Now what? Moving on at DE after Lynch

Last Friday the Aaron Lynch messages started pouring into my phone, and the 7 stages of grief quickly followed:

  1. Shock and Denial - No, he can’t be leaving. He just came back home from Ohio after Easter. This is a cruel Twitter joke, right?!
  2. Pain & Guilt - Why can’t this program catch the break it needs? Isn’t there more we as fans could have done to keep him on campus? Should we have Tweeted at him more frequently and left more comments on his Facebook page? (answer: definitely not)
  3. Anger & Bargaining - Forget the integrity of the program. Why aren’t boosters writing checks to keep this kid around? We can make some exceptions for future top 10 NFL draft picks.
  4. Depression, Reflection, Loneliness - I may never see Notre Dame in another BCS game. Maybe my best Notre Dame memories will really be from Ty’s first year.
  5. The Upward Turn - Hey, we still have Tuitt, Nix and KLM. Things might be able to turn out better than I thought.
  6. Reconstruction & Working Through - The team held practice on Saturday? Huh, I guess they’re going to figure out a way to get through this. If they can do it, and they, ya know–actually have something legitimate at stake, I guess I should be able to do it too.
  7. Acceptance & Hope - Well, it doesn’t seem like he’s going to change his mind. This team still has BCS written all over it, though! They’ll work harder and will be even better without Lynch!!!!!

*Note: These stages of grief may or may not have been replaced with lots of tears, punches through dry wall, and Bud Lights.

Now that we’ve all had a few days to process the news that Aaron Lynch is taking his talents to South Beach (errr, Florida), it’s time to take a look at the Irish defensive line sans the freshman All-American.

Kapron Lewis-Moore: 2011 Stats – 7 games, 32 tackles (16 solo), 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble. Career Stats – 32 games, 150 tackles (62 solo), 16 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 3 forced fumbles

For the 2012 season, 5th year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore will be expected to play a larger role coming off a season-ending knee injury in 2011. While KLM was running with the second team in spring practice prior to Lynch’s exit, he is certainly a first string talent that was relegated as a result of his recovery rather than as a consequence of quality of performance. After practice on Saturday, Brian Kelly insisted that the transition from Lynch to KLM is seamless, “because you’re talking about Kapron Lewis-Moore, who is a starter.” While it’s unlikely a coach would ever come out and say, “our next man in is not very good, so we’re probably in trouble here,” this is a case where we can take Kelly at his word. As long as KLM is healthy there shouldn’t be too significant of a drop-off off against the run, though defending the pass is a bit more of a concern. And hey, who wouldn’t want a guy who had his baller shades stolen by Mark Cuban on NYE starting on their D-line?

KLM Dude has his own airline – now that’s dirty.

Stephon Tuitt: 2011/Career Stats: 9 games, 30 tackles (11 solo), 3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 5 QB hurries

Tuitt came into ND more highly rated than Lynch for many of the recruiting services, though did not quite have the freshman success that Lynch did. Lynch had the benefit of enrolling a semester early, and Tuitt’s production (especially when viewed without the precedent of Lynch’s monster numbers) was quite impressive for a true freshman. We should expect a substantial jump in playing time for Tuitt in 2013 following a full year of training with Sergeant Longo. Tuitt was to be starting regardless of Lynch’s status, though will now carry a bit more of a burden without as many game-changers rotating in on the ends.

Prince Shembo: 2011 Stats: 12 games, 31 tackles (17 solo), 4 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 QB hurries. Career Stats: 25 games, 46 tackles (23 solo), 10 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 6 QB hurries

Yes, I know Shembo is listed at linebacker. But while Diaco’s defense is commonly referred to as 3-4, last season the Irish had four down lineman on more than half of their defensive snaps. Darius Fleming slid up from linebacker to play with his hand down the most frequently in 2011, and Prince Shembo should be expected to fill that role this year. Shembo gained popularity among Irish fans for his pass rushing skills in more limited playing time his freshman season before switching to a role that didn’t fit his skill set nearly as well during his sophomore campaign. Expect Shembo’s production to increase considerably in 2012.

The reserves: Kona Schwenke, Chase Hounshell, and Sheldon Day

Schwenke, who has unfortunately exhausted two seasons of eligibility despite only seeing limited playing time in 8 games, has yet to have a substantial impact on the field. Like last season the Hawaiian has earned rave reviews in practice (and apparently has done nothing but eat, work out and chug protein shakes judging by his weight gain since arriving on campus). Consigned to the bench for most of the year, Schwenke will have the opportunity and responsibility to step up and be a difference maker this fall. If all else fails, maybe he can can scare Michigan off with the Haka (click and start at 1:40). (*It should be noted that Schwenke is currently listed at tackle, but I am expecting him to move back to end in the near future)

Chase Hounshell saw more time on the field than most expected as a freshman, and had some modest production in the Air Force game while not making a tackle in his other 6 appearances. Hounshell has been dealing with a shoulder injury this spring so has not seen much practice time. Sheldon Day, the newest edition to the DE crew, is 100% untested as an early enrollee freshman and is still a wildcard at this point. While only so much can be gained from watching the ND-produced practice videos, Day has certainly looked the part physically and should benefit further from extra time at the training table and Longo Beach.

How is the line going to look on the field?

If you’re like me, you were hoping that Aaron Lynch would be getting to the quarterback so quickly this season that ND’s questionable cornerback situation wouldn’t matter quite as much (Discussion question: Would you rather have Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood or Ambrose Wooden and Terrail Lambert? Go). Nonetheless, a defensive front 3 (or 4) of KLM, Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt (and Shembo) should remain one of the more dominant units on the team. Lynch’s transfer, however, puts more of an onus on KLM and Tuitt as they will likely be counted on for more playing time without as many strong rotation options, and also largely increases the negative effects an injury could have on the ongoing performance of the unit. The development of Schwenke and Hounshell as the “next men in” will be key to the unit’s success in order to keep legs fresh and provide quality alternatives in the case of injury.

  • Brad

    I think in our base defense (straight 3-4 with a nose over the center) on first and second down, we may actually even be better off with KLM on the field instead of Lynch. Don’t get me wrong, Lynch is an amazing player, but he wasn’t very disciplined at simply dominating his assignment in the run game. There were plenty of times during the year when his ability to just get by guys hurt the overall structure of the run defense, which essentially asks the Dlineman to control certain blockers and areas so that Teo can decapitate the running back. KLM was by FAR our best Dlineman when it came to the run last year.

    For a great example, look at how dominant our run defense was throughout the year up until KLM got hurt early on in the USC game. After that, our run defense went downhill, and I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that Lynch hadn’t learned how to play the position the way the coaches wanted him too. By simply running running by guys (though its good he could do that…most people can’t) I think he somewhat disrupted the structure of the run defense, because if he didn’t make the play in the backfield by getting too deep, then the opposing offense had a free blocker to get a hat on Teo or a safety.

    So I honestly think that in our base defense against the run, we not only won’t miss a beat by having KLM in there, we may actually be better off.

    However, in passing situations losing Lynch obviously hurts us. Even at his young age, Lynch was the best pass rusher we have had at ND since Justin Tuck (I don’t think thats an exaggeration, and speaks to just how talented he was). Especially with our young and generally untested (and few) cornerbacks, his ability to cause pressure on the quarterback meant that our corners only had to cover for a short period of time. It gave them more leeway.

    In passing situations, this defense likes to move the cat backer down to DE, leave the two ILBs in at LB, and remove the Dog backer from the field by replacing him with a 5th DB. Against teams with 3 talented receivers, Diaco has put a 3rd corner on the field to cover the 3rd WR, but more often lately he has been making our 5th DB play more of a Strong Safety role, by putting 3 safeties on the field. This is similar to a 4-2-5 defense run by TCU and others, and this has likely been dictated by personnel, as we have more talented safeties on the roster than true cover-corners.

    In any event, the real big question is going to be this: in that 4-2-5 lineup, can we get pressure on the quarterback by rushing our four down lineman (3 DLs and the Cat) and putting the rest of the defense into coverage? With a lineup combination of Shembo-Ishaq Williams at the Cat spot and some combination or rotation of KLM-Tuitt-Nix-Schwenke and Lynch, I think this defense had been set to get a great pass rush with only rushing 4 people.

    For that reason, I think an important factor in the success of this defense this year will be in seeing whether or not someone can step up and provide a true pass-rushing threat. Tuitt, Nix, KLM, and Schwenke can collapse a pocket from the front, get in the QBs face, and close up his passing windows. But this defense needs a guy like who can get around the tackles and attack the pockets flank. You can either do that, or you can’t, and Lynch was born to do it. In my opinion, we need Shembo AND Ishaq to really step up their games and provide that element to this defense. Rabasa and Utupo might be guys who can provide that for us as well.

    If they can do that, then the loss of Lynch will be greatly minimized. If they can’t, then we are going to see a long season where we sit in coverage and give QBs too much time to pick on our corners, or we have to start blitzing like mad to create pressure in a high-risk, high-reward manner.

    • Twibby

      On a random aside from your point on blitzing – you know what I’d love to see (in theory, not actually in a game)? Imagine our current front 7 running Tenuta’s blitzing scheme from 2008 that was at the time extremely pathetic but now could actually be exciting to watch. At the same time, I wouldn’t trust our secondary with that responsibility….but still fun to think about.

  • canuck75

    As more info has been released, it may well be that Lynch’s non RKG character did in fact offset his enormous talent. He played well, but not brilliant, in more games than not last year. The guys behind him are very good, so once again the moaning and gnashing of teeth that his absence single handedly assures USC and OK 50 point wins is ridiculous.
    On a similar point, the same moaners worry that if Coach starts one of the young qbs that kid will single handedly cause a loss to Navy or Purdue.
    I honestly don’t know how guys hold responsible jobs if that is how they analyze facts.
    We beat Navy and Purdue by 50 or so. We would be able to beat them with the 5th string qb.
    Teo was hurt more than he admitted, and played well without playing great. Imagine if he plays more like Cushing or Mathews this year!
    Bennett Jackson will be great.
    Jamoris will be great.
    Tuitt will be great.
    Eiffert is turning out to be better than Rudolph!

    There is no reason for pessimism.
    I was in favour of Tommy starting last year, but conceded that Coach is probably a bit better at assessing the starters than me. And if Crist had marginally improved, he would have been very solid.
    However, when it became clear that he just didn’t have “it” Kelly made the change. And I think that says a lot about Kelly’s character and abilities. He very quickly was acknowledging that he was wrong, and made a change.
    I have faith in Kelly and it is not through rose coloured glasses.
    So stop the whimpering about Lynch and lets see what we got.
    BTW, I am on the Golson bandwagon for the positive reason that he is better than Tommy-not because Tommy can’t do it.
    Did most of you watch the practice videos and see Golson glide up the middle a couple of times? Wow!

    • waydomer

      A little premature to proclaim Bennett jackson as great – judgment on that should not be kool-aid based, but reserved until he proves he knows which guy to defend.

      As for Crist – was not given an adequate chance to see if had “it” or not. I will not be surprised if he shows he does have “it” at Kansas this year. Frthermore, Rees did nothing to show that he had “it”, but rather could argue his turnovers under pressure and in the red zone, proved he doesn’t.

  • irishfanatic

    Outstanding post Canuck75. I also like, and agree with the assertion by Brad that KLM is better suited in the 3-4 than Lynch was. Our front seven is going to be juuuust fine without Lynch. There’s no doubt that he was a great player, but as Canuck75 pointed out, and I completely agree, we have quite a few guys that are going to be great this year. Never mind the fact that we’re more experienced, AND, if Rees were to start, we all know that the biggest step in improvement for a CFB QB comes between the sophomore and junior years. I’m chomping at the bit for this season to start, and one needs only to think of the following points to want the next 135 days to fly by too!

    1. Our front seven
    2. A trio of talented TE’s (one of which may be a 1st round NFL pick right now)
    3. C. Wood returning, with Riddick and Atkinson behind him
    4. Tons of experience and talent along the OL
    5. A trio of QB’s to choose from, two of which with game experience, and one that was the scout team player of the year last year.
    6. We return experienced receivers, and some rough talent is now being honed so they can contribute.
    7. Lucky number seven…….Devonte Neal…….This kid has the goods, period.

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