SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- There's this scar on Corwin Brown's shaven head that normally would tell a lot about his character.
|At 6-6, John Carlson will be a big target for inexperienced QBs. (Getty Images)|
"I really want to stay on football," Brown said. "That's a whole different issue."
But is it really different -- growing up on the mean streets of Chicago -- when he's trying to build a quality defense for the first time in the Charlie Weis era?
At some point the two experiences have to converge. For most of Weis' two seasons the defense has been slow, largely unathletic. Its badness sent out tentacles. Ask former coordinator Rick Minter, who lost his job. Ask LSU, which boat-raced the Irish in the Sugar Bowl and now finds itself ranked No. 2 heading into 2007. Ask JaMarcus Russell, whose draft worth might or might not have been inflated because of the defense he faced that night. Ask Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski, who was so disgusted with himself and the '06 defensive performance that he came back for a fifth-season renewal.
Letting the 2006 performance just sit there after graduation was too distasteful for Zbikowski. Especially when the word "rebuilding" is used about 2007.
"I just keep quiet because there's not going to be anything good I'm going to say back to the person," Zbikowski said. "I can't go into it much more. I'll get upset."
The all-seeing Weis dropped an eyebrow-raising nugget this week, which begins to explain the state of the D:
"One thing that I didn't do a great job in the first two years is I wasn't as familiar with everything we were doing on defense," Weis said.
|1. Notre Dame|
|4. Western Kentucky|
|Team to beat:|
|John Carlson, Notre Dame|
|Maurice Crum, Notre Dame|
|Coach of the year:|
|Paul Johnson, Navy|
Where the defense is, is in Corwin Brown's head. Weis initially took a run at the 37-year-old two years ago when he was coaching the Jets' secondary. The timing wasn't right. The second time around, Brown said yes, arriving as a force of nature. Much has been made of the former Michigan All-Big Ten defensive back installing the 3-4. But his credibility is his crucible.
"He is a jacked-up guy," linebacker Maurice Crum Jr. said. "He's ready to go every day. If we're not ready to go, we'll hear it from him.
"His attitude changed the way we feel about the game."
The scar? Got it in an altercation as a junior at Julian High School in Chicago. An undercover cop clocked him from the blindside.
He had friends who were shot. Growing up, Brown purposefully fought kids bigger than him to prove he wasn't soft. In his corner of the world, a show of weakness was an invitation of torment.
Gerry Faust found out 20-odd years ago, when he stopped off at Julian to recruit. His car was stolen.
But raise those issues now and Brown becomes distant.
|The burden of improving a shoddy defense falls on new d-coordinator Corwin Brown. (AP)|
There are two different Browns. The one who grew up in that environment, and the one that got out. Brown comes to the Dome as a highly respected former NFL player and coach.
It's just a different set of pressures. Brown is at a pinnacle in his career, trying to guide a once-proud defense out of the muck.
"Pressure just defines who you are," Brown said.
So who is he? Certainly another Weis crony, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Brown's mentors/bosses/peers sound a lot like Weis': Parcells, Belichick, Romeo Crennel, Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini.
Going to the 3-4 will help a bit. Notre Dame is short on quality defensive linemen, so the linebackers will be asked to make most of the big plays. There is experience there with Crum (100 tackles last season) but is it enough?
Depth is an issue, especially on the line. And who knew that South Bend prostitutes would get in the way? Or rather the, uh, desire to, uh, hire one. Nose tackle Derrell Hand was suspended indefinitely after being arrested for soliciting an undercover South Bend cop.
In his two seasons, Minter produced a 75th-ranked defense in 2005 and improved it marginally to No. 65 in 2006. That wasn't good enough. Meanwhile, Brown's secondary last season ranked near the middle of the pack in NFL defensive stats. Not bad. Not great.
The season before, his unit gave up the second-fewest passing yards per game in the NFL.
Fortunately for Notre Dame, the secondary is a strength, at least in terms of depth. Last year's unit ranked statistically right about where the Jets were in the NFL -- in the middle (60th out of 119 I-A teams).
"You can't help but thinking positive," Zbikowski said. "He just consistently puts that in your head, that you're going to make plays."
As with most defensive makeovers, a lot of the early talk is about intensity, hitting, etc. Intangibles. Bromides. Brown has done that part. But formations don't win championships. Better players do.
|2007 Conference Previews|
|Sun Belt||Big 12|
Notre Dame must cut down on the big plays. The kid from Chicago already understands the atmosphere.
"I used to watch Michael Stonebreaker, Frank Stams, Chris Zorich, Todd Lyght, Bobby Taylor ...," Brown said. "I know how they played. In my mind, there's no reason why we shouldn't play like that."
Brown has just mentioned five consensus All-Americans. That's why, in the end, it does matter where Brown came from. Wounds heal but scars leave a mark. Notre Dame is waiting for Brown to make his.
Offensive MVP:John Carlson, Sr., TE, Notre Dame: I'm taller than half of ND's receivers. That's why the 6-foot-6 Carlson is poised for a monster year. He is Weis' most experienced pass catcher in an offense that is largely inexperienced.
Defensive MVP:Maurice Crum, Jr., LB, Notre Dame: Linebacker is a strength on the much-criticized defense. In the 3-4 scheme expect Crum to make more big plays, if fewer tackles.
Predicted order of finish
|Navy will run the ball well again, but beat Notre Dame? Nah, not this year. (US Presswire)|
2. Navy: Paul Johnson will lean even more on the nation's best rushing attack. There are only three defenders returning. Expect another bowl game, another Commander-In-Chief's Trophy. An end to the 43-game losing streak to Notre Dame? Not so much.
3. Army: The Bobby Ross era fizzled out after three years. Now rookie coach Stan Brock takes over a program with 10 consecutive losing seasons. This goes all the way to the top. Someone in the Pentagon has to take responsibility. Navy and Air Force have been able to win. Why can't Army?
4. Western Kentucky: Hilltoppers get a dose of life in I-A, opening at Florida. But first they have to get out of I-AA alive. Western can't beat Florida. It didn't beat Eastern Kentucky, which comes to town Sept. 15, last season.