Spring Notebook: Defense

5th-year senior safety Harrison Smith

Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco look to establish depth throughout the ranks.

College football fans consistently and understandably hope for two key conclusions from their favorite team's spring practice session: no lingering injuries, and a clear-cut, to-their-liking and lofty standards, two-deep depth chart.

The former is out of a coaching staff's control. The latter? It's simply not a priority for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly as he prepares for his second summer session in charge.

Developing players one through 60-plus, is.

Through the ranks

It's unlikely there'll be a formal announcement to back up my claim, but more than half of the team's 22 starting spots were nailed down prior to spring ball, and nothing has changed since.

Allowing for crucial injuries to fully heal in the next three months, I'd be willing to wager a hefty sum forecasting the team's starting LT, C, RG, RT, RB, TE, Slot, both DE, NG, MIKE, CAT, both CB, and one of two safeties (and kicker).

There's room for crucial improvement across the board – but there's room for extensive, continuous competition throughout the remaining seven starting spots. And the essential 22-plus spots behind those starters? They're a work in progress as well.

"I think what we've tried to do more than anything else is develop our players' skill level so we'll stay on that charge," Kelly said following Wednesday's practice, the ninth of the spring. "There's still a lot of work to get players to that next level as far as their efficiency in whatever their skill is. This is still about day-after-day, working skill and a little more unit consistency."

Kelly was speaking of the team as a whole, but his specific examples focused on the team's defense – a veteran group, one with quality backups emerging in two particular areas.

"(Wednesday) as we worked in the red zone, we didn't play with Harrison (Smith) and we didn't play with Zeke (Motta)," Kelly offered. "And we did that to get (Jamoris) Slaughter more work and (Dan) McCarthy more work and (Austin) Collinsworth.

"So what you'll see over these next few days is, we have a good feel for our top performers, now it's building that depth through the ranks that's so important. In the fall and you don't get a chance to do that."

While Slaughter has starting experience (he won the job last August but a Game One ankle injury plagued the bulk of his season; it lingers this spring), players such as McCarthy, Collinsworth, and former Scout team standouts have used additional spring reps to position themselves for crucial backup roles next fall.

"Austin's going to be a player," said the defensive backfield's graybeard and team captain, Harrison Smith. "From the first day (of his switch from wide receiver) he looked like a safety."

A high school neck injury and subsequent shoulder and hamstring issues have plagued the highly touted McCarthy – the player first cited following a practice last spring by head coach Brian Kelly. McCarthy's push for time in August was interrupted by a hamstring problem – the shoulder, since repaired, knocked him off pace for good.

"Normally you don't know how a guy might respond after injuries, but Danny's a very tough individual," Smith said of his snake-bitten understudy.

From the fan's outhouse to All-America candidate in a calendar year, Smith has enjoyed personal improvement and seen it among his position group – one in much better shape physically than it enjoyed last September, when both McCarthy and Slaughter were felled by injury.

"The additional depth is a huge thing," he admitted. "Last year, especially early, we had to stay away from (nickel and dime defenses) because of injuries. Now that's available to us."

While the team's backup defensive backs show promise, the unit has much to prove before its deemed game ready. So too does the unit up front – the key to any successful defense – but, at least on paper, appears bigger, stronger, and deeper, than any of its seven predecessors.

"It's going to allow us to keep our guys fresher," Kelly said of the team's growing defensive line depth. "There's an energy when you know you have 5-6 guys that can give quality work. There's something about the energy that group keeps because they have great camaraderie. So building depth at all the positions is absolutely crucial.

"It's part of the process. We're close to developing key players and depth at that D-Line position."

(For a complete overview of the team's defensive linemen, click the links below):

Defensive Linemen

Defensive Linemen: Part II

Warning: curvy road ahead

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco offered his opinion of the present-day Irish defense on a micro level – a coordinator fully aware and vested in every conceivable issue and foible that could be applied to each of the developing players under his tutelage.

Two of those charges are semester enrollees who should be preparing for Senior Prom rather than a way to defeat proven collegiate performers such as junior tackle Zack Martin on a daily basis.

Considering their early arrival and further considering they're not supposed to be ready for primetime in early April, head coach Brian Kelly was able to offer a more glass-half-full macro view of the early progress by Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Williams.

"You look at Lynch and Ishaq, they're more comfortable every day in our defensive structure," Kelly offered of his early enrollee pair. "Ishaq has a little bit more work to do at the CAT (outside linebacker) because he has to be able to drop in coverage; change the front looks…where as Aaron (defensive end) can just line up and go."

As for Lynch's potential evolution from pass-rusher – or one-trick pony – to competitive college defensive end, Kelly has no early complaints…relatively speaking.

"He wants to do a little bit too much but within that defensive structure, we're not going to ask him to lineup in a four-technique every down. That's not his forte. We have guys that are stronger physically at the point. We have to make sure he gets on the field to use his ability, but right now we have to teach him the defense.

"He did a nice job today in our one-on-one, but it's a process for him and we're going to have to utilize his strengths in the fall."

Part of the process for Lynch, Williams, and the score of freshman yet to report is to avoid paralysis by analysis. Though the situation is sure to arise, it's so far so good, according to their head coach.

"It has not been a situation where we've said, ‘Every time they're in there, let's (run) this.' They can run our defense," Kelly noted. "Certainly they're going to be able to do it in the fall. The one thing we're asking (Williams) to do is to play a little bit faster because he's thinking so much. He wants to be right the time and we're saying, ‘Listen, go play.'

"Both of those guys in the fall will be able to line up and compete, but we'll only do it if they can play full speed and not have to think."

Considering then-junior Darius Fleming noted he was "following the play call rather than just playing" as late as October 31 last year, it seems newcomers to the 2011 defense could have a tough road to ho before their defensive schooling sets in as second nature.

"It's not easy. It's a real challenge," said Diaco of a young player's evolution. "And each player needs to be handled a little bit differently so they don't close off their receptors. But you don't take your foot off the gas pedal, either, because a young player will try to take another inch; then another inch; then another inch. And all of a sudden, you want to step on the gas and hammer down, and now it's hard to do.

"There's definitely a balance of moving forward and not forcing too much on them initially so that No. 1 they can really focus on developing themselves and their fundamental skill. It would be a disservice to teach one of those young players one particular job, and then all of a sudden in two or three years, we don't have a well-rounded player that can play all three downs.

"That's what the spring is for. We're developing skill. And that's what we're trying to get done.

"But I would say this," he continued of the freshmen pair. "Those players are not doing that. Their receptors are open; they're intent on being the best they can be every day. They (just) might have more of an energy roller coaster than a veteran who's (consistent) each day."

Diaco was quick to point out the spring session is crucial to the development of all players, not just green, wide-eyed newcomers.

"It's the player's responsibility to constantly understand that there's someone out there working harder than them; more focused than them, eating better than them, training harder than them, so that their edge can stay razor sharp."

With 38 games under his belt, the aforementioned Smith understands full well Diaco's message.

"It's your mind that you need to rebuild," he offered of Diaco's stated reality that the defense will not simply pick up where it left off, despite a healthy dose of returning competitors. "We had a great finish, but did we really have a great season? No."

"Your mind has to re-focus and stay sharp."

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