gonna make a late steal of their own it'll be with a late push for another Georgian, defensive end Keith Wells of Gainesville.

The other side of the trench sees fresh recruits Braxston Cave, Lane Clelland, Mike Golic, & Cwynar's fellow early enrollee Trevor Robinson, while the final big target, South Carolina's Kenneth Page, will announce tomorrow morning. 

The concern, naturally, comes when assessing the possibility that 2008 could wind up an eerie refrain of 2007, in which numerous spots along both lines are manned by players who've never taken a meaningful snap in a college game. While potentially losing Kuntz on top of the graduation of Laws leaves a lot unsettled for the Irish d-line, a great writer once said, “We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.”

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