- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- The reclamation project that is the Notre Dame defense has heard it all spring. They've heard the criticism. They've heard about the lack of a pass rush, about how they gave away big plays last season like every Saturday was Christmas.
And that's just from coach Charlie Weis.
"Coach Weis," senior defensive end Victor Abiamiri said, "is a pretty harsh critic, but he forces you to make yourself better."
The Fighting Irish offense that set 11 team records while going 9-3 last season returns largely intact. The Irish defense returns nine starters, too. The question is whether that's good news. The defense is the primary reason Notre Dame finished 2005 in the Fiesta Bowl instead of playing for the national championship in the Rose Bowl.
"I know we win games and lose games as a team," Abiamiri said. "I don't want to point fingers at one aspect or the other. There were times when the defense could have done a lot more to pull our weight in games we should have won."
The Irish gave up 34, 44 and 34 points in their three losses. They gave up an average of 14.6 yards per reception. They gave up an average of 5.9 yards per play. It's never a good sign when the leading tackler among the nine returning starters is a corner (Ambrose Wooden, with 74).
"Being on defense and giving up so many big plays, I can't help but feel responsible for some of the games we lost," Abiamiri said. "This spring, there has been an urgency on our side of the ball to step our game up. There will be times when the offense might not be doing well and the defense will need to pull us through."
They know there's a problem. They know it must be fixed. But what to do?
Enter the head coach.
Weis spent his rookie season as head coach nominating Brady Quinn for the 2006 Heisman Trophy short list. Weis has spent his second spring focusing a keen mind and a Jersey attitude to the other end of Cartier Field, where the Irish practice.
"I want to get an understanding of what, physically, our guys can do," Weis said. "My best way of getting opinions is to be down there and see. You can see X's and O's [on video] but you can feel energy."
Weis is realistic about his defense, which is to say, it's not that bad.
"Eighty-six percent of our plays on defense gave up 2 yards or less," Weis said. As percentages go, that sounds good. A defense wants to limit an offense to 3 yards. "Three threes and they are punting," Weis said.
But then you look at the other numbers, like the 12 touchdowns allowed of at least 36 yards in length.
"We gave up way too many big plays, and they are for a variety of reasons, a smorgasbord of reasons," Weis said. "If you can be good 86 percent of the time, you have a chance of being good. We're working on getting that 14 percent."
Weis identified three areas of concern this spring. One of them is not specific to last season's problems. Notre Dame must replace senior linebackers Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays. The other two areas are specific to last season. The first is developing a pass rush. The 31 sacks that Notre Dame had last season are deceiving. Seven of them came against Stanford, which played as if it expected the Irish defenders to count "One Mississippi, two Mississippi" before they rushed.
"There were certain games that we got penetration," Weis said. "We had a lot of penetration against Stanford. We had seven sacks. But you can't live off the blitz. You can't [rely] on the blitz to be your only mechanism."
What Weis wants is better one-on-one play from a defensive line -- ends Abiamiri and Justin Brown, tackles Derek Landri and Trevor Laws -- that returns intact.
"We've really gone back to a fairly basic thing," Weis said. "We're not worrying about game plans as much as winning one-on-one battles. That's been the challenge on our defensive players. With a fairly inexperienced linebacking corps, it's important that we get great leadership on the front end and the back end."
A defensive lineman's key to winning one-on-one battles depends on strength and technique, skills developed with little more than sweat equity. Abiamiri has focused on using his hands more efficiently to ward off offensive tackles. A few days ago, Weis handed him a video of every one of the 22½ sacks made by the Giants' Michael Strahan when he set the NFL record four seasons ago.
"I have been watching that highlight tape over and over again," Abiamiri said, "trying to learn the moves he used. We have similar playing styles. There wasn't any one move in particular. I'm going to try the same things he tried. They're not my moves yet. I have a lot of work to do. I'm trying to take a page out of his book."
In the secondary, Weis believes that many of the big plays given up last season occurred because of poor communication between the linebackers and the defensive backs. Part of that can be attributed to the growing pains of learning a new system. But the fact that Ohio State scored touchdowns of 56, 68, 85 and 60 yards means the problems persisted long past the time it should have taken to learn the defense.
The solution, Weis said, is not as simple as making the defense simpler.
"You can get into physical mismatches when you keep it simple," he said. "Then you get linebackers running with wide receivers. You want your cake and you want to eat it too. When it comes to game planning, there's a risk/reward. Do you want to keep it simple and expose yourself to physical differences, or mix and match the two?"
Physical mismatches plagued the Irish defense, particularly against Ted Ginn Jr. and Santonio Holmes of the Buckeyes. Weis is convinced that one or two of the four defensive backs he signed in February will be able to help next season. But freshmen are freshmen. Players such as safeties Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe must step up.
"We watch film on our own," Ndukwe said. "We watched film without coaches. We broke down things on our own. Those things have benefited us. All of that will pay dividends. It really does feel different than December. We're still going against the best offense in the nation every day."
And always with Weis watching over them, making like Dr. Eckleburg on the billboard in "The Great Gatsby."
"It's coach Weis, just his aura," Ndukwe said. "He knows what he's doing. You can feel him watching you. That's how strong a presence that guy has. He knows what he's talking about. He knows a lot about defense. When he talks to you, you definitely have to listen. It's good that he can spend more time with us. The mentality is, we're trying to get better no matter who's watching."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charlie Weis revived the Notre Dame offense in 2005. Now he's focused on the other side of the ball, writes Ivan Maisel.