When Notre Dame made its surprising run to the National Championship in 2012, it did so on the strength of a defensive line that shut down the run and got after opposing quarterbacks. With Louis Nix, III, and Stephon Tuitt at the top of their games, 2012 stands out among recent seasons, as the Irish surrendered 1374 rushing yards total, compared to 1806 yards the year before and 1870 the year before. In 2013, Injuries, ejection, and new O-line schemes specifically designed to stymie Nix and Tuitt, swelled the rushing total to 2184 yards total and 168.00 per game. Now that the Irish are dealing with key losses, and are implementing a new scheme under a new Defensive Coordinator, 2014 may very well be a white-knuckle ride to 10-2 or 11-1 or 6-6.
IRISH PLAYER TO WATCH: Jarron Jones, DL, Junior, 6’4.″, 305 lbs.
Jarron Jones didn’t exactly come out of nowhere in 2012, but his performances against BYU, seven tackles and a blocked field goal, and Stanford, his only start of the season, surprised a lot of people and showed that he is more than capable of disrupting opposing offenses. Under VanGorder’s 4-3 scheme, which relies upon single-gap responsibility, Jones could translate his new-found freedom into a monster year. If he’s allowed to play a full season with a healthy Sheldon Day, the D-line could quickly become a fearsome force.
The wild card on defense, though, and it bears a minute of discussion here, is Ishaq Williams. While it would be unfair to label him a bust, his career has not lived up to his consensus, five-star hype. 2014, though, may allow him to put up the numbers the pundits predicted when he enrolled. Under VanGorder’s 4-3 scheme, Williams should slot up to defensive end from CAT linebacker. Hopefully, this means great things for a defense that, like a jigsaw puzzle, has plenty of pieces.
ENEMY PLAYER TO WATCH: Mario Edwards, Jr., Florida State, DE, 6’3″, 277 lbs.
Are you sensing a pattern here? Enemy QB to watch? FSU. Enemy O-lineman to watch? FSU. Well, the ‘Noles return one of the marquee defensive lines in the nation, and Junior Mario Edwards, Jr., may be the best among them. His 2013 campaign saw him notch 25 total tackles and 4 sacks, with 3 tackles and a sack coming in the National Championship game.
Let’s face it, folks, there’s a lot going on with Notre Dame’s defensive front, and the narratives are essentially writing themselves at this point. Who will support Jaylon Smith in the middle? Who’s going to fill the enormous shoes left behind by Nix and Tuitt? Will Ishaq live up to the hype, finally?
Whatever the answers to those questions, if Jarron Jones builds upon his success last season, they will be found more easily than if he digresses or is otherwise neutralized.