Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Midseason Assessment: Part II - Defense and Special Teams

Let's take a look at the defense and special teams.

Defensive Line: C-

Kerry Neal was a ghost for the first three games, played very well against Purdue and Washington, then was swallowed up against SC…John Ryan has been serviceable and even delivered a couple big plays (sacking Forcier and Barkley). That’s far more than I thought we’d ever say about him…Ian Williams has been quiet but has improved…Ethan Johnson saved the MSU game by blocking an extra point but has been pretty non-descript…Kapron Lewis-Moore has really started to come into his own and looks like he’ll be a key cog over the next 3+ years…none of the interior linemen people expected to emerge (Hafis Williams, Sean Cwynar, Brandon Newman, Paddy Mullen) have made any sort of significant contribution…

We thought this would be a weak spot for the team this year and that’s proven to be true. After being gashed the first couple games they have stepped up a bit and played better, especially in the red zone. That being said there are still light years to go here—all you had to do was compare this unit to Southern Cal’s last week. We are totally unable to get any sort of pass rush without sending linebackers and defensive backs on blitzes. The weakness up front is forcing us to sell out on run blitzes, leaving the secondary vulnerable to big plays. Having a sub-par defensive line hamstrings the entire defense just like a sub-par offensive line cripples an offense. I don’t think this can be fixed this season, we just need to hold on for dear life and hope it doesn’t bury us. The performance against USC and the goal line stands keep this grade passing.

Linebackers: B-

Manti Te’o has been as good as advertised. He’s made some mistakes here and there but on the whole we have to be THRILLED about what he brings to the table and what he will continue to bring over the next 3+ years…Brian Smith has had kind of a quiet year but he played some inspired ball against USC…Darius Fleming is taking steps toward becoming a consistent force but this injury to his shoulder is a set back. He has freakish athletic ability and is beginning to put it to good use…Toryan Smith has been surpassed by Te’o but still contributes on goal line unit…Scott Smith has been pretty nondescript when he’s been in the game…Steve Filer hasn’t emerged like many thought/hoped he would, though he’s made a significant contribution on special teams.

Secondary: D

Just an absolute wasteland. This was supposed to be one of the best units on the team and here we are with it ranked dead last. Is it more talented than the defensive line? Yes, far and away. But every preseason starter not named Kyle McCarthy has underachieved to a degree where it is just mind-blowing. Some of the problems are related to the fact that they have to stay in coverage so long, but that’s certainly not the root of the problems. Serious changes need to be made here down the stretch.

Kyle McCarthy has been the rock of the defense. He’s come up with big interceptions when we’ve needed them (Michigan, MSU), big stops when we’ve needed them (Washington goal line), and in general has been the soundest tackler on the team…Harrison Smith just got moved to linebacker. That’s really all that has to be said about his performance. What I would like to ask is how this is going to change his tackling, which has been a bigger issue than his coverage…Darrin Walls has been a disappointment. He hasn’t come up with the big plays when he’s had the opportunity and he’s surrendered more than his fair share of receptions/touchdowns…Robert Blanton has been a disappointment. The swagger seems to have sagged a bit and he, like Walls, has not seized opportunities that have been presented to him. I will credit him for being a very solid tackler. He made some really good open field tackles against SC. Seems like he’s close to turning it around, just needs one play to turn the tide…Gary Gray has really stepped up and played well. I think he and Blanton ultimately will end up forming a rock-solid tandem over the next few years…Sergio Brown is exactly what I thought he was: good athlete, strong in run support, good on the blitz, mediocre in coverage…Raeshon McNeil has just quietly done nothing. Is it because he hasn’t been on the field or he hasn’t been burned? Probably more the former.

Defensive Coaching: D

This unit is not nearly as talented as the one on the other side of the ball, but there is no excuse for how poorly it has performed—especially the secondary. Against Michigan an unwillingness to adjust our gameplan ended up costing us the game. Three consecutive weeks we made inexperienced quarterbacks look like All-Americans (Forcier, Cousins, Elliot) and two consecutive weeks we blew coverages at times where good teams just don’t let it happen (not that it ever should).

Jon Tenuta’s defensive philosophy is to blitz, blitz, and blitz some more. It is predicated on forcing the offense to adapt to him, by imposing his will on an offensive through continual aggressiveness. That works when you have the players like he had when he was at Ohio State, when your defensive line can control the line of scrimmage and let your linebackers roam free. That’s not the reality at Notre Dame right now and hasn’t made the necessary adjustments. The reality is that the scheme needs to be tweaked depending on who the opponent is. We made Tate Forcier look like Joe Montana…why couldn’t we adjust to a freshman quarterback in his second start who was lighting us up?

I like many others have soured on Coach Tenuta, but Corwin Brown deserves blame here as well. Corwin is working specifically with the defensive backs, who have been atrocious. We have the athletes back there now, how is it possible that they’re underachieving so much? Is the secondary performing that poorly just because of the pass rush forces guys to stay in coverage too long? It seems to me that a lot of times the cornerbacks are sagged so far off receivers that we essentially concede seven yards on the play. It’s just been an extremely disappointing year all around for the defensive side of the ball.

Special Teams: C+

Nick Tausch has taken a lot of the drama out of field goals—which I cannot thank him enough for—but he’s missed an extra point and had another one blocked. On the whole I can’t be anything but pleased with him though. His name isn’t Brandon Walker and I have faith he can make a kick if we need him…Eric Maust’s dud against Michigan cost us field position that altered the course of the game. He’s since been removed but when evaluating the first half performance the basket of eggs he laid has to be factored in…Ben Turk has been ok so far, not much to judge from…Kickoff coverage has gotten better and better as the year has gone on—in fact it’s been great lately—but you still can’t ignore how bad it was in the beginning of the year (specifically the Michigan game)…Long snapping has been automatic. Thank you very much Jordan Cowart, scholarship well spent.


Cumulative Defensive GPA: 2.18…there have been a few bright spots (McCarthy, Te’o, KLM, Fleming), but far too many mental breakdowns and shortcomings. It goes without saying that if the Irish want to land in the BCS they need to turn this around.

Defensive MVP: Kyle McCarthy…and it isn’t even clooooose.
Honorable Mention: No one is even worth mentioning

Biggest Defensive Surprise: Gary Gray…who would’ve guessed he would be the best cornerback?
Honorable Mention: Kapron Lewis-Moore

Biggest Defensive Disappointment: Harrison Smith…and it isn’t even CLOOOOOSE.
Honorable Mention: Darrin Walls



  1. A C+ for special teams is VERY generous. The kick return TD by Michigan cost us that game, the blocked/missed extra point against Michigan State almost came back to haunt us (if we hadn't blocked one of theirs). Maust killed us with shanked punts and we haven't even come remotely close to breaking a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown (or even a long gain). I'm happy that we no longer have to sweat out field goals and extra points (Carl Gioia, I'm looking at you), but there is no excuse for the Irish to be as bad as they are on special teams.

  2. Really the basis for bumping it up that high is the fact that coverage units have really turned up the heat since Michigan State, Tausch has been deadly on field goals, and Theo has had some good returns. Obviously Maust was terrible until he got yanked and the entire Michigan game of special teams was terrible...but we're definitely trending up. Breakdown the games:

    Nevada B...pretty non-descript
    Michigan F...terrible on every level
    MSU C-...crappy coverage, missed XP, Tausch made field goals
    Purdue B...good returns, great coverage, Tausch made field goal
    Washington A...good coverage, good returns, Tausch automatic
    USC B+...Great except for the blocked extra point

    Average them out: 2.5 GPA