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This spring, Weis shaping young Irish D into BCS bowl-worthy unit

Weis stopped the drill, but he didn't discipline the senior. Instead, he got in the freshman's ear hole. "You're never going to make it around here if you let that happen," Weis said later. "Not that I'm looking to instigate, but at the same time, it was a perfect coaching point for him. I was saying, 'You're going to have my blessing in that situation. ... Don't count on [junior linebacker] Brian Smith to come to the rescue. Stand up and defend yourself.'"

Weis knows his greenhorns must learn to defend themselves, because while the Fighting Irish return 10 offensive starters, the defense will rely on a host of youngsters. That's especially true for the front seven, where only two players started more than six games last year. In fact, this defense may finally offer a solution to the nature/nurture conundrum that has dogged Weis and his staff throughout their tenure: Now that a full complement of their own highly touted recruits are old enough to contribute, can they develop them into a unit that can help Notre Dame reach a BCS bowl for the first time since the 2006 season?

The defense, which John Tenuta and Corwin Brown co-coordinate, will officially switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 this year, but the Irish were a 3-4 in name only last season. For much of the 2008 campaign, Notre Dame used "under" looks that act an awful lot like a 4-3. So the players should be familiar with the scheme, but the onus will still be on the experienced few to help their younger teammates understand what they must do to help Notre Dame improve on a 7-6 season that ended with a win over Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl.

Junior Ian Williams will share that burden. After a breakout freshman season, Williams' numbers suffered as he faced one double-team after another at nose tackle. Now, he must anchor a unit that will likely feature three new starters. "It's like I got thrown into a leadership role," Williams said. Williams gladly will accept that role, especially if he can mentor players like sophomore Ethan Johnson. Last year, Williams immediately recognized something special in Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 275-pounder from Portland, Ore. "When he first came here," Williams said, "I told him, 'You're better than me. So work hard.'"

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Johnson heeded that advice. He played three-technique defensive tackle (a tackle who lines up on the outside of the guard) last season, but redshirt freshman Hafis Williams' improvement at that position has allowed first-year defensive line coach Randy Hart to slide Johnson to defensive end. On Saturday, Johnson dominated Notre Dame's veteran offensive linemen in one-on-one drills and in an 11-on-11 scrimmage with a blend of speed and power. When the Irish switched to nickel, Johnson slid down to a three technique. Eventually, he'd like to become even more versatile. "I want to play, by the time I leave here, every position on the defensive line," Johnson said. "That's one of my personal goals."

Hart, who came to South Bend after 21 years at Washington, wouldn't be shocked if Johnson reaches his goal. Hart said Johnson has tapped some of his tremendous physical potential, but he has barely scratched the surface mentally. When Johnson truly understands how to play each position, he'll force offensive coordinators to game plan around him. "He can do," Hart said, "whatever he chooses to."

Hart should help Johnson reach his potential. The former Ohio State offensive lineman coached Steve Emtman, D'Marco Farr and Larry Tripplett in Seattle, and he's already impressed Irish players. "After a play, I'm 20 yards down the field, and he's right there in my face with five coaching points," Williams said. "Things like that show he actually cares and he's with us."

Meanwhile, at linebacker, Smith probably will face the same task as Williams. Steve Filer, a special teams demon as a freshman in 2008, should slide into one outside linebacker spot. And of course, one possible starter has yet to arrive on campus. Hawaiian signee Manti Te'o, the crown jewel of Notre Dame's 2009 signing class, should get a chance to compete for a starting job the moment he gets to South Bend. "Manti's a person who can play Sam, Mike or Will," Weis said. "I think what you do is find out where you're most vulnerable, where you're weakest, and then you put him at a position where he can compete."

And compete the Irish will. Knowing he has to give the youngsters a taste of real game action, Weis plans to allow offensive linemen to cut block in Saturday's scrimmage. The defenders looked like All-Americas last weekend, but Weis knew the offensive players were handcuffed. On Saturday, he'll take off those ties, and the youngsters will have to figure out how to stand up and defend themselves.