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Regular-season report card: Defensive line

The regular season is over and the end of the semester has arrived. Here, we grade Notre Dame's 2011 campaign by position. Part two of the 10-part series brings us to the defensive line.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Grade: B+

Summary: If I told you that the line's three opening-day starters — Ethan Johnson, Sean Cwynar and Kapron Lewis-Moore — would all go down with injuries this season, you would probably think Notre Dame would be doomed up front. (OK, so a segment of very anxious fans would be pleased to see touted recruits take the field early.)

Well, all three of those players were severely hampered throughout the season, and the young reserves impressed when thrown into the fire. Cwynar broke his right hand and was limited for much of the first half of the season, playing with a club on it. Johnson sprained his right ankle and missed four games. Lewis-Moore suffered a season-ending right knee injury and missed the final five games.

In stepped Louis Nix, a sophomore who lost close to 40 pounds this past year and wasn't expected, back in the spring, to see much more than 15 snaps per game. Instead, he started 10 games at nose guard and saw more action than anyone had any reason to expect. Freshman end Aaron Lynch burst onto the scene against Michigan State, recording six quarterback hurries, one more than any Notre Dame player had the entire season in 2010. Fellow freshman Stephon Tuitt saw plenty of action as well, shifting inside and outside during the season.

All three were forced into more action than they and the staff expected them to see this early in their careers, and all have given the Irish plenty to be optimistic about moving forward.

Backups: Most of the backups who entered the season ended up as starters at some point because of injuries, though Chase Hounshell was another freshman who showed promise in his limited time on the field, recording four tackles in five games. If Cwynar returns next season for his final year of eligibility, he and Nix should be a force in the middle and keep each other's legs fresh.

Previous report cards:

Quarterbacks