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Football: Diaco’s defense

Laura Myers | Friday, April 16, 2010

Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston isn’t shy about his goals for the new football season.

“When Coach [Brian] Kelly asked me to coach the defensive line, I was asked the question, ‘What are your expectations?’ I expect to be the best defensive line in the country,” Elston said Wednesday after the team’s ninth spring practice. “Our guys are working towards that. They’re going to be tough to block.”

After spending 2009 in the 4-3 defensive scheme under former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, Kelly switched the team back to the 3-4 defense it played in 2007 and 2008. The scheme consists of three defensive linemen and four linebackers all very close to the line of scrimmage, in what the coaches describe as a “no-crease” defense. Elston said this would allow the front seven to make more plays on the ball.

“What you do is you knock a guy backwards, you stay squared up on him. If the ball goes to the left, you tackle the ball to the left. If it goes to the right, you tackle it to the right,” he said. “The linebackers are on the same level as the d-line. There’s no creases, no vertical, no horizontal creases between them.”

Nearly all of the current linemen and linebackers were recruited to play in a 3-4 system, and junior defensive end Ethan Johnson said it should lead to increased opportunities for the defense.

“I’m excited to get out to the passer and just get some sacks, make some plays,” Johnson said. “I think everyone on defense is excited to make some plays this year. I think we’ll have a lot of chances to do that this year.”

While Johnson and fellow junior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore look to benefit from the new system, Elston said not to count out senior defensive end Emeka Nwankwo, who has been a goal-line presence for the Irish in the past but has not seen significant playing time.

“We’re going to see him,” Elston said. “He’s a physical, athletic player. He improves every day, and gets at it. He’s going to be a hard guy to keep off the field.”

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said as the defense learns the new installations and the depth chart is sorted out, a player’s attitude and abilities would be more important than the specific plays.

“We’re interested in the guys playing defense with the core fundamentals of playing great defense,” he said. “They’ve got to be electric hustling to the football. They’ve got to be fundamentally sound and aggressive in their block destruction. They’ve got to be, in their execution of tackling a person with the ball, they’ve got to be fundamentally sound and they’ve got to have the intent to tackle, which is probably the most important … So they’ve got to have all those elements, and that’s a whole lot more important than the call, frankly.”