The expression has been made several ways. It might go, “Offense wins games but defense wins championships.” Others say it as, “Offense sells tickets but defense wins championships.” However you say it, one thing remains the same: Defense wins championships.
Some expressions tend to pass with time, while others simply don’t have much truth to them to begin with. If one looks at the trends in college football over the last eleven years (since 2000) it becomes quite clear that the moniker, “defense wins championships” has been extremely accurate. Going back to the 2000 season, when Oklahoma beat Florida State 13-2 to win the national championship, there have been twelve national champions (counting the two from 2003).
Of those twelve teams, nine finished in the Top 10 in total defense. Only Auburn (60th in 2010), USC (30th in 2003), and Ohio State (23rd in 2002) finished outside the top ten. Of those twelve teams nine would also finish in the Top 10 nationally in scoring defense. Only Auburn (53rd in 2010), LSU (17th in 2007), and USC (17th in 2003) finished outside of the Top 10.
It becomes painfully obvious, if Notre Dame wants to become one of the nation’s elite programs and compete consistently for national titles they must build a championship caliber defense.
One of the questions about Brian Kelly when he was hired, and it’s a question one must ask whenever an offensive minded coach is hired, is whether or not he would pay enough attention to building up his defense. Without a top notch defense Notre Dame would not be able to compete for championships on a regular basis. One need only look at the 2005 and 2006 seasons to see how this looks for Notre Dame.
You have to go back to the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s to find the last time Notre Dame was truly one of the nation’s elite programs. Notre Dame has been and likely always will be an elite program in stature, but since 1993 they have not been an elite program on the football field. A big reason is that Notre Dame has never been able to put together elite defensive units since that time. When Notre Dame was dominant during the period mentioned above, they had dominating defenses to go along with their elite offensive playmakers.
Allow me to put this into context a bit. If you look at the NFL Draft as an indicator of talent and success, you will see the story written pretty clearly. From 1989 to 1995, a period of seven years, there were 13 Notre Dame defensive players taken in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. From 1996 to 2010, a period of fifteen years, there were only 11 Notre Dame defensive players drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. From 1989 to 1995 there were four Notre Dame defenders taken in the first round, but from 1996 to 2010 there was only one.
There were obvious steps taken during the 2010 season. Despite some rough patches (Michigan, Navy), the 2010 defense played solid football during the first three-fourths of the season. Down the stretch the Irish defense was dominant. The improvements on defense were obvious; Notre Dame tackled better, there were fewer missed assignments, and the unit played with good physicality and toughness.
Better fundamentals and improved toughness are good steps, but they only get you so far. In order to truly be an elite defense you need players; lots of talented players.
So the challenge for Brian Kelly and his staff is clear, they must build an elite defensive football team if they want to be able to win championships with their offense. The Class of 2010 was a good start, as Notre Dame was able to land several talented football players who have bright futures ahead. Up front Kelly was able to land standout nose guard Louis Nix, who spent this season getting his body in the kind of shape he will need to be a key player down the road. Outside he brought in Hawaii end Kona Schwenke, an underrated defender who was able to work himself into the rotation during the 2010 season.
At linebacker Kelly was able to keep Charlie Weis commits Kendall Moore and Prince Shembo in the fold. Shembo was a pleasant surprise in 2010, as he was able to push himself into the two-deep at the “Cat” linebacker position. Shembo has shown flashes of growing into an explosive pass rusher. Moore spent the season redshirting, but the staff spoke very highly of his talent. Kelly was also able to land inside linebacker Danny Spond, a player that emerged as one of Notre Dame’s better special teams players when he was healthy as a freshman. Spond was also a player that Kelly and the defensive coaches have pointed to as a player with a bright future at linebacker.
The 2010 class was a good starting point, but in order to compete with the Alabama’s, Florida’s, Texas’s, and Ohio State’s of the world on a yearly basis Kelly has to land talented and deep defensive classes on a relatively yearly basis. Only then will Notre Dame be able to rise back to the top of the college football world.
If Notre Dame is going to get to that point in the near future the Class of 2011 is going to have to be the cornerstone.
Kelly was pleased with his first recruiting class, but he also noted that the Class of 2011 would really need a boost at one specific position.
“We have to continue to build our defensive line pool, especially at the end position,” Kelly said on Signing Day last February. “That is going to be absolutely crucial for us moving forward next year and looking at 2011. Our scholarship allotment is really going to look toward the defensive end position.”
Kelly was not done. “We feel like we’re set inside. There’s a number of players that are going to be able to help us on the inside. We’ve got to get bigger and stronger on the edge of our defense, more athleticism on the edge of our defense. I think those are two absolutely crucial needs for us moving forward after this class.
As it stands right now, Notre Dame will be adding four new defensive ends to their roster starting in 2011. The defensive staff at Notre Dame has been wildly successful in their first full recruiting cycle as they seek to get bigger, stronger, and more athletic at the position.
Yesterday, Florida defensive end Aaron Lynch (Cape Coral, Fla./Island Coast) decided to re-commit to the Irish. Lynch committed to Notre Dame in July but de-committed in October, eventually choosing Florida State. Over the last week Lynch had a change of heart, or should I say a change back to where his heart always was. With the commitment of Lynch the Irish have not only landed one of the nation’s top defensive players, they are getting one of the nation’s best overall players. Lynch is a massive prospect (6-foot-6, 260 pounds) that combines tremendous speed and power as a pass rusher, making him the ideal 3-4 defensive end. The Island Coast standout has an excellent first step off the edge, which he combines with awesome power and intensity. What is scary, at least for future Notre Dame opponents, is the fact Lynch is just now tapping into his potential. He still has so much room to grow physically and from a technique standpoint. Lynch is a game-changer, and the type of player that has not been at Notre Dame in a very, very long time on defense.
Notre Dame fans got a glimpse of what the future might hold for the Irish during the Army All-American Bowl when Lynch and Stephon Tuitt (Monroe, Ga./Area) teamed up to form one of the most impressive collection of high school defensive ends we will ever see. The two ends combined for 3.5 sacks as they harassed the West offensive linemen the entire game. Tuitt reminds me of former Notre Dame end Victor Abiamiri. What is impressive is that Tuitt reminds me physically of the player Abiamiri was as a senior at Notre Dame. The Georgia standout is the ideal power end in the 3-4 defense. Tuitt is an absolute bull from his end position, using power to push blockers around. He is not all about power, however, as he also has a quick first step off the line and the closing speed to beat tackles around the edge. He is able to dominate in both the run game and as a power rusher. If you are a football team looking to get bigger, stronger, and more athletic at end Tuitt is your man.
Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco has talked about his desire to build great depth up front. This class also possesses great depth at the defensive end position. Early enrollee Brad Carrico (Dublin, Ohio/Coffman) is another intriguing player along the defensive line. The Dublin Coffman defender gets overlooked by his more highly ranked classmates, but he should by no means be considered an afterthought. Carrico has a tremendous frame, with the body to grow to be around 300 pounds. He is just starting to tap into his potential, as he continues to learn how to be more consistent getting off the ball and taking full advantage of his raw athletic tools.
Tony Springmann (Fort Wayne, Ind./Bishop Dwenger) is another overlooked player that brings excellent size and strength to the end position. Springmann is another power player with tremendous length, toughness, and solid all-around athleticism. Notre Dame wants to play four to five ends per game, keeping their players fresh throughout the season. That means players like Carrico and Springmann are vital to their future success as they seek to build depth and increase their talent along the defensive front.
The outside linebacker position is also part of what Kelly was referring to when he said his football team would have to get bigger, stronger, and more athletic on the edge. The 2010 starters at the two outside linebacker positions were 6-foot-2, 247 pounds (Darius Fleming) and 6-foot-2, 245 pounds (Kerry Neal). The incoming group of players will be upgrades in size and length from the day they step foot on campus.
On Friday, Notre Dame scored a huge commitment when Ishaq Williams (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) decided to enroll early with the Irish. Williams, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 240 pounds, is being recruited to play the “Cat” linebacker position in Diaco’s defense, which suits his game perfectly. The Lincoln standout is a true dual-threat player in that he is dominant against the run as well as having the ability to be extremely disruptive getting after the quarterback. Williams has a great first step off the line, which he uses along with fluid athleticism and impressive closing speed to wreak havoc in offensive backfields. What is even better is that Williams is just now tapping into his potential. As he gets bigger, stronger, and improves his technique he could emerge as one of the premier defensive players in the entire country.
Miami defender Anthony Rabasa (Miami, Fla./Christopher Columbus) is one of my favorite players in this class. He does not possess the raw physical tools of many of his future teammates in this class; but what he does have is a non-stop motor and solid all-around athleticism. He is one of those guys that you describe simply as a “football player.” He isn’t pretty but he is dominant. Rabasa is a natural pass rusher, using a good first step and a wide array of pass rushing moves to dominate off the edge. He won’t get the national acclaim of some of his teammates, but Rabasa is one of the key players in this class for Notre Dame as they try to build a championship level defense. Like Williams, Rabasa is being recruited to play the “Cat” linebacker position, although he has the physical tools to also play inside if the need arises.
The most underrated player in the country might very well be Ben Councell (Asheville, N.C./A.C. Reynolds), who is being recruited to play the “Dog” linebacker position at Notre Dame. Very few players possess his combination of size, length, toughness, and pure speed. Not only is Councell athletic and talented, he is also highly productive. He finished the 2010 season with 141 tackles and 22 tackles for loss while leading his high school team to a 26-4 record over the last two seasons. The “Dog” position is ideal for Councell, thanks to his length and ability to play the run and cover a lot of ground in the pass game. If I could go into a lab and design the ideal “Dog” linebacker, I do not know how that player would look any different than Councell. If you want to be bigger, stronger, and more athletic you need more players like the Reynolds star.
Notre Dame’s future at inside linebacker is quite bright thanks to the presence of standouts like Manti Te’o, Carlo Calabrese, Moore, and Spond. On the inside the Irish were looking more for quality than they were quantity this cycle. That is exactly what they got when ILB Jarrett Grace (Cincinnati, Ohio/Colerain) committed to the Irish. Grace, who received offers from Alabama and Ohio State, is a powerful player between the tackles. The Colerain standout is one of those rare players that doesn’t need to build up momentum to play with power. He is able to take one step towards the back and just drive through the ball carrier with the power of a player that would normally need to gain a big running start. As he improves his agility and lateral quickness he could emerge as a future standout. If you like those “run through a brick wall” type players, Grace is your man. He makes up for his lack of elite speed with instincts, effort, and tremendous physicality.
The former regime landed some talented defensive backs during their time in South Bend, many of whom are still on the team. But that staff really struggled to build good depth in the secondary. This was a big year for the new Notre Dame staff as they sought to increase the talent and depth in the secondary. The five players Notre Dame landed during this recruiting cycle are tailor-made for Diaco’s zone schemes.
Notre Dame tapped back into their California pipeline when Josh Atkinson (Livermore, Calif./Granada) committed to the Irish back in September. Atkinson has the ideal skill set for the Irish coverage schemes. He has good height, a solid frame, and plenty of toughness. As we saw during the 2010 season, if you want to play cornerback for Diaco and Defensive Backs Coach Chuck Martin you have to be able to hit. Hitting is something Atkinson does quite well. Another thing he does quite well is run, and run fast. Atkinson worked hard on his game, improving his footwork, agility, and ball skills from the cornerback position. His combination of size, toughness, quickness, and speed makes him an ideal fit for Notre Dame’s Cover 2 defense.
Texas native Jalen Brown (Irving, Texas/McArthur) is another player that combines good size, quickness, and toughness from the cornerback position. Brown, who plays a lot of zone defense in high school, is going to have a relatively smooth transition into Diaco’s defense. He shows good range in the zone and has the ability to come up and aggressively play the run. Despite being asked to play off coverage in high school, Brown was able to use his instincts and quickness to get his hands on a high percentage of the passes that came in his direction. Fellow Texas player Bennett Okotcha (Coppell, Texas/Coppell) is the third of the “pure corners” in this class. Okotcha was being pursued heavily down the stretch by Oklahoma and Wisconsin, two of the better defensive football teams in the country. Okotcha turned down those two BCS teams to come play for the Irish. The Coppell standout comes from a zone defense, so his transition should be smooth. He lacks ideal speed, but he makes up for it with excellent toughness, quick feet, and impressive instincts.
The jewel of the secondary class is Ohio defensive back Eilar Hardy (Pickerington, Ohio/Central). Hardy is a combination player that will likely get a look at cornerback, but is better suited for the safety position. Hardy lacks elite speed, but he more than makes up for it with great balance and quickness. The Pickerington Central standout is also an extremely instinctive football player with tremendous range in both the run game and the pass game. I cannot think of one thing that Hardy is exceptional at, but there also isn’t anything that I would consider a weakness; he is just a really good football player. The safeties at Notre Dame have to be dual threat players that can play the hash in the zone, cover tight ends and slot players in the pass game, and fill hard in the alley against the run. Hardy can do all three of these things as well as anybody in the country.
The final defensive member of the Class of 2011 is standout athlete Matthias Farley (Charlotte, N.C./Christian). The 2010 season was just Farley’s second year of playing organized football. While he is still extremely raw as a football player, Farley is one of the best athletes in this class. Like Hardy, Farley will get a shot to stick at cornerback, where his tremendous size (6-1, 195) would be a huge asset. In the end I expect Farley to end up at safety, where his size, toughness, and speed will give him a chance to develop into a real good football player down the road.
The Class of 2011, as it stands today, is the best collection of defensive players coming into South Bend in years. In fact, as much as I liked the Class of 2008 this class has much better depth, speed, and more playmakers. This class has game-changers like Lynch, Williams, and Councell. Their secondary haul is deep, physical, and athletic. If Notre Dame is going to rise from the ashes of the college football scrapheap, this defensive class will serve as the cornerstone of that rise. If the players in this class pan out Notre Dame could field one of the nation’s best defenses in the very near future.