Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Young & Hart

Notre Dame shifted into "game week" mode as the school year began today, with specific prep for Nevada's "Pistol" offense topping the list of concerns. Fits with the theme of today's bulletin in our 12 Days of Irish Football countdown...

#11 - The Very Young, and Hart

Scan Notre Dame's 2009 depth chart and you see a lot of players who've been around the block for 20 games or so - they've adjusted to the speed of college, they've flashed some skill, they're ready to go to another level (popular choices: Brian Smith, Michael Floyd, Jimmy Clausen, Kyle Rudolph). Good depth and maturing talent seems a given at a lot of spots on Notre Dame's roster. Defensive line is not one of those spots.

When it comes to Notre Dame, the performance of the d-line has been a matter of perspective. First, you have to restrain the temptation to define on the scale of who they are not - in other words, forget about how it was "supposed" to be a line of Butch Lewis, Gerald McCoy, Justin Trattou, & Omar Hunter. It isn't. We can argue about recruiting could/woulda/shouldas until the cows come home, and all it does is turn attention away from the players who are here and who are working their tails off to refortify the Irish front.

Among the adjustments to the coaching staff this past offseason was the resignation/dismissal of Jappy Oliver after four years of inconsistent (to be generous) line play. The best thing one could say about Notre Dame's trench players on defense was that they had a tendency to play beyond their means - an undersized but absolutely ferocious Trevor Laws in 2007, a similarly productive year from Pat Kuntz in 2008. Yet there's been scant continuation, and no overwhelming presence has established itself to stop opposing rushers. Passing defense? The secondary for the Irish has done a lot of heavy lifting lately, and for all those 'TAH-NOO-TAH' blitz packages, there's certainly been something left to be desired so far as generating pressure with the front four goes. In four seasons under Charlie Weis, here have been the team leaders in sacks (where the law of diminishing returns seems in full force):
  • 2005: Victor Abiamiri, 8
  • 2006: Abiamiri, 10.5
  • 2007: Laws, 4
  • 2008: Kuntz/Harrison Smith/Ethan Johnson, 3.5 each
It's more than a bit disconcerting when the returning co-leader in sacks is a safety who was playing out of position. And for all the hand-wringing over the players who got away, it's not that Notre Dame has been devoid of talent up front in past years - and that certainly will not be the case this year. Ethan Johnson was perhaps the best defensive line prospect west of the Mississippi when he came out of high school in 2008. Plenty of other players, some of whom took of redshirt year, could have gone just about anywhere they wanted. So now, partly because of graduation losses and partly because the guys who were in there haven't gotten the job done , the Irish two-deep along the line features four players who didn't play at all last season.

In the ear of newbies and returning contributors alike during the critical spring development period & fall camp has been one of the elder statesman of defensive line play, an old-school disciple if ever there was one: Randy Hart. A three-time letter winner (as an offensive lineman, no less) at Ohio State University - he played on the 1968 Buckeyes championship team which featured a young Lou Holtz on its coaching staff - Hart brings a resume of more than 40 years in college football and a decidedly up-tempo, punch-in-the-gut style of tutelage. The decision to extend media viewing at practices to 45 minutes on Tuesdays this season (it will be completely closed all other days) ought to provide many beat writers the opportunity to fill up a notebook with Hart-isms. From today's report out of Irish Illustrated - subscribers click here:
With Hart standing behind [senior Morrice] Richardson signaling two "offensive linemen" (actually, two defensive linemen simulating offensive linemen) the blocking scheme, Richardson guesses wrong, opening a gap straight up the field for the running back.

"You know what they're doing? The band is playing, and it ain't our band!" Hart says.

Adds Hart, "If you're thinking, you're stinking, and if you're guessing, it's worse!"

Animated commentary aside, Hart boasts an impressive resume and he'll need to draw from every ounce of it to get the Irish up to speed. Hart's last two units at Washington, where he coached for 21 years before not being retained by Steve Sarkisian, were historically bad at run defense, allowing 4.92 & 5.69 yards per carry to their opponents. In his defense, when the team is 0-12, it's not any one thing. More to the point, at Notre Dame he figures to be working with talent more on par with the type of units he led as a coach on six different Rose Bowl teams. It is that talent, and how Hart molds it differently than the departed Oliver, which will go a long way to defining Notre Dame's defense. A lot of attention (or, more accurately, anxious anticipation) is being thrown towards Tony Alford and Frank Verducci on the offensive side, but they've been charged with a renovation project, seemingly having to retro-fit players with a lot of experience (most of it bad). Hart is the coach working on a much broader, almost blank, canvas: Tyler Stockton, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sean Cwynar, Brandon Newman & Hafis Williams all could be thrust into a pivotal role along with the still-learning Johnson, to say nothing of "situational" upper-class players like Richardson & John Ryan, for whom it is now or never. The closest thing this unit has to a polished veteran is Kerry Neal, which is why you're probably still going to see a lot of "four linebackers" on the field, even if the Irish are officially not running the 3-4 personnel grouping under Jon Tenuta.

How quickly can the Irish defensive line dominate the trenches? I guess that'll depend on if they listen to their Hart...and before you say anything, of course that was a terrible pun. Given the reports I'm hearing about his manner and energy at practice, you think Randy would mind? Hardly.

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